Chapter Two: A Legend is Born

Grandpa Gordon was only a passable student in school, he spent most of his time looking out the window and daydreaming. His thoughts were of soaring like a bird in the blue skies. He wanted to experience the freedom of the open air. When the World War I aces would come to town for their barnstorming shows, he was always there to see their amazing acrobatic flying stunts. Not in his wildest imagination did he ever think that he would someday be a fighter pilot.

Minneapolis was not only the closest metropolitan area to Sauk Centre, it was the largest city in Minnesota with a 1930 popultaion of 464,356 people. So, young Grandpa Gordon being the adventurous sort found himself spending a lot of time there. Poor little Sauk Centre only had a population of 2,716 in the 1930 census, so there was no comparison and had little draw for him. The city also had a large Jewish population so Grandpa Gordon inevitably had several Jewish friends. So when Hitler came into power in 1933, Grandpa Gordon became quickly versed in the events transpiring in Germany. So when Germany invaded Poland in 1939 and France, England, Australia, New Zealand, Nepal, South Africa, Oman, Kuwait, Bahrain and Canada declared war on Germany soon afterwards, he was chomping at the bit to go to Europe to fight the Germans. He had lisetened to the horror stories from his Jewish friends for the last 6 years so he was in no mood to wait for the US when it became apparent that they were not to immediately step in and help out. So when he heard that concerned American citizens were crossing the Canadian border and joining the military, especially the Royal Canadian Air Force he immediately knew what he had to do. (By 1941, some 1,200 Americans comprising 10 percent of officers in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and nearly 10,000 Americans had joined the Canadian Army.) So he told his parents what his plans were. They, both being astute individuals knew that their son was not happy with his life as it was and realized that he needed to do something besides work on their corn and wheat farm.

One little aside, while it was commendable that Americans joined the fight against the Axis forces, the U.S. was still neutral. To help matters along the RCAF relied on the Clayton Night Committee. It was the brainwave of Billy Bishop and was a private organization based out of New York. It acted as a liaison for the American volunteers. Thanks to the work by this committee the volunteers did not have to swear allegiance to King George VI, an act which would have deprived them of American citizenship.

They were prepared for this day because even though they were finally successful in the farming endeavour, they wanted something better for their kids. They wanted them to go to college so that they had options. They would also be happy if some of their children chose to carry on the family business. But deep down they knew that Grandpa Gordon was going to be taking a very different path in his life. Since Grandpa Gordon was born on July 10, 1922 he would not reach legal age until 1940. So he had to cool his jets for close to a year before he could enter the military. However, to show their support for their son and to ensure that there was no difficulty for him they signed the requisite consent forms that he brought with him to Canada. Since funds were tight for their son they bought and paid for the train tickets that he needed to get to Toronto, Canada from Sauk Centre. Toronto was fast becoming the recruiting station for American recruits. In the fall of 1940, they were accepting applicants for both the infantry as well as the air corps.

In anticipation of the increased military needs in 1939 caused by Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand declarating war on the Axis powers, they all agreed to train air crews for wartime service. The training plan, known as the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) was administered by the Canadian government and commanded by the RCAF. Training fields were located and built throughout Canada. There were some training facilities located in the other Commonwealth countries, however, the vast majority of the flight training took place in these Canadian facilities. Canada was chosen as the primary location because of its ideal weather; wide open spaces suitable for flight and navigation training. The lack of any threat from any of the Axis forces and its relative proximity to both the European and Pacific theaters were also pluses. The United Kingdom was ruled out for the exact opposite reasons. It was the direct antithesis of Canada in these regards. The facilities included initial training schools, elementary flying training schools, service flying training schools, flying instructor’s schools, general reconnaissance schools, operational training units, wireless schools, bombing and gunnery schools, a flight engineers’ school, air navigation schools, air observer schools, radio direction (radar) schools, and a few specialist schools.

As part of the general training agreement, Canada would bare the brunt of the expenses of the bases and training. However, the Royal Air Force (RAF) would absorb all the air training graduates without restrictions. In addition, all Canadian airmen would be identified as members of the RCAF with distinct uniforms and insignia. To placate the RAF Robert Locke, a senior RAF commander and a Canadian would be posted to Ottawa as Director of Training.

Grandpa Gordon, of course, had his heart set on flying so he completed his application and sat for the interview for the Air Corps. The recruiters were so impressed with his positive attitude and mature demeanor that he was immediately accepted into the air corps. As a new trainee, he began his military career at a Manning Depot. His particular Manning Depot was the Coliseum Building located on the Canadian National Exhibition grounds in Toronto. He learned to bathe, shave, shine boots, polish buttons, maintain his uniform and to behave properly here. He also received two hours of physical education daily and instruction in marching, rifle drill, foot drill, saluting and other routines. After five weeks, a selection committee decided whether he would go into the aircrew or ground crew stream.

There was no doubt where Grandpa Gordon was going. So he began his initial flight training in a 26-week training program at the Eglinton Hunt Club in Toronto, Ontario where he studied theoretical subjects such as navigation, theory and principles of flight, meteorology, duties of an officer, air force administration, algebra and trigonometry. Tests included an interview with a psychiatrist, the four-hour-long M2 physical examination, a session in a decompression chamber, a test flight in a link trainer, and academics.

After he completed his initial flight training he was subsequently sent to St. Catharines, Ontario for his Elementary Flight Training (EFTS). Here he was given 50 hours of basic flying instruction on a simple trainer like the De Havilland Tiger Moth or Fairchild Cornell and flew his first solo flight. The Tiger Moth was first introduced to Canada when the RCAF was used on the 1927 Hudson Strait Expedition, and the following year de Havilland opened a Canadian subsidiary in Mount Dennis, on the outskirts of Toronto. Civilian flying clubs all members of the Royal Canadian Flying Association and under contract to the Royal Canadian Air Force operated the elementary training school with civilians as instructors of this learn-to-fly program.

After Grandpa Gordon completed his EFTS training he went to No. 6 Squadron Flying Training School in Dunnville, Ontario. Dunnville training field was an intermediate step in a Commonwealth pilot’s training program. It opened on November 25th, 1940. Like most military airfields of this era, it was located in a remote area, though still close to rail lines and highways. The 400 acre site was three kilometers south of Dunnville near the Grand River feeding into Lake Erie. Within twenty four minutes of flying time there were at least 10 other RCAF airfields. The site also crossed the air route from Buffalo, New York to Detroit, Michigan which was used by American Airlines and Bell Aircraft, and the Fleet Aircraft factory near Fort Erie, Ontario. The airfield used the standard Canadian equilateral triangle layout with double runways. The base had five hangars, three double runways, parade grounds, 50 H-huts or barracks, officer quarters, a drill hall, cook houses and mess hall, recreation hall, canteen, fire hall, chapel, infirmary, quarter-master stores and other sundry buildings. It was one of the earliest training fields and its hangars were constructed of steel columns and roof trusses covered by rough wooden planking and shingles.

This stage lasted 16 weeks and was subdivided into three sections. The first eight weeks he was part of the intermediate training squadron which was spent in Dunnville. It was followed by a six-week advanced training program. Since Grandpa Gordon followed the fighter pilot stream, he went to an SFTS at No. 32 Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and trained on a North American Harvard. At both elementary and advanced level, classroom based lessons continued in various subjects.  Simulation or link trainer instruction was also undertaken. Primary  training took place the PT-17, PT-19, PT-22 and PT-23. Basic training utilized  the BT-9, BT-13, BT-14 and the BT-15. While advanced training took place using the AT-6, AT-9 and the AT-10 aircraft. Since he was primarily  a fighter pilot, he did not train on the AT-11 which was reserved to train bombardiers and navigators. And the last two weeks he spent at a bombing and gunnery school in Jarvis, Ontario. This training entailed flying a multitude of planes. Final tests and examinations completed advanced training. If successful the pupil received his flying brevet or Pilot’s Wings.

The time taken to qualify as a pilot could vary. At the start of the war it could be as little as six months (150 flying hours). On average it took between 18 months to two years (200-320 flying hours).

Of course, obtaining Pilot’s Wings did not mark the end of training. Qualified pilots were sent to Operational Training Units to make them ready for front-line duties.  During a pilot’s operational career attendance on specialist training courses also kept him up to date with new technical developments and changes in operational procedure.

Even though Grandpa Gordon completed his training without any serious mishaps, there were some bumps in the road. He was on his second flight on one snowy day and was practicing landings and as he made his approach he became confused by the snow covered field and misjudged his elevation. This caused him to stall out at 50 feet. The Tiger Moth nosed into the ground and flipped over. Fortunately for him he was just shaken up a little. Not one to take this failure lightly, he requested another trainer and immediately took to the air again. This time he was prepared for the perspective change created by the snowing field and successfully completed the landing maneuver. Now that we have covered Grandpa Gordon’s pilot training, I think it would be of interest to describe what his actual life was like from bootcamp to his training days. Living quarters throughout the training process were fairly standard. Each unit housed a little over a 100 servicemen and comprised two long frame huts 24 foot by 100 foot. They were joined by a center section called the “ablution hut” for toilets and showers to make an H plan form.

Recruits or inductees as Grandpa Gordon was termed arrived at the induction center via bus and was immediately hustled into a line. To join the overseas forces, one had to be placed in medical “Category ‘A’ or “Fit for general service”. This was defined as “Men perfectly fit, mentally and physically, for all active service conditions of actual warfare in any climate, who are able to march, can see to shoot, and hear well.” Those placed in Category “B” men could be accepted for units employed on the lines of communication, or in any unit for “sedentary work” or if they were “skilled tradesmen employed at their trades.” The minimum height was five feet four inches and slightly taller for the artillery. Chest measurement was to be at least 34 inches. Since Grandpa Gordon had lived a healthy and active lifestyle and stood 5 foot 10 inches tall and weighed in at a solid 175 pounds and had worked on the farm all of his life, he had no problem meeting these initial criteria.

As I discuss some of his physical attributes it has come to my attention that I have been most remiss in that I have not described our hero to any great extent. So here goes. As I have already stated he stands at 5″ 10″ tall and weighs 175 lbs. He has dark brown hair, green eyes and has an oval face shaped face with thin lips. He is lean and muscular from many hard years of farm work. All in all, he wold be considered by most standards to be quite handsome. He cut quite a dashing figure in his flight suit. He is hardworking, dedicated and loyal to a fault. Besides, that he his fun loving and can carry on conversation with either sex quite comfortably

Over the first few days his hair was cut very short, he was issued several duffel bags worth of equipment, and was sent through seemingly endless medical examinations. Finally when he was able to retire to his barracks. It was the center of his life. He had almost no personal space. He had a bunk, foot locker and a small area where he could place a few photos. This regimen was not done out if malice but firstly to save space it was secondly done as part of his training.

By crowding the recruits into close quarters with his fellows, the air force forced the men to form tight bonds essential to the effectiveness of a unit.

A typical day of training consisted of the following; your days start at 5 am. and ends at 10 pm. Each training day consisted of physical training, Marching, classes and soon a variety of military subjects. You spent your evenings maintaining personal equipment and living quarters followed by preparation for the next day’s activities. Before the call for lights out was made by the drill Sergeant, there was some time for relaxation. Grandpa Gordon was able to stretch out on his bunk and write a letter home or to play a game of cards.

The mess hall was possibly even more important to the recruit than his barracks. Many of them had experienced poverty during the Great Depression, so getting three hot meals a day was probably a luxury they had not experienced in some time. Grandpa Gordon was lucky in this case because he was raised on a flourishing farm where there was no shortage of nutritious food.

Finally the training and hard work came to an end. All the wings and badges were earned and pinned on, he was commissioned in the later part of November, 1941. It was now time to do some fighting.