by John Lewis
One of my favourite pastimes during World War II was riding my bicycle out to the Royal Air Force base situated a short distance from our house in Heston, England. As a young member of Britain’s Air Training Corps, I was interested in planes and the crews that flew them. I loved to sit on my bike and watch the planes take off and land; imagining that I was at the controls.
Of course, I wasn’t the only lad who enjoyed doing this, and the best viewing area was a place called The Dump, our nickname for a cinder patch that stretched between Cranford Lane and the airfield’s fence. One end of The Dump was used to store oil barrels that were deployed around the aerodrome and local housing estates. These were filled with pitch that when lit would produce a smokescreen. Unfortunately, the screens never worked because the wind always seemed to blow in the opposite direction.
One afternoon in late February 1945, while dressed in my ATC uniform and cycling towards the airfield, I heard a tremendous crash. After racing on for a few seconds I discovered that a plane had belly landed and plowed through the perimeter fence. The aircraft had come to rest in The Dump–just in front of the oil drums–and its engine was on fire. The pilot, who had managed to open the plane’s canopy, was slumped forward over the controls.
After discarding my bike, I ran to the aircraft and then clambered up onto one of the wings. I yelled for the pilot to get out, but he remained still. He wasn’t wearing a helmet and I noticed his forehead was bright red. The fire had removed his eyebrows and scorched the front of his ginger-coloured hair. I called to him, but all I heard was a moan. Then he opened his eyes.
I managed to drag him out of the burning plane; in his semi-conscious state he had little use of his legs, but he helped by pushing with his elbows. Meanwhile, a steady breeze kept the flames away from us. It occurred to me that the fire must have blown back over him during the crash.
After pulling him to a spot near a hedge, I bent down and put my arms around him. He was trembling and I told him he was OK. It was the only thing I could think of to say. Silently, I hoped that help would arrive quickly. And it did, in the form of a civilian woman who took off her coat and draped it over the pilot. I told her to run and fetch an ambulance, but before she left she asked me to leave her coat in the hedge if the ambulance arrived before she returned.
While she was gone, a number of people arrived at different times, and each time my response was the same: Go fetch an ambulance! All the while I was wondering why the airfield had not sent help. Surely someone had noticed the plane go down or the smoke.
When a policeman arrived I told him what happened and that people had been sent to get an ambulance. I wanted him to examine the pilot who from his shoulder flashes appeared to be a Canadian. But he also wore a New Zealand air force sheepskin half-flying jacket.
Seconds later an ambulance arrived and the pilot was placed on a stretcher and taken away.
I waited at the crash site for quite a while, but no one from the airfield showed up while I was there. While talking to the policeman the plane exploded into a thousand pieces, some of which slammed through the hedge close to us.
When I told my parents about the crash, my father said: “Well done son! A bloody colonial!” This latter part was said with much affection. My father–as we all did–thought the Canadians, South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders were very special people for helping us in the war.
The next day I went with my parents to Suffolk for two weeks. When I returned home I bicycled up to the guardroom at Heston and asked about the Canadian, but was given no new information. I then cycled to the local police station and spoke to the desk sergeant there. He checked his records and reported there was nothing in the incident book. The policeman I met at the crash site could have been from another station, he said.
For years I have wondered what happened to that airman. And while I was convinced from his dress that he was a Canadian pilot, I discovered this year–after contacting Legion Magazine and doing some follow-up archival research in London–that the pilot was not Canadian. The records indicate that on Feb. 26, 1945, a pilot from the United States Air Force–Lieutenant Gaston N. Riggs–crashed his Mustang at Heston and was taken by civilian ambulance to a nearby hospital where he was pronounced dead. I am sure this is the pilot I helped that day, even though I was convinced at the time that his shoulder flashes were Canadian. I am also greatly saddened to learn after all this time that he died shortly after the crash.