Veteran Stories:
William John “Bill” Askew

Air Force

  • Mr. William Askew, Oshawa, April 2010.

    Historica Canada
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"He observed landing lights about a quarter of a mile out in the bush, and as they came down, they realized before they hit the ground that they were out too far. And the plane caught fire and they had to take the fire trucks out in the bush and they had to cut their way in with chainsaws to get to the burning plane. And the Americans are very emphatic, very patriotic about burying their boys, and they asked us if we could put a band together."

Transcript

While I was stationed in Toronto, I did 365 funerals. We’d do maybe two funerals in the morning, one in the afternoon or vice versa. And these were students that froze at the controls and people that died from natural causes while in the service. For these funerals, all we would do is we’d get off the trucks that take us from the funeral parlour to just outside the gate, say at Mount Pleasant Cemetery in Toronto and we paraded the firing party and the escort, along with the bearers, up to the gravesite and then we’d play a hymn while they were bringing the casket over.

And after it was over, we would do a slow march out of the cemetery. As soon as we got out of the cemetery, we’d, the drummer would give a little tap and we’d start to march a little faster. If you looked back, that’s how Dixieland started because in New Orleans, the bands there played people to the cemetery. So what happens, the drummer gives a quick tap and they’re off to the nearest pub. And it’s an old New Orleans custom, but the air force apparently did it. I don’t know what they did in the army because I wasn’t familiar with that.

I had to fill in a spot in a band that was being formed to go to Labrador. And I thought, well, that’s a change, they won’t have the funerals up there, but undoubtedly, when we ended up in Labrador, the snow drifts were about 14, 15 feet deep. You couldn’t see the barracks and somebody said that the, his Sunday school teacher told him that hell was a hot place and he said, he looked around here and all he could see is frozen tundra! But it was an active base, it had the largest runways in the world at that time, over 5000 feet long because the super forts [Boeing Superfortresses] were starting to come in and the Americans were on one side and we were on the other.

And unfortunately, a super fort [B-29 Superfortress] S cracked up. He observed landing lights about a quarter of a mile out in the bush, and as they came down, they realized before they hit the ground that they were out too far. And the plane caught fire and they had to take the fire trucks out in the bush and they had to cut their way in with chainsaws to get to the burning plane. And the Americans are very emphatic, very patriotic about burying their boys, and they asked us if we could put a band together. It was an armed camp and unfortunately, there was a German U-boat raider that came in Hamilton Inlet and it sunk the last ship in the convoy. And he sank 150 000 tons of shipping up along the north Newfoundland and Labrador coast because the air force, at that time, they were trying to guard the convoys going out and they were losing a lot of aircraft because, unfortunately, the anti-aircraft guns on the U-boats, they could aim above 500 feet. And the Cansos [Consolidated PBY Catalina] had to get down to 500 feet for their bomb aimer. So they blasted a lot of the air force out of the sky.

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