"We all knew that we stood a hell of a good chance of dying in the Air Force at that time."
I joined up, I went overseas and I honestly figured that I wouldn’t come back. Most of us did in the Air Force. But I did. And that was because I had a bad riding accident and had a bad concussion. And that ended my ability to navigate. I got airsick. As a result, I was grounded. That’s why I’m still alive.
A lot of the people, all of my friends and everything, they got killed. It was a devastating time. And you had a state of mind that I don’t think I could explain to you adequately, you had a job to do and your crew was your life because you depended on each other. You operated as a unit and it was sort of a depressing thing because those you saw at suppertime, you might not see again. And they were getting down, at that period in time, they’re getting knocked down right, left and centre. And I wasn’t different to other people, I was exactly the same. You had the same attitude, your crew in a sense is your life now. That didn’t mean that you went everywhere with your crew when you were down on the ground. Sometimes you did, sometimes you didn’t. But you were very close. I think comrade is as close as I can come to the relationship. It was totally different to friend because fortunately I survived because I was grounded, but you depended on these people as a matter of life and death. And you had a job to do and you did it to the best of your ability.
I felt when not only my crew had gone, but my best friend, we had joined up together, we were strangers, we joined up together, Burt Hopley, at the old bank building at the corner of the southwest corner of Wellington and Bay Street [in Toronto]. And we went all the way through together and we went through for observers. Observers, you took navigation and then you took bombing and gunnery. Well, they found they didn’t need the bombing and gunnery aspect as much as they needed the navigators, so we graduated as navigators, but all we had, we were very proud of it, is our observer’s wing. It’s an O, with a wing on it. The navigators afterwards, they got their own wing, it was with an N in it. Frankly, we liked the other.
And unfortunately, I really didn’t care much. I figured, somebody had to go some. We all felt like that. And I honestly, I was no hero. They’re all the same. We all knew that we stood a hell of a good chance of dying in the Air Force at that time. And so I talked to my classmates, I said, “What the hell, we’re going overseas, we don’t know whether we’ll come back. I’m going to take another week off.” Which is ‘verboten’, you know, there’s discipline in the Air Force and the army. So most of the chaps did, except an American, he was a loud mouth, he turned up on time, he was chicken. But they met us with the, with the, probably with the, the police and they confined us to barracks for I’ve forgotten how long, they took pay off. The big thing was, they put back our promotions, you get promotions. For six months promotion, put back for six months. Well, as a matter of fact, half my damned graduating group got killed within the six months, it was a hell of a time. But it was a hell of a time all the time.
And as I say, you lived, at least I did and I don’t think I was unusual, a peculiar life. I can remember in training at OTU [Operational Training Unit], one night our plane was slow because there was something wrong with it. So we got up and the pilot said, “You know, my props are freezing up all the time.” And I was the navigator and I said, “Well, that’s odd, the winds are over 100 miles an hour.” So our crew was different. We had vote in what we do. Normally, the Captain is the pilot. I said, “I think it’s silly to go on.” It’s only, if it was an op, we had to go, but it was practice, it’s stupid to go in this sort of weather. So we had the wireless operator wire back to base to see if we could return to base, and of course they told us no. But in a very short time, they told us to go back. And when we landed, it was snowing and the snow hit your forehead where it was bare and it burnt, it was that cold. And I learned the next day that five of our planes were missing. That’s amazing, that’s a hell of a lot of planes. This is early in the, well, relatively early, beginning of 1943.
What I did notice, my outlook changed initially, and this is true. And I think most of air crew, some don’t think that way, but I wish I’d been with my crew. But after I’d been grounded for about three months, that attitude changed. I was alive, I was on the ground, I wasn’t flying anymore, my attitude changed. I was glad to be alive. Before that, it wouldn’t have mattered to me, really. And I think all crews were like that. They thought differently. And the real heroes, if you want to call them that, the real, there were a lot of them. But there were a lot of ordinary guys that just did …
I haven’t anything really to add to the story except that there was an attitude among all us young people that we had to get in and there was the glamour of the Air Force really. We all wanted to be pilots, we didn’t all end up pilots, I ended up a navigator. It was quite an education.