Veteran Stories:
Fred V. Russell

Air Force

  • Fred Russell's Post Office Savings Bank Book, 1945.

    Fred Russell
  • Portrait of Fred Russell in RCAF Uniform, 1943.

    Fred Russell
  • Photo of a Music Band, RCAF.

    Fred Russell
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"I read, this was a list of trades, bandsman/entertainer, musician. And I said, “Well, what do I do to do this?”"


They were calling up fellows, age 19. Having reached that age, I took it upon myself to go down to Toronto to enlist, and all patriotic, I thought, air crew. They kept me sitting around for hours after they had done a medical. And finally, a fellow with a clipboard and a white coat on called my name and said, “Oh, you’re washed out, you can’t go air crew.” And I said, “Well, now what do I do?” He said, “You can go ground crew.” I said, well, all I could think of was fellows with grease up to their elbows, working on airplanes and that was not me. So they handed me a foolscap, that’s legal size sheet of paper, and there were three columns and it was not alphabetical, but somewhere down the third column, I read, this was a list of trades, bandsman/entertainer, musician. And I said, “Well, what do I do to do this?” They gave me a streetcar ticket and told me to go down to the [Canadian National] Exhibition grounds because that had been taken over, part of it, for an air station or at least an RCAF [Royal Canadian Air Force] installation and there was a band associated. I found a fellow with hooks [corporal rank’s insignia], though this was about this time of the afternoon, it was real late in the afternoon, 4:00 or so. So he was a sergeant, but I spied a harp badge on his arm and I figured, at least he’s associated with music here. And I said, “What do I do to get a trade test?” He says, “Where’s your instrument?” And of course, I brought none with me, but he led me into the band room, there were rows of cupboards and he tried each of these doors of the various cupboards, all of which were locked until he came to one which did bounce outwards and then it was a trombone case. There was a trombone in the case. He said, “Here, try this.” What he didn’t know was that there was a nick in the slide, so it was a real push and pull effort, not a playable instrument at all. In the meantime, he’d set up a music stand and an Arban Tutor [music book], there was some pretty black music on it, and said, “Play that.” And apparently, I did well enough that I got the second best grouping that was available at that time. Later, I retried the test and got a first class group, which meant a little more pay. But after all that was done, and this would be about October of 1942, the same question, “What do I do now?” He says, “Go home.” And I didn’t hear from them until about mid-December that I was to turn up back in Toronto just after Christmas, I think it was the 29th of December, whereupon I was put on a train for Ottawa, arriving in the middle of the night, couldn’t find my way around. But did get a bus to a place called Rockcliffe [Ontario], Air Transport Command, weeks after that, before I got a uniform, but I never had any basic training. About midsummer, they were putting a band together to go overseas as a Royal Canadian Air Force concert band overseas. Actually, the second band to go to Britain, but we were located for rehearsals at Bournemouth, detached from the Canadian Air Force headquarters which was Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London. That band was made up of, every man a soloist. They picked off the corner-men from the 15 bands across the country. That band did tour Britain all over the place, public concerts, broadcasts, not very many processionals or parades, but a few. We participated in such things as the arrival of the [RMS] Arundel Castle, that would be way before D-Day, and that was a ship that brought Prisoners of War back from Europe, had been arranged for, I think, through Spain. And the ship came into Liverpool. And I know the night before, we had been told all to meet at Euston Station in London and we were leaving on that train and supposed to have a reserved coach, but this was wartime, a lot of people were traveling and it was an all night trip. But there were so many people in the corridors, you couldn’t even get to the washrooms and sooner or later, they burst into our compartments where there were only four or five men. But we were planned to set up all night, although we were playing first thing in the morning and supposed to be at our best because we were the band that was playing on the dock for the arrival back into freedom of those men who had been POWs, Prisoners of War, many of them for many of those years, and now back to freedom and we were just sitting on the dock playing stuff. We were in the Lord’s Mayor Show, the first one following the war. That’s a big parade put on every year by the Lord Mayor of London. We played many wings parades in Britain, mainly RAF. We were six times up to Glasgow, playing on the Clyde [River] side, either Greenock or Gourock [Scotland], as fellows came off the ships, to the railways, to be dispersed to wherever they were assigned. But these were soldiers, sailors and airmen from America and from Canada that were being sent in 1943/44, even 1945 into Britain. Between the cessation of hostilities in Europe, and the Japan collapse, the Roman Catholic personnel in and around London did a church parade to the Catholic cathedral, but the rallying ground or marshalling area for the parade was the king’s backyard. It was back behind Buckingham Palace. People see the front of it. The only time that the public sees that garden area is when the queen, once a year or so, puts on a garden party. So, that’s a privilege having been in the, in the king and queen’s backyard because we were the duty band for that church parade.
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