In WWII, my Grandpa Richard Edwin (“Dick”) Warner was in the ground crew (aircraft maintenance) of Royal Canadian Air Force transport squadrons. Dick kept a daily diary of his tour of duty in India and Burma from October 1944 – August 1945. I transcribed and edited Dick’s diary — a LONG process (some very creative punctuation and phonetic spelling!) but a valuable insight into his daily routine and observations. Dick also kept a photo album that shows his entire war experience. Many of the photos illustrate points he makes in his Burma diary.
In July 1941 Dick enlisted with the RCAF. At the time he enlisted, he’d been working in the drapery department of Spencer’s Department Store in Victoria and was Scoutmaster of the 1st Fairfield Scout Troop. In February 1942 Dick left British Columbia for training in the prairies, first Edmonton and later Dafoe, Saskatchewan.
In April 1943, Dick returned to Victoria and married Ethel Rowe. They both returned to married quarters in Dafoe, Saskatchewan. Ethel later recalled that she missed the mountains and the water. Once winter set in, Ethel returned to live with her parents in Victoria.
Dick and Ethel’s son Barry was born in April 1944. A few months later, Dick left Ethel and three month old Barry for overseas service.
Leaving for overseas
Dick wrote about what happened next: “On August 20, 1944, I left Victoria on posting to “Y” depot, Lachine Que. arriving August 26 1944 and arrived at Halifax on August 28 1944, were boarded on the SS Aquitania and sailed for England. We arrived at Gaurrock Scotland on 4 Sept and travelled south to Bournemouth England, arriving 6 Sept and left 17 Sept 1944 for West Kirby [Merseyside], arriving Sept 17 1944…” Dick left England on October 14 1944. This clipping pasted in Dick’s diary is about the ground crew’s movement to India.
Dick’s diary describes the long trip to India: “we travelled by air stopping at many ports across England, France, Sardinia, Africa, Syria, Arabia, Iraq, Iran and so to India arriving at Karachi on October 18 1944, leaving for Gujarat on Oct 22 1944 arriving the same day at Gujarat and so far till the end of 1944 we remained there.” He was stationed at a base in Gujarat, India’s westernmost province. Dick spent New Years Eve 1944 “in a merry sing song and an abundance of noise from our gang in our room over a fireplace of burning logs. The boys were George Brands, Royal Smythe, Geo. Gillis, Frank Staniman, Bob Drisby, Harry Finstead, Ed Pett.”
1945 begins with parcels from home
The next day, Dick began his 1945 diary with this prayer for his family in Victoria. January 1 1945: “And here is another new year. May God grant me the wishes of laying a protective hand over my wife and son, and grant that I may return to them safe & sound in both body & mind.” As the year began, Dick had no letters from home: January 4 1945: “still raining like hell and still no mail”. But on January 6 1945 he got a letter from Ethel, who he called “Muggins”. A few days later, Dick got some exciting mail! January 11 1945: “I went up and got my first TWO PARCELS. Was I ever pleased! Some of the goods were melted but all looked lovely to me. They were from Muggins and Mom. Thanks a million!”
For the next 8 months, Dick received many letters and parcels from home. His diary shows that he got almost weekly letters from “Muggins” and “Mom”. He also got lots of mail from his sister Barbara Warner, cousin Dale Sutherland, Aunty Janet Sutherland, Aunty Ivy Hasenfratz, plus family friends John Raffell Saunders and “Aunty” Sophie Lass.
To the Front at Imphal
On January 12 1945, Dick was headed for the Front at Imphal, India. “5:20 AM left Gujarat for the front. We slept on aircraft in most uncomfortable positions.” The next morning, he woke up at 9 AM. “The sun was shining in the window of our Doug 755 as we cruised along at 150 miles per hr at 6000 ft. and travelling over the barren lands of Bengal. 9.15 AM landed at Allahabad. Had a good breakfast and at 10.15 AM left for the remainder of our trip, travelling over the mountainous area of Assam. Landed on the mud runway near Imphal safe and sound.” Once in Imphal, Dick “lined up for chow..it was darn good.” (This was about the last time in 8 months that he would enjoy the food!) Living conditions were rough. He noted that “the latrines are just a hole in the ground and everyone stands around and watches you.”
Here are some diary entries that give a good sense of Dick’s daily life in Imphal:
March 5 1945 – Up at 5.45 and went out and ran ship up…904 goes on test – is OK – so leaves later with bomb load (pilots leery).
March 6 1945 – 7.30 and breakfast. Was good – flapjacks and bacon…went up at 1.30 for inoculation. 3 nocs and 1 vax so I should have a grand nite tonite….went to show but “Nocs taking effect so only see 3/4 of show. Came back and had a hell of a time undressing. Was late before I got to sleep.
March 7 1945 – Pretty stiff this morning. Up for breakfast. It’s going to be hot today. Read all morning as my arms were too sore to move. Dinner and went out to see Kites off. Boy is it every warm out. Maintenance is in one hell of a mess. 3 half-assed guys running it.
No matter about maintenance — Dick was about to move to a new base in Burma. On March 9 1945 the CO gave a speech: “Congratulated us on our work. We hauled 5800 tons in 34 days — 1800 tons more than any other sqdn. MO warns us against malaria — 112 degrees down there even now.” His new address would be: 436 Squadron, RCAF Southeast Asia Air Forces. Dick noted: “Our Squadron is noted in Burma for its efficiency and good work.”
On March 12 1945, Dick went to Akyab Burma [now Sittwe Myanmar]. He flew for a couple of hours “about 6000 feet over very mountainous and jungle country.” Akyab was “an island and the old salt chuck is here.” He pitched tents while the others went swimming. So far the location was pleasant: “with the breeze rustling in the trees and the radios playing Blue Danube — all very nice.”
But things wouldn’t be peaceful for long! There were plenty of squadrons on the island. “There are every kind of A/C. here — Superforts, Mosquitos, Lightenings, Howards, Beaufighters, Douglas, Dakotas, Commandos, Liberators, Mitchells, Hurricanes, Spits, small L6 ambulance craft etc, plenty of action.” On March 14 1945 there was real action: “Was helping unload a ship when a Beaufighter coming in on one motor crashed into 2 of our Dougs, knocking the tail off one and smashing into the second. Fire, smoke and dust. 2 men badly hurt, the rest cut up. Great excitement. Had to run to get away from bullets flying about from explosion. At same time a Lightening crashes but pilot was not hurt.” Enough excitement for one day? Not quite. Dick also had the “first steak dinner since left Canada” and “saw the first white babe for months — quite a number — short skirt, high heeled shoes and all — makes me miss Muggins all the more.”
On March 24 1945, Dick went on a trip into Akyab. “We hitched a ride on a water truck and then went to seek these temples and Buddhas. After plenty of walking we found them. One Buddha was 35 ft high and was of massive construction so we took 3 pictures of it with Geo. or I in its hand. Then we walked along the waterfront. Went to the Tock H and had a glass of lemonade then went swimming in the ocean. It was really nice. Came back and went down to the stone jetty. Looked at all the many ships anchored in the harbour then got a ride on a small 45 ft runabout. Then after riding in 4 trucks, we got back to camp. Feet sore.”
2nd Anniversary in Ramree
On April 22 1945, Dick went to Ramree Island Burma. This was 40 minute plane ride from Akyab. That night Dick slept well in a house by the water. He “awoke with sounds of boat whistles, birds, cars, trucks — what a noise!” Dick went to the new site and started digging trenches and monsoon ditches. By 11.15 it was “Hellishian warm out.”
Dick celebrated his 2nd wedding anniversary on April 26 1945: “OUR WEDDING ANNIVERSARY. BARRY’S BIRTHDAY. MOM’S BIRTHDAY. HERE I AM SPENDING THIS DAY ON RAMREE ISLAND. I only hope that the next anniversary etc will be spent at home in Victoria with my wife and son.”
“We were up at 7 and had breakfast and went on the usual job. It’s still very warm out and we didn’t accomplish much. Went swimming at 11.30 — water’s lovely. Then dinner and now cooling off. Went to work but had to wait for truck so didn’t get started until late afternoon. Eventually got truck and went to the beach and hauled sand and later went to haul gravel but truck got stuck so didn’t get any. Supper and had bath and now will write Muggins but can’t mail it until plane comes in. What a way to spend a wedding anniversary.” On May 3 1945 Dick got “2 letters from Mugs, one an anniversary card.” A photo was included:
Push for Rangoon and VE Day
At the end of April, the Allied forces were making big push for Rangoon. Dick’s diary shows the action in Ramree. April 28 1945: “Saw many troops boarding ships for this push….Planes flying all around.” April 29 1945: “1000s of troops on the move all nite and this morning.” May 1 1945: “40 planeloads of paratroopers go to Rangoon.” May 2 1945: “Ships in harbour and more trucks and men going on. Today is “D” somewhere in SE Asia and now to bed.” On May 8 1945, the war in Europe was over. Dick went to the mess tent: “7.30 heard Churchill and Truman declare the war’s end in Europe…The radio is blaring over rejoicing in England.” But there was little celebration in Burma. “Little doing went to bed early.” Dick commented that VE Day “means little to us. We are now the only Canadians fighting in active service.”
On May 14 1945, Dick had a mild case of bronchitis and the monsoons began. “Was awoken at 5 to tie down everything in tent — a hurricane has come. Start of monsoons. Really windy out. Went to sleep again.” The rains didn’t stop for months! May 27 1945: “Did it ever rain this morning. Caught out in it so stayed under wing of plane.” The monsoon rains prevented flying from the airstrip. June 2 1945: “It’s still raining out. Our runway is washed out at either end so planes go to Akyab.” June 12 1945: “Webb and I sat in jeep and watched planes land in washed out runway. 5 never came in. Heard the builder was up for court martial.” If it wasn’t the rain, it was the heat. May 22 1945: “very hot — especially in the new tin roof maintenance hut.” June 7 1945: “Boy what a warm day this has been…It was 160 degrees inside the ships today.” Dick noted: “I’m sure there won’t be many who will volunteer for the South Pacific war, as we’ve been through the worst of it.”
A promotion and a week’s leave
Amidst the heat and humidity there was some good news! On June 9 1945, Dick was promoted to Sergeant! He transferred to a new roomy tent in NCO quarters. The food didn’t improve though. June 12 1945: “Breakfast no better than airmens’ mess.” Dick got a week’s leave in Calcutta from June 16 – June 23 1945. The trip was a welcome respite from Ramree. His impressions of the trip: “Enjoyable meals and service was good.” On his first night at Canada House, Dick “went down to a wonderful dinner with bearers doing all the work.” Over the next week, he did some shopping and watched some shows. He was so busy he didn’t keep up diary entries but his diary has notes about Calcutta:
On the last day, June 23 1945, Dick was “awoken at 7 by bearer with tea then waited until water was turned on. Washed and went down and had breakfast. Gave bearer my pants and shirt to get pressed pronto and in 1/4 and hour was done.” That afternoon, he returned to the rain. A great trip, but Dick was soon pretty sick: “pains in my intestines so after dinner went to see the Doc. He gave me some salts etc but they continue having ATTACK.” He went over the hospital for medicine and “found that several of the boys who were at Calcutta have same complaints.” Dick recovered but it was back to normal in Ramree. June 28 1945: “The meals haven’t improved any and all the food they have on the island is canned beans and sardines.” July 3 1945: “Raining like hell out this morning…Same old doings and rumors but nothing new.”
Ack Ack guns and Movies
In early July there were still dangers for the Southeast Asia forces. On July 2 1945 Dick was reading papers when “Ack Ack” [Anti Aircraft] started so lights out and went to bed.” A few days later, the squadron lost a plane. July 14 1945: “All our men were killed in 208. Our first fatal accident.” Yet life went on — in the very next sentences Dick wrote: “Harry’s birthday so we had a shot of rum on him. Rum and lime juice mixed — not bad.”
There was also the regular entertainment — movies. Dick’s diary mentions almost 40 “classic” films by name. Here is a selection: Betty Grable in “Pin Up Girl”, Barbara Stanwyck in “My Reputation”, “Double Indemnity”, “White Cliffs of Dover”, “The Thin Man Comes Home”, “Meet Me in St. Louis”. Note that the “cinema” was open air — the men sat on empty oil barrels. On July 26 1945, Dick went to “Object Burma” and “got wet on the ass.” Sometimes the movies made him think his wife “Muggins”. When he saw “Hollywood Canteen”, he wrote “really made one homesick especially for you. Darling I could picture you as Joan Leslie.”
Dick also got to see live entertainment. April 26 1945: “Played cards for awhile and then went and saw ENSA show which wasn’t much to speak of.” The next show was better: “After supper went to the ENSA show which wasn’t bad — plenty of risque jokes and 2 women all legs and little clothing.” But what about the ANSA show? “very good. At end a 3 ft snake crawled into crowd and was killed.”
Nearing the end
Late July and early August 1945 continued to be fairly uneventful. On July 28 1945 there was the meeting of the maintenance NCOs “the usual bitch session.” There were appointments with the visiting Canadian dentist. August 3 1945: “He just finished my one tooth — very gentle.” (Dick had 8 fillings in all). But on August 5 1945 the Commanding Officer gave a speech with the “wonderful news” that they were flying back next month from Akyab. Dick’s diary: “Still doubtful about Burma Star but we all intend to wear it. Saw show “Heavenly Body” — comical. Finished about 10, had a drink of scotch.” A party was arranged with 150 bottles of rum. On August 8 1945, Dick went over to the party but was not impressed — “Nothing but a drunken brawl so came back to tent and ate and read awhile.”
Meanwhile, bombs had just been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but Dick and the boys in Burma knew nothing of it. He wrote in his diary on July 10 1945: “Heard news of Japs quitting but doubt it.” It was still raining, he had coffee and spam, played crib and went to bed. But the next day he wrote “So far Jap news seems to be true. God grant us that it is.” On August 15 1945: “heard Jap war is definitely and officially over. Makes no difference here in the middle of Burma. Read a Toronto Star story…had cheese and jam sandwiches.” On VJ Day, Dick was on a week’s work at the base in Kinmagon. This was in the interior of Burma. He was helping do checks on planes that were leaving the front line. While he could sleep well at night, the food was terrible. August 20 1945: “Dinner was uneatable and an insult. No tea or water to drink and it’s hot as hell.” There was lots of action on the base as the Canadians were getting to move out. August 18 1945: “Planes came in, some shooting the field up — end of tour.”
The long journey home begins
A few weeks later, Dick was also ending his tour of duty in Southeast Asia. The long journey home started on August 30 1945. He flew from Ramree to Chittagong India (now in Bangladesh). He was in Chittagong for a few days and had time to visit an Indian Amuseument park with a vaudeville act: “good Chinese acrobats, Burmese women singing, dancing, etc.” On September 4 1945 Dick flew from Chittagong to Maharajpour then to Karachi. Dick visited the Allied Cafe and had an ice cream and a cool drink. Over the next few days Dick flew to landing stops along the British Overseas Airways route. After India, he flew over the Arabian Desert and the Sea of Amen to Masirah Island. “Just finishing reading a Reader’s Digest. Plane travelling can be tiresome when on 10-12 hours hop.” Then to the British Crown Colony of Aden, where Dick had a taxi tour of the port. They flew over the Abyssinian Desert to Wadi Halfa in Anglo Egypt Sudan. “Quite a wind blowing here but extremely hot. Must be near 100.” They arrived in Lidda, Palestine. “This port is huge and hundreds of planes are here and massive control tower…Town is lovely and modern wide streets and boulevards. Mostly English — Egyptians are kept out.”
Wine and women
On September 8 1945, Dick flew over the Mediterranean past Benghazi and over Malta and landed in Sicily. In Catania, Dick drank wine, ate spaghetti and fended off the Sicilian women — “every 10 steps you take, women are on you”. On September 9 1945, he flew over a smoking Mt. Etna then over Palermo, Sardinia, Marseilles and landed at Istris Airport. He and the boys stayed in Salon de France where they teamed up with some Americans and “drank all kinds of wine and American beer, went and had coffee and donuts at the American Red Cross.” They were the only Canadians there and “of course a novelty with bush hats. Needless to say we could have plenty of French girls but stayed away.” The next morning, Dick woke up after a lovely nite’s sleep and went over to the mess set up, where French maids waited on the table: “If they wore their dresses any shorter, their bums would show.” By 8.35, he was in the air again, flying high due to the clouds. He sewed buttons onto his pants. “Our other plane is flying parallel to us. Will now come to the coast and the Channel Islands and now England. Back at last! Boys throw paper etc. out the window saying “Lock Up Your Daughters — 436 is back!” (The next day Dick reported: “They say there’s 9000 Canadian Airmen here — I believe it. The Yanks haven’t got a chance.”)
Back in England
On September 10 1945, Dick was back in England. The planes landed at Dawn Ambrey Station near Swindon. Dick sent a wire home, then had a beer with the boys. The next morning he transferred to Bath Hill Court Hotel in Bournemouth. For the next 10 days there were daily parades and red tape, but also time to “walk the town over.” Dick had more beer and ate fish and chips. He went to picture shows, bookshops and local cafes (“had tea and cakes – I’m as bad as the Englishman for that now.”) Dick felt it was “like being at home again, but I miss my Muggins very much when I go there.” From September 11 1945 – December 10 1945 Dick was stationed in Bournemouth. Dick completed a 28 hour course on “salesmanship” from the RCAF Educational Services Overseas. He had a day trip to Salisbury and Stonehenge, and a week’s leave to visit London and his Dad’s family in Kent.
Back home at last
On December 10 1945, Dick sailed on the Empress of Bermuda then took the train to Vancouver, where Ethel met him just before Christmas 1945. He finally had the chance to see his son Barry, now 20 months old. Dick returned to his old job at Spencer’s Department Store and kept on scouting. In 1949, Dick was hired by the Victoria Fire Department, where he worked for 25 years as Fire Inspector and Education Officer.