NZ416235 W/O Ernie Alexander (Navigator)
Part VIII: Espiritu Santo
These experiences are from extracts of letters that I wrote to my grandfather Mr. A. K. Alexander of Hamilton, N.Z. when I did my aircrew training in Canada.
Our Squadron moved to the New Hebrides after this, at a place called Espiritu Santo. It was a French - British Condominium, but all civilians had disappeared with the war. A few Chinese remained and lived in one area. They wandered around the camp looking for scraps of food. Occasionally hill tribes came down from the mountains on a searching mission. They carried bows and arrows and long knives, but appeared harmless. I can well remember watching them looking for souvenirs which had been discarded by us. One of them found a shoe far too big for him, but he hobbled around in it and was as proud as punch. When one found something they all darted in his direction. In peace time the island must have run several herds of cows. When we arrived they were just wandering about with calves of all ages suckling them. Espiritu Santo was the site of hundreds of acres of coconut plantations owned by Lever Bros., a rather pretty river named Renee went through the middle. We did a bit of exploring and travelled several miles up stream. The jungle was very thick and several places there were malaria mosquitos.
Our camp consisted of Quonset huts spread under coconut trees. The Americans had an excellent anti-malaria unit which kept a watch out for malaria spots. Our squadron was based in Segond Channel, a narrow inlet well sheltered. Warships of all kinds used it too and at times you could hardly move. Pilots had to be very careful landing and taking off. One of our boys, Colin Burgess, water-looped his plane one night and sheared the wing off when he hit a destroyer. A bomb landed on top of an engineer, he was seriously injured and eventually died. At the end of the channel there were submarine nets and another pilot collected one of these when he took off. Several of the crew were killed.
Our flying was mainly patrol work on a different sector every day. Sometimes we were engaged on hunter-killer exercises. This involved searching for a submarine during which aircraft were constantly in the area for 100 hours. Destroyers also patrolled, the idea was that the sub would have to come up sooner or later to charge its batteries and then have to face attack. On one occasion a sub was chased in a 20 mile radius for three weeks. It was attacked many times but crash dived. Eventually we heard no more and could only assume it was on the bottom for good.
We carried anti-submarine bombs on our wings, they were pre-set to go off at a certain depth.
The weather could be quite bad at times and most unpredictable, once it almost led to our undoing. I normally set a course from base, but this time skipper, Bill Mackley, said he would fly up the coast and I could give him a course from a certain Cape. All went well until we ran into a blinding storm, next thing we knew we were heading for a cliff face and Bill took wild evasive action with inches to spare. He must have almost tipped the plane over because everything ended up in the bilge. After this experience a course was set from base. On another occasion our plane developed engine trouble, but we got back without much bother. We found the catalinas were equipped with wonderful motors, they purred away for hours.
We saw little Japanese aerial activity in Santos. However on the anniversary of a certan Prince's death they sent a plane over and dropped a load of bombs. The only casualties were a lot of cows which got in the way.
One of the boys who came back from Canada with us, Ron Payne, was on a Ventura Squadron on the other side of the island. We visited him one day and he was most unhappy. His pilot was anything but safe and had been involved in several close shaves. "He will kill us all one day" he said, and in a couple of moths it happened. They took off the strip which was facing the sea and dived into the drink. all were lost. Ron had been home on leave a fortnight previously and was married during his few days off.
[JS Note: 9 June 1944 RNZAF Ventura NZ4564 captained by P/O Baird travelled from Vila to Santo and bounced when landing on an uneven part of the strip, on attempting to go around again the port wing struck trees and the a/c crashed and caught fire. NZ416152 W/O Ron Payne, 25 (Navigator), NZ414900 W/O Ryder Wakely, 27 (Wireless Op.), NZ4215747 Sgt Alec Miller, 19 (Air Gunner) and NZ40729 W/O Roy Tarrant, 26 (Air Gunner) were killed. Source: Martyn, E.W., For your tomorrow, Vol. II]
We lost several of another crew at Santos. F/O von Tunzleman was on detached flight to Funafuti Island [Tuvalu] and during take-off the second pilot misunderstood instructions with the throttles. They waterlooped, tore a wing off, and almost sank.
I spent a few days in an American base hospital towards the end of our stay in Santos. I contracted piles, and elected to have them removed by local anaesthetic. In the ward there were about 60 servicemen, mostly Americans. It was quite interesting because they represented about 25 nationalities. One chap fought for the Germans in the First World War when he was 16 years of age. Many of them only emigrated to America in recent years. They all had one thing in common, a great love of their new country.
After my discharge from hospital our squadron moved to Halavo Bay on Florida Island in the Solomons. Our crew was the first to arrive.