Friday, 28 October 2011

26: Adventurous Journey Home – Part 5.

Friendship and a Social Life

One day we left camp late in the afternoon intending to visit a cinema that evening. We stood talking on a street corner when two young ladies in army uniform walked towards us. They stopped and said they had been told that there were a lot of ex-P.O.W.'s walking around town not knowing what to do. They had been given the afternoon off and some free cinema ticket so, would we like to go to the movies with them? So, in we went!

After leaving the cinema we went into a café for a drink and to try some maple syrup pancakes. One of the girls seemed very friendly towards me and asked if we had seen the totem poles and the park. They said they would take us there the following day, which they did. By late afternoon it was obvious that one of the other chaps and me were getting all the attention. Of the other two, one was getting married when he got home and decided he was going back to camp; the other joined him.

I now knew the young lady who had paired off with me was Laura. We had a meal out and a drink in a club then she took me back to her flat where I met mates of hers from the various flats in the house. Our meetings were flexible. We agreed to meet at the same time and the same place each day not knowing if she had to be on duty the next day.

One day the RAF chaps were taken to the RCAF station to be kitted out with uniforms. Tailors were on hand to do any alterations needed. We were given a kit bag in which to pack a greatcoat, which was accepted gratefully to keep out the cost night air. It was becoming quite frosty. We were also issued with black leather gloves, not the woolen ones normally issued in England. Back at camp all the airmen, including me, were busy sewing on badges and generally feeling smarter and more comfortable in ourselves. Laura thought I looked great and suggested we go for a walk. During the walk we passed other army girls on the other side of the road going in the opposite direction. They shouted as we passed. Laura said to me “Wait here” then walked across and spoke to them. On return I asked if she knew them. She said “No”, but they had called me a nasty name, which I can’t recall. she explained that all Canadian servicemen volunteered for overseas service; there was no compulsion. But everyone who stayed at home was deemed to be a coward. Apparently they had assumed I was one of the latter, which seemed rather strange as there were an extra 1000 or so men walking about in their new army uniforms. Laura said she had put them straight!

On the Sunday, Laura had arranged to take me to her brother’s house for dinner in the evening. By now it was late October and becoming very chilly. The house was very warm but the only sign of heating was a fire in the lounge. I asked how they managed to keep so much warmth when there were no obvious radiators. I was taken down to the basement where an iron barrel stove was glowing, burning just sawdust. On and around the stove was a metal casing with a pipe reaching the ceiling where further pipes branched out to vents in the skirting of the rooms above. These kept the rooms beautifully warm.

It was a nice detached house of timber and brick construction with unfenced lawns at the front. My host told me he had a good job as a welder in the docks, was always busy repairing damaged ships and had a car. After dinner he asked my intentions. I told him I hadn’t thought about it; I just needed to get home and sort myself out. He then said it would be easy for me to get a job at the docks, young people were needed in Canada and assistance was available to help them emigrate. I explained that I was only twenty years old when I left England and was now twenty-five. My parents would expect me to spend some time with them. I had volunteered for the RAF at nineteen and had been out of their lives for too long. Also, it must have been a worrying time for them whilst I had been a Japanese P.O.W.

We were by now settled into a routine. Mornings were spent in camp, mainly just hanging around. Most  of the airmen now had girlfriends and others had been adopted by local families who cared for them and showed them around the sights. Some just went about in groups. so afternoons and evenings were taken care of. Therefore there wasn’t too much enthusiasm when a day out at a flying boat station in the wilderness was offered. Eventually around fifty decided they would go; apparently they had quite a jolly time. It seem they were given a tour of the base and as much food and drink as they could managed. Also, a Christmas dinner was laid on with plenty of games. In other words, have what you like and do what you will; and apparently they did! The coast would be leaving to take them back to camp at 5pm. It seems that most of them ended up in the WAAF’s (women's) quarters, which are strictly out of bounds to airmen. The story goes that, at around 4.30 pm, the WAAF Officer entered the hut exclaiming, “What are you naughty girls doing to these poor airmen? Let them go at once. You know they should not be in here and their coach goes in half an hour”.

It was now over three weeks since we arrived here. The married men especially were getting restless and wanted to be on the move. We were all wanting to get home to try picking up the threads of our lives so we were happy when a notice was pinned up on the board notifying us of our departure in two days time. Laura and I had arranged to go to the cinema that day. When we met her first words were, “You’re going home!” I asked her how she knew but she just said, “We know!”

I had hardly recognised her the next day when we net; it was the first time I had seen her out of uniform. Her friend Jean, who I had met with Laura on the first day, had invited us with another couple to her parent’s house for the day. We arrived at a large, well furnished bungalow where a buffet meal had been prepared and a bottle of wine. Most impressive; not many people in England lived in this style. I think it was all meant to impress me as I realised the girls were keen for us to return to Canada. It was a pleasant evening; good company, chatting and listening to big band music on the radio broadcast from America. Laura said lots of girls would be coming to the docks tomorrow when we sailed, but she wouldn’t be there. We would say our goodbyes tonight.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

26: Adventurous Journey Home – Part 4.

Voyage to Canada

The days progressively grew colder so our gabardine jackets were necessary outside the hangar. Charlie, my near neighbour at home, still paid me regular visits bearing gifts of cakes, gateau etc plus tots of rum contributed daily by him and his friends. He would sit and have a chat about his lot and didn’t appear too happy. He was late joining up and was now keen for an early discharge. Before joining the aircraft carrier he was a gunner on the rear of a Fast Patrol Boat operating at night in the English Channel engaging German E-boats attacking our shipping. He became euphoric when telling me what a thrill he felt when strapping himself into a chair with its revolving twin cannon. A thrill no doubt enhanced by the speed of the boat coming from three modified aircraft engines below. There was a Second Lieutenant in charge of the FPB and all the crew were on first name terms. At the end of hostilities in Europe he had been shipped to Sydney, Australia to become a waiter in the officers’ mess; I clearly understood his feelings. As we neared Vancouver he asked if I could deliver a parcel to his father containing his tobacco allowance. He was very pleased when I gave him some of my cigars to add to the parcel; he had been a good friend.

Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada

It was a sunny autumn day as we sailed into a straight between Vancouver Island and the mainland of Canada. No standing to attention on this occasion. Our arrival had obviously been publicised and some small private aircraft flew overhead as we made our approach. Along one side of the straight the shoreline had been cut into the side of the rock on which ran a railway line. Presently a locomotive with coaches twice the length of any I had previously seen came into view. It slowed down to our speed, blowing its whistle and ringing its bell with its passengers waving welcomingly. After about fifteen minutes he went puffing on his way.

Our ship docked at Esquimalt near Victoria, the capital of Vancouver Island, and not Vancouver City as we had expected. Coaches collected us and we said goodbye to our recently made sailor friends before we were transported to a large army camp. The Canadians amongst us were taken elsewhere. We were deposited in barracks, four to a room and were told where to eat. Another medical check was imminent. A voluntary organisation had placed people around to chat to us and put us at our ease. No date was given for our departure but we learned that it would be in about three weeks.

The next couple of days we spend around camp getting used to our new surroundings and finding out where we could go and what there was to see. We had been paid some Canadian dollars so felt ready to face the outside world with growing confidence. After a while we were informed that personnel trucks would be running from camp next day to take us into Victoria. We were told that each night to make sure we could get back to our billets. It turned out that Victoria was built on a grid pattern so it was no problem getting a lift back provided that one stayed put.

I think the ex-P.O.W.’s were still finding it difficult to be individuals. We seemed to need each other’s company to face the outside world. So my three room-mates and I prepared to hit the town together. A Canadian soldier asked if any of us were army personnel. We told him “No” but asked why he wanted to know. “Army personnel were all being kitted out in new uniforms” was his reply. “What about RAF?” we wanted to know. He said he would be telling the Royal Canadian Air Force how many of us there were.

Victoria was a nice place. It was the first town we had seen for some years, but we felt more comfortable with money in our pockets. It enabled us to walk into a café and buy a cup of coffee. Trying to be normal was a strange experience. There were no pubs, only clubs. If we entered one we found it difficult to buy ourselves a drink. The other customers would insist on paying which was very nice but we felt uncomfortable about it. We decided we might be less conspicuous if we went out in the evening.

Monday, 17 October 2011

26: Adventurous Journey Home – Part 3.

Pearl Harbour and Honolulu

Soon the Captain informed us that we would be arriving at Hawaii (Oahu), the Hawaiin Islands, docking in Pearl Harbour. This immediately conjured up thoughts for me of grass skirts and golden sands. The Captain went on to say the ships crew would be at attention as we entered the harbour and all “hands” (as we were now called) must line up in single file at the ship’s rails along the flight deck if we wanted to watch proceedings. He added that he would be giving commentary as we sailed in so that we would all know what was happening.

Soon after breakfast next morning we were up on deck lining the rails as we entered Pearl Harbour. It was a massive, natural harbour full of warships and aircraft carriers. The captain named the ships as we slowly followed our passage through the moored ships and explained that it was necessary to dip our ensign to all ships larger than us. Most of them were; except for one which caused us much amusement. We were almost past this ship, which I assumed has less tonnage than HMS Glory and we were almost abreast of it when we heard the command from the bridge “Give him a blast, Mr Brown!” But before the order could be carried out the American ship dipped it’s ensign; we wondered if the Americans had also heard the command. Our ship glided alongside the quay, tied up and we were told we could stand down.

On the quayside, waiting to welcome us, was the U.S. Air Force band. I had always enjoyed big band music. Before joining up I listened on the short wave radio at home to this type of music from America so knew some of the tunes they were playing; especially Glen Miller. It was fantastic; we all clapped and cheered them. They seemed to appreciate our applause and responded to it by playing for an hour and a half before forming up and marching off to the St Louis Blues march; brilliant! I felt alive.

During the afternoon the telephone company “Western Union” sent personnel on board with the generous offer that we could each send a free telegram home. Naturally, we promptly accepted their kind offer. A talk followed, given by the Captain. He explained that there would be no pay parade; Britain was broke and nobody was getting any dollars. We were, however, able to go ashore the following day and at the gangplank would be given tickets of various denominations that had been generously supplied by the local traders. These we could spend in the bars and cafes. Later that day a troupe of grass skirted dancers accompanied by a Hawaiian band came on board and performed for us. It was a perfect ending to a glorious sunny day.

Next day a crowd of us decided to do some exploring. Our attire, U.S. Navy working gear, consisted of a light blue shirt, dark blue jeans, black shoes and no headgear. Going ashore we made for the dock gates where U.S. Military Police (‘Snowdrops’, when they were out of earshot) wearing their white helmets and with drawn truncheons were on duty. As we streamed forward one shouted out “Hey you there! Sidewalks are for walkers and roads for vehicles”. So we had to be patient and go singly through the narrow footpath entrances on each side of the road. Once outside, we pondered where to go. There were high wire fences each side of the road that seemed to go on forever. After walking for about fifteen minutes, we began to encounter uniformed soldiers behind the wire. They asked “How did you get out, dressed like that?” We spoke to some who told us they weren’t allowed out of camp ever; there were too many military personnel on the island. We asked if they knew the way to Honolulu and Waikiki Beach; they thought we had to turn right but a long way.

It was a long way, but there it was eventually. Lots of hotels but as for the beach, I'd seen better ones in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Malaya; that’s if sand and palm trees are to be considered. I felt disappointed. We piled into the cafes for a cool drink then wended our weary way back in the heat stopping occasionally for more cooling drinks. Our tickets spent, we made our way back to the ship and thankfully climbed back up the steps. Back on board it was home and feeling comfortable. Then we sat on deck roasting as the heat below decks became overpowering. Around midnight there was a commotion coming from the quayside. Apparently a group of P.O.W.’s went ashore to a club where some customers noticed them paying for drinks with tickets. The customers asked why and when the ex-P.O.W. status was explained, the customers insisted on paying for them. Several free drinks later they were given transport back to the ship together with a band and dancing girls from the club. There must have been some very tolerant MPs on the gate that night.

The officer of the watch on the gangplank said he would have to get the Captains permission for them to come aboard. The Captain, who had retired for the night, gave his consent and joined us. All the flight deck lights were switched on and we were treated to another performance of hula hula dancing; very enjoyable. I was ready for bed after that.

I didn’t bother going ashore again. With the sweltering heat, no money in my pocket and very long walks to get anywhere was something I wasn’t ready for. I was content to stay put and rest. Two days later we cast off and headed for Vancouver, Canada.