Jim Pettus -- a Yank in the RCAF

A Yank in the RCAF: JIM PETTUSOct 29, '07 11:58 PM
by groome1919 for everyone

(This article appeared in the newsletter of the CAHS Regina chapter in 1994.)

"It's been a long time, all right."

The speaker was Jim Pettus and it's certainly been a long time since he was in Saskatchewan; 51 years in fact, since he was a pilot at two BCATP bombing & gunnery schools in the province, at Mossbank and Dafoe.

 This summer, Pettus, now a resident of Hawaii, returned for visit, during which he shared lunch and conversation with several Regina CAHS members. Pettus came to the province in October 1940 as a staff pilot with 2 B & G School at Mossbank.

Jim hailed from the St. Louis, Mo., area, where he obtained a commercial pilot's licence from the noted Ryan flying school. When the Second World War began, the RAF and RCAF industriously recruited pilots in the U.S. He was a graduate of a good flying school; it was his impression that "half the people faked their logbooks".

 So intense was the need for pilots that if a man emerged from his RCAF interview in Ottawa "with a long face, there was a man standing there, from the RAF, who said 'Come right this way!'"

 He also figured that the RCAF got the cream of the pilot crop, perhaps because it paid officers $7 a day, compared with the RAF's $1.70; that discrepancy didn't get altered until later in 1940. And despite the publicity given to the RAF's all-American Eagle Squadron, "most of the people they got were very second- rate and they washed a lot of them out".

 The first station at which he served, Mossbank, had a rather rough-and-ready flavor. Late 1940 saw wartime Britain at its lowest ebb; the BCATP was accelerated by a whole year and students flowed into a half-completed school. Mossbank was notable for its autumn mud. "When it froze, everything was fine," Pettus recalled. "When it came the next spring, you couldn't believe it! But they went ahead and got the place operating, after a fashion. Dafoe, it was a little more settled by the time we got in there."

 At the somewhat more settled 5 B&G at Dafoe, the CO was the well-known (in these parts) Roger "Cap" Delhaye, First World War fighter ace, former Regina airport manager and prewar CO of 120 Squadron, the RCAF's auxiliary unit in Regina. Pettus remembers Delhaye as speaking with a French accent and being notably fastidious (no easy feat at a dusty B&G school in rural Saskatchewan just coming out of the 1930s.) For his cleanliness, Delhaye acquired the nickname of "Zee Big Broom".

 Among the expatriate Brits at Dafoe was the chief flying instructor, a veteran RAF wing commander named Humphries or Humphreys; his thoughts, it seemed to Pettus, were with his far-off countrymen: "Here they are, backs to a wall, and where am I? In Saskatchewan, dropping 22 lb. practice bombs.' There was nothing wrong with his career, but there were several people who were quite bitter."

 When Pettus one day took Humphreys up to "fly the range", the CFI, who consulted with his maps, repeatedly accused him of being lost; each time Pettus was able to point out part of the range. The map, it seems, did not agree with what was on the ground. On landing, Humphreys "turned around and said, 'Someday, we'll have some chap come in and say he's got a bullet up his arse -- and we'll have to refer him to Ottawa."

 He was right. Sleuthing revealed that the map used to prepare the range was based on one prepared in 1913, when the Dafoe district was far less settled. Indeed, "we did put a bomb through some guy's window every once in a while," Pettus said. "But as far as I know, they never did any real damage."

 Delhaye's personal aircraft was a Harvard, which was, ahem, a challenge even to this experienced airman. "We may have been a wonderful pilot in a Camel or whatever, but he sure wasn't much of a pilot when he got to this airplane. The airplane was flying about 30 mph faster than he was thinking!"

 Besides Delhaye, another notable was Al Cheeseman, who was by 1941 Mossbank's maintenance officer after a long and adventurous career as a bush pilot and mechanic that saw him work with Sir Hubert Wilkinson in the Antarctic and Bernt Balchen in Greenland.

 Cheeseman, Pettus recalls, was only one of a number of very experienced Canadian pilots who found themselves assigned to training units while the war raged overseas. The Dafoe station's fleet included a Norseman (for communications work, such as flying to an aircraft depot at Saskatoon for replacement aircraft, and several dozen war-weary Fairey Battles, shipped to Canada from wartime Britain. One flight was used for tugging aerial targets, one for carrying trainee gunners and another for bombing practice. A photocopy of a 1942 station magazine that he shared showed some Battles to be in the black/yellow stripes typical of RAF/RCAF target tugs; another showed one in what looks like RAF dark green/dark earth camouflage, with a mid-fuselage white band and light-colored panels on the upper wings. (Pettus, who flew mostly in the bombing flight, recalls these being white, although other sources say these were yellow).

 About half of the students were Canadian; the rest were from other dominions. Virtually none were from the RAF.

 Of the Battle, in which he logged 400 or 500 hours, Pettus said, "It was good airplane to fly; it was a terrible airplane to fight in."

 The engines (Merlin Is) were "the main problem", with the minor ones including the electrical system. When the landing gear indicator once failed to give the requisite green light, he once hand-cranked down the heavy landing gear -- only to find out, after landing safely, that it had been down all the time. Another problem: radios had been removed when the Battles left Britain.

 The typical bombing flight was about 50 minutes; gunnery flight aircraft typically stayed aloft longer. Winter saw the Battles' engine oil drained into barrels and stored in hangars heated by gasoline heaters with some unlucky airman assigned to watch through the night for fire. "They were a good, safe airplane to fly; we had several of them belly in, and they'd go through fences and trees and whatever."

 For bombing practice from the Battles, the student bomb-aimers (as the RAF called them) had to lie down in the belly of the aircraft as it flew a triangular course of 30-second during which the wind drift could, theoretically, be calculated. A pilot could chastise a cocky students by cranking shut the ventilating louvres, raising the temperature in the students' compartment and thereby melting his grease pencil!

 In April 1942, Pettus began the second part of his aviation career. An agreement between Canada and the U.S, by now in the war, allowed Americans to be discharged from the RCAF in as little as 48 hours. Pettus even recalls hearing of a special train that carried American recruiters across Canada to interview expatriates. Promoted to flight lieutenant at Dafoe, ("I don't know how; I was also bitching about something!") he eschewed an offer to fly twin-engine Bolingbrokes at Hagersville, Ont., and entered the USAAF, receiving a captain's rank. He flew the AT-6 gunnery trainer and the B-17C, passing through (among other places) training units at Maxwell Field, Alabama, and Panama City, Florida before assigning himself to combat duty. ("Somebody said, 'you can't do that!' I said, 'Yeah, but by the time they figure it out....and I was right!'")

 He eventually took command of a B-24 squadron at what's now Fairchild AFB near Spokane. His RCAF experience came in handy. "We did incorporate a lot of the (RCAF) training ideas...how you could tighten procedures up and get more people through. Dafoe and the system (there) were very, very good. I never realized it, but I learned the differences in the philosophies, which is really the word...I had never been in the (American) military...but when I came back to the American army, it was so much different and in a lot of ways, the RAF and RCAF procedures were much better. I was later able to incorporate a lot of this."

 "The disciplinary thing was so much better in the Canadian services. I think it was inherited largely from the RAF in that there was a much more of a respect between the ranks. Discipline was perhaps stricter in the "royal services" but the relationships were closer. One of the dumb things that the Americans did was saluting everywhere ...every time you're going down the street."

 The USAAF also had the strange habit of letting wives and children into what was a "sacred place" in the RCAF: the officer's mess! "I learned an awful lot about the handling of men and the relationships, which served me in very good shape. The way to success is being in the right place at the right time; the way to success in the military, in war, is not being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

  Pettus's AAF unit was part of the 43rd Bombardment Group, which, in his opinion, had been somewhat badly used by the powers that be. It was formed prior to the American entry into the war at Langley Field, near Washington, but soon found itself, with early B-17s and B-18s, dispatched to Maine to fly anti-sub patrols. After it was dispatched to Australia as part of the Fifth Air Force, many of its personnel were sent, in small numbers, to other units as replacements. When finally pulled together, it came to have four squadrons, three with B-24Js day bombers, and a fourth with "night snoopers": B-24s configured for night bombing (with a special low-altitude bombing radar) and working as "ferrets" or electronic reconnaissance aircraft.

 A note for model-builders: Pettus reports that the "ferrets" were a dull black overall; B-24 day bombers were weathered olive drab/grey until about mid-1944, at which time natural metal aircraft began to arrive. Also, an overhaul depot in Hawaii removed the B-24s' belly turret. This gave modified aircraft another four miles an hours in speed, "and I never heard of a belly turret shooting down anything anyway."

 Fighter escorts were available in the shape of RAAF and RNZAF Kittyhawks and AAF P-38s. Other theatre mods saw the tail turrets from some B-24s grafted onto the noses of others in order to give more firepower against head-on attacks. "Psychologically, it was very good to have the nose turret."

 A maddening feature of life was that B-24s were designed for pilots wearing "back- pack" type parachutes; but these were not available. Heaven help the man who had to bail out of a Lib wearing the clumsy seat-type of parachute. Pettus came to stow his behind his seats, hoping he'd enough time to don it in an emergency.

 These underlines the relative weakness of Japanese air opposition by that late stage in the war. That does not mean the Japanese were impotent. Pettus (whose squadron flew overseas via San Francisco, Hawaii and Australia in October 1943) recalls that his group would lose aircraft in ones and twos. On a particularly long raid to Balikpapan, he remembers watching the B-24 of a friend named Tony Miller diving away from the formation, one engine out and the aircraft apparently out of control. Amazingly, the pilot got it back under control and returned safely.

 Japanese flak was lighter than in Europe and lacked the ability to traverse against aircraft flying at Pettus's preferred bombing altitude of about 10,000 feet. Over 20,000 feet, the B-24 was unstable and the small targets characteristic of the South Pacific war were difficult to hit. "When you're that you that low, they could shoot at you a lot further out, but the thing was that the angle was always changing...they couldn't traverse it that flat. They might shoot at you, but then they'd shoot at somebody else."

 The Japanese fighters Pettus saw were of three main types: variants of the famous A6M Zeke, the Ki-61 "Tony" and the "Jake", which "looked a little like a P-47".

 At Balikpapan, he even encountered a single-engined floatplane trying to perform an interception. "They'd go along at the side (of a formation) and do aerobatics, maybe fire off a few rounds, but they'd very rarely attack...(they were) waiting for stragglers. That's where you lost people: stragglers."

 Besides this lack of aggressiveness, those Japanese fighter pilots who made attacks tended to open fire at absurdly long ranges, like 400 yards.

 Pettus's closest call came in a raid on shipping on Hong Kong harbor. So many ships were lying derelict there that he developed a tactic of sending three aircraft ahead to spot viable targets, then radio their locations back to the following strike force. The flak was "not particularly dangerous or accurate" but he once was surprised by four Japanese fighters that dove straight down on them. One passed so close that he could see the pilot's face.

 The B 24 lost two engines and had to limp home; the top gunner lost his leg. All this because the P-38 escort had got lost and gone to Macao. "To add insult to injury, they (the P-38s had lost two other airplanes go into the water, out of gas. The commander got relieved the next day."

 Later based at Clark Field in the newly liberated Philippines, Pettus's group was asked to take two visiting senior RAF officers --he recalls them as being of air vice- marshal rank -- on a raid on Formosa. One made it back fine, but the other was aboard a B 24 whose wing fuel line was cut by shrapnel. Approaching the field, it lost one engine, then two, and then a third. It seems the boost pump was energetically pumping fuel out of the hole faster than the engines could get it.

 The Lib made it to the runway; the pilot managed to get it stopped. As the white-faced crew and AVM counted their collective blessings, the other AVM arrived in a Jeep, took a picture of the haggard men beside a plane with three feathered props and called to his colleague, "I say, Freddy, did you press the wrong button or something?"

 Having built a "beautiful camp" at Clark Field, where the 43rd was assured it would stay, the unit got orders to move to Okinawa.

 Far more memorable was what happened at the end of August 1945 -- the 28th or 29th, Pettus reckons. Japan, struck by two atomic bombs, had sued for peace, but the famous surrender scene aboard the USS Missouri had not yet taken place. As a veteran pilot, Pettus was contacted by a senior officer who asked if he'd like the chance to be aboard one of the C-47s flying into Japan. Having kept himself alive thusfar, he was somewhat less than enthusiastic, but agreed, and soon found himself leaving Okinawa for Atsugi airfield near Tokyo. His pilot was a man named John Lackey; aboard was a full colonel from Douglas MacArthur's staff, several other colonels, two interpreters and a photographer.

 The Japanese had a long list of requirements to fulfil: propellers had to be removed from aircraft on Atsugi, then placed, with machine guns, below the wings. "I don't think any of them could have been serviceable. The Japanese were getting really down in terms of things like brakes."

 From the cockpits of the dozen or so C-47s, Atsugi appeared to have one very narrow runway. A delegation's car could be seen waiting for them, but the pilot could see a tiny taxiway at the opposite end. Wanting to get his aircraft off the runway so the others could land, he landed downwind. When the puzzled Japanese drove over to the Americans, one man said, quizzically, "Japanese airplane land INTO wind!" Only then did the Americans realize that the entire field had been paved over with a kind of paving stones; the water was only a few inches deep. "You could taxi and land anywhere on this big field, but we didn't know that."

 But now, the Americans had found their stride. As USN aircraft patrolled the area, and three examples of the new B-32 Dominator circled the area to provide a radio link to Manila and Washington, one of the C-47s disgorged a Jeep- mounted control tower. It brought in a stream of C-46s, one trio of which contained a complete radio station; antenna in one plane, generator in another and transmitter in the third. Yet another contained a forklift and others fuel in drums.

 Then a gaggle of C-54 Skymasters began landing, taxiing in a intervals of about 90 seconds.

 It was an amazing feat of logistic that had the Japanese delegates stunned. "They just couldn't believe this. They'd look at all this and say 'that's why we got defeated'."

 A USN Avenger landed and deposited, Cmdr. Harold Stassen, former governor of Minnesota and now a member of MacArthur's staff, who put on her officer's cap and asked, "Where are the photographer?"

 From somewhere, a Russian officer wandered. When a C-46s slipped off the runway, a crowd of Japanese workmen descended on it with ropes, boards and an antique tractor, cheering "like mad" when it was hauled to safety.

 Amid all of this, AAF enlisted men, ordered not to leave their planes under any circumstances, befriending the Japanese workmen assigned to help unload the transports. Within what seemed like minutes, the GIs had produced cameras and were taking pictures of -- and with -- the grinning Japanese. Pettus, who went on to a postwar career in journalism and the U.S. foreign service, remembers turning to another American and saying, "Well, that's it; the war is over. They're getting their pictures taken."