Veteran Stories:
Ed Willis Pearson

Air Force

  • Ed Pearson, 2009.

    Historica Canada
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"Left school at 14 and went to work with Rawlinson’s Aircraft, because I was mad on airplanes. And I still am."


My name’s Ed Pearson and I was born in London, England. I was 13 when the war started. Left school at 14 and went to work with Rawlinson’s Aircraft, because I was mad on airplanes. And I still am.

Well, I’d been keen on airplanes from a very young age. I made model airplanes and I had an uncle who was a Canadian, he flew with the RAF [Royal Air Force] during the First World War. We used to write to each other. Most kids of my age at that time were keen on aircraft. The part of London I was in was near Croydon, which was an airfield. And it was also close to Biggin Hill in Kenley, which were Battle of Britain airfields.

I was in the home guard from the age of 15 and we manned anti-aircraft guns in London. Three on the crew were under 18 and two were over 50. When I was called up, I had volunteered to be an air gunner. I got a great thrill because the air crew examination centre was at Lords cricket ground and I was very keen on cricket. So we went through about five days there being tested and then we were sent to an OTU, which is operational training unit, where we were trained to do our jobs. It was in Ridgenorth, which is in the west part of England, close to Wales.

You lived just in huts and you were allowed to bathe once a week. You had a day to bathe on. Reveille in the morning was always about 6:30. And of course, there was about 30 in the hut and you all went out and shaved in a washroom and got ready for the day. And apart from your training, you had to be hardworking at keeping the hut clean.

For the first two weeks, you weren’t allowed out of camp because you weren’t thought to be fit to be seen by the public until you walked properly and you dressed properly. Once a week, the staff sergeant used to come around and check how you had done your housekeeping. If it wasn’t up to his standard, you wouldn’t get to go out that week. So that was about it. The townspeople were very good to us and we’d come in from all over Britain to join. And we spent six weeks at the operational training unit and then we went to the north of England for air gunnery school. And we did our flying training for about 10 weeks there, arrived on the squadron about six months later.

Every day, we used to go up in the Avro Anson, which is a very ancient aircraft. There was about six of you and you’d take turns at going into the turret. A plane pulling a drogue [target for firing practice] used to fly past you at different positions. And you had to fire at this drogue. If there was six of you trainees, you all had different coloured bullets, so that they could check the drogue afterwards, so they could identify who had hit the drogue and who hadn’t. We also had to learn Morse code at six words a minute, in case we had to use the wireless. But straight air gunners, which I was, our principle job was being in a turret, rear turret, front turret or mid-upper turret, or maybe even the beam positions.

We flew from the Bay of Bengal, from different airfields, desert airfields or jungle airfields. Around January of 1945, we were assigned to SOE, which is special operations executive, which was an American outfit and we got jobs to do that, well, were rather unusual. When we were in Ceylon, which is now Sri Lanka of course, they found out that we could fly for about 20 to 22 hours, into Malaya and back again, if they removed bomb bays and we didn’t carry any bombs. We usually carried four Ghurkas, about six insurgents, two civilians who had been working in Malaya before the wars, tin mine managers or tea plantation managers, we flew them and dropped them by parachute into the interior of Malaya.

That was the biggest risk we had, of course, it was a long time to fly a Liberator aircraft and it was a long time to stay awake too. We always had two pilots, one navigator and the navigator actually was the most important person because we had to fly from the tip of India right across the Indian Ocean into Malaya. I always admired the people we were dropping because they were very cool, calm and collected.

The Americans didn’t think, and neither did the Japanese, that a Liberator could fly that long without coming down into the ocean. And sometimes, they did come down into the ocean. That was about the most hazardous job I guess and as a matter of fact, one of our crews were coming back from Malaya and they realized, because there’d been diversions, that they couldn’t actually make the coast of Ceylon. And this was a Canadian pilot, mostly Canadians in his crew, a chap named Thompson, they knew they would have to ditch the aircraft. Well, we’d been told that you only had 30 seconds to get out of the aircraft, a Liberator, after she ditched, because they had interior bomb bays and they weren’t sort of airtight like the Lancaster was. Anyway, he was fortunate enough to see a Dutch freighter sailing along about 10 miles ahead and he decided that they would ditch a mile ahead of the freighter, hoping that they would rescue them when they ditched. They got out of the aircraft, only one of the gunners was injured, went into the dinghy and the aircraft didn’t sink for half an hour after. And that was unknown, you know. But because there was no gas in the aircraft and all the other stuff had been thrown out, quite a miraculous escape that they made.

When we went on leave to these hill stations, they were very nice to us. There was an outfit called SWOC, Service Wives of Ceylon.. Whenever we were in town, they would put on different events for us. There was an air crew club in Colombo in Ceylon that was built because Birchall [Leonard], he was called the ‘Saviour of Ceylon’, I don’t know whether you know that story, but he wound up as bursar at York University. But during the war, he was flying Catalina flying boats. He was on patrol and he saw the Japanese fleet steaming towards Ceylon and he stayed in position so that he could radio back to Ceylon that this fleet was coming in and they were shot down of course and taken prisoner, though a couple of them died in the water, he was called the ‘Saviour of Ceylon’ by Churchill because he said that changed the course of the war, because we were getting a lot of defeats at that time. Planes from Ceylon went up and they shot down 30 Japanese, lost 20 themselves. Churchill said that was one of the biggest factors in turning the tide of the war. That was in 1942 I think.

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