TAPE 512A and B:
Flight Lieutenant ROBERT W. USTICK narrates his war story concerning RAF 159 Squadron, at his Springfield, Ohio home, 2nd of September 1990. Matt Poole interviews.
[Matt's comments in brackets]
Bob: This is the 2nd of September 1990, and I have the great pleasure of having Matt Poole with me, who is doing research on 159 Squadron, and having been on it [Bob, not Matt], he found my name somehow and very kindly came to Springfield from Wheaton, Maryland, of all places, to talk and chat and bring more stuff than I knew even existed on 159. Very briefly about myself, I was born and raised in the United States and in 1940 went to Canada to enlist in the RCAF after having graduated from the university, etc. And I did my training, and from there I was transferred to England and transferred to the RAF and spent the next several years training and flying with a couple of squadrons: one No. 36 in India [shipping and anti-sub patrols] and later with 159 in the places that Matt is really interested in. [Bob also flew as a gunner on two Bomber Command combat operations aboard Wellington bombers over Europe prior to departing for India.]
Matt: First thing I want to know, where is Digri [where 159 was located during most of its India history]? And Salbani [1943 base, primarily]?
Bob: There were basically Digri, Salbani, and a place called Dhubalia, and 159 was on all three. They were very close together. They were basically north of Calcutta and possibly a bit west or east. But we do know that they were on the main line of the Bengal - Nagpur railroad because we had a siding into the station, being a heavy bomber station. And we required things like engines and tires and one thing and another. [Bob and Matt look at map to try to locate these bases, since found by Matt. Digri and Salbani were within approximately 13 miles of one another. Each was adjacent to the north-south rail line coming up from Kharagpur, which itself was an important rail junction 65 to 70 miles west-southwest of Calcutta. To get to Digri or Salbani from Calcutta involved a change of trains in Kharagpur, and then a journey due north for some miles. Salbani was roughly 20 miles from Kharagpur, and Digri another 12 or 13 miles north. Dhubalia was to the north of Calcutta, not close to Salbani and Digri.]
Bob: In the Liberators, at least on the RAF squadrons -- and they did differ in many ways from the American squadrons -- but the only crew members who wore parachutes -- seat packs -- were the pilot & copilot. All the rest of us had chest packs and clipped them on. And you wore a harness and everything when we were flying and kept your parachute bag. My wife just brought up my old parachute bag from the last days on the squadron, because I was a flight lieutenant then. The story I started to natter about was each month we took our parachutes in to the section and pulled them. Checked and repacked and all that, and when I was leaving the squadron, having flown a few days before, and having flown with that damn thing for over a month beside me, we pulled the ring and nothing happened! And I'll always remember that as kind of a cheap thrill. We're looking at a map of Burma, as it extends into India, and my mind's running back either to targets that I was on or the squadron operated on. Here [unclear], Akyab, Mergui, Prome. Prome and Toungoo.
We had a real bashing coming over these mountains here. We didn't know that there were any Jap emplacements, and we would come up from bombing Rangoon to Prome and turn west, come out of Toungoo, then go across in a northwesterly line to our station, which wasn't far from Calcutta. [Toungoo is east of Prome, on the other side of a mountain range. Bob's recollections of going from Rangoon to Prome to Toungoo and then northwest is somewhat in error.] And we would just plunk along, thought we had it made, and a Japanese anti-aircraft shell exploded. Well, it couldn't have been more than 200 meters from our aircraft. When we got back and told them that at the intelligence debriefing, they were surprised -- as were we. Prome...there were dumps there. Ammo dumps, and supply dumps.
Matt: That was at the end of a rail line.
Bob: And up the Irrawaddy River, and we'd follow on up the Irrawaddy to Mandalay, and there was a fort there, and I can't think of the name of it [Fort Dufferin]. It was a great landmark when we went in, you could see that fort. It had been a British fort...had been, but of course the Japs had it then. And here's Shwebo above it. Here's Mogaung. I think I gave you the picture of a bombing raid one night in March of '44. That's up there.
Matt: Nine days after George went down. [George Plank, his mother's first husband, killed over Rangoon on 29 February 1944.]
Bob: Nine days, that's right. We mentioned Imphal, and one of the British tragedies was "The Flap in Imphal." The Japanese had progressed up Burma and the British were taking a hell of a lot of casualties there, the British army. They managed to get a lot of the fellows to Imphal, and quite by accident my crew and I were in Dum Dum airport the day that the evacuation of the wounded from Imphal to Calcutta, to Dum Dum, was taking place. And the other side of the runway, the other side of the field, really, was just lined with C-47's or DC-3's unloading all kinds of really tragic stretcher cases. But the Flap at Imphal has been very well documented. [C-47's were the American military version of the civilian DC-3. The British called the C-47 the "Dakota."] We've just spent the last half hour. We took a break, and we're looking at maps of Burma and some of Bengal, and unfortunately -- and I think Matt thinks I wasn't even there -- I can't even find the location of the stations I was on, or George [Plank] was on.
Matt: Tiny little specks in the countryside.
Bob: Utter crossroads. I mean, no stores, no nothing. Just some mud huts and that was it.
Matt: There were probably so many of these tiny villages everywhere you go.
Bob: Everywhere! Our stations were dispersed. They were concerned about mass Japanese raids, which never occurred. And they were very dispersed and could easily be five to ten miles from the sergeants mess or the officers mess to where your aircraft was in a revetment. And within your own station there would be these tiny, tiny little villages which would have what we now call a post office address. No stores, no nothing. A few cottages, and that was it, and it had a name. And in those, incidently, and this is nothing to do with the war, you could buy bhang, b-h-a-n-g.
It took three rupees to make a dollar, and for a rupee you could buy enough bhang, or hashish, marajuana we call it now, to last a month. Or you could get powdered opium for the equivalent of, oh, two dollars, maybe six rupees. Honest to God, I didn't use it. It came in sticks, it looked black. It came in sticks that looked like the kind of wax things that you seal letters with and make an imprint, and they were called opium and bhang shops. And they would be so far out in the boondocks, you drive along, here's a busty hut, sign on, you wanted either one, you stop there.
Matt asked that I talk about squadron life in general.
Matt: And the difficulties that the enlisted men had to put up with, compared to the officers.
Bob: The British had never gotten over the class consciousness. And it was embarrassing to me, really, as an American who wasn't quite used to it. The officers, under any set of circumstances, and this was all by comparison, lived very, very well compared to the NCOs, and then the real tag-end, known as the Other Ranks. We had a fairly decent mess for our bar, where our relaxing area and our dining area was. We had busty huts, quite remarkable for there. Our rooms were about 14 by 14, 15 by 15. Four up to a busty hut. A busty hut was a very poorly laid-down concrete pad, and then bamboo walls up about 3, 4 feet, which was plastered with some sort of cement or that, and then from there up just the woven sections of bamboo, and big thatched roofs. And our ceilings we had bamboo strips laid across horizontally in grids, and on these was placed whitewashed burlap. That's to keep all the bugs, rats, etc. from falling down on you.
Now, when you went to the sergeants area, they had a sergeants mess, nothing like ours. Their huts were very similar except they were beaucoup [spelling?] to a hut, and when you went to the Other Ranks section of the camp, downgrade this a wee bit. The same general construction, except when you were flying or on duty, you had very, very little, almost nothing to do with sergeants, NCOs. Unless you were out at your plane where the crews were working on them -- you know, the aero engine, the whole bit -- you had absolutely nothing to do with them.
Matt: The ground crew?
Bob: The ground crew. Right.
M: They didn't even live near you?
B: Nowhere near, and your only association was with your own aircraft's crew because hopefully you always flew in the same aircraft, and you had familiarity with it, had a great trust in the NCOs, had a great trust in the Other Ranks, but socially absolutely nothing. When we got the last bunch of Liberators in while I was still in the squadron in '44...I have to ask Matt this. They were what? D's or E's?
M: No, they would have been J's. Exclusively built in Fort Worth [Texas].
B: Okay. We got our first Sperry bombsights. We had used 'til that time Norden bombsights. But when we got the Sperrys in, you could put a bomb in a pickle barrel from 10,000 feet, well that was a lot of crap. They were highly technical equipment we had never seen before, and the C.O. assigned a guard on the aircraft 24 hours a day. See, we only operated every third night when there weren't monsoons.
On one of the planes, the skipper was a friend of mine. Something happened. They were smoking according to the court martial, and they burned one of the Liberators up and with it, one of the first Sperry bombsights. The instrument sergeant, or whoever, felt so badly he got sick. Was put in the station hospital, which you wouldn't want to be in unless you were deathly sick. He got better in a week or so and went out and disappeared and there were all kinds of stories about him being sighted around one of many of these little crossroad villages. And they finally found him. He was within 200 yards of the hospital. He had hanged himself. And if you want to see a mess, hang yourself in the tropics and hang there for two weeks.
M: But the smell...
B: It was out a couple hundred yards away, and nobody went out and took walks or anything. As soon as you were off duty, you went back to your charpoy and flopped down or went into the mess and read or sat down and drank. One of the two, mostly drank. Drinking was very hard because of the rations. The only democratic thing that the bars had was in an RAF squadron in India, almost any and all beer that came in went to the Other Ranks.
After that, it was proportioned out to sergeants, who had so much, because neither of those other ranks besides us had liquor in their mess. And we had liquor. All the liquor. Wasn't very good, but we had all the liquor we could drink. And more, maybe. And depending on how much beer came in, it depended upon how much we got, and our ration usually ran three quarts a month. But we had all the Indian gin and brandy. There was a brandy that we had in great quantities, made in India. And the trademark wasn't Seagrims, it wasn't something else. It was called Dreadnought Brandy. And don't you believe it. You should dread that but good. And particularly we had warm water and no ice. But at least the airmen got a break on whatever beer. I want to stop a second and recall something of the great heist that 159 did. And maybe Johnny [Gauntlett, Bob's best friend on the squadron, who was a pilot] told you about the great beer heist on our squadron? This is, in our memories, in nostalgia, just terrific.
I may or may not have mentioned that the station at Digri was on the main line of the Bengal - Nagpur railroad. [Not quite. See description of Digri's location, found on page 1, above. Digri was adjacent to a rail line.] Being a heavy squadron -- I think I did say this, there was a siding. Beer was made up in the mountains, in the highlands. There were no breweries down on the hot plains. Just didn't do right and couldn't bottle it. Calcutta was the head of the 10th Strategic Air Force, and not far from us. And one day on a siding some equipment came in, and somebody opened a car, and in it were 10,000 quart bottles of beer. There were no cans then. Beer was sent in a busty container and in burlap bags.
Whoever opened it immediately went to the C.O., who was Wing Commander Hopkins, and said what do we do about this? This is like all the beer in the world. And Hoppy said don't do anything until we get organized. And what ended up was this. He had a two-day standown, and those of us on the squadron had 10,000 quarts of beer.
M: There's a song there. "10,000 quarts of beer" [Bob and Matt chuckle.].
B: And it was a court martial offense if you broke a bottle! Well, the bottles were then put back in the little busty containers, put back in the burlap bags, sealed, and we sent the car, the railroad car, on to Calcutta. And only by rumor we heard the hell that broke loose at 10th Strategic Command when they opened this, and opened all their empty bottles of beer. And thank God nobody ever knew, or Hoppy, all of us, would have been placed on charge.
M: You drank 10,000 bottles?
B: In two days.
M: I thought you came up with some sort of a transfer system.
B: Oh, no, no. There was nothing like that.
M: Once you opened it, it wouldn't have lasted.
B:Yeah. This is hot beer, and you open it, you really only had about 2/3rds of it, but put the beer in the shade and open it so, so very carefully, and it fizzed out about a third. And you had what was left. But this was one of the great things our squadron ever accomplished, really.
M: And nobody ever let the cat out of the bag?
B: Not a soul! And to this day they may never know.
M: When was this?
B: Oh...late '43, up to mid-'44. Great time! I started to say something about the living conditions and accomodations for officers and NCOs and Other Ranks. We were never hungry. We may not have liked what we had to eat, but always had plenty. Good red meat was in short supply. There was a lot of goat, and fish, of all things, came up from Calcutta. Beef was hard to get and was sacred, but there were many Moslems who didn't consider it sacred. The Hindus wouldn't do it. There was never any lack of things to eat, cooked in the basically unimaginative way of the British, plus wartime conditions. In the officers mess again, and this division always bothered me, we lived so much better than any and had no right to, but when I got to India, the situation of the raj was still in effect. And in the raj's mess, or the white British mess, you had the right to have Indian food cooked by Indian people three times a day. And Johnny Gauntlett and I went at least two years and never tasted a bite of so-called English food.
We really took to the Indian way of cooking, and the spicyness, and just loved it. So John and I didn't have to care what the hell they served the rest of the white guys, because we had our own food. Only one or two other guys did that. So basically we had our own private chefs for two years, breakfast, lunch and dinner. I'm very catholic in my tastes as far as food goes. I like Indian, Indonesian, all Asian foods, Mexican, French, the whole bit.
The best and kindest thing to say about the British until ten years ago maybe, from an American standard, the best word is unimaginative. If you have anything and a great big hellish pot, put water in it, boil it, and throw it in. Meat, vegetables, everything, though they have some delightful, delightful things. The way they did shrimp in butter. Their Christmas cakes my wife still makes. You let them age one, two, three, four years before you ever eat them, with brandy sauce. Oh, they're rich, they're delicious...
[More talk about modern England and food follows].
The one great thing, even during the war, and of course the rationing cut this short, to me, the greatest thing to eat in England was fish and chips. You got so damn hungry for something greasy. If someone could have given you a half a cup of bacon grease, you'd have drunk it. I mean, you really got hungry for that. Back to the living conditions, and again I apologize. The officers, under the raj system, even the lowest ranking officer, which was a pilot officer or a 2nd lieutenant or an ensign in the navy, had to have or share a bearer. He was your personal servant. Or if it's the lower ranks, three of you might have shared a bearer. He did everything for you. Mine was excellent. Johnny Gauntlett's was excellent.
M: Did they want to serve you?
B: That was their lot in life, because the caste system was still full blown then.
M: But who paid for their services?
B: You paid your own bearer. You clothed him and you fed him. And he could live like a king for $30 a month American money. He could live very, very well on $10 a month. But John and I always kept ours in the nicest uniforms and turbans, put RAF bands on them. They did absolutely everything for you. As well as that, four or five of you also had other people. You hired one who did all of your wash. You hired another that pulled all of the fans that were in the top of the rooms. They were called "punka wallahs." ...They're sitting out ther pulling on them. We had a sweeper who kept everything around your paticular busty hut absolutely clean.
M: But they didn't live there?
B: Oh, no, no. They were hundreds of yards away from where you lived. They lived in a hut today in which you wouldn't keep a dog in. I mean really. But that was the way it was, and they were so horribly fortunate to have that kind of a job with the raj, because he took care of them better than probably anyone had before. Because all the British out there and the officers, and the few Americans who were on the squadron, weren't really experienced living like this, or anything like this. And so you were very, very good to them without knowing it. But if you were to compare it, you couldn't today. Compared to our association with people, you'd say, ooh boy. I met some people with good jobs, Americans and Canadians and British, and I had the great idea -- I loved it there -- that I would stay there, get discharged there. That was another thing about the British service. Other Ranks and NCOs got "discharged." Officers got "retired." Another thing. We all had passes for vacation, and again from the raj period, not true when I was there. But from the raj period the passes still existed. Depending on your rank as an officer, depending on how much the government would pay for you, your wife, your children, your children, all your servants, and based on rank how many polo ponies you wanted to take, this was all done for you. You went to the hills, you know, for the hottest seasons, and these passes read this way:
Officers and their ladies
NCOs and their wives
Other Ranks and their women.
And I wish I'd kept some of those.
[Bob's wife Marj is heard, and then Bob talks briefly about his wife being a transplanted Canadian with British parents.]
Matt asked what was the state of stress as far as Indian independence was concerned when I was there. There were smatterings of it, there were no big problems, there were some isolated places where there was more activity than in others. When I was on Balem on 36 Squadron, there was a group of Ghandi's followers who threatened to strike. The word then was passive resistance. And the flight crews had to guard their aircraft at night.
Now that sounds pretty brave and bold and daring. Not groundcrews. And you went out with a pistol and a rifle with a couple of bullets and you walked around. There were also civilian Indian guards hired by the air force that you chatted with all evening, and that was it. There were some little more severe uprisings in places that we only heard of.
M: What about a big city like Calcutta?
B:There was nothing there that we ever knew of. Balem was the town of just a few people. A store, a post office, that's about it. There was no mass movement around Calcutta except at Dum Dum. Some of the seapoys [?], or bearers, servants -- the lower castes -- attempted to blocade the airport out at Dum Dum. This lasted maybe hours or maybe a day or two. The British just sent trucks in with machine guns, and that was the end of that. That was the end of the blockade. I didn't see any of that, but we heard about it. It was just something that we didn't even think about. The seeds had been sewn.
As I said, I met some very influential people there. I thought I'd stay, and they all warned me not to. They knew what was coming. Matt asked about the C.O.'s of the squadron and the higher ranking officers on the squadron. Having grown up in the British class system, what were they like on the squadron?
Well, my experiences are rather limited. When I first joined the squadron, we had a wing commander by the name of Boffee. The typical RAF mustache and he was a real schnook. Nobody liked him. Thank God he got posted, and Wing Commander Hopkins came in, and later Squadron Leader Clegg, and those fellows. And Hoppy was a Welshman and there are no upper class Welshmen that could put it over the British or the English as far as that goes! And so, as far as this class system in our squadron, there was, with the exception of Boffee, none.
We, those of us who were there, have heard about other squadrons but never experienced this. Our squadron was one of several in the same general area, five, six miles apart. I think it was 355 and 356 that were working with the Chindits over in Burma, and we had nothing to do with each other.
M: How far away?
B: The squadrons? Five, six miles [12 or 13, actually]. Oh, you couldn't even drive to their mess.
M: It would have been an eternity for all you cared?
B: Oh, as far as we cared. They were doing something, we were doing something.
M: Did anyone have friends [in the other squadrons] ?
B: No. We had our jobs, we had our friends. And the C.O. of those squadrons theoretically, although he had almost nothing to do with us, was Group Captain Singer. And Singer was some place in the upper brackets of British society, and nobody had anything to do with him. He wasn't welcome in our mess, came in, we'd all get up and leave.
M: Yeah, that's what Johnny [Gauntlett] told me. Pop Simmons used to play cards with him every night.
B: Yeah, and we just wouldn't pay any attention to him. This wasn't true in many squadrons in Great Britain itself, because you were locked in with them. You had to do and associate with them. They didn't like you, and you didn't like them, but we had a war to fight, so stay out of my way, I'll keep out of yours. Matt and I were talking about our squadron, how many visitations from high brass and this and that. And while we were just a hop, skip, and a jump from Calcutta, nobody from air command or 10th Strategic Air Force came out to see us.
We were out doing our job, and they said rather well, and why would they come out to a mess that didn't have all the fine liquors, didn't have the greatest food, and didn't have the greatest accomodations, so they left us alone, and we loved that. And we didn't bother going into Calcutta. We didn't need any of them, either. And although not a completely forgotten squadron, there were many, many advantages living out by ourselves. I may be repeating, but my time on the squadron, we never had one parade. While you had to conform with some type of uniform, we'd wear high suede boots at night to keep the mosquitoes from biting us. Wore suede shoes, desert boots, all kinds of hats.
If you were an Australian, you wore the Australian floppy hat, either full brim down or pinned up on the side. I wore a tea planter's hat all the time. Other guys wore topees, you know the famous British sun helmets, and if you wore one of those you were considered to be, like, square! A pith helmet. Other guys wore Arabian type scarves and bandannas over their heads. It was just a very relaxed group of people.
They were all practical, and as I said, no parades. We'd have died had we had to go on parade. Would have been up all night getting the rules and regulations of the King's air force out just to see how to hold one, and I think Hoppy wouldn't have found any more than we did. The weather situation on the squadron was basically this: We were at the northwest part of the Bay of Bengal and only had one monsoon a year. Other parts had two. And we knew that for about 8 1/2, 9 months a year we could fly any damn time we wanted to, day or night. [Less than this is more accurate.] And we knew for the other 3, 3 1/2 months, we would only do air testing and made no attempts to do operations. Nothing. [This was 1943's monsoon, but more flying in monsoon conditions were done in 1944 and 1945.]
M: When was the monsoon?
B: The monsoons came basically in winter here. And I should have looked up the dates, but I know we were flying in March and April. You don't see any November flights, in our area. When the monsoons came in, it was an absolutely gorgeous display of clouds. It had been hotter than all get out. We had been all eaten up with rash and just dying to get the place cooled off. And these clouds would come up for maybe two or three weeks. Don't hold me to all that. And then it would start to rain, and it rained for about three times a day and night, and you could set your watch by it. Rained about mid-morning, late afternoon, and sometime during the night, and these were accompanied as the monsoons approached by some of the most spectacular electrical storms you'd ever seen in your life.
M: Violence, winds...
B: No more than around here. There were times. We had a couple of aircraft thrown over in the revetment one time, but that was like a hurricane or tornado. And it wasn't at all usual. But on the first or second rain of the monsoon season, everybody got naked and ran out and just stood in it. And you'd get maybe 2, 3, 4 inches of rain, then we knew it was coming again in the afternoon. And after the novelty of it wore off and we got a little bit cooler, we wouldn't do it, but, oh my, that felt great. When the monsoons came -- course, it's different all over India -- it soaked the ground deep. And after, say, the ground had been soaked a foot deep, and it was absolutely seared dry, you'd start to see thousands, or tens of thousands, of little curls of mud at the top.
Looked like this ice cream company that puts your cones with a little thing at the top. And that was the hole of a toad type or frog type animal that had been in hibernation and came up to procreate its race and that, and after the rains dig down in again. So you had toads or frogs by the tens of thousands in the room, in the mess, all over the place, the runways were covered. And then the snakes came in.
There were always snakes around. But not certainly up to the back of your lap. But snakes came in to get those. And then mongooses came in to get the snakes. And all kind of moths hatched out. You could walk into your room at night...We only had a kerosene lamp. And reach out in the air around that lamp and grab, and you'd have 8 or 10 moths in your hand. The way to get them out? Close your windows, the two windows -- front and back --, take your lamp, walk slowly out in front of your busty hut, turn the lamp out, come back in and light it again, and there wasn't a moth in there. So, there were lots of them, but they weren't that smart. And at night you never on the squadron walked any place without a lamp.
When we'd go to the mess for our drinks, our card games. Oh, incidently, they didn't play many cards in the RAF messes I was in, with the exception of bridge. They played bridge and chess. Checkers weren't even very... Almost no gambling, almost no crapshoot. I was a crapshooter. I quit gambling in '42, '43, and I sent $3,000 American money wired to a bank here on the corner in Springfield. I came out of the service with $12,000 in cash. And I said in those early '40s I'll never gamble again, and Marj is here to back it up. Oh, I put 50 cents in a pot on the Kentucky Derby, but I've never gambled again. And Group Captain Singer and Hoppy, that I mentioned, I cleaned them one night. Started about 8 o'clock at night and went til noon the next day. And they all still spoke to me.
Matt asked me to recall, or have some recollections of targets when I was on 159, and really, the biggest thing we had to contend with was the weather, and how long we had to fly. Only on occasion did we have any enemy action directed toward us. Then maybe there'd be a cluster of three searchlights, mostly they didn't find us. There would be very, very inaccurate anti-aircraft fire, if any, and we carried cannisters of 4 pound incendiaries which were lined up in the bomb bay. And all of us liked to do this, one of us would be selected.
After you did your bombing run you'd walk out, bomb doors still open, and you'd kick these cannisters of incendiaries, hopefully across the airfield, across the searchlights or whatever. So only on one or two occasions did we meet with any really stiff opposition. One night over Rangoon we had the outer starboard engine shot out by anti-aircraft fire, and we were also attacked by what intelligence said was the yellow-nosed squadron -- now, this is all hearsay -- that had been brought in from the Pacific for an R & R period back around Rangoon...
(SIDE A OF TAPE 512 FINISHES. BOB USTICK RECOLLECTIONS CONTINUE ON SIDE B OF TAPE 512.)
B: The yellow nosed Japanese squadron was supposed to be made up of pretty good Japanese fighters. We thought they were great.
[Bob is incorrect in his reference to a yellow nosed Japanese squadron.. In Europe there were yellow nosed Messerschmitt 109s that were widely feared. There was nothing of the kind in Burma. The fighter squadron most celebrated in Burma was the 64th Sentai, or squadron, which flew the Nakajima Ki-43 Oscar. Each aircraft of the 64th carried a broadly painted arrow on the tail.]
They'd fly right up the searchlight cones, right up beside their anti-aircraft fire and attack you. [This is definitely true information.]
Fortunately, we got away with our three engines and made it back home -- one stop before we got there. And that really was the only time that any flights I had were under strong, strong either anti-aircraft or searchlights or fighters. This would be in '44. In talking to others since, the fighter resistance increased shortly and sharply after March and April, although George was lost right prior to that, and so was Stanley's crew [29 Feb '44]. But as far as being heroes, we weren't. We just went out and dropped our bombs and came home and hoped we could get across the Bay of Bengal without going down in it and all the sharks and one thing and another.
Certainly, in coming back across Burma there was a Mount Popa, and that is still known, the general area is still known as the home of the king cobra, and none of us wanted to go down in any jungle. And number two, we didn't want to go down in any jungle that had any king cobras around. So we used to be as much worried about that, as anything. As far as my time there, I was very, very fortunate. No hair-raising experiences to speak of. Just went out, did our flights, and came back in. I ended up with 286 hours and 35 minutes operational time, which is not enough to win anyone a DFC [Distinguished Flying Cross] or anything. And the last flight in anger that I made was on the 26th of April 1944 when our skipper, Squadron Leader Clegg, and the rest of us went to Mandalay for 10 hours and 40 minutes. I didn't fly again until the 13th of June of 1944, and after that, as far as the air force was concerned and anything you put in the logbook, I never flew again. So anyone who's listening to this, you have my certification that you're talking to a non-hero. But an old one. Our squadron was a very little one. And we were lucky to have 8, 10, 12 planes out on any given night on any mission. And Matt was asking did we see other planes of our squadron after takeoff. Because quite often we'd take off before dark. You might see them flying away, two minute intervals ahead of you, but over the target it was most unusual to see another one. Unless you were in dire, dire trouble you couldn't break radio silence -- that was a court martial offense. And so we'd take off and fly these trips from 7, 8, up to I think I told you of one, 13 hours, and never have any communication except among ourselves on the aircraft. And of course, that wasn't broadcastable. Didn't talk very much. I hope not too many were asleep. Once in a while the beam gunners or the tail gunner might comment on the pattern of the fires down in the jungle, where they're slash and burn in Burma.
We had one guy, not on our crew, who was the only one I remember in the squadron being invalided out for battle fatigue, and he started reading morse code into those flickering fires, and of course up to 8, 10, 12,000 feet in the atmospherics, a fire on the ground, a small fire, looks as if it's blinking anyway. We had another fellow who should have been invalided out. I don't know if John told you about this or not, Matt. He was getting various visions, and the M.O.'s [medical orderlies] or his crew should have reported him, put him on charge [on disciplinary report], or certainly for medical review. He was reading all these flickering fires into morse code because we were always on the lookout. There were other aircraft over Burma, and there were ones that were shot down. The Americans were operating, and we were hoping, always watching to see if you could see an Aldis lamp or recognizable signs. Most of the time we were looking down at the ground. And this poor bloke, he was the second assistant postmaster in peacetime.
At the extreme northern end of Scotland on some little island or something. There were only two in the post office. We used to kid him, as he was the assistant. He got pretty sick, and one night on a trip he pulled his 50 caliber beam gun in and was going to shoot the rear turret off because either a German or a Jap had infiltrated the crew, so he was going to kill him. Well, we would have lost that aircraft. And the other beam gunner -- we always had our sidearms, .38 Smith & Wessons -- just pulled it out and blew his brains out. And I suppose that guy had some second thoughts, but he certainly didn't act like he did, and I think any of us would have been prepared to do the very same thing. Because, boy, he was messing around with 8 or 9 other lives, and so the starboard beam gunner, on the squadron we were all very, very thankful for his actions. Matt was asking something about air gunnery strategy.
You must remember that while we trained in daytime as well as night, the RAF flew all its missions at night. I say all, 98% of them I suppose. And you didn't see as many, or you weren't attacked --put it that way -- by as many fighters at night as the American and British daylight operations. Because you were harder to find, and this was pre-radar, and any radar they had was not too accurate. So the gunners were given ground and air training. Basically you had know your gun. You had to be able to take the Browning .303 machine gun apart with your eyes closed because you didn't have any lights in the turrets and if anything went wrong with your gun you had to be able to strip it in the dark and put it back together again. So they were trained to do that blindfolded on the ground. You had to know how to clear your guns if jammed because the Browning .303, which flying at night -- we loved 'em -- fired like 18, 19 rounds a second. You had a four-gun turret, so four times that. You'd lay out a pretty good wall of metal.
The guns were all synchronized so that they all fired and met in a place about 200 yards from the gun barrel, so all the guns pointed in, and even up or down a little bit. You were trained, even on a bright night if you could see a fighter coming in way off, you couldn't hit him. Just scatter shots, use up your ammunition, so the ideal spot both for a fighter and a bomber was a range of 2 or 300 yards, when you should both be pretty accurate. In the early days we had a ring and bead sight, and it was just a ring with a bead in the center. Later we had lighted sights for night. Sperry or Bendix, I'm not sure which. Although they did no calculating. So if a gunner had a good eye and good hand-eye coordination and was a good shot, he had to know something else very, very basic. He had to, we all hoped, be an expert in aircraft recognition, day or night, and know the length of the aircraft, the fighters, and the wingspan.
Judge the angle by which they were coming in, you would pick them up and put them on the ring of your sight and the time it took them to fly from there, and we're just talking seconds, parts of seconds, to the bead, knowing the wingspan and the length of the aircraft, you knew approximately how fast he was flying. Now then, the gunner could go to work. Because if you shoot at anything in the air, unless they have their propeller outright in your gun barrel, you have to lead, like shooting a bird today, or a rabbit or anything. You had to lead either above or below. Those are the things a gunner had to know and the things a gunner had to work on and which we would drill just without mercy, on aircraft recognition and dimensions of an aircraft. We said this took place at night, and almost everyone in the RAF who operated on the heavies were very conscious about night vision. And we started out in training in Canada having on every meal on our mess table carrots, beets. They were supposed to improve your night vision. And I despised beets. But Lord I don't have any idea how many hundreds of pounds of beets I've eaten. Just say that everyone watched their diet would be pretty ridiculous. Some fellas washed out because of lack of night vision, color blindness, etc. So hopefully, the gunners who were operating had a reasonable bit of night vision.
There were certain illnesses that caused great trouble. For example, yellow jaundice, and there weren't too many people who got it. Malaria. While there was very little medical help for those at that time, we didn't have the atabrine that the Americans had, they were absolutely destroying for many weeks or months to your night vision. The pictures maybe you've seen of fighter pilots walking around during the daytime with dark glasses on, we didn't do that, because we had some several hours -- up to three, four, five hours -- in the dark before we got to the targets, and since we had so far to fly to get to the targets, there was no possibility of being attacked by enemy aircraft near your base, maybe even four hours away from your base. So medication was one of the things you had to watch, and incidently in our mess in India I don't think I ever saw a carrot or a beat on a table. I'm no expert on fear, although I was frightened many, many times.
It was something we didn't talk about. Really, oh, we talked about bad trips and near accidents and one thing and another, but it was like talking about yesterday's business. It just wasn't something that you discussed. It was something that you did. And this is forever true: it's always going to be the other guy who gets killed. You're never going to be the one. It's always somebody else. You're the lucky one. We had thoughts but they weren't discussed. If I'm shot down, and land safely, or even injured, will I choose to be a Japanese prisoner or will I kill myself? On the few trips that I did over Germany these were discussed not each time you went out to fly, but had been discussed. If you were shot down over there, for heaven's sake get yourself to a member of the armed service and give yourself up. You can imagine a 500, 1,000 bomber raid on your home town, and just all blown to hell, and three and four square mile fires, and you come down in your parachute near the middle of the town or at the outskirts of the town, what are the civilians likely to do to you? And we were told, a decision you have to make if you find yourself in that situation: whether you want to kill yourself, or be killed by them, or take your chances. It was that simple. There were many documented cases in England, particularly on the south coast, where people, civilians, tore the German airmen apart when they were caught coming down after a severe bombing. And so, this was a decision you had to make on your own.
You couldn't get anyone to counsel you, and you didn't particularly want to talk about it with anybody. And you didn't dwell on it, because, frankly, if you let all the things that might happen to you bother you, you'd have been invalided out, you'd have been fit for a rubber room. The RAF had something else that none of us liked to think about. Should it occur for any reason, and there were documented cases of this, of airmen who just said I'm not going to bomb innocent civilians and children. This is all wrong, and particularly later in the war after the Dresden firestorms, the bombing of Essen that I was in on [16 September 1942] 25,000 civilians suffocated or burned to death. Fellows who just said, like conscientious objectors, I cannot do this anymore, on moral grounds. And when you went in and said that, you got a discharge. And behind your discharge were three letters: LMF.
Lack of Moral Fiber. And nobody but nobody wanted that behind a name, or you'd have to have been very, very conscientious to live through the rest of your life with that. A word about my brief friendship with then-Squadron Leader, later Wing Commander Carey, fighter pilot, as I recall, Hurricane pilot. He was in southern Burma and had gained a reputation for just being fearless almost. My recollection of him is that he was about 5 ft 5 or 6 with sandy, curly hair, rather chubby when I met him. He was off the fighter squadrons at the time, and the famous story about him is that he had at least one Japanese fighter on his tail and he went down to ground level and flew up almost right straight into a temple. The Jap, of course, had his eye right on the gunsight, was trying to follow him, and Carey flew around the temple very fast. The Jap didn't have time to adjust and ended his life in the temple. I was sent to this station, and it wasn't on air duties because it isn't in the logbook.
[Amarda Road airfield was this airfield in India. Here Battle of Britain ace -- and then an ace versus the Japanese -- Frank Carey founded the Air Fighting Training Unit --AFTU Amarda Road. At this school fighter and bomber airmen were taught a variety of skills to specificly prepare them for the tactics and conditions of fighting the Japanese in the tropics. Bob attended a Gunnery Leader Course here between 2.2.44 and 7.3.44, and this led to his appointment as 159 Squadron Gunnery Leader.]
And that's where I kind of got to know him. We found out we were both jazz fans. And he was a particular fan of Artie Shaw, and I was trying to con him into the fact that I'd played alto sax in Artie Shaw's band, which is untrue.
Although I'd played saxaphone. And we would have more than a couple of drinks and we'd listen to these Artie Shaw records over and over, and I'm trying to have him hear me in that. And we had a lot of fun over it, and I don't think he believed me to start with. I wouldn't, sure, but we enjoyed each other. Our friendship, or acquaintanceship ended when I got posted back to the station [Digri, 159 Squadron], and I was delighted to know that Matt knew something about him, has his signature, etc., etc. [Bob's logbook is signed by Frank Carey, as well.] One last thing. It's certainly not a professional opinion. A great deal has been said about, in favor of and against, the 24 [B-24 Liberator] as opposed to the 17 [B-17 Flying Fortress], etc. And just from the layman's standpoint, if you fly all your missions in a B-24 and you live to tell it, it is one hell of a nice airplane. We all knew that we didn't want to go down in one if it was going to ditch, because those bomb bay doors washed out, and before they put the chin turrets and various things in the nose, the water came back through there pretty fast, too. So, avoid ditching -- at least that's what aircrew felt. We felt very safe in it, it was armed well, and again, we weren't flying over Europe in the daytime where it took a great, great deal more of an aggressive firepower and action against the enemy. As I said before, we didn't have that much. We were comfortable in them, we liked them, they were our planes, they got us home, and we just thought the B-24s were the greatest things in the world.
THIS CONCLUDES BOB USTICK MEMOIRS DICTATED 2 SEPTEMBER 1990 AT HIS HOME IN SPRINGFIELD, OHIO, USA. THE FINAL PART OF THE INTERVIEW ENDS JUST PAST THE HALFWAY POINT OF SIDE B, TAPE 512 IN MATT POOLE'S COLLECTION OF TAPES.
RETURN TO 159 SQUADRON, TOM FRASER'S STORY