John Hunter can tell you many stories about his time of service in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, but there are some too painful to share.
The 92-year-old resident of the Lambtonian apartment in Petrolia is one of two men featured in the Hall of Honour in the building.
Hunter volunteered for the air force in 1942, joining up in his native Scotland before he was conscripted. If he was going to serve he reasoned, he wanted to be a pilot.
Hunter’s training took him away from home, and his girlfriend, to Canada for a year. He hopscotched across the country for the different levels of training before heading to Montreal for his assignment, flying US built planes over the Atlantic. “We didn’t realize it but we were going up to D-Day and all these planes had to go to Britain,” Hunter recalled at his home recently.
“The twin-engine planes couldn’t carry enough fuel to go across the Atlantic,” he says “so we had to refuel in Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland and then on to Scotland.” The trip would take about 15 hours. And Hunter flew “two or three” of the planes back to Britain before he joined the military in India in 1944.
The Japanese were invading the country over the mountains in Burma. Hunter and several other squadrons were flying supplies into the mountains for the allies.
Hunter says they dropped the troops “everything they needed” including donkeys. “I told some school kids that once and they’re eyes got wide. ‘They had parachutes’ I said. Then it was okay,” he says laughing.
But he admits that wasn’t easy, saying his crew used cattle prods to get the notoriously stubborn animals out of the plane.
While the mules landed safely, Hunter recalls there were mishaps, especially dealing with lighter items. He once dropped a bag of peanuts on the tail of his commander’s plane. “He was not very happy with me,” he chuckled.
Hunter regularly worked with four men and they developed a system in the noisy aircraft to make sure the goods got as close to the appointed drop as possible. A bell would ring when the items were to be pushed out and would stop when they were out of range. “It worked well.”
Hunter’s Canadian training paid off over and over again, including one time when he had “to bounce the plane” to avoid a herd of cattle on a runway in India – a trick he learned to jump a fence from an instructor in Canada
Even with the rigorous training, Hunter and his crew did face problems. “There was two things you had to fight (in a supply plane), the air action was very little – the Japanese didn’t have fighter planes but we did run into them occasionally. The monsoons were a bigger enemy than any enemy aircraft,” he recalls.
And there were unforeseen dangers – like the time he landed a plane on a make shift runway which was a little too short. He knew it would be difficult getting out of the jungle and offered to leave his crew behind. They all stayed and he managed to lift the plane out of the teak trees. “I had tree-tops hitting the undercarriage of my plane. That was scary.”
At times, Hunter faced the enemy as supply planes were besieged on the runway. Hunter remembers one incident when his empty plane was able to out maneuver the enemy while others in his squadron were too heavy to get out of the way of gunfire. “We lost a lot of men that day,” he says as tears formed. “You’re sitting there in the mess at night and the next night and they’re not there. That’s difficult.”
He doesn’t dwell on those stories and doesn’t speak of others that may be more difficult. “There are some things you just don’t talk about.”
The memories of his final days in uniform are also tinged with sadness. He was on the coast of India, running a sea and air rescue unit of about 200 men after the war was over. While the work was not as dangerous and the crew was in a warm setting, everyone wanted to go home. “Rot sets in and you want nothing more to go home,” says Hunter. “You ask ‘why am I here?’ The majority of the group are really upset because they want to go. My job was to keep them busy.”
Hunter says some took up odd hobbies just to pass the time, including one man who decorated his tent with lights “like it was Christmas.”
“One guy built a shower with a float from a plane,” he says. “Anything at all to keep them busy.”
But the distractions didn’t help everyone as some men “went jungly was the term we used” losing all sense of reality and their mental stability. “That was tough.”
After over 600 hours of flight time, Hunter returned home to Scotland and his wife. After a year of trying to make a life there, they decided to seek out new opportunities in Canada. They ended up in Sarnia “because that’s where the train ended” he jokes. Hunter had a long career in Sarnia’s plants and still loves the area.
On Remembrance Day, Hunter will join the community at the cenotaph and remember those he knew that never came home.
And he’ll also take a moment to remember all the people “back home” who worried constantly about their loved ones but rarely got word about how they were doing.
“We lose sight of the fact there were people at home who waited and got into war work. With the poor communication all you got was the occasional letter,” he says. It was really hard.”