Veteran Stories:
Donald Herbert Owen

Air Force

  • Edmonton Manning Depot. Donald Owen is pictured in the front row, 3rd from the left.

    Donald Owen
  • Donald Owen pictured with a blue arrow at the General Reconnaissance School in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, 1944.

    Donald Owen
  • Navigational School in Chatham, New Brunswick. Mr. Owen is pictured in the last row, 3rd from the right. Ansen 5 plane pictured in the background.

    Donald Owen
  • Flying Officer Don Owen pictured in uniform, 1944.

    Donald Owen
  • Don Owen and AG Stocks (left) pictured in Victoria, British Columbia, November 1944.

    Donald Owen
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"And the police arrived and for a short period, probably eight or 12 hours, Halifax was really anarchy."

Transcript

While flying from Newfoundland out to meet the convoy, on one of my trips in the air force, the drill used to be that all exchanges of information between the commodore of the convoy and the aircraft that was on patrol was to be done either by all this lamps, lights or with signal flags. And this day, we arrived at the convoy and we’re making contact in the usual manner and the commodore broke in and said, “It is my sad duty to inform you that President Franklin D. Roosevelt has died.” And it just put a pall on our whole crew for eight or ten hours that we were on the convoy protection.

The city of St. John’s was, well, we were thankful that they had a USO [United Service Organization] there because we could get a real good meal there and otherwise, some of their restaurants were fairly primitive in their fare. We used to joke at the time that a bottle of booze was cheaper than a bottle of milk and the kids got very little fresh milk or anything because it was so darn expensive. It’s the only place I’ve ever seen where there’s 30 or 40 mile an hour wind blowing and the fog was right down on the deck and swirling amongst the barrack blocks and very windy.

We flew in [Catalina PBY] Cansos, which are the amphibious ones. A Catalina flying boat was the original design, and to make them amphibious, they added wheels and called them Cansos. They were slow, ponderous 90 knot aircraft, but they were very safe and could fly for hours. They weren’t really what I would call a first line aircraft for military service. Our flights used to average eight to ten hours and you were busy the whole time. The second pilot was supposed to spell off the navigator, but it just didn’t work out that way.

We usually did ops [operations] about every, probably twice a week, depending on the number of convoys. We picked them up from, they were formed in Halifax and then the air force stationed in Cape Breton Island, they escorted them up and our squadron took them over from Cape Breton squadron and we took them and passed them on to the air force crews in Iceland. And that was our chunk was the middle piece of the North Atlantic.

But that was another thing that I remember is I never regretted leaving the navy when I saw what some of the RCN [Royal Canadian Navy] ships, the frigates and the corvettes, they’d go right out of sight into the swells, we only had eight or ten hours, but they had days or weeks of pounding through that North Atlantic in the winter. Not my choice after I knew what it was all about.

When the European theatre folded up, each crew on the squadron was allotted a certain time to escort one or two of the German submarines that surrendered in the North Atlantic and we brought them into St. John’s or our squadron did. And they were dirty old rust buckets.

My job was to get the crew out to the escort, keep track of where we were and get us home safely. And you were given certain patrols. It might be to check to the corner, you also had to count all the ships in the convoy. We always had two or three of us counting because the worst thing that could happen would be to have one less or one too many. Either somebody was in there that shouldn’t have been in or in the case of a shortage, it could be that one of them had trouble or something. So it was very critical to make that first count, when you hit the convoy, you flew all the lines. Some of them would be as large as 125-150 ships. They were scattered, you know, they were in a formation, but they were scattered over a large area. But that was usually the first chore and then when the relief aircraft at the end of your patrol time arrived, the onus was passed over to them to carry out the patrols.

When the European theatre closed up and Halifax just went crazy. But they went the whole length of the main street in Halifax, I forget the name, and they broke every window and I remember seeing a streetcar that came down and there was a very large church in the centre of Halifax, Anglican Church, cathedral type. And it used to make a turn and stop and the eight of us from our crew were just walking around, observing what was going on, and we saw about half a dozen ratings [low rank navy personnel] break into the furniture store right there. They just smashed the window and brought out the Chesterfields [type of sofa] and set them up, and they had cases of beer. And they pushed the streetcar over and set it on fire and then the fire trucks arrived and they took the hoses away from the firemen and turned them on them. And the police arrived and for a short period, probably eight or 12 hours, Halifax was really anarchy. The police couldn’t handle it and I remember seeing a liquor store being broken into and there was about, oh, 20 or 30 policemen and they were all on the outside of the ring and the ratings were coming out with armfuls of beer and booze. Some of the locals were in on that too, that’s the unfortunate part of it. The ratings got blamed for it, but there was a lot of locals that were benefitting by the carnage that went on.

And the Birks [Jewellers] had a beautiful store there on Barrington Street and they had all glass showcases and every one of those were smashed. People coming out with watches all on their arm. But that was the early, or the first afternoon and night and the admiral in charge, I think he lost his job over it because there was one body found, he was a naval officer, found the next day down by the wharfs or something. And it wasn’t a nice place to be. And when we were staying in the hotel, the military police came in and searched our rooms, two and three times a day in case we had some booty or whatever.

They finally brought, which was another mistake I think they made, they brought what we called the ‘zombies’, the conscripts, they brought them in to maintain law. Well, that to the ratings, who had spent all their time on the North Atlantic and figured they had a beef to settle, that was just like a red rag to a bull.

But the naval police went from door to door down some of the residential streets where there was any indication of service people, and they just hauled them out by the scruff of the neck, threw them into the back of a truck and it was exciting.

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