Sunday, November 29, 2009

Diary of Ernest Kenyon Alexander (Part VIII)

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.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Diary of Ernest Kenyon Alexander (Part VII)

NZ416235 W/O Ernie Alexander (Navigator)
Part VII: Fiji and Tonga
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.
In due course we were crewed up, nine in all. My Skipper (First Pilot) was Bill Mackley DFC. He went to England in 1939 and won his decoration on Whitleys. After we met I discovered I had seen him at a model aeroplane display in Harrisville in 1938. Our farm was next door. Bill joined the RNZAF immediately after and was on operations soon after the war started. He flew with N.A.C. and Air New Zealand for many years after the war.
Second Pilot was Ray Freeman, a brother to the Freeman who was a N.Z. representative cricketer . Ray was killed in a crash near the end of the war.
[JS Note: NZ428759 Raymond Freeman (age 31) On 27 January 1945 Captain of 6 Squadron PBY-5 Catalina NZ4022 took off from Lauthala Bay on test flight following major overhaul. Stalled at 5500 feet but failed to recover and crashed in the vicinity of Mbenga Island. Six passengers and crew escaped the wreckage and were rescued the following day but Warrant Officer Freeman, 2nd Pilot Walter Geary (31), Wireless Operator Frank Wilson (22), Air Gunner Walter Boss (21), Wireless Mechanic Ray Allen (26), Fitter Victor McKain (25), Fitter Eric McLeod (25), Radar Mechanic John Stafford (22), Instrument Mechanic John Stewart (20), Wireless Mechanic Brian Stone (23), Armourer Arthur Thomas (21), and Fitter Robert Wright (31) were lost. Source: Martyn, E.W., For your tomorrow, Vol. II]
First Wireless Operator Gus Knox was trained in Canada and came back with us and continued to fly after the war. Second Wireless Operator Bill Jordan became a barman after the war. The three engineers were Ralph Rigger (First Engineer), Jack Fox (Second Engineer) and Johnny Cowan (Third Engineer). They also took turns on watch and cooked the meals. The straight gunner was Frank Cox, he never liked Catalinas and eventually went onto Venturas.
Suva was quite interesting, but very hot. The meals were very good and all served by Indian boys who padded around in their bare feet. We met a number of families and played a little tennis and also visited the N.Z. Club. However we were only here a month and fairly busy training in our new planes.
One weekend we went to Navua and it was hilarious. We decided to hitch hike and managed the thirty miles in five lifts. To our amazement we found the town consisted of a hotel and two stores. The hotel would not give us a bed because they were short of water and the proprietor and his wife had a violent disagreement. It was well into the afternoon and too late to return to Suva. Eventually a District Commissioner took pity on us. He gave us a Bure, native house, to sleep in. It consisted of one room and all made of thatched material. The roof was about a foot thick and you could see the stars through it. We met the Fijian Chief, a rather big chap and very kind. He detailed a boy called Joey to prepare our beds, which consisted of laying huge mats on the floor. We lay on them in our uniforms, and although very hard slept fairly well. When we woke we found we had spent the evening with feathered friends. A hen and a clutch of chickens were wandering around and in another corner there was a nest of eggs. Next morning we swam in the sea for our morning wash and were invited to breakfast with the District Commissioner. It was very decent of him, because by this time our four had increased to nine, including two stranded Americans.
We went back to Suva in a 'Wog Wagon', a derogative term for a service car driven by the Indians. It only cost us four schillings each. The trip to Navua was our only leave from Suva.
Getting used to flying in Catalinas did not take too long. Once we became accustomed to all the new instruments we were right. This took about 20 hours flying time.
Several aspects of Fiji were quite interesting. One was 'Peanut Alley', a picture theatre where all the locals went, Europeans, Indians, Fijians and Chinese. They ate peanuts all through the performance, and when the show was over the floor was literally covered in shells. Poor cleaner. Another theatre was more sophisticated. Then there were the football games. The Fijians just loved it and played in bare feet. I will never forget the tremendous kicking, it seemed as if they tried to beat one another in reaching the heavens.
Native laundries were quite a thing with all the servicemen about. The charge of 4/- per month was not too bad. However their methods were quite crude, hitting the clothes with sticks or swinging them over their shoulders onto a lump of wood or a rock. Just as well they were made of tough material. A lot of the dirt seemed to remain in the clothes.
An interesting experience was hearing a Japanese plane flying over one night. It was an exceedingly black night and I can remember very clearly hearing the strange motor and seeing the exhaust flame, but nothing else. Several of us saw it. Planes from Nausori went up to intercept but couldn't find it. subsequently we found it was a float plane from a Japanese submarine and was sunk at Noumea three weeks later.
Mail in Fiji was very prompt, only a matter of days. A contrast to Canada which took weeks. A lot of our Canadian mail posted after we left for home caught up with us in Suva.
I caught Dengue Fever while in Suva, a type of Malaria, but non recurring. With a temperature of 104 degrees you felt miserable. Like flu your bones ache and you come out in spots like measles. Later some of your hair comes out.
Our first operational flight was at Tonga. Apparently there was a lot of Japanese submarine activity south of the islands, the route of the American convoys. We did patrol duty, flying on a different sector each day. All trips reached double figures in hours, and it was quite tiring rising at four o'clock in the morning.
We lived in Quonset huts, our first experience, and found them quite good. They held about 25 airmen, had a wooden floor and a half circle roof. They were all prefab, and could be made any size. We slept on camp stretchers and found boxes to put our gear in. A mosquito net and a blanket was our sole bedding. Tonga had a pleasant climate, at least when I was there. At night a pullover was all that was needed to make up for the loss of heat from the sun.
After we left Tonga an American troopship was sunk and it was a shocking affair. It carried about 1200 soldiers and over half were lost. Johnny McGrane was on patrol for about 20 hours circling the area. The water was smothered with bodies, oil was everywhere and it caught alight. The ship was on fire several hours before it sank. He said the whole sky was lit up. (See Sinking of the San Juan, by Bill Leadley )
Prior to the detached flight I did two travel trips to Tonga. Our cargo included 15 passengers, six live pigs, eight carcases of mutton one duck, and numerous bunches of bananas. Another time we had 24 passengers.
I never returned to Tonga, but was associated with a Tongan prince later on. His name was Bert Tupou and was educated at Wesley College. He was a pilot and well liked by everyone.
[JS Note: George 'Alipate Tupou volunteered for service in the RNZAF in 1941 and was awarded his flying badge in June of 1943. In September, he was posted to the RNZAF base at Laucala Bay in Fiji joining No. 6 Flying Boat Squadron. He was promoted to Flight Sergeant in early 1944 and was commissioned as a Pilot Officer in the NZ Airforce in September of that year. He served in different parts of the South Pacific for a year up to 1944. Pilot Officer Tupou was posted to the RNZAF Reserve of Officers in November of the same year. Elevated to the Tongan nobility as Baron Vaea during the course of his service, Pilot Officer Tupou was one of many Pacific Islanders who fought in the Allied cause in World War II. Source:]
Our Squadron moved to the New Hebrides after this, at a place called Espiritu Santo ...

Diary of Ernest Kenyon Alexander (Part VI)

NZ416235 W/O Ernie Alexander (Navigator)
Part VI: To the Pacific
These experiences are from extracts of letters that I wrote to my grandfather Mr. A. K. Alexander of 15 Oakley Avenue, Hamilton, when I did my aircrew training in Canada.
[JS Note: After leave in the United States] Our journey back to Canada was non-stop, and we were posted to Halifax, for embarkation. When we arrived we found 7,000 fully trained aircrew waiting for their notices. We were stony broke and had to wait about 10 days for some pay. We had less than we should have had, because Mick Cassidy lost $25.00 and we helped him with his loss. And to cap it all, Colin Bailey was looking through his money belt as he did periodically, and found $2.00 just as our pay came. How we could have helped him spend that $2.00. A money belt was worn around your waist under your clothes and contained many compartments for your money. All servicemen were issued with these.
We stayed in Halifax for six weeks and had a good rest. The course was strenuous and the leave quite hectic, having travelled many thousands of miles. It was good to see some of our friends who trained at other stations in Canada. I don't think we went far afield in Halifax , because we were on 24 hour call. Bob Shewry was one of our course who never came to Halifax. He married a Canadian girl and was posted to the Bermudas. Later he operated from Ireland.
One thing that amused me was when a bottle of Coke formerly priced at 5 cents in a Coke machine, was increased to 6 cents. Their answer was to leave every sixth bottle empty. What a joke it was to be caught with a bottle of nothing.
In Halifax we had time to reflect on the past 10 months. What a wonderful training we had received, we all agreed the Empire Training Scheme was a great success. All the allied nations sent their airmen to Canada to train. In Toronto one station was called 'Little Norway', all the trainees had escaped from Norway in boats. There were Frenchmen, Belgians, Poles, Americans, and all the Empire nations.
Our mail was fairly regular, about six weeks to two months, and as far as I know I never lost any. Censors never worried us, as we soon learnt to keep any mention of the war or our movements out of them.
While in Halifax we received news that several of our mates who went to England as bombardiers were already killed in operations. It was a particularly bad patch in the war, with heavy raids. The Atlantic was also a hot spot with heavy submarine activity. We were told that batches of 20 airmen were being sent across on freighters, as that was the only way. We waited for our turn and then one day a call came. In alphabetical the names were read, Alexander, Bailey, Cowern and so on. We were off to England, we thought. As servicemen we were never told our destination. We said our hurried farewells, "see you on the other side", we cried. On the train and south we went. The next we knew we were in New York. An army truck backed up to our carriage, loaded us in like cattle, took us to the ship, repeated the performance, and the gang plank was up. It was night time and we soon settled into our bunks. The boat was the T.S.S. Akaroa. Next day we discovered we were heading South, but at this stage it did not mean a great deal. We were in a convoy, destroyers and cruisers as escorts, and aircraft and balloons overhead. What a contrast to ten months ago when we were on our own. during that period the German subs sank 400 ships in three months. The Americans didn't realise the reflected lights from the coastal cities were silhouetting shipping and the Germans just sat and waited and picked them off. However blackouts changed that.
In a day or two we knew we were headed for the canal again and it was the Pacific for us. In six weeks we were home and after a weeks leave sent onto the islands. First of all Wing Commander Freeman, later killed on Kittyhawks, interviewed us and said we would fly on Catalinas. What a thrill, on of the biggest planes about at that time.
[JS Note: NZ1026 Wg/Cmdr Trevor Freeman DSO DFC, officer commanding the RNZAF Fighter Wing, on 17 December 1943 flying P-40N Warhawk NZ3153/F and leading 24 aircraft, arrived over Rabaul 1030 hours. Was seen under attack by seven or eight enemy fighters at 1500 feet near Hunter Point, SW New Ireland. Lost without trace. Source Martyn, E.W., For your tomorrow, Vol. II]
Some of the boys were put on Hudsons and Venturas. So in due course I was a navigator on No. 6 F.B. Squadron in the Pacific.
A week in New Zealand soon went and we boarded the Matua for Suva. The temperature rose quickly as it was only a three day trip north. Everyone enjoyed sitting on the deck lapping up the sunshine. the meals were excellent and the cabins first class. shorts were donned on the second day and some of them did not fit too well. One chap, Bill Jordon, a short fat chap found his came below his knees. "If that is what they give me, I will wear them" he said, and he did. He subsequently became 2nd wireless operator in our crew.
It was a different feeling leaving home the second time. Most of the boys were quiet, nobody talked, just wandered to their cabins as the boat sailed. hard to explain how we all felt. Going to a war zone was different perhaps.
In Suva we were sent to Lauthala Bay, allotted wooden huts in a dispersal area. They were small but adequate, about two or four of us in each. One door and four wooden windows which we pushed outwards. We slept on stretchers and had a mosquito net suspended from the ceiling. when you piled into bed you made sure it was tucked in.
Coming direct from a Canadian winter we were all pretty pale even though we passed through the tropics. The mosquitos obviously knew this and enjoyed their feast. For the first ten days they simply ate us alive. They mostly attacked us in the evening when we were taking star shots. We were anxious to perfect our astro and practised quite a lot. In a few days I had my first flight as second navigator. We were aloft 7 1/2 hours and I thought this was terrific. Having meals in the air was a new experience. It made me realise that navigating a flying boat was no walkover and we were going to be real busy.
From the air the islands looked beautiful, the colours and coral reefs were terrific. Lauthala Bay was known as an Operational Training Unit.
It was strange being on a flying boat and landing on the water. The creak as the hull hit the water was quite strange, and if the landing was a bit off we would rise momentarily before we hit again.
After a trip or two I found to my delight I was not being airsick and this was a great relief. After my experience in Canada I wondered just how I would be. Throughout my flying career I was never ever sick again, even though others all around me were. I put it down to the fact that in Canada I was so anxious to do well I must have suffered some sort of nervous anxiety.
In due course we were crewed up, nine in all. My Skipper (First Pilot) was Bill Mackley DFC ...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Diary of Ernest Kenyon Alexander (Part V)

NZ416235 W/O Ernie Alexander (Navigator)
Part V: Chatham, some personalities and graduation
These experiences are from extracts of letters that I wrote to my grandfather Mr. A. K. Alexander of 15 Oakley Avenue, Hamilton, when I did my aircrew training in Canada.
By mid term most boys on the course discovered how they were faring. The examinations gave them an indication of their ability or lack of it as far as being navigators was concerned.
Early on the course Charlie Frazer went home, supposedly air sick, but I think it was excessive home sickness. For a start his wife was not keen on him going overseas, and there was slight friction. To make it worse the first six weeks in Chatham he received no mail, it went elsewhere. Poor Charlie was thinking the worst with all the Yanks in New Zealand. After the war I met him in Papakura, he was one of the attendants at the Kingseat Hospital. The next to go home was Pip Stapleton, never keen on it at any stage, and then Harold Crampton, Tom Potts, Ted Thurston and the two Marshalls turned it in. The first two were grey wolves and the whole five remustered as bombardiers. They actually qualified for their wings before we finished our course and were on operations in England when we were in Halifax. Harold Crampton was killed when the bomb from another Stirling took the nose off their plane, and Harold went with it. The pilot bought the plane home with the greatest difficulty, a great feat. [JS Note. Friday 11 August 1944, 514 Squadron Lancaster II LL697/B2 took off at 14.13 hours captained by W/O W.D. Brickwood for a raid on Lens rail yards. Over the target the nose was struck by a falling bomb. Air bomber, Harold Crompton, was thrown out. LL697 returned to Woolbridge Suffolk at 17.30 hrs. LL697 never flew again and the surviving crew members flying Lancaster II LL731/U were shot down over Europe on the 12 September 1944. Source Martyn, E.W., For your tomorrow, Vol. II] Harold was one who performed amazing feats with the astro-graph, which no other navigator did. "Cooking" the astro-graph it was called, but it didn't teach you navigation. He also developed a 'plum' when he joined the RNZAF and it became part of him. A character, liked to be popular.
Tom Potts, a former school teachershould have passed his course but the green Canadian bottled beer was to great an attraction. Every night without fail he spent hours in the canteen, and by 10 O'clock would be on top of the piano, singing (or trying to) like a troubador. Often he would come back to the barracks and grab a mop and march up and down reciting the "The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven", until someone would drop from the top bunk and put him under the cold shower, then he would cry like a baby. He was killed in England after a few raids. [JS Note. 24 July 1944, 75 (NZ) Squadron Lancaster I HK575/O took off at 2155 hrs for raid on Stuttgart. Shot down by night-fighter and crashed near Chateau Voue killing the crew of seven including Air Bomber NZ421143 Thomas Potts, age 27, and Captain NZ415216 James McRae, age 27. Source Martyn, E.W., For your tomorrow, Vol. II]
Most course members lost trace of Ted Thurston, but he survived the war. someone saw him in Wellington arguing with the referee during a game of rugby football. He was always a thorn in my side because he did his best to prevent me from studying. A favourite jibe of his was, "You will do well Ernie if you work hard". A type of fifth columnist.
Of the two Jamiesons, Laurie was definitely killed, and no one ever heard of the other one. I fancy he went west somehow. [JS Note. 31 May 1944, 15 Squadron Lancaster I LM121/C took off from Mildenhall at 2357 hrs and was shot down by a night-fighter killing the crew of seven including Air Bomber NZ415636 Laurence Jamieson, age 26. Source Martyn, E.W., For your tomorrow, Vol. II]
Towards the end of our course two others dropped out, they lost confidence believing they could not cope with the job. On the other hand some of the older boys stuck it out. They had left school many years before the war and their attitude was, they can throw me out, but I will not go voluntarily. Typical of them was Jack McConachie and Mick Cassidy. Jack was an electrician and Mick a coalman. I can still remember Jack arguing for some vital marks in the subject Electricity and Magnetism. He knew his sparks but the instructor knew the book side of it. However Jack squeezed about three marks which he badly needed. Both eventually flew Catalinas and made good navigators.
The top three on the course were Ross Laurenson (died of Meningitis after the war [JS Note. 16 April 1945], Laurie Berg and Jim Lyon. All had just left university and swot was no trouble to them.
A spur to our course was a statement by an instructor that whoever came bottom, would be posted to British Columbia to train on the Torpedo-Bombers Hampdens. No one minded British Columbia, but Hampdens were suicide. The average expectancy of life was about two raids. Fortunately for us, the only Canadian who joined the course, Len Saffron, volunteered. We never heard if he survived. [JS Note. Len Saffron went on to fly in RCAF 422 Squadron and survived the war.]
Graduation day was a wonderful occasion, a culmination of weeks of hard work and for all who passed a great achievement. When it is considered to get into the air force you were required to pass a strict medical, do pre air force educational training, and then an extremely hard course covering about nine months, the successful ones had something to be proud of.
I started in Rotorua with a course of 60. I came second in that lot, and 30 were aqccepted to train as navigators, the remainder doing the bombardier course. Nineteen finally received the observers wing on that parade, a proud moment and no one hid their elation.
My marks were Navigation No.1 76%, Navigation No.2 71%, Maps and Charts 88%, Meteorology 71%, Compasses 65%, Reconnaisance 90%, Photography 88%, Instruments 64%, Aircraft recognition 76%, Signals (written) 64%, Signals (practical) 95%, Bombing 90%, Armaments 90%.
My average was 78.5% and I came fifth, a result of a lot of hard work. Believe me it did not come easy. The total hours flown on course including night and day amounted to 87, mostly in trips of no more than three hours.
So I was a fully fledged navigator, and in future would be responsible for giving correct courses, finding out where we were, and working out E.T.A. (estimated time of arrivals). The full significance of this responsibility had not dawned on me at this stage. My only thoughts, "others were doing it, why couldn't I?"
However we were faced with more training yet, six weeks at Fingal, Ontario, for bombing and gunnery, and another six weeks at Summerside in Prince Edward Island. The latter really gave us confidence, we were made to see that navigation really worked. It was mainly reconnaisance training, flying out to sea about 150 miles and returning home again. To find out we could do it was great. Usually we were given the job of finding a harbour, photographing it, drawing all the details on a plan, such as ships, wharves, oil tanks, etc. Because we had to skim over the sea at nought feet, the pilots loved it. Such a contrast to the humdrum flying. One day a pilot shot up a farmer who was driving his horse and sledge across the frozen ground. The horse took off, leaving the farmer shaking his fist at the monster above. I often wonder the outcome of this.
During the whole of our training in Canada we had only three breaks. One was a long weekend when we went to Quebec and the other two at the end of courses, when we visited the United States. [JS Note : Here Ernie uses several pages describing his leave in Quebec, Boston, Detroit, Pittsburg, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.]

Monday, November 9, 2009

Diary of Ernest Kenyon Alexander (Part IV)

NZ416235 W/O Ernie Alexander (Navigator)
Part IV: 10 Air Observers School, Chatham.
These experiences are from extracts of letters that I wrote to my grandfather Mr. A. K. Alexander of 15 Oakley Avenue, Hamilton, when I did my aircrew training in Canada.
Flying, which everyone on the course looked forward to, started soon after we arrived. The first was a familiarisation trip with two navigators. The greatest problem was to realise that when you were working out a course, the plane was still heading on the old one and wouldn't stop, but we soon learned that no matter what you gave the pilot he would always bring you home. Most were old bush pilots who did hours of flying in the North and were reputed to be able to fly by the seat of their pants. No pilot would venture too far away from the beaten track. At night time they would keep a good eye on the towns. Once, however this didn't happen. A pupil called Scotty, an ex Grey wolf (grounded pilot) gave a reciprocal course on the home leg. The pilot flew it this time, and ironically was recognising all the towns on the return journey. In due course their E.T.A. (estimated time of arrival) had expired and Chatham wasn't there. They flew on and soon were short on fuel, and turned on their landing lights to find somewhere to land. They found the edge of a lake and landed in shallow water, pulling up just in front of a huge rock. Scotty and the crew found they were in Halifax or nearby. He always had a habit of pulling his flying gear over his pyjamas, and spent the next two days wandering around like this. Finally he was washed out of the course, and later did a bombardier's training. He went to England and apparently survived the war.
The only problem with flying as far as I was concerned was airsickness. When the doctor told me he could do no more I just put up with it. Once I was forced to return home, but this proved fatal. Once more and I would be grounded I was told, so I never turned back. My standard equipment was a collection of cardboard boxes to contain what I couldn't hold. I eventually was so bad that the mere smell of a plane started me off. After a few minutes i was in the dry reach stage. I squared the pilots to keep quiet and I did my best, but my air work suffered. Of course I had to dispose of the boxes before returning, so the pleasant field below were the usual target. Poor devils on earth. The boys always reminded me to take my standard equipment with me. "Got your boxes" they would quip. Two on the course did go home because of air sickness.
A favourite pastime in 10 A.O.S. was to raid one anothers dormitory as a way of relaxation. Usually all ended well, except one night when a French-Canadian was involved. Poor sport he was, and informed the orderly officer who happened to be an American, a reconnaissance instructor.
One N.Z.'er and an Aussie had been celebrating too much, and subsequently were sent to an Air Force jail in Monckton for a week to cool off. But this turned the heat on at Chatham 10 A.O.S. A group of three Aussies planned reprisals, which incidently was one of the best kept secrets of the war. I personally only knew who one was, and that was when he left Canada.
The first act was to cut the stairways down with a fire axe. All the camp received a weeks C.B. (confined to barracks) for this. Act No. 2, do the job again and cut through the repairs this time. Result, 14 days C.B for the camp. But the rub was that the instructors were involved too, they couldn't leave camp when their courses were involved. Finally the Commanding Officer decided only the Aussies and N.Z.'ers were responsible, so the rest of the pupils were set free.
The select three planned further reprisals and amongst these were stealing the station flag, a copy of Janes Fighting Ships, and examination papers set for reconnaissance. The latter two belonged to the American officer, and this was a distinct embarrassment to him because Janes were a secret document to be kept under lock and key. They were a copy of all the latest planes and ships of all nations of the World, allied and enemy. He had left them on his desk.
In 14 days order was restored, the Commanding Officer was relieved of his position, and the brains behind the whole scheme eventually was given a commission off course. A well kept secret, otherwise he would probably have been discharged from the Air Force.
My personal action in this was to skip camp after about 10 days, for a few hours at the pictures. The stress of constant study, often late at night, needed a break, and Bob Shewry and myself decide to try. We marched along the road to the hospital to visit a supposed sick friend, then darted across the road to the fence and pulled the netting apart, which had been conveniently cut by the first N.Z. course at Chatham. I learn't afterwards that the Officers' mess was in sight of this spot, but they were human. We darted across to some woods, joined the road and made our way to the pictures, taking our aircrew flashes out of our caps. Recognised Special Police (S.P.'s) but they turned the blind eye. The fun started when we went to the Australia-N.Z. Club for coffee and doughnuts. The girls on duty were astounded to see us and plagued us with questions on what was going on back at camp. Apparently the town was alive with rumours, the incident had really livened up the place.
Coffee almost finished and two S.Po's appeared. One was a chap whom I had been invited home with by some locals for dinner, after attending church a couple of Sundays previously. He must have decided I was a reasonable sort of bloke because he just stood contemplating. Feeling cheeky I asked how many he had caught tonight and he said "You are the eleventh". "You won't need us," I replied, and to our amazement he said, "If you get back to camp without being caught we will say nothing." (Just our names, rank and number in his book in case). Bob and I moved off in due course, and went in the back of the camp as the night planes were coming in. We ducked behind snow drifts when lights were showing, and finally mingled witht he returning crews. We lived on tenter hooks for a few days, but nothing happened. All training camps in Canada were surrounded by tall cyclone netting fences, with barbed wire on top. The only legal way out was by the guard gate with a pass.
Before the snows started a sports day was held between the courses, football, tug-of-war, etc. etc. Number 58, our course, won with 39 points, the next closest being 32. It was a great day. The Canuks thought we were mad the way we played football.
Money is none too plentiful, and the generosity of the people is appreciated. As one way of saving money we cut each others hair. My home efforts are finding plenty of customers over here. A barber charges about 75 cents, N.Z. price 1/6, Canadian equivalent 4/-.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Diary of Ernest Kenyon Alexander (Part III)

NZ416235 W/O Ernie Alexander (Navigator)

Part III: 10 Air Observers School, Chatham.

These experiences are from extracts of letters that I wrote to my grandfather Mr. A. K. Alexander of 15 Oakley Avenue, Hamilton, when I did my aircrew training in Canada.
In due course we were posted to 10 Air Observers Course, Chatham, New Brunswick. Classes included Australians, Englishmen, Canadians, and other nationalities. The station is well set up, very convenient and ideal in every respect for training. We sleep in dormitories, built in the form of an H with the ablutions in the centre. They are two storied, with 18 beds (two tiered) in each. Janitors (old men) keep the building clean. Meals are excellent, my favourite being blueberry pie and flap jacks and maple syrup.

Paid a visit to the local town which is about two miles away. It is about the size of Tuakau, and the people are very friendly. An Australian-New Zealand Club is very helpful, supply coffee and doughnuts, aqnd introductions to families. Discovered that some months previously a New Zealand course trained in Chatham and apparently had a wonderful time. Made it easy for us - if you are a New Zealander you are OK. Gordon Lyell who instructed us at Rotorua was one of them. The first Sunday on the station we attended a church parade, most went willingly but a number absented themselves by various ruses.

The course is quite difficult, with ten subjects, plus flying. They include Navigation (Astro and Dead Reckoning), maps and charts, Reconnaissance, and Photography. Out of the original 60 at Rotorua, 30 have come to Canada to train as navigators, the remainder as bombardiers. Twenty-six of the navigators are at Chatham, four went to a station in Ontario. One of these, Jack Bell, was later killed when his parachute did not open. He apparently jumped at 500 feet when the aircraft was in trouble.

After a few days it became evident that lots of swot will be required to be successful on this course. The routine that most have settled for is five days intensive work, and a break on the weekend. Pictures, dances, golf, trips and visits to local homes find most favour.
On Sunday I was taken to the home of Archdeacon Anderson and found Eddie Medlin's name in the Visitors' book.

All the course were given their first familiarisation flight after about ten days. From the air the countryside is mostly Spruce and Fir trees, and fairly flat. The Miramachi River is quite prominent. Apparently New Brunswick is noted for the lumber trade. Chatham and New Castle once had seven mills, but during the depression only two operated. A doctor told us that 40% of the people had no work, and the rest about two days per week in this period. This reflected on the children who were very short of food and suffered accordingly.

The first pay in Canada was very welcome.

Chatham has churches belonging to six denominations, the ones with greatest followings being the Roman Catholic and the United Church of Canada. The latter is a combination of several protestant groups. The Roman Catholics have a beautiful building on top of a hill and can be seen for miles. Its steeple is almost a navigational hazard. When doing aerial photography everyone snaps the church, and it is safe to say all photography enthusiasts have one of this in their album.
The St. Pauls (Anglican) is 125 years old and well preserved. It has a shingle roof which is typical of many buildings in the area. One church, the Presbyterian, was sold and converted into a picture theatre when the United Church came into being. It still has a tall wooden steeple, and is called the Capitol. The church that went wrong someone said.
Talking of buildings, very few have paint on the outside, especially houses. This appears a reflection on the depression days.
Dr. Freeman, who befirended Bob Shewry and myself, said during these years only 40% of the people had work, and for only two days per week. The rest had nothing and lived on sustenance or whatever came their way. Of the seven lumber mills operating before the depression, only two remained open. He said this caused great starvation amongst the young people, and could still be seen. I have often wondered why so many of our age group possessed such thin legs and arms and this was apparently the answer.

Diary of Ernest Kenyon Alexander (Part II)

NZ416235 W/O Ernie Alexander (Navigator)
Part Two: Panama to New York & Toronto 1942.
These experiences are from extracts of letters that I wrote to my grandfather Mr. A. K. Alexander of 15 Oakley Avenue, Hamilton, when I did my aircrew training in Canada.
Back to sea again and the same old routine, but lots to talk about this time. Items on the notice board concerning ships sunk in the Carribean made us realise that there is a war on. Fortunately our boat was capable of 17 knots and too fast for subs, still the news we were receiving was disconcerting. Our watches became more real. One funny incident which happened in the mid Pacific just comes to mind. It concerned Jack Blank when he pushed the button of a six inch gun and a shell roared across the Pacific. The sea was calm, the sky as clear as a bell and all was quiet but the Americans were on action duty in no time.
Nearing New York we encountered considerable fog and this was just as well on the last day. A submarine sunk a boat quite close to us. We did wild evasive action during the last few hours. The first sight of New York was an imposing sight with the Statue of Liberty really beautiful. There was no mistaking New York with all its skyscrapers. The wharves were a collossal size and dwarfed our boat. Previously in Wellington it was the reverse, witht he 'John Ericsson' towering above the sheds.
After docking we boarded buses and went straight to Central Station to catch a train to Toronto. We saw little of New York but passed through Broadway, 5th Avenue and 42nd Street. We found the city a mass of neon signs, and a blaze of coloured lights. The skyscrapers were immense and appeared to block out the sun in the streets. The Empire State Building (102 storeys and 1200 feet) has to be seen to be believed. Traffic roars along at a tremendous rate, some of the boys unwisely tried to cross the street and were nearly killed. Taxis in New York are painted the gayest colours imagineable. After a few hours we left the Central Station for Toronto. A brief description is worth recording although it is called a station, it is really a small town, it being possible to purchase almost any commodity.
After pulling out, the train passed over sidings for ages, someone said it was 10 miles. Soon it was pushing along at 60 m.p.h. The lights of New York looked marvellous and gradually faded out as we dashed through the night. Daylight saw us over the Welland Canal, and soon after we passed through Hamilton. The countryside did not look the same quality as in New Zealand. Much of the area is devoted to growing Peaches, which are ripe.
At Toronto we were given a wonderful reception by the Canadians. Apparently New Zealanders are very popular here. They liked our version of the Haka, which we learnt on the boat. Formalities were completed in the morning, and in the afternoon we were given leave. In all we spent ten days in Toronto, and enjoyed it to the full. The locals gave us a wonderful time, one of the highlights being a trip to the Niagara Falls. The food is first class, much more like our own at home - a contrast to the meals on the John Ericsson, which were very sweet. My weight according to Canadian scales is 198 pounds (14 stone 2 pounds) a record for me.
The station in Toronto is known as a training pool, a place where aircrew assemble and are later sent to their flying stations. Every morning we attend a parade and march through some beautiful parks. Our instructor is very good, and makes it as easy as possible for us, realising no doubt that we have a tough time ahead. His favourite pastime is to ask us to sing popular war songs as we are on the march, "We are the boys from away down under", "Waltzing Matilda", etc, etc, with an odd Haka thrown in.
Continued by Part 3: "10 Air Observers School, New Brunswick".

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Diary of Ernest Kenyon Alexander (Part I)

NZ416235 W/O Ernie Alexander (Navigator)

Part I: New Zealand to Panama 1942.

These experiences are from extracts of letters that I wrote to my grandfather Mr. A. K. Alexander of 15 Oakley Avenue, Hamilton, when I did my aircrew training in Canada.

After leaving Wellington on August 17th 1942 by the American Troopship "John Ericcson" (29,000 tons) (formerly the Kingsholm Swedish) [JS Note 'John Ericsson' formerly 'Kungsholm'] we journeyed to Panama Canal, veering well south of Pitcairn Island. The trip was uneventful except for a breakdown in the engines about 200 miles from Panama Canal. Life on board ship was quite interesting, particularly the "crossing the line" ceremony. My charge was "that I drank and smoked too much therefore stunting my growth." The experience of seeing sea day after day made us all realise the size of the ocean. Time was spent by reading, deck games, physical training, and submarine watch. Most of the journey the temperature was about 40-45 degrees F. but increased as we neared Panama. No storms crossed our path. Handling American dollars and cents, and crossing the International Date Line were all new to us. The only sea life was an odd bird, and whales and porpoises. American idioms such as "I guess", "Guy", "Bucks", and "dimes" soon became accepted as everyday language. Cabins were very stuffy at night, being closed on account of blackout regulations. Points of note included a lack of a canteen on the ship, a medicine ball lost overboard, no trouble with seasickness and numerous games of crib, also poker by certain groups. The price of haircuts was a shock, 75 cents or 4/9 N.Z. money, the result being that everyone cut each others hair. A visit to the scales revealed an increase in weight, even after the gain in N.Z. Air Force Stations.

All the 120 odd aircrew trainees on board the boat were pleased to see land, which we sighted at nighfall. We simply gazed at the tropical growth for hours, having seen nothing like this before. I can vividly remember a Toucan bird sitting on a buoy, and thinking how pretty it was. Most of us went ashore at Balboa by a launch, and stretched our legs for a couple of hours. Noticed the plentiful supply of taxis, there always seemed to be someone yelling his head off calling Taxi Taxi Taxi. The journey through the canal next day was extremely interesting with all the locks, etc. The whole trip to the other Port of Colon taking 9 hours. Our ship spent four days here having engine repairs, which suited us fine, as it gave us all an opportunity of seeing the sights of Cristobal. To an inexperienced N.Z'er not having travelled much this was more than an eye-opener. This town could well have been the last place God made and forgot to finish. The heat was terrific and the humidity high. Being the rainy season rain fell frequently. Although dressed in shorts everyone was in a continual sweat. The town of 90,000 is predominantly native and extremely black, quite a few inhabitants from the neighbouring Carribean Islands come to Panama also. The Jamaicans were particular not to be classed as Panamanians. Language spoken is mostly English with some Spanish. The American influence was most noticeable. A large number of American Servicemen were stationed there on garrison duty, while the white quarter of the town is clean and new, the rest is mostly slummish. We were all eager to see everything, and some of the sights were more than we had bargained for, streets were narrow and covered in rubbish, and natives congregated everywhere, especially around lottery stalls. Panamanians are most partial to lotteries. I can well remember seeing rubbish dumped on the streets below from upstairs windows.

In some streets every fourth shop was either a bar or a nightclub. Bars have swinging doors, and only shut to be swept out, (even open on Sundays). Drunks were everywhere, and we were told never to travel in back streets alone or suffer the penalty of a cracked skull. One or two smarter types tried this and were picked up in the gutter by the Panamanian Police, minus their money, watch and valuables. Shoe shine boys were numerous all over the town, chasing you everywhere calling "shoe shine" or "please for a nickel". We met one middle-aged woman with one arm begging in the streets, even going into the bars and tapping chaps on the shoulder for a coin.

Being curious and wanting to see all, I can remember walking down one narrow back street which was wholly given over to prostitution. Native women and Spanish women were most amusing as they sat on their boxes outside their rooms, offering their talents at various prices. I can still see one Spanish woman calling out to us, "come on Kiwi 5 Dollars" while her rival across the street priced her talents at 3 dollars, then another street would be the drug addict section of the town, Cocaine, Opium and Haddish [sic] were the most common. Yes, filth, smell, beggars, poverty, drunkeness, prostitution, and drug addicts was the lot of Cristobal. Night clubs were numerous, all run on similar lines. Tables free, the expense being the Blue Moon. Blue Moon was a fashionable lady of doubtful reputation mostly broken down chorus girls or night club dancers. Each girl used a token as her identification to the waiter and received a percentage of the profits on the drunks, which she encouraged her partner to consume. When he was broke she returned her token to the waiter andd started all over again. The floor show commences on a slow quiet tempo almost high class, and increases in intensity to the strip tease act. By this time the show is really roaring, and quite often the Police have to be called in.

The colour bar is shocking, everyone being known as Gold or Silver. A white person is classified Gold and the native Silver. All the restrictions are on the natives, who could not earn more than 60 dollars per month, receive a decent education, become a boss of any kind, ride in certain buses, or sit in certain places. This colour bar also applies to natives coming from the neighbouring islands.

The are many Jamacans in Panama, who came over to work. One I spoke to told me he would be glad to go home again. He was very clean, well dressed and respectable. He was most interested in the Maoris, when I told him they had equal rights. Many natives in Panama are pretty dirty, and I suppose you can understand not mixing with them, but it does seem hard that they are not given a chance.

In Colon we toured the sights in a taxi (of course they are cheap here), the driver being a native of Dominica. He was very interesting and took us to all parts, native and white quarters. All houses are built about four feet from the ground to prevent dampness entering the building. There are millions of ants in Colon - I saw huge patches of ground eaten bare of grass by them. Ants in one place followed a narrow track, some carrying grass to an anthill, and others returning for another load. I have been informed they followed the same track in the 1914-18 War.

Fruit at the moment is fairly scarce in New Zealand. Drapery shops are known as bazaars and of course sell all summer wear. Most luxury lines are cheaper, but the necessities of life more expensive. Summing up, those four days in Colon, we were all convinced it was a great experience. I am more certain than ever that N.Z. is a wonderful country and worth fighting for right to the last drop of blood. All the boys were pleased to leave the place, but mighty glad of the experience.
Continued by Part II: Panama to New York & Toronto 1942