Military Ops




U.S. Confidential Report

(USAAF Life At The Newfoundland Airport-1942)

by Frank Tibbo

The United States military forces established a significant presence in Gander approximately six months prior to the infamous Japanese raid on Pearl Harbour. In May 1941, President Roosevelt directed his Secretary of War "to take full responsibility for delivering planes to be flown to England to the ultimate point of take-off." He added, "I am anxious to cut through all the formalities that are not legally prohibitive and help the British get this job done with dispatch." Gander's role in accomplishing this mission began that same month when the United States established the Newfoundland Army Air Base commanded by J.V. Crabb of the 21st Reconnaissance Squadron.

Newfoundlanders and Canadians had been fighting in this war for the two previous years, and in 1941 Newfoundland had ceded the Canadian’s control of the great Newfoundland Airport for the remainder of the war.

It is interesting to read some of the confidential reports, many being of a polemic nature that emanated during that period. One example was written by Lt. John C.A. Watkins of the USAAF (United States Army Air Force) who had returned to the United States after serving at the Newfoundland air Base.

After reading the report, the officials decided the following: "The substance of this article is such a nature as to indicate the desirability of an inspection with a view to corrective action provided the allegations are verified by inspection."



"At the present time the Army Air Forces have one base in Newfoundland, although another is under construction at Stephenville. The functioning installation is the Newfoundland Air Base, at the great Newfoundland Airport at Gander Lake, about 250 miles from St. John's, capital and largest city of Newfoundland. The Newfoundland Airport is the take-off point for the British and American aircraft bound for England, and the first landing spot on North American soil for aircraft westbound across the Atlantic. It has been widely publicized, not only for its isolation and inaccessibility by every means of transportation but air, but also for its astonishingly big modern runways, which are almost as wide as the average runway is long.

The 21st Reconnaissance Squadron, with a strength of slightly less than 60 officers and 500 enlisted men, shares the Newfoundland Airport with several squadrons of the Royal Canadian Air Force, a regiment of Canadian infantry and the civilian personnel of ATFERO (Atlantic Ferry Operation), the organization which, – until recently – was responsible for ferrying Lockheed Hudsons and other military aircraft to England. Both the 21st and the RCAF units are equipped with the B-18 airplane, which the Canadians call the "Digby.” The infantry regiment is equipped with the usual infantry weapons, plus Bren guns and carriers and .50 calibre U.S. antiaircraft machine guns, obtained through the lend-lease agreement, and is entrusted with the ground defence of the airport.

The atmosphere of the entire base is very grim, apart from the natural grimness of the country itself. One side of the runways, where the Canadian troops are based, very definitely is at war. Pill boxes, armed with machine guns manned day and night by steel-helmeted soldiers in battle dress, command every runway. The runways themselves are barricaded by barbed wire entanglements, obviously to prevent airborne troops from leaving the landing strips and taking the base.

Sandbagged pits, each containing a .50 calibre antiaircraft machine gun, are clustered at several points on the base itself and, although I did not see them, reportedly others are scattered out in the bush beyond the confines of the airport proper. Sentries with rifles to which bayonets are fixed guard all the buildings on the Canadian side of the field, and other armed men are spaced at regular intervals along the hangar line where the Digbys are parked.

Despite the warlike atmosphere, life at the base proceeds more or less tranquilly. With bombs in their racks, the RCAF pilots carry out regular patrols from the airport, and the 21st also does some patrol work. Most of the flying activity at the field is carried out by the ferry services, however, Lockheed Hudsons taking off almost every night for Britain, and both U.S.A.A.F. and British Ferry Command B-24s passing through regularly in both directions. The civilian ferry pilots remain pretty much to themselves, living in a barracks called "Eastbound Inn" and having their own hangar and administration building.

Many famous people stop in at the Newfoundland Air Base and sometimes stay several days, waiting for the weather to clear up either over the Atlantic or between the base and Montreal. Most of these people are accommodated in rooms set aside for visiting officers in the U.S. Officers' barracks, and eat in the U.S. officer's mess. They pay the same as visiting officers: 25 cents per meal and 50 cents per night for sleeping accommodations.

All the buildings, from barracks to hangars, are provided by the Canadian government and are erected under that government's supervision, consequently these structures are of Canadian rather than U.S. army construction and design. They do not differ from our own to a great extent, however, although the 21st mess sergeant says he does not care much for the arrangement for the kitchen. The barracks are well built and more attractive on the outside than U.S. barracks. Most of them are of one story design and shingled outside walls and they are, of course, much more carefully protected against the weather than buildings in warmer climates. The barracks for enlisted men are about the same as any standard sleeping quarters for troops so are those for officers, with the general rule being that two officers share one small room. These rooms have hardwood floors and bare walls. There are no closets and the only storage space provided are shelves on either side of the door. With the exception of the occasional straight back chair and table, the only furniture in the officers' quarters is that which they have made themselves out of old packing cases. The general effect is one of very crude conditions but the officers are required to pay their full rental allowance (unless they are married) for their living quarters. Thus two second-lieutenants pay a total of $80.00 per month for a room about 10 by 14 feet.

Construction is going full blast as the Canadian government is attempting to get the entire base finished before cold weather forces a cessation of activities. Hangars and living quarters for several thousand army air force officers and men are being erected by about 3,000 native Newfoundlanders. These men are allowed to work as long hours as they desire and many, wishing to make enough money to last them through the next few winters are working almost around the clock. Trucks rumble all night long and a lone Newfoundlander may be seen digging away in a ditch all by himself at four or five o'clock in the morning. The labourers are fed and housed in barracks erected for that purpose. Incidentally, most of them are illiterate, compulsory education never having been introduced in Newfoundland. A very large percentage are also tubercular, apparently because of their restricted diet and the cold, damp climate.

It is almost impossible to draw a picture of the complete isolation of the Newfoundland airbase. The entire country is covered by thousands of ponds and lakes, interspersed with miles of thick, tangled and virtually impenetrable mass of underbrush and scrub spruce and birch. Almost all of the island is a morass, and everywhere sunlight glints on water beneath the thick green mat of vegetation as your airplane flies overhead. It appears that it would be virtually impossible to walk anywhere, except along the coast or in the rocky highlands. In the event of a forced landing, it is difficult to imagine how the crew of an airplane could get out alive unless they set their ship down in a lake large enough for an amphibian to land on and take-off again, or happen to come down along a large river which they could follow to the coast.

Practically the entire population is concentrated along the coast and there are few communities of more than two or three houses in the interior. A Royal Air Force officer and I rode in the bombardier's position in the nose of a B-18 clear across the island during my stay in Newfoundland, with the agreement that the first to sight a house, a man or a boat would be paid one dollar by the other. We flew from the Newfoundland air base to the southwest coast of Newfoundland (nearly two hours) at only a few thousand feet in perfect weather without either of us even imagining that he had seen a house, a man or a boat below. Such impassable desolation must be seen to be appreciated.

The Newfoundland air base is set down right in the middle of such country. The nearest town is Grand Falls, about 65 miles away and with a population of about 6,000. The only way to get to Grand Falls is by narrow-gage railroad. The train going to the town one day and coming back the next is a three and one-half hour trip or by amphibian. There are no roads of any sort, except in the airport area itself. All the trucks and other motor vehicles had to be brought in by train and will have to be taken out again in the same manner. A five minute walk in any direction brings the walker up against a wall of vegetation and swampy ground. There are two roads leading down to Gander Lake, about a mile and a half away, and several other roads that wander out into the bush a mile or so and then come to an abrupt halt.

The climate is bad, it rains and blows a lot in the summer and the snowfall in the winter is heavy. An average of 15 feet of snow during the winter is said to be not uncommon, with five or six feet of snow on the ground all the time, and drifts ranging from 15 to 20 feet deep. The winter season is roughly from Nov. 1 to May 1, although frequently there is snow both before and after these dates. The weather is so bad during the winter that the officers now on duty there predict that pilots will have difficulty getting in their flying time. The temperatures range from as low as 30 degrees below zero (F) to as high as 85 degrees above. In the summer some nights are stuffy and muggy, but during most of, what we call, the summer months it is distinctly chilly and damp, if not downright cold. Fogs are frequent, caused by meeting of the Arctic current and the Gulf Stream. During the first half of August, when I was there, the weather was cold and generally rainy – cold enough for woollen shirts and leather jackets during the day, blouses and trench coats at night. Incidentally, there is a maximum of 19 hours of daylight daily during the height of the summer (mid- or late-June) and a maximum six hours of daylight in late December and January. While we were there (in August) there were about 17 hours of daylight.

Officers assigned to the Newfoundland air base should take with them plenty of winter clothing. Wearing of cotton clothing is not authorized. The winter uniform is specified, trench coats are a necessity because of the heavy rainfall, so are overshoes and mackinaws. Leather or flying jackets are the prescribed uniform until supper call on weekdays and noon on Mondays, after which time all officers must wear blouses. Most of the officers wear GI slacks, which they purchase from the quartermaster, having their most fragile pants for special occasions. Similarly, they usually wear GI shoes, since there are no sidewalks to speak of and the soil (a curious combination of roots, rocks, shale and earth) wreaks havoc with "civie" footgear. Civilian clothing shouldn't be taken along - it only takes up valuable space in the room and is not authorized for use on the base anyway.

Laundry facilities are extremely poor and limited, so enough underwear, shirts and the like should be taken along to last two or three weeks without replacement. The nearest modern laundry facilities are in Grand Falls and the prices are about three times what they are in the States. Theoretically the laundry goes to Grand Falls one week and comes back the next; actually its takes about three weeks. Since it costs 30 cents to get a GI shirt washed, most of the enlisted men and some of the officers do their own. Most of the officers wash their own underwear, handkerchiefs and socks, and the shower rooms in the officers' quarters are usually cluttered at night with clothes lines filled with dripping garments. Dry cleaning is equally expensive and very unsatisfactory. An enlisted man has set up a dry cleaning and tailoring establishment in the PX building, charging 15 cents to clean shirts and 25 cents for blouses, but his services strictly are on the amateurish side and not recommended for expensive clothing.

Although the base has been manned since May, practically nothing seems to have been done to provide either enlisted men or officers with indoor recreational facilities or outdoor facilities either. The army motion picture service puts on a movie in a tent theatre every night and the choice of feature pictures usually is good, but there are more customers – including Canadian officers and enlisted men and some civilian supervisors on the construction projects – than there is space for them. The news reels are pretty bad, because of their age. The show one night during the middle of August featured news reels of July 4 celebrations in the States and England, causing considerable ribald comments from the news-hungry audiences.

A library of 150 volumes, which simply is not big enough for such a garrison, has been provided. While it is too small, it includes an unusually fine selection of books, obviously chosen by someone of very good taste.

Other than the above the only recreational facilities to the 500 odd enlisted men are one dart board and five or six ping pong tables in the recreational building, which is furnished with two or three mess tables and straight back chairs. Beer is available to the men during certain hours for 15 cents. The PX which is run by a very capable and interested young officer, sells and encourages the product of canned orange juice, tomato and grapefruit juice, chocolate bars and other such food and drink which become luxuries when they are made available outside civilization. Standard American cigarettes sell for 75 cents a carton at the PX. Since they cost about 38 cents a pack at the Humber* (a civilian store on the Canadian Side of the Base), it has become necessary to institute a form of rationing at the PX, (although there has been no shortage of cigarettes), to prevent the men from buying them at 75 cents a carton and selling them to the Canadians and Newfoundlanders at $2.50 or $3.00 or more.

At the present time the Officers' Club consists of a single room, same size as the two-man bedroom in one of the bachelor officers' quarters. This room is fitted with an old radio phonograph, one table and some straight back chairs and a dart board, and is the entire recreational facility for 57 officers and whatever visitors may be on the field waiting for the weather to clear on the North Atlantic route. An officers' Club and Mess, for 300 officers, is being built and should be ready for occupancy during September, but it is not likely to be furnished for several months, unless the Army Transport Services shows more interest in getting such equipment to Newfoundland than it has in the past. The new building will have the mess in one wing and the club in the other, with a lounge, reading and writing room, bar and recreation room. Incidentally, bonded U.S. and Scotch liquor brought in from the States, on special order, is available to the commissioned personnel at very low prices. Mount Vernon, for instance, costs $1.10 a bottle, and the best Scotch sells for about $1.25 a fifth.

The furnishing of the club is going to be a problem entirely apart from getting the furniture up from the states. Since it is understood that the organizations will be assigned to the base for no more than three months at a time. (The 21st was preparing to move out when I left.) The officers feel that whichever group is there when the bills come in should not be required to pay for furnishing the club. Furthermore, they point out that the establishment is going to be used by the people travelling to and from England by air, a considerable number of whom are now being accommodated by the 21st, and for this reason feel that some portion of the cost should be borne from public funds.

Fishing in the vicinity of the Base is excellent, salmon are plentiful at Gander River, which is a little difficult to reach and there is fine trout fishing within 15 or 20 minutes by amphibian. Hunting for caribou, moose, black bear, geese and, on the Northern Peninsula, polar bears, is said to be very good. In the summer months the problem of getting around would make hunting difficult but with snow on the ground it should be good sport. The game laws, incidentally, are very strict. It is suggested that huntsmen officers bring with them a rifle in the .3030 or .303 class for the bigger game and a .20 gauge shotgun, which may also be used for skeet.

There is no swimming because the water is too cold in Gander Lake, which is about 30 miles long and which has been sounded to a depth of 6,000 ft. (sic) without striking bottom. Curiously, there seems to be no fish in the lake. Skiing and snowshoe hiking should be good in the winter although the snow is said to be a little too damp for the best skiing. About 400 pairs of snow shoes were taken along as part of the Quartermaster's stores. They are for sale there as are regular issue Arctic type Alaskan boots, heavy fur-lined coats and other Arctic equipment. Other outdoor sports eventually will include baseball and possibly volleyball. There will be no golf and conditions don't seem particularly good for tennis.

Radio reception is fairly poor. If any radio set is taken along by an officer assigned to the base, it should be a first class short wave instrument. Portable phonographs are useful.
One of the major drawbacks to duty in Newfoundland Airbase is the lack of feminine companionship. There are only about eight women on the entire airport, they being wives of Canadian officials or nurses in the excellent Canadian Army (sic) hospital, facilities of which are available to the U.S. forces.

The officers frequently spend weekends at Grand Falls, a clean little town owned by a pulp company, where there is a good little hotel. There are several hundred women in the village, all or most are employed in the pulp mill and most of them of a fairly high type. An average week-end in Grand Falls might cost about $20, which would make it out of the question for an enlisted man.

To maintain morale, leaves and furloughs are granted as liberally as possible. One of the Squadron's B-18 flies to the States, either to Mitchell or to Bolling, or both, about once a week and as many officers and enlisted men as can be accommodated are taken along.

Every week-end an officer takes 25 enlisted men to St. John's where they spend approximately a week on detached service at Camp Alexander. Their duties at the camp are very light and most of the time they are free to do what they please in the town. There is dancing, swimming pool, and a most popular soda fountain in the town. There are also literally hundreds of women anxious to associate with the American soldiers. Fortunately the venereal disease is extremely low, according to an Army doctor to whom I talked, lower than the average at many other U.S. posts.

The morale of the officers seems fairly low, partly because of the uncertainty concerning the length of their tour of duty. Also attributable to a very great extent, to the absolute lack of anything to do outside working hours. The only means of passing the time during idle hours is to read, play cards or drink. Consequently, there is too much drinking (when liquor is available) and gambling for high stakes. At least a few of the younger officers, I was told, have gotten themselves heavily in debt as a result of gambling. The morale of the enlisted seems to be fairly good, although they have even less to amuse themselves with after working hours than do the officers.

The food is excellent. The mess officer is young and interested in his work, and serves meals that are well balanced and well cooked and nicely served. He is having difficulty in getting good cuts of meat from the quartermaster in St. John's, however, since that officer is apparently keeping the best cuts there and sending the poorly (mostly front quarters) up to the Newfoundland Air Base. There is no question about this. Fresh vegetables are sent up on Newfoundland railroad which has a few refrigerator cars and must arrive in good shape.

Incidentally, when the squadron first arrived both enlisted men and officers ate in Canadian messes. The enlisted men nearly starved since the Canadians are given far less food than our men. One night, I was told, our men were served two small Vienna sausages, about the size of a man's index finger and about two inches long. That was their supper – no potatoes, vegetables or anything else. For breakfast they had their choice of one egg or two strips of bacon not both – and nothing else.

Now the Canadian enlisted men eat in the U.S. enlisted mess and the value of their rations (about half that of the American soldier) is turned over to our mess officer. The result is that the Canadian enlisted man is getting more food than their ration would ordinarily allow and the American troops are getting less because part of their ration is being expanded to feed the Canadians. The relations between the American and Canadian forces are very bad. There have been fights between enlisted personnel and officers of the two forces usually do not even acknowledge each other’s existence when they pass on the street. Most of the American officers will not attend official Canadian functions unless ordered to do so. Recently the RCAF gave a big Vaudeville show and invited the U.S. officers and enlisted men to attend. Three American officers were present including the Squadron Commander who, of course, had to go. The situation seems to be the result of a series of incidents which would be trivial under normal conditions and which are magnified out of proportion in the restricted, narrow life of an extremely isolated establishment.

1) Once incident occurred shortly after the 21st Squadron arrived. The Squadron officers gave a beer party for the RCAF officers. The latter, came, got very drunk, broke up a lot of furniture and threw glass-bulb fire-extinguishers around, as soon as the beer was drunk. To date they have neither apologized for the damage done, thanked the Squadron for its hospitality nor given a party in return.
2) When the Squadron first arrived the RCAF had no flag pole and flew no flag although they had been on the base for some time. Canadians were reluctant for the American flag to be flown on the base, but the Squadron finally made two flag poles and gave one to the RCAF. It was then agreed that there would be simultaneously flag-raising at a given time, which was announced in printed orders. Both air forces would send officer-representatives to the other's ceremonies. The RCAF held its ceremony 30 minutes ahead of the appointed time. This caused considerable bitterness on the part of the American officers.

3) On another occasion a U.S. truck driver failed to come to a complete stop when crossing the end of a runway. Group Captain K.M. Guthrie, the RCAF Base Commander, wrote a letter to Major Crabb, 21st Squadron Commander, telling him that if a similar incident occurred again he, Capt. Guthrie, would take disciplinary measures against the offender. The U.S. officers did not feel that a Canadian officer had any authority to discipline an American soldier.

Further friction results from our officers' ill-concealed contempt for RCAF operations and maintenance methods. For instance, although it has been pointed out to the Canadians that although there is a technical order on parking B-18s with brakes on, the RCAF regularly uses the brakes for parking and does not employ chalks for this purpose. For another, the RCAF regularly park a line of B-18s with loaded bomb racks in front of the hangars where one Focke Wulf could attack with machine guns and blow up the line and half the hangars.

One incident described to me was amazing. The Canadian Base has some of their long range patrol bombers (of the PB-Y "Catalina" type) of the fleet air arm on Gander Lake. Recently, I was told, a navy pilot reported a submarine about 150 miles off St. John's. The RCAF failed to send out a Digby to look for the sub. When asked why, they replied the report came from "an unreliable source." A British freighter was sunk by a submarine within 12 hours in the immediate vicinity of the reported sub.

This story may have been exaggerated. It was told to me by two of the U.S. officers at the base, and I am passing it on for what it is worth. True or false, it represents the contempt our officers hold for their Canadian colleagues.

Capt. Chester P. Hanson, squadron chaplain (a very able officer who had 21 chaplains under him at Camp Devens before being sent to Newfoundland to handle what someone realized would be a serious morale problem) feels that part of the blame for the ill feeling between the two groups lies with Guthrie. He says that Guthrie is a heavy drinker and under the influence most of the time, and that he is a very domineering man. Capt. Hanson said that a British officer told him that Guthrie had engendered ill feeling at every station to which he had been assigned.

Captain Hanson, incidentally, was sent to keep morale up, but is not being supported in the United States. For instance he established a little daily digest of news, taken from the radio, called "The Gander Daily News" and mimeographed on a single sheet. Its popularity in a place where a week-old newspaper is brand new cannot be imagined but, he is going to have to suspend publication because he can't get the necessary ten reams of paper every two weeks. He also needs an educated soldier - clerk, with knowledge of typing or with a journalist background, and he needs a piano player badly. There are two pianos but no one who can play for church services, for community singing or for other entertainment."

(Department of Defence, 1940-1945)

It is evident that some part of the report, albeit written by an American officer, contains some minor inaccuracies and probably a certain amount of hyperbole. It does, however, give a reasonably accurate description of Gander and the living conditions during 1942.

* Goodyear Humber Stores Ltd

submitted by F. Tibbo


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