A British Cadet’s Odyssey to NAS Grosse Ile and Beyond
1940 brought the end of term for me at Dover College in England. It was
also the start of the Battle of Britain, and my roundabout journey to
was 15 when the war started in Europe. I had a predisposition to
Aviation from the age of nine, when 3 Honduranian WACO warplanes
crash-landed at Belize, whilst fleeing from another revolution there.
That was 1933…At 15 I knew every British warplane in existence and
could identify each by silhouette…every which way. War was
exciting…not dreadful at that age!!! Before evacuation I stood
nighttime watches on rooftops, listening, and identifying German war
planes by the sound of their engines. I was part of England’s civilian
possible, school children were evacuated to Canada or somewhere safer.
The siege had begun. I was 16 and watched the aerial battles over the
south of England stretched out on the grass looking skyward. My 2
sisters were also at school in Kent, not far from Dover. We were sent to
Bristol to join a ship for Jamaica. Air raid sirens sounded as we waited
at the railway station at Bristol. Our ship sailed from Avonmouth to
Milford Haven where a large convoy was formed. This convoy was bottled
up at anchor for 15 days, as the Germans dropped mines that night all
over the large harbor. Two ships were sunk when hit directly by dropping
mines. Because our ship was faster than most...we were able to leave the
convoy 4 days out...and bee-lined it to Bermuda and Jamaica at 18 knots.
That fall, I was enrolled at Munroe College, Jamaica. I graduated in
June 1942 and signed for Hostilities only in the Royal Navy Volunteer
reserves at Kingston, along with 9 others who wanted to do a part
in the war effort. My family was not happy; because there was no
conscription in the colonies...I did not have to go. My Dad thought I
should go to Cambridge University in England to study Law. Picture a
healthy 18 years old...in civvies, at University...whilst the rest of
Britain was preparing for the German invasion, which seemed imminent? I
just knew that would not work!!!
And so...the 9 of us on Sept 7, 1942 joined a troopship...the USS
ALGONQUIN with 5000 GI’s on the way to New Orleans from the Panama
Canal Zone, which was a nice, safe place to be at that time. Soon the
troops and 9 greenhorns were on a troop train to Brooklyn, NY. At the US
Navy yard, we were issued British sailor uniforms and utensils, hammock,
etc. But no instructions on how to wear or use them! We were sent to a
converted CCC Camp near Peekskill, NY to await convoy to UK. I became
ill at Peekskill and wound up back at Brooklyn in the Hospital. I missed
the ship and caught a later one after 10 days in sickbay. Eventually
gained passage on a converted liberty ship/baby flattop British Carrier
loaded with F7F Grumman night fighters and TBFs. Also learned how to get
into and sleep in a hammock...as did all Navy non-coms.
Boot camp in UK was at Lee-On-Solent, near Portsmouth on South coast.
Next stop was HMS St. Vincent...main land base for training Naval
Airmen, not very far from Lee. We were the lowest form of naval
life...classified Naval Airman Second Class. It felt like 3rd class!!!
Studies included Seamanship, Signals (Morse code and Semaphore)
Surface navigation, Aircraft Identification, Gunnery, Oarsmanship, etc.
Graduates became Acting Leading Seaman (A). The A was for AIR ARM.
Also...a pay raise U couldn’t notice. Pay was 2 shilling and sixpence
per week.... about 95 cents in today’s money. We got to wear a
white band around our sailor caps!!
success brought assignments all over Britain to various land and sea
bases awaiting assembly of a Draft to US for 48th Pilots Course.350 men
(boys) graduated...half destined for US...half to train in UK.
A buddy and I (Both
from Jamaica) were sent to a small trawler in Glasgow for 2 weeks of
continuous attack by Fairey Swordfish Torpedo bombers as we sailed from
Greenock to the Isle of Aran each day. Swordfish pilots were using dummy
torpedo’s set at 14 feet depth to pass under the small vessel.
Sometimes they "Porpoised".... were coming out of the water
instead of running deep. To avoid being struck, the trawler would take
evasive action. Our job was to log the a/c #, angle of approach,
altitude of torpedo release, etc. It was boring stuff.
By a show of hands...half the 350 grads were to go to US. My hand was
UP. Troopship QUEEN MARY took us across the Atlantic...unescorted except
for Catalina and Sunderland Aircraft from time to time.... back to
Brooklyn, NY. Then we took a train to Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada and
on to GI. At GI we were issued US Navy Summer uniforms, except for Caps
with white band...indicating we were Aviation Cadet. First 2 weeks at GI
were intensive physical training at sunup every morning, followed by 10
hours a day in ground school learning Meteorology, Aircraft Id, Aerial
Navigation, Theory of flight, Engines and Airframes, Local maps, etc.
On Aug 5, 1943 my instructor took me up for 90 minutes of
orientation/observation. I think he also tried to make me airsick!!!???
He almost did. I sat in back seat of N2S-1. He could speak to me but not
vice versa. He pointed to landmarks, emergency landing strips, throttle
settings, stalls, etc The most difficult task of this flight was trying
to turn the Inertial crank handle to start the engine. This was done by
standing on the lower starboard wing and turning a very heavy flywheel
device up to revs high enough to get the cylinders moving fast enough to
fire up. It was hot, hard work. Later models had cartridge...then
By August 31 I had completed 15 HOPS with instructors. On August 14, I
soloed. This was important, because if not...you were WASHED OUT...or
dead. This was after eleven and a half hours dual instruction. At end of
August I had accumulated 14 hours of solo time and 12 hours more dual..
By October 20, EBASE (elimination base) was completed. My personal
instructor wrote in logbook "Has right temperament for combat
flying”. This was more a statement of his personal desire to be at the
front lines, than of my ability in combat. Consensus of Most other
instructors was "Fair"... Total flying hours at GI were 54
dual...48 solo. BASE was broken into stages: A<B<C<D<E.
After each stage a different instructor CHECKED cadets. If he gave an UP
CHECK, you went on to next stage.
Oct. 9 and 10...I gained two up checks, thanks to LT JG Mitchell and Bernstein. The time at GI seemed much shorter than it actually was!!! Each day was very full of activity...flying and ground school, which seemed never to end. It was like College all over again...but more concentrated...due to the war.
I cannot remember a single meal, nor where the mess hall was located. Nor can I remember what was fed to us. In any event...the food was abundant and not rationed! We slept in wooden barracks.... 2 stories, I think...all 160 of us in one or two buildings. Mornings came too soon. Night flying was not scheduled.... thank goodness.
Here are the names of instructors I had while at Grosse
Ile. All were ensigns unless noted other wise: Dangott, Kowal, Lawler,
Probst, Rogers, Sessions. Scheehan, and Meyers. Ltjgs. Chanter,
Humphrey, Wilcox, Pardoe, Mitchell, Bersteir, and Fuhr. Lts. Castleman,
Parsons, Christie, and Shaw. Lcdr. A.S. Deitrich was the superintendent
of Aviation Training. All the instructors were USN I believe.
After GI my flying skills must have improved, because I got
only 3 more down checks from Nov '43 to April '44...the time spent with
N2S, SNV, SNJ 3,4,5, at Pensacola and its outlying fields. I was awarded
US Navy wings of gold on April 14, 1944 and had by that time accumulated
104 hours dual and 152 hours solo flying time. VN608 was the training
sqdn. at Pensacola. The FAA flying award was concurrent with US wings.
Wings themselves differed in that Brit wings were embroidered and
outlined with gold braid, whereas US wings were pinned on and made of
metal; Brit wings were sewed on to sleeves, not worn on chest like US
From Pensacola, about half went to Jacksonville, Fl to VF-5 for fighter
training on F4U-1. The other half went to Ft. Lauderdale or Vero Beach
for torpedo bomber training on TBF's. I was in the fighter group. TBF
lads were more responsible and mature as they were responsible for a
crew of 3. At the time of earning wings...a few of us (3 or 4)…. were
under 21, so could not hold regular commissions. We were made Midshipman
(A) ...for air branch.... then Sub Lieutenant (A) RNVR at age 21. More
pay than Middies.
After JAX (Jacksonville)...we went to Lewiston and Brunswick, Me. to be
re-trained in the British style of formation flying, tactics, carrier
approach, terminology, etc. Manifold pressure was called BOOST in Brit
terms, for example. Brits also had different hand signals for formation
flying and tactics when radio silence was required. At a small field
near Bar Harbor and Ellsworth, Me, we practiced Carrier landings and
approaches on a runway marked off like a carrier deck. Our CO was the
LSO (Commanding Officer – Landing Signal Officer). LSO signals were
also different from US methods...just the opposite. In Maine we formed
squadrons. First carrier landings were done at Norfolk, Va., but for
some reason I cannot recall, I did not participate. It was later...in
Scotland that I qualified on HMS Venerable...a new carrier in the Firth
of Clyde, based at Greenock.
The rate of pay for Brits in the US, had to be subsidized so as to bring
it nearer parity with US servicemen’s pay scale. Cadets received
$230.00 each two weeks. Not many expenses were involved as food, lodging
and recreation were on base. Cadets paid for Dry cleaning, laundry, and
cigarettes when not provided free by the Cig Mfgrs. Many were able to
send dollars home. My folks did not need any...so I spent mine gambling
at cards...or otherwise fritting it away. Occasionally...at Pensacola,
I’d rent a sailboat or a Hertz Auto. Gas was rationed and engines
“governed” not to allow a speed of more than 45 MPH. We'd drive back
to base...ask one of the mechanics to remove the restrictor plate in the
carb...fill up with aviation gas.... go racing at JAX beach or Daytona
beach at speeds as fast as the 1942 cars could go!!!
The war was on and we did not expect to live to see the end of it. But
the Allies were winning at this point.... so our ship...HMS
Vengeance.... sister ship to Venerable… was readied for the invasion
of Japan in the Pacific. It was my good fortune to survive it all. I
lost three roommates due to flying accidents during training. No fellow
officer wanted to room with me.... so I got a cabin all to myself from
March 1945 to wars end. Vengeance ended up at Hong Kong in Sept 1945.
Hostilities ended, I asked to be repatriated to Jamaica, and was sent
home via Sydney and Vancouver, BC...to Montreal and NY where I became
engaged to a US lady I met at a USO dance at Lewiston, Me. Then went to
Tampa and took a ship to Kingston. I had circumnavigated the world and
was still just turned 22. How could anybody have been so lucky??
This September, my Maine bride and I will celebrate 55 years of happy
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