Veteran Stories:
Thomas Harris

Air Force

  • A Dakota DC-3

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"We smoked like chimneys, all of us. So here I am, smoking madly and navigating madly, you might say. On top of the five hundred gallons of airplane gas, smoking continuously, as nearly all of us did."


Sometimes we were on a convoy at night but not usually because you couldn’t see them because they couldn’t show any lights.  But we did go out at night we were out one night off Newfoundland because a convey had been badly attacked and we had been sent down to see what we could see and see if there were any submarines on the surface.  So we go about 100 miles south of the Avalon Peninsula in southeast Newfoundland and all we could find were two burning ships.   It was a terrible night; we were under the clouds, it was raining, it was a horrible night out.  Of course we couldn’t get a radio fix because the weather was so bad and that was typical.  Whenever you needed it most you couldn’t get the aids you needed.  I couldn’t see the stars because I loved navigating by the stars.  It wasn’t dead on but I could come within five miles of where I should be with the stars and of course if you were within five miles of your base in any visibility you can see it and also you can see your convoy.  To be better than that you couldn’t consistently do it.  Anyway, so we had these ships and we cruised all around there for a long time, again until we were running out of gasoline and when I gave my pilot Bob – who is a very good friend of mine, we had lots of adventures together – the course home I said well it was only sort of approximate because I had been going on dead reckoning for hours, many hours.  Like I said, we were out for six or seven hours.  The best way I had of determining the wind speed was to watch these ships…the ships were drifting of course in the wind.  We didn’t know how they were drifting, we did have weather reports though and so I made an assumption as to how fast the ship would drift and every hour I would say it was here and now it’s here.  I would use that because we could constantly see the ships to make sure that we didn’t get many more miles away from where we thought we were if you follow me.  I’m not saying that very well.

But anyway, eventually we could find nothing else but these two burning ships, so we started heading back to our base, but I wasn’t quite sure.  I couldn’t see the ocean surface.  It was too bad, because you can judge the wind speed and direction from the surface of the ocean.  First of all you can see how many, what size the waves are, whether they are breaking or not, for instance.  You could see, in the daytime, you could see wind lanes, which were smooth patches, which follow the direction of the wind, in a very irregular way.  And of course you could get an estimate of the surface direction by the size of the waves and the surface direction by the direction of the waves, and also by these wind lanes.  But anyway, I couldn’t see it at night so that was no good.  The radio was still no good and I couldn’t see the stars, so we drew our lines as dead reckoning.  You might be amused too, because what did I navigate on?  I navigated on…I forget but it was something like a five hundred gallon gasoline tank square, more or less square, covered in some sort of tarry stuff.  It wasn’t sticky but it was insulation and so forth, and so we navigated on that.  It was quite a big surface; I suppose three feet square or something of that order.  Hard to remember sixty years ago.


But anyway, what did we do?  We smoked like chimneys, all of us.  So here I am, smoking madly and navigating madly, you might say.  On top of the five hundred gallons of airplane gas, smoking continuously, as nearly all of us did.  Anyway, we get up to Newfoundland, and we cross the coast, and I said to Bob, “I don’t really know exactly where we are.  We could be fifty miles from where we should be, to be honest.  I cannot be sure.”  So we couldn’t let down into the low mountains of Newfoundland, not knowing where we are.  We come up to more or less where our base should be but there’s no sign of it and the weather is terrible so you can’t see far anyway.  So we went out to sea, to the east, quite a way until we were quite sure we were clear of land and then we let down. And we went down and down and down and we were in the clouds and everything, and it was so bad that you couldn’t even see the ocean.


But you know we must have been within three hundred feet of the ocean before we finally saw it, with all of us straining our eyes to see it, of course.  Bob could get our own radio beacon, which went out to sea.  It went out a deep inlet that sort of led to our base over a ridge so we aimed up the radio beacon.  We didn’t know how far we were from base, but we did know we were in the right land or we hoped so.  Then we were watching out to see these steep cliffs on either side of the inlet and, of course, finally we see them.  I breathed a sigh of relief, because we were in fact in the middle of the inlet, not headed into one of these cliffs.  We zipped through the hill and it was so cloudy and everything, that we didn’t make a circuit at all.  Bob just went zoom and landed with a big thump because he couldn’t, you know, as quickly as we could.



Interview with Thomas Harris - FCWM Oral History Project

Accession Number CWM 20020121-124

George Metcalf Archival Collection

© Canadian War Museum


Entrevue avec Thomas Harris - Projet d'histoire orale du AMCG

No d’accession MCG 20020121-124

Collection d’archives George Metcalf

© Musée canadien de la guerre

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