WW II memories from P.E.I.'s Bygone Days
'The fighters were right down about 50 feet off the ground, you could just look the pilot right in the eye'
Reginald "Dutch" Thompson's column The Bygone Days brings you the voices of Island seniors, many of whom are now long-departed. These tales of the way things used to be offer a fascinating glimpse into the past. Every second weekend CBC P.E.I. will bring you one of Dutch's columns.
Second World War veteran Lloyd Gates is 93 now and still lives in Charlottetown, where he was born. He's the first to say he lived a pretty typical life on P.E.I. until the war broke out.
Gates sat down with historian Dutch Thompson more than a decade ago to share memories of his youth and that tumultuous time in world history.
He was born in 1924 in the old P.E.I. Infirmary — now an apartment building across from the Eastlink Centre in Charlottetown.
His father Fred ran a flour and grist mill, Mayflower Mill, which for 100 years was a landmark on the Lower Malpeque Road in West Royalty. Lloyd and his brothers fished for eels and trout in the mill pond.
Although they lived just three miles from downtown Charlottetown, he only got into town two or three times a year. Electricity in Charlottetown homes only went as far as North River Road, and West Royalty was prime farmland, not suburbs.
'Flew by the seat of their pants'
P.E.I.'s first airport was at nearby Upton Field, where the West Royalty Business Park is now. Lloyd and his brother Bob were enthralled with it — when they were kids, they would take fresh buttermilk up to the pilots, and made model airplanes.
"Oh yes we were up there practically every day, watch them flying when even the birds weren't flying!" said Gates.
"The east-west runway was right by the mill. And it went from the Lower Malpeque Road up to the Upton Road."
The daring pilots became role models to the boys, who one day gave them a ride in a plane — something they kept from their parents, who would have been upset Gates said.
"There was none of this radar or anything else, they just flew by the seat of their pants ... that was an exciting old time," he recalled.
The airport hosted exciting air pageants with visiting aircraft from the U.S. and Canada including an autogyro, the earliest form of helicopter.
Canadian Airways was the airline that was landing at Upton Field. Gates also watched legendary P.E.I. pilot Carl Burke learn to fly there. Burke started up Maritime Central Airways, which evolved into Eastern Provincial Airways, a key part of what became Air Canada.
When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Gates was just 15 but he was desperate to join the R.C.A.F. First he had to finish Grade 10 at the old West Royalty school. At 16 he tried to join the Air Force but they turned him away — so he worked in the family mill until he was 18 and could finally join up. His older brother Bob also joined the air force, becoming a radar technician.
He trained as a radio/telephone operator but almost didn't make it out of training school in Scoudouc, N.B., because of his bad teeth. He said the base dentist worked overtime to fill 13 teeth and pull two, and when he was done he told Gates "Get outta here! I've never seen anyone as determined as you to get overseas!"
'The thing I remember most was the noise'
On Nov. 5, 1943, Gates was posted to England, and left Halifax in December aboard the Mauretania with about 10,000 troops.
"In daytime they zigzagged all over the ocean, to dodge U-boats. And at night they just went full steam — 21 or 22 knots, wide open, just a straight line."
He recalls being sent on a commando training course, learning how to throw a hand grenade ("you don't throw them like a baseball"), driving big British Thornycroft trucks, shoot a Vickers machine gun and Sten guns.
In 1944, immediately after D-Day, he found himself under German fire in Normandy, France.
"We landed at the beach at Graye-sur-Mer. We were a mobile airfield, we could move on maybe an hour's notice. Just throw in your tent and jump in behind it in the truck and away you go. And they put the whole air squadron right on the one LST, landing ship tank, the one the big double doors open up.
"The thing I remember most was the noise, with all the ships firing. Battleships, cruisers, destroyers, you name it. Everything that had a gun on it," Gates said. "[British General Bernard] Montgomery had his headquarters at Creully, in France, and we were just east of that."
He recalled they created a landing strip from a wheat field, and the planes created dust storms as they took off.
The pay was $1.35 a day, but Gates wasn't concerned about that — he said it took all his concentration just to do his job and stay alive.
He was flying Typhoon fighter bombers with the 439 Squadron. Typhoons were a fast fighter plane also equipped with two big bombs for attacking German supply lines and troop trains. The planes flew low, dangerous sorties and helped the Allies sweep from the Normandy beaches across France, into Holland and finally into Germany where the war ended.
Looking the enemy 'right in the eye'
Gates told Thompson he lost friends every week, and some weeks every day.
The worst was the day the Luftwaffe surprise-attacked his squadron in Holland — New Year's Day 1945, what became known as Operation Bodenplatte.
"The Germans planned a secret operation to wipe out all the air fields in France, Belgium and Holland. I was stationed at Eindhoven in Holland and we had 12 squadrons there, Typhoons and Spitfires, roughly 150 planes," Gates said.
"We were hit with 73 German fighter planes strafing continually for 23 minutes. It was a beautiful sunny morning — within 15 minutes you could hardly see the sky. All these planes exploded and caught fire." Gates said their planes had just been freshly loaded with 500-pound bombs under each wing.
"Your brain is kind of useless right about then — you're in shock. These things, the fighters were right down about 50 feet off the ground, you could just look the pilot right in the eye, four 20-millimetre cannons blazing at you. It's a strange feeling, those things whistling by your ears."
In the end the operation destroyed 99 planes from Gates' base and 450 Allied aircraft in total. A 1,000-pound bomb blew Gates 25 feet through the air into a field, he recalled — he was lucky he wasn't killed.
After that, 439 Squadron was decimated, so Gates began flying a Spitfire with 416 Squadron.
'No bands welcoming me'
The war really hit Gates hard when he got a letter from his mother informing him his brother Bob had died in a plane crash in Italy.
Coming home after the war wasn't easy for Gates, knowing his big brother didn't make it.
His war didn't end in 1945 — he remained on occupation duty until March 1946.
"I came back on the [ship] Ile de France with the war brides. Got home there was no bands welcoming me, nothing! Cause this was '46, everybody was home then," he said.
He tried to make a reservation to fly back to P.E.I. from Halifax, but an April storm grounded flights. So with $700 in his pocket, he decided to stay at the swankiest hotel in town, The Nova Scotia Hotel.
"I remember walking there with my kit bag and walked into the front desk and he said 'Can I help you?' and I said 'I'm looking for a room.' And I looked pretty scruffy after five or six days on the boat. So he said 'We don't have any room.' I said 'This is a great big hotel, 200 rooms, you've gotta have a room!' He said we don't have room."
Shortly after that, an officer came by looking for a room and was given one immediately.
"I was some mad!" Gates recalled. A service police officer directed him to a boarding house across the street, where he stayed instead.
'You don't forget'
After the war Gates worked all over Canada as an engraver and also 12 years in the reserves in Halifax, training cadets. He married his wife Mary and now lives in Charlottetown.
Gates does not consider himself a hero — just an Island boy doing his duty.
"It was quite an experience, one I'm glad I went through and survived but I'd never want to do it again. And you don't forget it."