Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum
Canada 150 Vignette – 124 of 150
British Commonwealth Air Training Plan
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The First Steps for a RCAF Wireless Air Gunner

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TURNING A PAGE - Part 2 of 2

Excerpted from The Long and the Short and the Tall by Robert Collins, published in the Legion Magazine, December 1986.

  
In the first installment of ``Turning a Page,’’ Robert Collins recounted his early experiences with enlistment in the Royal Canadian Air Force and training in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. His story continues with an emphasize on the thoughts of him, as a young, naive farm boy, and his family facing the prospects a son might encounter in the war.
 
September 11, 1943 – No. 2 Manning Depot, Brandon Manitoba – A kaleidoscope of thoughts and memories whirled through my mind. Why was I here? That was easy. Partly because, a generation before, a short, feisty, Belfastborn, English-raised patriot named John Douglas Collins - my father - had left his newly acquired Saskatchewan homestead the moment WW I was declared, joined Lord Strathcona's Horse, gone overseas with the first Canadian contingent, and the following spring marched into the front lines of France, sans horse, like the rest of his regiment.
 
That autumn he was carried out, sick and bloated: from the late-spring Battle of Festubert; from a summer of ice and mud and relentless shell-fire; from poison gas and the inhuman trenches. After a long convalescence in  England they sent him home, with orders to work outdoors if he wanted to stay alive. He went back to farming his 320 acres. He was a literate man with a profound distrust of things mechanical.
 
He'd have been ill-suited for farming even with good health. Now a friend met him at the train, looked at his face, aged and wrinkled before its time, and wept. "My God, Jack," he said. "What have they done to you!"
 
My father's war never really ended. Physical ills and bad memories plagued him. He rarely talked about it, and never with the affection and nostalgia of many veterans. But once, when my brother and I were small, we coaxed him to show us how a cavalryman rode. He was in his 50s, cursed with lumbago, but he vaulted on our bemused saddle-horse and, sitting straight as an arrow, cantered her around the farmyard to our total delight, and his.
 
Sometimes he would snap us a salute and we'd snap one back, everyone laughing. And once, shortly before he died in the Vancouver veterans hospital in 1957, of age and the residual damage of the war, he confusedly barked out military commands from 42 years before. That day, no one laughed.
 
Despite what the war did to him, his patriotism never wavered. He believed  
Welcome to No. 2 Manning Depot, Brandon, Manitoba, 1943.
A graduating class outside against the brick walls of No. 2 Manning Depot.
​ithe Royal Family and the Empire as fervently as he despised Mackenzie King, the Liberal party and socialism. When WW Il broke out, he wanted to enlist, which would have been laughable had be not been deadly earnest. He was far too old and frail to serve even in the Veterans Guard.
 
He, and we, listened to the radio war news several times a day. We sat hushed and reverent when Winston Churchill's fighting speeches crackled through from London. Once Churchill visited Ottawa, spoke to Parliament, and derisively told how the boastful Hitler had threatened to wring England's neck like a chicken's. "Some chicken!" Churchill's voice rang over the airwaves, and in our living room we joined in the gales of laughter  from the MPs and senators. And then, with his impeccable timing, " ... Some neck!" I would gladly have risen up and marched to battle beside Churchill that day.
 
I clipped maps from the Regina Leader Post, charting every rise and fall of Allied fortunes. My father never urged me to enlist; I think he dreaded it. But I owed it to him. I knew that if I joined up he would be burstingly proud. And he was. It was not just my father's influence and example. My family and most of our neighbors were caught up in the drama and adventure of WW II. We were certain that it was a just war. Hitler had forced it so we were going to beat him. There was urgency and camaraderie in the air. You gave blood to help a wounded soldier. You dropped coins into milk bottles on grocery store counters to buy "Milk for Britain." We salvaged everything. Old pots and pans, toothpaste tubes, and the tin foil from cigarette packages, for their aluminum; leftover fat , for the glycerine in high explosives. My school friend Mac Smart and I canvassed local farms for rusting and abandoned machinery, lugged backbreaking tons of it into a truck, and sold it to make guns or God knew what, loyally donating the money - about 6,000 cigarettes' worth - to the cigarette fund, an endless tide of nicotine for our fighting men. Food, gasoline, beer and hard liquor were rationed. This didn't matter much: We grew most of our food, rarely drove our 1929 Chev, and never let booze pass our lips, mother abhorring it and father abstaining because of his health. But rationing made us feel closer to the war afar.
 
The radio, newspaper and magazines brought that distant war to Shamrock. I saw photos of overalled women in munitions factories, their curls tied up in head scarves, never dreaming that I was witnessing women's liberation. Advertisements showed little girls with fingers to lips, cautioning: Please! A War Worker Is Sleeping. The radio played Milkman, Keep Those Bottles Quiet and When the Lights Go On Again and we
sang along, although I'd never seen a milkman or a blackout.
 
All around us young men and women were trickling into the forces. Big, husky Roland Hook, from a couple of miles south, joined the army and the fighting in Europe. Handsome, swarthy Earl Brown joined the air force and lost his life on a mission not so long after our school played softball against his. My cousin Dora enlisted in the RCAF Women's Division. My high school friends, the inseparable Henry twins, separated to join the navy and the army.
 
With my father's health failing, I could have opted to be an essential farm worker, exempt from military service, as many friends did. But I would have been a terrible farmer. I was a bookish, skinny, unathletic scarecrow, not much good at anything except school. I loved the land but I wanted to be a writer.
 
This didn't make me a Grade A candidate for soldiering. Nor was I brave, but bravery or lack of it was almost incidental. Given the mood, it took more courage to stay home. One neighbor - a kind, polite, hard-working fellow several years older than I who kept a watchful eye over me in my first year at grade school - went to jail rather than abandon his religious principles about war. I knew he was not a coward, but others didn't. It caused a flurry of oohs and ahs over the party line. The war was duty but also high romance, and the RCAF was the newest, most glamorous of the services.
 
Everything exciting seemed to be happening in the air. My father's nightmare in the trenches had soured me on the army. The navy seemed a bad bet because I couldn't swim. But the air force! Harvard and Anson and Tiger Moth trainers from airbases at Mossbank and Moose Jaw sometimes flew over our fields. I craned my neck at them, awed and wistful.
 
Most important, my special pal Roy Bien was already a wireless air gunner. To me, it was the ultimate in glamor: He manned the guns in battle and at other times operated that fascinating instrument, the wireless radio. He was  three years older but we had often walked home together from grade school. I worshipped him – the way he danced, played the guitar and yodelled, got the girls. When he came home on leave with the WAG's white half wing on his blue chest, I was consumed with envy. It had to be the air force.
 
All of this was impossible to put into coherent words. Not yet 18 when I finished Grade 12 - the end of high school in Saskatchewan - I mumbled to  my parents: "Guess I'll be joining up soon." My father nodded. "I guess we knew you would." My mother, looking fixedly at her sewing, said quietly:  "What would you do, son?" "Something like what Roy's doing." None of us said much more at the time. My mother's face was taut and troubled. It was  not that we expected me to die in battle. It was simply that our little foursome was breaking up. We had done everything as a family. Even in the depths of the Depression, there had been a comforting sameness and unity to our lives. Now nothing would ever be the same again.
 
That summer my father had a chance for local work, managing Shrunnck Lumber yard. The wheat and oats that summer of 1942 were the best we'd seen in years. He took the job and I promised to stay on long enough to help harvest the crop. An early autumn snow caught the stooks I had made before we could thresh them. Through the fall and winter I ran the farm and all its livestock reasonably well, with my mother's and brother's help. In the spring we belatedly threshed, then arranged to rent the place to neighbor Tommy Hawkins.
 
Then it was definitely time to go to war. Roy Bien had just gone overseas. Armed with air force recruiting literature, I hitched a ride to Moose Jaw, 60 miles from home, with Tim Adams, the gentle, cultured Englishman who ran our village post office. Mister Adams, as we boys were taught to address him, knew everything about the world, or so I thought. For my first night in a hotel he recommended the respectable Harwood. Its advertisement tantalized with " 110 rooms, 35 with bath, every guest room with own private toilet; soft water" for $1.50 single.
 
The next morning I presented myself to the RCAF in the Hammond Building on Main Street. They languidly filled out forms and instructed me to report to No. 5 Recruiting Centre in Regina two weeks later. Those two trips set a new record for personal travel: Until then I'd been on a train and in a city only once.
 
The Regina recruiters were equally unmoved by my presence. By 1943 the air force had plenty of applicants, and I was no bargain. My medical exam proved me basically sound, although more like a famine victim than the handsome hunks in the recruiting posters: 5 ft. 11, 125 lb. with a 31-in. chest and sparrow's ankles. Then they handed me the color-vision test-pages of bewildering colored dots that revealed certain numerals to the medically fit. I saw no numbers, or the wrong ones. I was blue-green color-blind! "Definitely unsafe," said the medical officer, for aircrew or ground duty involving colored wiring or lights.
 
I was stunned, flabbergasted, desperate. I could not be like Roy Bien. I could not even learn radio, which was part of my dream. The air force was yanking everything out from under me. I'd had no inkling of faulty color vision. I could tell red from green from blue! But because they said I couldn't, the only options were cook or airframe mechanic. A cook? I could  never face Roy again.
 
Yet it had to be the air force. Airframe mechanic was OK; it meant tinkering with all parts of a plane except the engine. As a farm tinkerer I reckoned I could cope with that. They gave me a mechanical aptitude test. I scored 30 out of 100. A corporal gazed at my score in disbelief. "Sure you don't wanna be a cook, kid?" he said.
 
But Fit. Lt. W.C. Cumming was more charitable when he saw my high school marks. My wonderful Grade 12 teacher, Richard Schmalenberg, had coached and  inspired me to a strong finish: a 78.4-percent average including, predictably, As in literature and composition and, unpredictably, more As in the subjects I hated trigonometry, chemistry and geometry. Cumming also liked my classification test score. The CT, which assessed "basic intellectual suitability," covered 80 points of mental ability, ranging through perceptual alertness, numerical sense, ability to follow directions, verbal sense and reasoning ability. ln the 30-minute time limit I scored 71 out of 80, about 20 more than the average graduate.
 
"An above-average rural lad-intelligent, co-operative,'' Cumming wrote on my form . " While MAT (mechanical aptitude) score is low, CT is high and has a good academic record. Believe he is well worth a try." So I was accepted. Still smarting, I begged a different color test for a week later. At home during the interim, my peaceable mother turned into a tiger. How dare the air force say her boy was defective! But back in Regina the  results, retested with pin-point colored lights, were the same. "Go home and finish the harvest; you'll be needed there,'' the recruiters said. "Report to Brandon manning pool in the fall."
 
Being an intelligent, co-operative rural lad, I did. I stooked more grain,  pitched more sheaves and wondered, with mingled glee and fear, what was ahead. Then, one crisp September morning, I left my mother in tears beside the big flat stone that was the back doorstep of our farmhouse. She who had stayed cheerful through a life of hard times. She of that strong, stoic, God-fearing, Pennsylvania Dutch stock named Hartzell. She who'd grown up on a hard-scrabble North Dakota farm, won a scholarship to university but never had a chance to use it, begun teaching at 18 to help support her mother, and met Jack Collins, the love of her life, during a class-room stint in Saskatchewan. All through the awful years of the Depression, all through dust and grasshoppers and no crops and no money, I'd seen her cry only once before.
 
I left my father at Shamrock's depot, a carbon copy of all the little dull-red clapboard CPR depots across Canada. He was an articulate man, and never ashamed to show emotion, but this moment was too painful for both of us. We gripped hands, hard. He squeezed my shoulder once. We murmured words. The train jerked away. I looked back, with an ache in my throat. He stood rigid on the wooden platform, his shoulders a little slumped, his normally cheerful face set grim and valiant.
 
In Regina the next day - by chance, it was my 19th birthday - ! stood with a handful of others before the Red Ensign and intoned: ''I, Robert John Collins, do sincerely promise and swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to His Majesty." Now I was R2*****, Collins, R.J. The next morning I boarded the 8:55 CPR main-line train for Manitoba, clutching two military meal tickets entitling me to breakfast and lunch. When I laid out a ticket after my first meal in a dining car the steward sighed noisily and raised his eyes heavenward: Oh Lord, why have you sent your humble servant this miserable wretch? ''You shoulda given me that before you ordered," he scolded. This traveller was just another dumb recruit, he realized the chances of a tip were nil.
 
Then getting off at Brandon, a whole province away, clinging to my father’s
worn black club bag, I gravitated uncertainly to a sign at the end of the platform - AIRFORCE RECRUITS ASSEMBLE HERE. A corporal scooped me up with five other lost souls. "A wright, you men, follow me.’’ Bored with his menial task and not bothering to try marching the likes of us, he led us in a straggle to Pacific Avenue about half-mile straight up Tenth Street. Passers-by scarcely gave us a glance; this little city was teeming with airmen. In minutes we crossed Victoria Avenue to the ornate front of the arena and winter fair building - two stories and a great arched roof with long deep windows, my first of many homes away from home.
 
As we timidly past the armed sentries into the enormous maw, a few airmen chanted "You'll be sorr-eee!" We smiled weakly sensing correctly that it was a mandatory warning for all newcomers. It was a clear I'd hear often in the years ahead but it seemed especially apt this night.
 
Later, nearing sleep. I have one brief memory of humanity amidst the chaos. As we readied ourselves for bed, we newcomers fumbling through the unfamiliar routine - Which way to the john? Does anybody brush his teeth? Where do you hang your clothes? Does anybody wear pyjamas? - a young man with a long, lean face and prominent nose dropped to his knees before lights out, folded his hands, bowed his head and silently prayed. My heart went out to him. I had not been taught to pray beside my bed but I would never have had the guts to do this before this crowd of noisy profane strangers. There were a few sidelong glances, grinning winks, a surreptitious whisper or two, but no one baited him. His courage of conviction that first night was a good thought to go to sleep on.