Letters From a Lonely Airman

Damn this war anyhow, why can’t people just get along?

This was the heartfelt question posed in a letter written the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, by a young Canadian airman who didn’t want to fight but was determined to do his duty.

 

Raymond James Barnes of Battleford, Saskatchewan joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1941. He didn’t make the cut as a pilot, but his math skills were excellent so he was trained as a navigator instead.

From 1941 to 1943 he wrote regularly to my aunt Peggy Light, who was also in training to become a nurse at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton. Peggy was never his girlfriend (although Jim may have wished it were so) but like many other girls, she took time from her own challenging duties to write letters to the lonely flyer from her home town.

I was unable to find a photograph of Jim, but here is one of my lovely young aunt.

Following are excerpts from two of Jim’s letters. The first was written from the Air Navigator School in Trenton, Ontario. He wasn’t very happy there, but his impressions of Toronto are pretty typical for a prairie boy.

******

Trenton, Ontario/August 29, 1941

Dear Peggy:

I suppose you know by now that I washed out as a pilot. My poor little stomach couldn’t stand the spins and loops. Every time I went into a spin, I had to go down to eat another breakfast. That is gone now, but a long way from forgotten. It really was swell up there, and as close as I will ever get to some of the angels who write to me.

How far up do angels go, you know, so please let me know. Is it more than 10,000 feet? Because that is how high we are going to fly, I hope. I will be training in big bombers, which fly awfully high.

Do you ever see anything of my big brother on your travels around the fair city of Edmonton? There is an Air Observers School there, so am sure hoping to be sent there. I haven’t seen the big brother for almost two years. (Jim’s brother Len and his sister Bernice also served in the RCAF).

Maybe I wouldn’t do much studying there and would have to come back to this hell hole. It really is a hell of a station, with all kinds of washouts hanging around doing absolutely nothing and very disgusted with everything. I am put on Service Police this week and work in the jail, so come into contact with the worst of them.

We had a 48-hour pass last week and so I went to the Toronto fair and gosh, it sure was swell. A lot different from the things we saw at North Battleford fair. They had about eight bands there from all over Canada and United States. Gosh, they were good, bagpipes and fellows in these big hats that look like a fur overcoat.

Tommy Dorsey was there with his swing band and I just stood with my mouth open listening to those guys swing it out. I thought the drummer had the DTs, he could sure beat it out in every shape and form.

The horses and cattle were the prettiest I ever saw, but we won’t dwell on that as I don’t think you would be interested. Gosh, I hope I didn’t stand with my mouth too wide open because I never thought there were so many people in the world as there was at that fair.

(Here’s a page in Jim’s own handwriting.)

 

The letter continues:

It was warriors day, so the air force, sailors, soldiers and veterans were out in full force. Some of these old veterans sure would like to be back in the fight, but personally I don’t see it. I will be glad when it’s all over and we can go home again. But I would be awful mad if it stopped before I got a chance to take a crack at old Hitler and his heels.

I guess Al (Allan Light, Peggy’s younger brother) can hardly wait to get flying. I wish I had some of his devil-may-care ways, as they are the fellows that make pilots and don’t wash out. He will make a good one and won’t his big sister be awfully proud when he comes home with about 50 German planes to his credit? Who knows, I might be his observer some day.

Well, beautiful, they make us go to bed at 11 o’clock too, so I can sympathize with you, but it will likely do us a lot of good. Good night, little lady, and thanks a million.

As ever, Jim

(Tragically, Peggy’s younger brother Alan Light crashed his aircraft and died just weeks before earning his wings as a pilot.)

The second letter was written a few months later from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Clearly Jim has no taste for war, and is struggling to make sense of a conflict that has now become global.

******

#6 Air Observer Station, Prince Albert/Dec. 7, 1941

Dear Peggy:

According to the radio our Christmas leave has been cancelled, so it has all the markings of a lonely Christmas. Damn this war anyhow, why can’t people just get along? It has really developed into a hell of a mess. Those Japs are getting pretty big for their britches. One thing, now Uncle Sam will be able to show what his wonderful navy and air force are made of. They have been bragging a long time, now we will see what stuff they are made of.

Well, there isn’t a heck of a lot of news around this damned prison camp. Why wasn’t I blessed with a few brains? Some of these guys don’t study one night a week and still get good marks. Poor me, I have to study every night and then just manage to squeeze thru.

It is really worth working for though. Some day I am going to realize my ambition since joining the air force, that is to be able to go for an aeroplane ride without anything to do. Every time we have to run around like a bee in a bottle to keep those damned old Ansons on track and find which way the wind is blowing. It is really a lot of work and they provide a nice soft seat for a guy to sit in but haven’t found time to use one yet.

Good night beautiful, and keep good care of those darling little children so they can grow up into strong men and women. More gun targets for old Hitler. It is a funny world, you are trying to save people from sickness, and they are teaching me the best ways to kill the most people. What is the answer, you figure it out, it is all over my head.

So long, beautiful, and please write soon. I will try to answer sooner next time.

A Pal, Jim

Here's a page of that letter in Jim's handwriting.

 

A year later, in December 1942, Jim was overseas flying with the 75 (Royal New Zealand Air Force) Squadron. Not allowed by the censors to reveal his location or his duties, he writes wistfully of mutual friends and concludes:

“This is my first Christmas away from home, and I don’t like it much. But we will be home for the next, I hope. Good night, beautiful, and thanks for your letters. Jim.”

 

On March 26, 1943 Peggy wrote her last letter to Jim. After several weeks it was returned to her bearing the dreaded stamp: REPORTED MISSING.

On the night of April 16, 1943, the Stirling bomber bearing the squadron’s slogan “Forever Strong” painted on its nose cone, went missing in action over Germany. Later it was found to have crashed and the entire crew killed except one flyer who was taken prisoner.

Jim is buried in this large cemetery in Rheinberg, Germany along with more than three thousand other Commonwealth servicemen.

This photograph of Jim’s grave was taken by Glen Turner, Secretary/Treasurer of the 75 Squadron Association New Zealand. For more about the tremendous contribution made to the free world by the men who flew with this squadron, click here.

If any readers have a photograph of Jim or know how to get in touch with Jim’s family, please leave a message here or email me: elinor1@telus.net.

* * * * * *

STAR WEEKLY AT WAR

The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a colour illustration appeared on the cover each week with a wartime theme. This one dated May 22, 1943 shows a raid over Berlin. To see my whole collection of Star Weekly covers, and I post a new one almost every week, click: Star Weekly At War.

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During my research into Canada’s wartime past, I uncovered some fascinating facts and anecdotes. I’ll share them here and welcome feedback and stories of your own.

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