Archive number: 559
Date interviewed: 23 September, 2003
You are listening to the interview audio
John, if we could start off by you giving us a summary of your life from start to the present day.
I was born in Mayfield, a suburb of Newcastle,
in 1922 and remained there until 1939. My father was a World War I veteran. He had been wounded at Gallipoli so consequently he worked at the steelworks. It was a very happy childhood going to the local school
and later on I went to Newcastle Boys’ High School, eventually graduating from there in 1939 when I was sixteen and at the outbreak of war. My father said to me, I wished to join the air force but he said, “Try to achieve something so that you have some skill
before you are eighteen.” So I did two years, I trained as a teacher, but in actual fact I have never really taught as a teacher except in the air force, training people. Consequently I joined the air force. I had to wait on the reserve for a few months and then came into the air force,
training as aircrew. Strangely enough, it was one of those little quirks, I used to play football and if I hadn’t played football I would have finished up as a navigator. I was selected as a pilot because football is supposed to give you certain skills that would be needed as a pilot.
I graduated as a pilot in early 1943. I was then posted to a transport squadron in Adelaide, and we used to fly up to Darwin and out to various places from there. I was only there for a few months and then I was posted to number 33 Squadron up at Milne Bay and
I spent twelve months at Milne Bay. By this time I was a captain of an aircraft with your own crew and then, after that twelve months, which was extremely interesting in lots of ways, not too hazardous, you were bombed occasionally, you had the occasional brush but nothing of any great importance, then I came back to Australia.
I joined another transport squadron and that was very interesting because we used to run right through to the Philippines and back again. Immediately after the war transport aircraft were very much in demand, I participated in the evacuation of POWs from Singapore. I helped open up
the route to Japan. I also had a very funny experience of being based in China for a month. We were flying up from Hong Kong to Chungking. And after that I was about to leave the air force, thinking of returning to civilian life and
suddenly I was offered a permanent commission. They said, “We want you to go to the UK [United Kingdom] and join a Commonwealth squadron.” This was a great opportunity. One of the funny things about it was they said, “You can take a wife.” So at this time I was engaged and we got married and off we went. I always say to my wife,
“You’re the one person who always had to have two honeymoons.” I was over there for three years, a very interesting time. What it was, it was really seeing the world at the Commonwealth’s expense because we used to go everywhere, and at the same time I was caught up for about six months on the Berlin airlift which was
again a very interesting experience but a demanding one. Finally we came back to Australia. I did various staff jobs, I went back to a transport squadron again. While there I was selected to fly the Queen when she came out to Australia, so that was an interesting experience as well. From there
again it was another staff appointment; you seem to alternate between a staff appointment and a flying appointment. From there I was in an appointment and I was posted back to the UK and for three and a half years I was sitting up in Whitehall examining the, I had the responsibility for the study of
the Soviet air and missile forces. And then back to Australia after that. By this time we had two small children and I came back to an Air Trials Unit flying post in which I had seven different types of aeroplanes to fly, so I had a wonderful time. From there, I was only there for a comparatively
short period of time and I took over the base at East Sale, and that was very interesting because you were in charge of the central flying school and in charge of the aerobatic team and that type of activity. I was destined to take over the F1-11s but then they ran into a major catastrophe
with the centre section and I was pushed off to Malaysia and I became a Malay for two and a half years. From there I went back to the UK, I did the Royal College of Defence studies and back to Australia, I was the senior intelligence military officer. And then, after that appointment, the next one was I had the Operational Requirements
Shop whereby you determine the type of, for example, we want a new fighter and these are the general characteristics that we want in it, and from that you developed it. And then I went to a new post, the chief of air force material, whereby you implemented those and you actually arranged for the purchase, well, the selection and
the purchase of the aircraft. After that, at age fifty-seven I retired, that was your normal retirement age. From that we moved up here to Lake Macquarie twenty-three years ago. I was fortunate, I became a director of the Newcastle Permanent and I was there for seventeen years.
Consequently it has been a rather varied but I personally think an interesting life that we have led.
Thank you very much for that John. That was a fantastic summary.
Let’s go right back to the beginning. Could you tell us again when and where you were born?
I was born in Mayfield in September 1922. Mayfield is an industrial suburb of Newcastle but at the same time it was a very happy upbringing.
Both of my parents were good Christian citizens so it was off to the local church and things like that, and they had a great influence on us. They were country people so consequently every holidays I would be off and go up with cousins and having a great time, which I think helped shape
your life. I was only telling somebody the other day that we used to make canoes out of galvanised iron and shoot the rapids down the Barrington River, and people pay good money to do that today. It was a very happy childhood. We were a family of four. My brother was two years older than me
What was he like?
He was an absolutely fine chap and he was again quite good at school, a little bit like me, got a bit ahead of himself, he sat for his Leaving Certificate when he was only sixteen. But nevertheless we
were good friends and it was always a happy relationship. I can only remember once we got into a bit of a scuffle over something and my father came round the corner and gave us both a slap, the only slap I ever had in my life from him, and he said, “Brothers don’t fight,” so you always remember that. At various times later on in life and I was away in
various places but he used to do a lot for our parents. He died a few years ago. At the same time his family lives on, one of them is a doctor up in Coffs Harbour, one is head of a high school, Redlands, in Sydney,
and the other one is a university lecturer, so they are all achievers and that’s good.
They sure are. Your brother sounds like a remarkable man. What was his name?
Westley Cornish. Westley is a family name.
That’s a great name. What can you tell me about Mayfield, what was it like?
As far as I am concerned Mayfield was great.
Not too far away from us there were about six or seven ovals, cricket pitches and things like that, so we used inhabit those. The other good thing about it was the actual high school was built out at Waratah, the adjoining suburb, so consequently it was only a ten minute walk to school. Of course
the school had a great influence on us. I finished up as school captain but I always will remember those very dedicated and hard-working teachers. We always have a reunion every year, and I was telling somebody about the headmaster who had been a major in the
First World War, and when war was declared, World War II, this was a time of great excitement, but the old chap was almost crying. He was saying, “I look at my boys,” he used to call us ‘gentlemen’, “I look at my gentlemen and think there will probably be about one third of you will be killed.”
They were a very dedicated lot. It was very interesting to see later on of those teachers the numbers that became headmasters of other schools. It wasn’t a parochial thing, but they finished up as headmaster of Fort Street and a lot of Sydney schools. Mayfield to me
was always a very happy place. We had all sorts of other things. One little funny story which will show you a little bit of the feeling of the place, and my sister told me this, there was a gentleman who later became the Lord Mayor of Newcastle lived nearby and
he was a strict Methodist but his wife was Church of England. And my mother and this Mrs Purdue had a little Sunday school for the young ones. And somebody had been down from the country and given my mother a lottery ticket, it was the time when they first brought out lottery tickets,
the lottery ticket which was going to be, it was all for the hospitals. And my mother walking around told Mrs Purdue about this, that somebody had given her a lottery ticket and this Mrs Purdue said, “Wouldn’t it be dreadful if you won, Mrs. Cornish.” Mother was very worried about this so she said to the local curate, “Mrs Purdue said it would be dreadful if I won it.”
He said, “As long as you give a generous donation to the church I am sure it will be all right, Mrs Cornish.” That was the sort of general atmosphere of the place. You often thought, say, on a hot Sunday afternoon it would lovely to go for a surf, which we used to often do. But Sunday, no, you didn’t do that, you had to be at home or
Sunday school in the afternoon.
Tell me more about your mother.
It is very interesting with my mother. My grandfather on my mother’s side had come from England, he was a mining surveyor
who’d had trouble with his lungs and he went to school teaching up to Lostock, and he must have met my grandmother riding across the hills. They eventually married and he went school teaching up at Gloucester out at a place, Barrington. With the family
they were a sort of very gentle family. My mother, I don’t know where it was, but she finished up going to school at a finishing school somewhere in Manly. And it was very interesting because you could say to her that you were studying something and she could
quote you the French, you didn’t expect that from your mother, but at the same time [she was] a very caring person because there wasn’t too much, with my father completely changing occupations, being a farmer and then forced into the steelworks, there was no sort of surplus money. But right through that Depression time
we still had sufficient food and things like that, but there was no spare money for football boots and that type of thing. I always felt we had loving and caring parents and I sometimes wished my father had spoken more about World War I but he never did. He used to laugh at the odd little thing but he never told you
his experience of it. When you come to think of it, he was hit in the hand and that is sort of pretty close to the rest of your body.
Tell me more about your father. What was he like as a person?
He was a fine chap. In his earlier life he
had been a very good pianist, a country boy, he used to play for all the country dances having to ride over the hills and things like that, so he was very good from that. And the funny part about it was he loved history, he loved to read history books. But at the same time [he was] a completely unselfish man.
I have never known him to go to a hotel, he would be always that. He used to sing in the choir and he was on the parish council and that sort of thing, so he was always, but at the same time [he was] a serious man in some respects and you didn’t get that,
sometimes you got that feeling he would have still loved to have been a farmer. At one stage in life he went off and had a look at some properties but it never happened. He finished up, he was there. They were a happy couple. I remember him playing cricket and scoring a century and things like that, so it was a good thing.
You mentioned that he
was forced to go to work at the steelworks. Why was that?
Purely because with his injuries and losing three fingers he couldn’t continue as a farmer. And I think there might have been a little pressure too, his other brother being there, and the farm wouldn’t support both families so he came down and got a position in the
steelworks. It was quite a good, steady job. It was the type of thing, and I always think this was quite remarkable, he would have been getting at the time something like four pound ten a week and every now and again there was an old chap lived nearby with
an invalid wife and I know my Dad would go and buy some groceries and take them to them, and so again it was another reason why there wasn’t too much surplus around the place. But we never really felt as though we were deprived in any way whatsoever, as long as we got a new cricket bat at Christmas time we were very happy.
obviously the Depression was going on at this time. How did the Depression influence you and your family?
The main thing, and I suppose really in some respects it was a good thing, [was] that you knew that there was no surplus money around so consequently anything that you got
you watched it very carefully, you treated it very carefully. And I just referred to it, but I was playing football around and I used to borrow a pair of boots from somebody else. And you knew that there were so many people that were much worse off than what you were. When you come to think of
it, husbands were going off and trying to search for work elsewhere and I must say that my father was always in steady employment. But they couldn’t go out and just decide, “Yes, we will buy something,” it was a matter of saving up and
the odd little insurance policy and things like that, that was a big sort of occasion. But generally speaking, looking back on it, it was a very happy time.
What other examples of the Depression did you see around your local area?
You didn’t see that much of it but you
knew that everybody was really having a tough time. I suppose that in some ways you were fortunate living in that area because there was not only BHP [Broken Hill Proprietary Company] but there were also other industries. There were Lysaghts and Rylands and things like that. But you didn’t see any
great poverty, at least I didn’t notice it. In some ways it was always a very, you knew it was there and you didn’t ask for things, you just put up with what you got. And you tried to save up but
to go in the tram it was a penny. We would go to the baths, it was a penny in the tram, a penny to go in the baths, and a penny to come home. If you lost that penny you walked.
What was your favourite subject at school?
Football, I think. I didn’t have any particularly favourite
subject. Looking back on it, I did five years’ Latin and I didn’t like that at all, but I liked the Maths and the Chemistry and it was, French was all right, but History, I enjoyed History. I got honours
in History and English so I got an A in English, that was good, and things like that. Mind you, looking back on it and what children are doing today, I think it was a fairly tough old curriculum we used to have. Trying to get boys
interested in what Caesar was doing and things like that. I always remember I used to think at a lot of meetings in the Department of Defence you go back to the Latin: “Matters having been discussed, Caesar departed for Gaul.” I used to think to myself, “Gee, I would love to be going off to Paris,”
and things like that. At the same time it was a very dedicated staff who really, if you were prepared to work, which we were, they were prepared to come in and help you.
This was at Newcastle Boys’ High School?
Boys’ High School, yes.
It sounds to me like you had some wonderful teachers but you also had
parents that really encouraged you academically, how important was education to your family?
It was very important to both of them. My father used to occasionally come over and just have a discussion with the headmaster. He knew that around
about four o’clock the headmaster would still be there and I suppose once every six months he would come over and have a little chat with him, “How is it going?” and things like that. I think it partially came from my mother’s side because her family, her father and some of his
brothers were, two of the brothers were doctors in the UK, so consequently there was what I would call a ‘culture of learning’ in some respects. Except we met up with one of these old uncles once over in the UK
and I was highly amused because he was about eighty five at the time and I surprised the life out of him ringing him up, but he insisted on taking us out driving and I thought “Oh, gee.” He had a driver and he was a world champion this chap, he was the world champion back seat driver [passenger who gives frequent unsolicited instructions to the driver]. I think there was that sort of culture, Mother was always encouraging you.
One of my sisters, the eldest girl, she was a bit mercurial in all sorts of ways. But what she went into was she loved to do technical courses, and I always remember her, she did a millinery course.
She did a dressmaking course and the millinery course, and forever afterwards there was this great array of these new hats that appeared that she had made.
You actually did complete your Leaving Certificate, didn’t you?
Which apparently, from what I hear, it was quite common to leave school early.
Could you talk a bit about that?
You had, I would say that sixty percent of people would leave at the Intermediate and you know, later on, going into aircrew you had to have the Intermediate Certificate, the Intermediate Certificate was the thing to have and if
you went on from there to do your Leaving Certificate it opened up all sorts of positions for you, but at the same time it was rather hard to get entry to a university because at the time there was only one university in New South Wales, that was Sydney Uni [University], so there were very few.
In each year there would be about two or three that would get an exhibition to go to university and there was really not, people were not prepared to pay to send their children normally to university so consequently at that level, having completed your Leaving Certificate,
people could go into, say, metallurgy at BHP, there was a lot of people did that, or go into teaching. There were various things. But it gave you that extra couple of years of study and it made a difference. When I really came back to it,
I linked up in the air force, you did your initial training, you had a lot of ground subjects to do but they came very easy to me, whereas a lot of people were struggling with them. It was only things like the Morse code which we studied up to a certain point, and you had to have dexterity with that. When you actually came to sort of
navigation and theories of flight and that type of thing, it wasn’t any real problem to you, you could still continue to play football.
At this point in time what were your ambitions in terms of a career?
Coming up to that
I thought, “Well, yes.” I looked at going to BHP and I looked at my old grandfather at the teaching and I would have really liked to have become a high school teacher. In some ways it was regarded as the creative profession, and I still regard it that way whereas some of these other people, like
the doctors that were doing a repair job and things like that, that was the way I was inclined. But at the same time, and I never tried this with my own girls, of trying to direct them in any one way, so much as trying to make certain they reached their full potential. I
looked at it and I thought, “Well, there will come a time,” everybody was sort of joining the services but I hadn’t really given any serious consideration to that until you were faced with it, and I thought, “Well, the air force is the way to go.” That was about it.
Where were you when war broke out?
I was still at school and so I knew I had two years to go before I could possibly join up, a bit over two years, and so it was a little bit of a restless time. But my father was most insistent in saying, “You must not try to join before then.
For goodness sake try to get something that you can come back to.” The other thing, it was a bit prophetic in some way, he always said to me just quietly, he said, “This is going to be a very tough war.” He said, “If things go badly for you try to make your way to the United States. It is going to be touch and go
with this country,” and looking back on it I thought that was pretty good advice. When you actually saw the thing it was a little bit touch and go. I have always been very grateful for that advice that he gave me.
What do you recall about the actual outbreak of war?
In some ways it was a sort of exciting time in spite of what the headmaster said. A few months later on our final thing at high school before you went off to study for several weeks, we were all dressed up there,
one chap was Hitler and another chap was Mussolini, all these characters parading around. At the same time the import of it didn’t really strike home. This one was joining up and somebody else was joining up, but what they were going to face
you didn’t realise at all.
How did you hear the news that the war had broken out?
You just heard it, we just read it in the paper, we had a radio that we used to listen to the seven o’clock news, there was none of this news every half hour like it is today. You just
read it. People who had been there, like my father, it really struck them, they were devastated to think there was another war that was going to happen. You could understand it when you look back at what actually occurred.
We might continue that on the next tape.
Interviewee: John Cornish Archive ID 0559 Tape 02
You mentioned when World War II broke out that your headmaster and your father reacted in a particular way. Can you talk more about that reaction? Could we talk first about what your father’s initial reaction was to the outbreak of World War II?
He, having been to, he was in the Light Horse, and from there
he was sent to Gallipoli and wounded at Gallipoli, and he really had, but he never told us about it, some experiences there. And he must have only been there a comparatively short time because he finished up, he was discharged on 21st July and he came
home. And in those days they didn’t know the extent of their injuries or anything like that, but he really experienced the horrors of Gallipoli. The headmaster was primarily in France and no doubt sort of experienced trench warfare and that sort of thing. They could
see young people coming up, twenty years since the end of World War I and we are suddenly being faced with another one, and I think that was quite devastating for them. Again that is solely my interpretation of it.
At this point, when war had broken out, from where were you
getting information about the war?
You were only really getting information about the war from the papers and the odd, that was all that you were getting. You had some cousins that had enlisted and sort of gone overseas, but at this time
there was no real fight going on so consequently it was rather glamorous that they were going overseas and, “Yes, we have gone into this area and into something else.” It was only later that the whole horror of the thing hit well and truly.
what happened when you left school? What did you do initially?
When I left school and I had got a scholarship to Sydney Teachers’ College so I was just sixteen, almost seventeen, so consequently I was really following my father’s wishes to try and get something, to get some qualification. And
it was interesting, I enjoyed that, it was a real learning process again. But I was really sort of itching to get into the services, itching to get into the air force. The funny part about it was they actually qualified you
after eighteen months. I came out as a qualified teacher, and they caught up with me in about 1947. I got this letter to say, “Are you going to return to the Department of Education?” I had no intention of doing so. At the same time,
I have felt for a lot of people since who went into the services and accepted all sorts of responsibility and came back into their old job, so I have always thought that wasn’t very good for them.
Did you actually begin teaching?
No. We went in practise teaching just as part of the course and
I came out with a qualification of, after eighteen months it was a two A on the teaching side and an A- on the actual, it was a two A on the academic subjects and an A- on the actual teaching, and so what it really came up to on the gradings that you get,
if I had gone teaching my next step would have been to a sort of a deputy and then up, but that never ever happened.
It sounds like perhaps you could comment on this. How did the war change your future?
It was a complete and utter change. I suppose that I would have eventually finished up
doing a degree and I could have gone back and done a degree and then sort of gone off teaching in there, but suddenly this whole air force opened up right in front of me. It was most unusual really, because what you had was this great expansion
from a very small air force up into this large thing, and people were returning from overseas, they were never given an option. It doesn’t matter what they had done, it was just arrived and you’re discharged, out you went, so it was a complete surprise. And it was really only because
you were doing work, essential work, like we were running a courier service through to Japan because of the occupation force. I won’t tell you what we were doing in China; that’s another little story.
Just suddenly you would have been out and looking for a job and suddenly the air force said, “We would like you to stay with us.” It was an interesting time.
why the air force?
You wouldn’t want to go with the army.
It always seemed to me to be a sort of a mundane thing, but primarily because when you look back at what happened in World War I, here were these people
jumping up and going across twenty, twenty five yards and here are people firing at them with machine guns, that was absolutely dreadful. And when you came back to it, with the navy I thought you’re there confined to one little ship
and you are part of a team, whereas with the air force you had a certain control of your own destiny. I suppose I was influenced too that in Newcastle there was a very strong aero club. And I never actually got around, we didn’t have the money to have a flight, but at the weekend these chaps were round and about and I used to think “Well.”
We would watch them sometimes landing and things like that, so it always did. Later on when you are in the air force you realise you are three dimensional. You and I here, we can go that way but we can’t go too far the other way. You become a three dimensional person. That opens up all sorts of things for you,
you can really have some magic moments, but that was something to come later on, a real bonus.
So was your decision to join the air force, one that you came to from your own investigations about what it was like to be in the army, what it was like to be in the navy, or were there other influential people that helped you form that
No, I think I formed that opinion solely, you just took account a little bit from the other people. There was always, apart from the army, there was always a connotation of ‘foot sloggers’ and this sort of thing. Perhaps I am being a little bit hard on the navy, but
each one has got their own particular discipline. I would hate to be on a navy ship, somewhere in the bowels of the ship when you are in action. It would be great being in a submarine, you are in there working as a team, otherwise you’re some chap down below and you have got to follow those orders
implicitly, it doesn’t matter what somebody says to you, you have just got to do it, and you don’t really know what’s going on. I suppose it was too, with the army, there is only a certain number that are right out in the front line. Perhaps I am being wise after the event when I am talking like this.
It seems that different
types of people suit the different forces and I think that is what is coming out from what you are just talking about.
Yes. When you look at it, the sort of experience, there are some magic moments on a dark night and you have got a reasonable height and you sort of see stars coming up from down there. You
get tied up a little bit of a thunderstorm and that can be quite a wonderful experience as long as you don’t have to go right through it.
With your decision to go into the air force, how much of that was based on your desire to fly?
I thought “Yep, if I go into the air force, this is what I would like to do.”
Although, there again I had never experienced it, the actual flying and the first time you do something you think, “What am I doing here?” It was just one of those things and I suppose it was always more of a glamour about it with the air force than what it was with the others. It was just one of those
things that became, all the ‘Blue Orchids’, that’s what you used to be called.
Apparently the uniform was quite popular with the girls as well.
Getting to enlistment, when and where did you enlist?
I enlisted in Sydney. Having enlisted,
you had to wait on the reserve because there had been quite a backlog of people and I had to wait for about six months, and during that time you could go along and do Morse training and a bit of navigation training, but that was the only, because there was such a flood of people that they wanted,
and they just sort of opened up the Empire Air Training Scheme, it was going from such a small nucleus of people, and when you look back on it, one of my big gripes was always, later on, the lack of training of people. It was something that I
later on they tried to make certain that you had an air force of a certain size and things like that, but they were dragging people back from everywhere. If you had somebody that had just had a little bit of training in an aero club he became an important person in instructing, or instructing instructors
and that sort of thing, you had that. And I was called up in April 1942 and went to Bradfield Park for initial training. That was for about twelve weeks.
Just getting back to enlistment, what took place
at the enlistment?
We had been enlisted, you went through a physical examination, which was comparatively short, you took an oath of allegiance and that was it. It all happened fairly quickly.
You mentioned that during that six months, between enlistment and being
called up, there was opportunities to take part in different courses. What courses did you?
It was only really with the Morse code and navigation. You were still doing other work. I was sort of facing up for final exams in the Department of Education
at teachers’ college. But the one thing that you felt, and you didn’t appreciate the importance of some of these things, there is always hearsay and what have you, “You’ve got to qualify in Morse code” and things like that which you did have to do, but you had no idea of the relativity of
the importance of it. So you went along and tried to show you were going to be a good, willing student. You didn’t realise that it was one big lottery anyway.
You mentioned that you were studying at the teachers’ college. Where were you doing that?
It’s in the grounds of Sydney University,
the teachers’ college was there. I assume it is still there. It was a continuation of your academic subjects and the sort of theory of teaching and what have you, and so consequently it was
an interesting time and I seemed to cope with it, still having a good game of football and also cricket. It was interesting, you were talking about being in Surry Hills and we lived in Glebe at the time.
Who did you live with?
In a boarding house there,
a crowd of all students in the boarding house. Some interesting people. There was one chap who was a vet that escaped out of Poland and things like that. But generally speaking a good cross-section of Australians.
What was Glebe like back then?
We were in Wigram Road, which was just up from Harold Park, and again you were in the fortunate position of just walking to the University. Our big deal was to go off to Central Railway Station and have bangers and mash. The food wasn’t too good in the boarding house.
You remember under your scholarship you were just paid a small amount of money. My old Dad used to send me a pound every now and again which was great. Again it was quite good, we didn’t really, we were studying most of the
time and we didn’t have too much money to do anything else. Except I joined North Bondi Life Saving Club and we used to trek out there and I got my Bronze Medallion. We used to have to go on patrol every now and again.
A lot of people at that time had enlisted so they were only too pleased to get some more people. You tend to forget these things.
We actually saw a photograph of a lady we interviewed where she was at Bondi Beach and there was wire fencing, razor wire, right along the beach. Was that there when you were there?
No, it wasn’t.
That must have
been later on. It was quite interesting to see Bondi Beach covered with wire.
Yes, there were all sorts of things, and later on they thought the country was really threatened. I suppose six months after I had enlisted there was a lot of people left Bondi and headed for
the Blue Mountains. They thought there was going to be an invasion straight on Bondi Beach, and when it is all said and done there were small submarines that actually got into Sydney Harbour.
Was that before you left or after you?
When I was still training.
What impact did the Japanese subs in Sydney Harbour have on Sydney?
It had terrific impact.
People suddenly felt completely unsafe. That something could come into this place and launch a few torpedoes. There was a lot of people left Sydney and headed off to what they thought were safer places.
Whether it was or not I don’t know, a little bit of that is hearsay. I know one couple who had a very nice flat overlooking North Bondi, they left the place, they got out, thought they were really going to be in the front line.
You arrived at Bradfield Park for your initial training. What
took place there?
It’s square bashing [marching drill] initially and all the great, your subjects that you had to study. And it was interesting, Tommy Hughes, who
now is a great solicitor, but he was on our course, and Tom’s father had been in the air force so we looked at Tommy Hughes for all sorts of knowledge. It was an interesting time, but the one thing you didn’t realise, everybody was trying as hard as they possibly could. You had a lot of people there that
had only done their Intermediate Certificate and passed on and they were old chaps, they were twenty seven, twenty eight so consequently study came hard for them. But everybody was striving to achieve. I didn’t appreciate and a lot of other people didn’t appreciate that what they were really looking for, for that top few percentage
in ground subjects were going to become navigators. Because at that time they were the really very valuable members. You take some chap that’s out in the Atlantic in some of those old aeroplanes that were getting around at, say, a hundred and twenty knots and
the wind is blowing at sixty and seventy knots, before you know where you are you can be in big trouble unless you have a good navigator. That’s what it was, they took that small percentage off the top and made them navigators. I fortunately escaped that, only because I played football.
How much flying did you do at Bradfield?
Nothing. You purely and simply,
you didn’t see an aeroplane. I think they might have one aeroplane, one old [Tiger] Moth up at the gate so it was just pure and simply all the various subjects, maths and physics and navigation and Morse and things like that. And they had old people as instructors from the
GPO, [General] Post Office, and these people were used to the Morse code, and that was the hardest part of the course, as far as I was concerned. You had to achieve a minimum of twelve words a minute but you could get up much higher, and these old
boys could rattle it off at thirty words a minute and away you go. You realise it was just sheer practice. But Bradfield Park was quite an important time, there was discipline that you had to jump to. You dare not
be late for a parade or anything like that, you thought that the corporal or sergeant in charge of that group, that he was king, and he was really a bit of a ning nong [unintelligent person] anyway, but nevertheless that was that. You could feel people too, towards the end of the course with a real spring in the step, and away they go.
One funny little thing that I will always remember, Sunday morning was church parade and church parade they ran through a few drills and the padre would come forward and they would say, “Fall out, the Roman Catholics and the Jews,” and they had to go over there and they weren’t allowed to listen. When you look back on it
in today’s perspective it was a very funny thing to think you have people highsided purely because of religion.
The difference between Catholics and Protestants during that time was quite different.
Yes, completely different.
Bigotry, that’s all it was. There was one old uncle of my father’s came over to him one day and he said, “Wes, somebody up the country, some cousin, has got engaged to a Catholic. You go up there and tell them this can’t happen.” He said, “No, I couldn’t possibly do that,” but the old boy was dead serious.
He should go up and really tell them that this could not happen.
What was your awareness at the time of the bigotry?
Only in that sort of thing, but they were very much a sort of separate group and people used to speak in rather
derogatory terms in some respects. Except some people, my old grandmother, there was something came up one day and she said, “Now wait a minute, they are very good people. They have their own belief and don’t you run them down.”
She was a great influence if somebody was saying it, but she pulled them up very sharply.
It was even happening during my parents’ generation. My father’s a Catholic and my mother was a Protestant and the complications that happened because of that marriage were quite amazing. What happened
after Bradfield Park?
Bradfield Park I was posted out to Narromine, which was elementary flying, and so you went out there and you did sixty hours on Tiger Moths. But some people, the lucky ones, were selected to go to Canada to do it
and so there was a bit of a lottery, but we went out there and we were introduced to the ‘Tigerschmitt’. It was a happy time but again you were frightened of failure, and everybody, right through there was that sort of sense, “OK, I’ve joined, I’ve been selected for this,
I must pass the course.” You had some people that were what we call ‘scrubbed’ [rejected], and that was completely devastating for them to think they were heading off in one way and then they finished up that they didn’t make it. It was quite an experience. I had,
he had been an instructor, was an old, I don’t think he had too much flying but he was a flying club instructor, and he tried hard for us and tried to do it. But I will always remember one experience with him.
He’d had an accident at night some time back in his career, and what you were supposed to do was three hours night flying, and at the end of the third hour probably about fifteen or twenty percent were allowed to go off and do one circuit in this Tiger Moth by yourself.
The Tiger Moth, when you started night flying it became alive. Before you couldn’t see the flames coming out of the exhaust and things like that. But he was so tensed up that he was flying the aeroplane and I could take my hands and feet off and the aeroplane would still go round quite okay and I could feel him on it and virtually fighting me
and saying, “Yep, OK,” he was so tense. They flew a lot of hours in instruction and aiming really to let a person go to that point of making a real mistake before they stepped in. I felt after three hours that he had been flying the aeroplane and not me. Then he said, “You can take it off by yourself.”
That was a dreadful experience. I managed to get it up and down OK, which was fair enough, but you didn’t quite realise at the time, but those flying instructors, the time they put in. There was one chap, and I don’t know whether there is still a firm in
Sydney, but he was known as Hungry Joe Palmer. Hungry Joe Palmer, they were a firm of stockbrokers in Sydney, Joe Palmer couldn’t have had a nerve in his body, but he used to instruct on Wirraways, and he’d actually instructed in one month
two hundred and twenty hours of instruction with pilots. And when you come round to that you have got to take a chap, “We’re going to do this and such-and-such-and-such-and-such” and go up with him and come back and debrief him and what have you. But he just absolutely loved flying and he was a remarkable chap. I struck him several times afterwards.
He really was such a calm, placid bloke and flying to him was just something like being on holidays.
Could you talk us through your first experience inside a plane, flying it?
It comes as quite a shock
to suddenly realise you are up there. But the worst thing, and you talk about that with your colleagues, but the worst thing that ever happened was that you have got to learn how to come out of a spin. And people were saying “When you get in a spin, the aeroplane is going round
and round like that,” but they never told you that it is pointing hard at the ground and going like that, so it is quite an experience the first time. But then you did about seven or eight hours where it was dual instruction, you ran through that, you learnt how to get out of it
and under all sorts of circumstances and circuit and bumps around. And about seven or eight hours the instructor said, “Yes, take it off for yourself,” so off you went for yourself. That was a big crowning moment in your life. With people who didn’t make it by ten hours they were getting very worried, if they didn’t really
do it by twelve hours [they were] virtually sort of out, and, “We will see if we can make a navigator or something else out of you.” So you sort of progressed through it. And the big thing about it was you finished up you were flying about half under instruction and half by yourself, and it was very interesting to me
later on. I was sending Malays off to learn to fly with different air forces and I could send them off to Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Canada and they all came back about the same level. But we had some we sent off to the United States and
they came back whereby virtually the Americans had given them ninety-five percent always with an instructor and only about five percent to themselves, so they were very inferior to the other types. I’m digressing.
We’ll pick up on that later on but we are at the end of the tape.
Interviewee: John Cornish Archive ID 0559 Tape 03
John, at what point were you chosen to be a pilot?
I was chosen to be a pilot at the end of Bradfield Park, the initial training and it was really, I suppose I was a little of an exception solely because of the skills, your dexterity skills. These were the type
of skills that you had in football that carried over as a pilot. In some ways this had been verified from people before the war, that type of thing, this was something they looked for, but you didn’t know they were looking for it.
Can you clarify what those skills were?
It is just purely and simply the hand-feet
co-ordination, for example, a person that would be able to drop kick a ball over there or you were able to sidestep, that type of skill that they felt carried over into it.
Did any of these people see you in action as a footballer?
Yes, because it just happened
that going into the air force initially at Bradfield Park, “Are there any people who can play football?” and they had a couple of teams. I finished up I was selected for the RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force] at that time. I remember we played the army at North Sydney Oval and
we won by about two points. We had at that time in the air force team about six internationals. Some of them had been in the Wallaby [Australian rugby team] tour and come back from England. There were people like old Jockey Kellaher, he used to play for Manly, and
there was also Clifford, Mickey Clifford, that used to be the reserve fullback, people like that. We had a very good team and I must say I was selected in this and they were jubilant that we had won, so that particular little thing came to the fore of all the people in Bradfield Park. It was quite a triumph to beat the army because
at that time there was people like a lot of Sydney first-graders in the army, people like Ray Steer. And the funny part about it was that Arthur Morris was the opposing five-eighth to me. Arthur Morris went on and became the cricketer. He was in the army and he played in that team as the five-
eighth. He had been an old friend of mine for a long time.
Are we talking about Rugby League here?
It was Rugby Union, but you were versatile, I played both codes, and that is the way it worked out.
You mentioned hand and feet co-ordination; what about hand and eye co-ordination?
I think that was all part of it, the hand and eye co-ordination. And
I found later on with the eye co-ordination I could always very quickly adapt. If I walked out of light into darkness I very quickly adapted to it, and the other thing about it was night flying. And I don’t know how it comes about but I always seemed to know
exactly where I was above the ground. I could sort of pinpoint coming in to land, which in the UK was pretty important because ninety percent of their work was done without landing lights so you just had to judge the height above the ground.
That is a very interesting explanation, I hadn’t heard the choice of pilot being related to footballing skill before. Very Australian, but I am sure it applied elsewhere. After your first flight, what was the next move for you?
After my first flight and you just went through their actual syllabus it was a matter of repetitive work and gaining various
skills, and then you started into aerobatics and this type of thing and mainly gaining confidence, doing a little bit of the night flying. I think we did about sixty hours was the total flying that we did at that elementary flying [level].
What sort of aerobatics were you training in?
In aerobatics it was a matter of slow rolls and loops and that type of thing. The funny part about it is that if you could fly a Tiger Moth properly you could fly any type of aeroplane.
Why is that?
It is a very difficult little aircraft to fly the thing properly. For instance, doing a slow roll
you have got to be dead accurate and if you don’t watch it you would normally lose about eight hundred feet doing a proper slow roll but if you are a bit sloppy and things like that probably about fourteen hundred feet that you would lose. The other thing is in landing, when you are coming into land, it’s a little
tail wheel aeroplane and any little, as you are coming in, any air movement around could have an effect. You just suddenly get a little uplift when you are near the ground and you think you’re about to land and you are suddenly up a foot or so, little things like that. It is generally, there is a failure to appreciate
with aircraft generally just the great difference that there is. One of the easiest things to fly is a jet aeroplane and it is just so simple in comparison with other aircraft, so a lot of people don’t realise that. You’re
away you go if you are, I was only telling somebody recently that if you were flying say between Sydney and Melbourne in the winter time with an old piston aeroplane you can really cop a load of ice, because you are in that range of zero to about minus eight [degrees] and that is a very bad
area for icing. And you get icing of not only the aircraft but the propellers and the whole lot, whereas if you are in a jet aeroplane you just hold it down and zoom you’ve got there, you’re through it. But there are other things that come into it as well. If you don’t watch out there is a lot of rubbish talked about flying.
Going back to that Tiger Moth, if you could fly that Tiger Moth properly you were doing well.
We’ve heard stories about the number of accidents that occurred in training. Were you aware of the high number of accidents in training flights?
What was your awareness of that?
All sorts of things. One chap came in the land
I remember when we were at Narromine and you had a flare path, and he came into land on the wrong side of the flare path, consequently this chap standing innocently, he got hit by the propeller. And a lot of it came back to, well, I suppose in a lot of training you’re trying
to get that person doing it himself, the self-confidence you are trying to generate. But at the same time a lot of it was poor instruction and no fault of the instructors but it was just purely and simply that they did not have the background to be doing that type of work. I look later
on, you virtually didn’t really do a proper conversion onto aircraft, it was just purely and simply there was nobody there who had the experience to do it. A lot of people were killed in, say Beaufort bombers, it was notorious down at Bairnsdale because they didn’t understand the principles of asymmetric
flying and things like this. There were a lot of good people were killed because they didn’t have the correct training.
You spoke in your summary of training inadequacies, why were there these inadequacies?
It really was because you lacked a very solid
air force base to start with, with the way it had been a little bit on Depression times, but with the type of aircraft that they had and the amount of flying they used to do it just wasn’t there, the skills just weren’t there. I was very surprised later on in my career
to find out that this chap was the chief of air staff and he had a total of eight hundred hours’ flying right through his life. At the time I suppose I had eight or nine thousand. But a very fine administrator and everything like that. But you have got to be able to understand just exactly what those people are doing.
I always used to make absolutely certain that as a senior officer I could do whatever my other people could do that I was commanding.
You mentioned before the need for precision flying in a Tiger Moth, particularly when you were doing something like a roll. To what extent were the accidents occurring due to that lack of precision?
It’s a bit hard because it comes back to the individual. With a thing like that, doing aerobatics, it didn’t really matter too much. You had to, first of all you had to be at four thousand feet and you then had to do a circle around to make certain there was nobody around near you, so then you would go into it.
If you lost fifteen hundred feet it didn’t really matter but it was only when you came back, in landing or things like that, navigation at that level wasn’t really a problem because you only did a small [amount of] cross-country and you could virtually out at Narromine see the town coming up you were supposed to
turn over and things like that.
Getting back to the initial inadequacies in RAAF [Royal Australian Air Force] training, when was that situation rectified?
It was not really rectified until well after the war because it was just that, the thing was gathering pace all the time.
I remember about 1944 or ’45 that somebody said they were moving a squadron of Spitfires from Oakey just outside of Brisbane. They were going through to Morotai
and they just wanted a transport aeroplane to go with them to uplift glycol and various bits and pieces like that. I went out there and we got everything in there but there were twelve aeroplanes and they only finished up they got seven up to Morotai. The others were dropped off, an accident here, an accident somewhere else.
One chap got lost, rugged country, but it should have been, normally in that case if you’d lost one aeroplane it would have been unusual. It didn’t only apply to the RAAF. I remember at Milne Bay on one occasion, the Americans, for example,
were out here and they would land a chap at Wagga [Wagga Wagga] and “What’s this place?,” “Wagga,” “I’ve got to go to Sydney. Which way is Sydney?” and you would try to tell them a course. “No, just which way is it?” and virtually pointing in the direction. And the number of aeroplanes up the coast from Townsville up to Cape York,
it was a real graveyard of aircraft. One of the things that I always remember, at Milne Bay one day, a single strip in a coconut plantation, and they said, “The troop carriers are coming in, to pick up five hundred
US [United States] troops.” And these chaps came in over the top, twenty aeroplanes, they all came round and landed and they were parking off on the side of the strip. And there was a little bit of a cross wind blowing and I think it was about number thirteen, he came over and swung and his wing tips going down bang, bang, bang, and as a result of that there were
nine unserviceable aeroplanes, you know, little pedo heads out the front where you’re getting your air speed from and he just went down and bang. That was the sort of thing that you could get. But an experienced pilot would never ever have swung at all.
That is pretty startling.
Yeah, it was.
Getting back to the chronology of your training, after your first flight, after the aerobatics, what happened then?
You just went through. At various times in your training the flight commander would fly with you just to make certain that you were
proving satisfactory, and then at the end of it you also had, either from the flight commander or somebody like that, [he] flew with you, gave you a test. And, you see, again there was the odd person that, having almost completed their training apart from that last flight, would then be scrubbed
from flying, so it was rather critical and harrowing in some respects. You were always frightened that, there were several chaps in our place who had done a little bit of flying before and so initially you were looking to them. I remember one of these chaps, he failed on his last test and he finished up as a link trainer [simulator] instructor.
The link trainer, where you are in the little box and flying around.
I am not exactly sure what a link trainer is. Could you just clarify?
It was pure and simply for instrument training and you were in there and they put the hood down on you and you have to fly the aeroplane on instruments alone. But this little link trainer was there
and he was the instructor giving you instructions and things like that. They could take you around and let you do a landing on that.
It sounds quite a comedown.
Yes, it was quite a comedown for them.
When was it that you graduated?
From there it was about
a total of about two months that you had done your flying and then you went off onto your service flying. And at that point in time you either went on multi-[engined] aircraft or single aircraft. I went onto the multi- stream and I was posted up to Bundaberg in Queensland. And
there were Avro Ansons, a nice gentle old aeroplane, and from there you did again, going through the process of a little bit of a few circuits and a bit of single engine work, and then off you went. Your service training
incorporated things like navigation across countries and also a bit of bombing and air-to-air gunnery and that type of thing. You did there for about a total of about a hundred and fourty hours, and if you were up to it that was the time you got your big wings.
Nevertheless it was quite good.
You used the terms single and multiple, could you explain?
It was a single-engine or multi-engine, so consequently you went off and the singles went to do the Wirraway, the Harvard flying.
Your multis, there were two types, they had an Airspeed Oxford and also the Avro Anson. A nice gentle old turn. To get the undercarriage up you had a hundred and fourty odd turns, you had to turn that handle a hundred and fourty turns to get the wheels up.
This was the pilot’s responsibility?
No, the chap who was with you. You were normally
flying two of you, you were taking it in turns, but you had all that big work on the arm to get it up.
Was it hard work?
No, not really. You did in there quite a bit of three and four hours’ work and you had to take turns as a navigator on it. And
I remember we used to often fly out to a reef and then you would go down to Maryborough or somewhere like that. We had chaos one night. What happened on these little cross-countries, I think we had to go from Bundaberg down to Maryborough, down to a place,
Childers, was that the place that they had the, where they lost the people in the fire? And back to Bundaberg, so you had to do this as a solo cross country. I had done mine about nine o’clock at night and back okay but the people who were flying at about two or three o’clock, the fog rolled in and they lost three aeroplanes that night.
Three of them eventually had to bail out.
There weren’t three pilots lost but certainly three aircraft.
Three aircraft lost, and it most upset these chaps because one had gone out to sea and tried to recover the bomb aiming equipment, but that was the main thing that worried this instructor,
the what-have-you. They bailed out.
What would happen to a pilot who would have to bail out during training?
Nothing, there was no other solution, he just came back on course the next day and that was it. He was sort of saying, “I’m sure I was over the base when I came back.” It was just one of those things, but at the same time
it was something that [with] a little bit of general lack of experience through the place, somebody can get caught that way, and you always had to be very wary of foggy conditions and what have you.
You have spoken of conditions and you have also spoken of trainers or instructors who lacked the necessary experience. To what extent were the accidents also due to trainees who were a bit
There wasn’t too much gung-ho amongst the pilots. You were a little bit frightened to step outside by yourself. About the only thing that some of us used to resort to was if you get a build-up of
clouds and racing around them and putting your wing tip just in the cloud. And then one day I thought, “There might be somebody else doing this coming the other way.” Some of the instructors at that stage, there was the odd chap, we had a couple that had come back from the UK and
if you got with one of these he was a bit gung-ho as an instructor. For example, you used to have to do low flying. Low flying with this chap meant it was down near Fraser Island and you had to get down
so that your actual props were stirring up the water, “Get down, get down!” until such time as you were actually doing that, and really with other instructors it would be two hundred feet.
What was his reason for doing that?
Purely, “You have got to be able to do this, your life might well ultimately depend on it.”
Did you have to do it?
Yes, we did it once.
How did that feel?
You just got it down and down and eventually you could just see, on a calm day, just see the water being churned up a little bit, no worries.
Just sounds very risky to me.
It was a bit risky, I suppose.
Was he spoken to as a result
No, not at all.
He was clearly putting himself and the pilots at risk.
Yeah but this particular chap had gone over to the UK and he had actually done a Wellington tour and he was there, this is 1940 when he did this, and he had been in the position
of I think there were twenty seven started off on their course. They lost seven, shot down by German night fighters when he was doing his operational conversion, and it finished up half the rest of them were killed over Germany. He finished up he was one of the lucky ones, and when they came back and
sort of, “We’ve got to have people back home with operational experience” so this is what happened. He came back but he was used to flying a big aeroplane, “It doesn’t matter, the worst you can do is bend the prop a bit,” things like that, but that was sort of accepted.
What was his name?
I’m not telling any names.
He may have been a significant person, talking about those sorts of operations.
No, I will say he is still alive but only just.
What happened or could you describe the occasion on which you got your wings?
A flight lieutenant came in, walked in to the classroom and said, “There you are, there is a set of wings for each of you.”
That was it. There was no parade or anything like that, he just came in and said, “There you are. You’ve all graduated today and that’s your wings.”
You must have been expecting a little more than that, though?
Oh no, we were very pleased to get them. That’s the way it happened. Somewhere else they might have had a parade and called them out and
things like that. You have some funny experiences on these. Can I divert? Many long years later my squadron won the Gloucester Cup for efficiency, winning the Gloucester Cup and we were in Canberra and Sir William Slim was coming out to present it.
People like you would think that they would call it, we had the big parade and you would think he would say, “Well, here is the Cup and well done and I’m very pleased to present it to you.” Instead of that he says “Cornish, you take the cup, if anybody is going to drop it it’s going to be you.” I knew him pretty well at the time, but that is what he said.
That is great! No ceremony whatsoever.
No ceremony at all. He was very happy.
What did you do after receiving your wings?
After receiving the wings I was posted to 34 Squadron at Parafield in South Australia. This was a transport squadron. They had brand new aeroplanes and
that brand new aeroplane, that DC3, Dakota and for three months we virtually took priority spares right up the centre to Darwin. And then you would fly from Darwin out to Milingimbi or Grid Island [Elcho Island] or something like that, Outpost Cove [?]
and back again. It was interesting at the time, you were really a co-pilot with them. I was given the same as the other co-pilots, just two or three circuits. We had a chap by the name of Hall as CO [commanding officer] and he was an old pilot from way back
and a very fine chap, and he insisted that we each were given a few circuits, and [we] were able to take the aeroplane off and land it ourselves. We had a chap, flight commander, Bob Law Smith. Bob Law Smith was a very precise
solicitor and he was a very precise man, and he married one of the Darlings. He finished up a director for NAB [National Australia Bank] and BHP [Broken Hill Proprietary] and all sort of things but he was very precise. And the CO would say, “You’ll be right, take it off,” and he would give you a little
lecture, “You be very careful, you make certain that you are doing this and this and this, and when you land make sure you open the gills around those engines,” and things like this. We used to get a little lecture from him, “Yes sir, yes sir,” but he was quite good.
You mentioned that these were fairly new aircraft. Was this recent technology, the Dakota?
How long had the Dakotas been on the scene at that time?
We were virtually getting our first consignment of them. In many ways [we were] lucky to get them.
Why do you say that?
Purely and simply because of the sort of demands on Europe and the Middle East and there was the odd aeroplane that they had they had taken over from Civil Aviation,
there was a DC2 and things like that, but we were given this sort of consignment of aeroplanes. And there was very little understanding of the aeroplane, too, in many respects.
What, very little understanding of that particular aeroplane?
Yes, that particular aeroplane. They used to run into trouble with some of the
engines. And I know later on nobody, we had blowers on them which increased the power into the carburettor and things like that, but a lot of this was not really understood. “Don’t touch that!” So there was no formal training on it and so there was a lot of
finding out for yourself.
That’s quite extraordinary. These were aircraft that had been manufactured in the US. Were there not American specialists or manufacturers or representatives or people for the US Air Force who were coming out to instruct Australians on how to use them?
How could they possibly expect the system to work?
Well, you had people like old Pat Hall and
some like this who had a lot of experience, but you found with some of the Americans, I never ever remember ever meeting up with a US representative, either for engines or airframe.
How could Pat Hall’s experience help in the training of pilots?
He had been an old ANA [Australian National Airways] pilot
and a pretty astute sort of person, so he’d had a lot of experience. I don’t know whether he had experience with Kingsford Smith or that sort of thing, but he was able to do, really think things through and I think he had a bit of a technical background before he actually sort of went
As the years went on the DC3 became a much-loved aircraft. As far as you were concerned what were the best things about the DC3?
Reliability and also robustness. You could virtually,
providing you were flying them reasonably, you could take them anywhere and they would come through anything. I remember you would strike them over, sometimes you would get involved in a thunderstorm, as long as you were flying attitude
in that thunderstorm they could just go straight through it.
As long as you were flying....?
Attitude. You must not dare chase airspeed. There was one chap, one American, they put it down to this, but up near Rockhampton, and he got involved in a very big thunderstorm, and he had a wing ripped off
and the wing landed about a quarter of a mile away from where they got the aircraft. He had sort of chased, because you got such a false reading because of upward currents, he had chased his airspeed trying to pick up thinking he was about to stall. You know, lack of instrument training and things like that, it was fair enough.
We’ll just pick up this story on the next tape.
Interviewee: John Cornish Archive ID 0559 Tape 04
You used a term ‘flying to attitude’, can you explain what that means?
Attitude means keeping that aircraft in the same position in relation to the horizon. The great danger if you just didn’t keep that attitude
was purely you start chasing airspeed, and if you are chasing airspeed you get into a thunderstorm or something like that with great upward drafts you get great discrepancies, and you can sort of really be travelling along at say a hundred and fifty knots but your airspeed is only reading seventy or eighty. So
you push the nose forward, change your attitude, you are trying to build up speed, but all the time the speed is there and you are going faster and faster and that can head to disaster and catastrophic failure.
During the break you were mentioning a little more detail of how an aircraft would ice up and the sound that would give you some
relief, when you knew that process was about to change. Could you tell us a bit about that?
Icing can be quite a problem with the old piston aeroplanes because you are flying in that range whereby often between minus eight and zero is your heavy icing
thing. If you are over mountainous country then the ice starts building up on your aeroplane, on your propellers, on your wings and over the windscreen as well. Certainly there were built-in devices to get rid of those and so consequently that was good, but if you didn’t have those and didn’t
use them it could be a very difficult situation coming for you. The other thing which can occur on icing is in tropical areas, with moist areas, you can get carburettor icing. That is a real trick for somebody because your outside air temperature is plus twenty but
when you get the carburettor and the faster air that is going into it you can actually get ice being formed.
The other thing you mentioned was that when you would hear the ice there was a certain sound that gave you a bit of comfort. What was that sound?
If you can hear the ice coming off the propellers and hitting the side of the aeroplane you knew that was good.
Also it was always good, which was sometimes reported in the paper, that pieces of ice had fallen in the suburbs somewhere.
What sort of strife could you get into if there was a lot of icing on the aircraft?
You virtually get into a position whereby that aircraft could stall. I don’t want to get too technical on this, but you
can also get in a position in a warm front whereby you can get freezing rain, and freezing rain onto an aircraft can be a dangerous thing. I think that is getting a bit too technical.
Moving back to the DC3, we find it an advantage to have our interviewees describe the interior and
sometimes the exterior of the aircraft, so almost as if you are a camera walking through that DC3 could you give us a description of what you saw as you walked through it?
As you came into the rear there was always a little toilet area, which was a little door at the back. Then you had a cabin which was there with twenty seven seats,
reasonably wide. The door was capable of having a part of the door taken out for supply dropping and things like that. And then you just progressed up the cabin. There was also a line running along the top for parachuting, so consequently,
you just entered the cabin, there was the radio operator and navigator and then the real office right up the front.
Could you describe up the front there?
Everybody used to like to impress with all these instruments. There was always oil pressure, cylinder head temperatures,
all the various flying instruments and things like that. It used to be very impressive for the ladies.
For the ladies? How would the ladies react?
We used to, at one stage the nursing sisters, you were often carrying nursing sisters and things like that. They would say, “All these instruments.” But they didn’t really mean very much.
A friend of mine, with the cylinder head temperatures, they were only taken off one cylinder; anyway, he used to say, “I never take any notice of those. If they are not reading properly I put a bit of paper over them.”
That must have been reassuring.
It was a very impressive array of lights and instruments was it?
Yes. The other thing
about it was that it was very good on lighting. I thought it was renowned for it.
Can you explain what you mean by that?
They had fluorescent-type lighting, but it used to show it up very nicely and there was no glare or anything like that so you could see out quite well, in complete contrast to British aircraft.
I used to think with some of them they were virtually sort of thrippenny ha’penny lamps they had used, so things like Lancasters and Halifax and things like this, and a derivative later on, a York, they used thrippenny hapenny lamps that were around the place and always made life very difficult.
You are describing to me a situation where…
Where you were getting an effect from that light, whereas on the DC3 [bomber] and some of the American aeroplanes they were just sort of lighting up the instruments sufficiently, but with the others it became a little bit of an irritation you had to put up with.
So with the thrippenny hapenny lamp would they be an undue distraction?
A little bit of a distraction. I always thought that some chap in the Air Ministry had bought five million of these things. They used them on every aircraft.
Probably had shares in the company.
You have mentioned these were supply flights you were flying into central Australia and other parts from Adelaide.
They were purely and simply
high priority spares up to Darwin and out to the various airfields.
What were the high priority spares? What kinds of things were they?
There were aircraft spares, might have been spares for vehicles, that type of thing. There was, it was a very difficult time around Darwin.
They had all sorts of different types of aeroplanes that they had to keep spares up to them. It varied from Spitfires and there were a whole range of fighters and the same sort of things, and the army were always, it looked as though
it was supply lines they were looking for. We used to have one a day, there used to be one aircraft a day go racing up the centre.
Can we just explore for a moment what you mean by “it was a very difficult time in Darwin”?
It was a difficult time in Darwin because they had the raids on Darwin and
it only just recently came out, the full extent of that. More bombs dropped on Darwin in one day than what there was at Pearl Harbour. There’s not a realisation of that, but also too with these places, transport out to Millingimbi and
Grid Island and places like that, they were dependent on air supply for everything.
And of course the Japanese kept raiding Darwin.
What were the wider ramifications of that as far as your operations were concerned?
Not really, there weren’t too many wider ramifications, we just kept doing that. But I was only doing that for about three months,
then I was posted off to New Guinea after that.
This was 33 Squadron.
34 Squadron there.
34 Squadron flying from Parafield. Are there any other aspects of your 34 Squadron activities that you haven’t mentioned that we should mention?
Not really. You would have thought that at some time we would have gone through a full conversion inasmuch as you would have been feathering propellers, which is stopping them in the air, practising your emergencies,
if you have a sudden engine failure, and you’ve got to bang bang and feather the engine, no, it was all a little bit new aircraft and little bit of the feelings, “You won’t run into any troubles with this,” and things like that. Later on and you go through it,
but if you were in an RAF [(British) Royal Air Force] organisation, that would have been an absolute thorough conversion and they would have really put you through the hoops.
Other people have described to us what the RAF conversion ideally was. Could you just, for the sake of a more general audience, could you explain what a conversion normally involved?
A conversion, over the UK [United Kingdom] conversion you started off that you did some circuits in your flying, you first of all had your ground crew and your ground subjects and you had to go through that very carefully, pass exams about the whole system. For instance,
you had to know the hydraulic system, the fuel system, all the systems that you had in that aircraft and know from a flying point of view what you could and couldn't do. Having gone through that, very competent instructors flew with you. They knew
exactly when they could pull an engine on you and you had to go through the complete process. You had to land, say, with a four-engine aeroplane you would completely feather an engine and land with three engines. We, at one stage I remember doing a three-engine landing and
I had another engine failure on the same side, which is a difficult thing. Consequently you came away from that aircraft, that conversion, with a lot of confidence and you knew you could handle that aeroplane and handle it properly, and you virtually knew the thing inside out. I have always had the greatest respect ever since for the RAF.
How often were adequate conversions being carried out in Australia?
I felt with the DC3 that I converted myself. I tried to make certain with other people coming along, that I would take them through the right process, but it was very much on-the-job training rather than
sort of going through any formal training.
How did you convert yourself?
Initially flying with another captain who allowed you to do some landings, and then word got around that he was OK, and then from there you just gained in confidence and you probed in.
I used to spend a bit of time with the ground crew and, “Just exactly how does this work and such-and-such work?” so you were trying to gain knowledge about it all the time. Even later on, the things that you could get caught out with, I almost got caught out with something,
it was immediately after the war finished. By this time I was a sort of senior check pilot. I wasn’t a flight commander, but I was a senior check pilot. And we had a chap coming down from Darwin, coming to Brisbane but he was coming really, Darwin,
Cloncurry, on to Brisbane and he had a full load of passengers on. He was out near a place called Anthony’s Lagoon, had an engine failure, hot day, losing height, he had feathered one engine and written on the map, “open plains here,”
and in those days this was the sort of extent of it. And so what he did, he put the undercarriage down and landed and word got back, came back to the squadron, this had happened. My boss said to me, “Take a crew out and an engine and bring the others back.” I went out and landed alongside of him,
we took the engine out and I brought the passengers back to Brisbane. About three days later he said, “They’ve got that aircraft ready now,” and I did all the right things, I went through Cloncurry, checked the weather, it was going to be about an hour and a half back into Cloncurry. And I got out there and I
said to the chaps, “Fuel, you haven’t been using much fuel,” “No, we had to get a little bit to wash down the engines and a few bits and pieces and things like this,” but I didn’t ask them to check, I relied on the gauges on the aeroplane. And I got airborne with this old engine, and the crew, and
coming back there is another place out there, I was just passing this and they said, “There’s dust at Cloncurry.” It wasn’t forecast, and I came back, and I was halfway between this place and Cloncurry and one engine went.
It was still showing about fifty gallons, which should have run that engine for about another hour. There used to be a little feedback into the other tanks, and I went on a little bit further and, whoof, the other engine, so switched over and I’m on these two tanks that are showing about fifty gallons each, and I’m thinking “What in the world’s going on here?” And we came over Cloncurry,
and by this time they were saying, “We are closing the airfield at six o’clock,” and we were due there at about five to [six] and I came over and saw a runway and did a quick time turn and came back, wheels down and landed. What it was, the actual gauge, which was running off and in that weather, bumpy weather,
it had been bounding around in the tank, and you were getting a completely false reading. There but for the grace of God goes I, because we actually, they took eight hundred and four gallons of fuel and we put seven hundred and ninety into it. And we were probing these chaps “Well, we did take some fuel off for a fire and
we did this and this,” so they virtually had used up about an extra sixty gallons of fuel that they didn’t tell me about.
That is quite an enthralling story. It sounds like you arrived with about a thimble of petrol left.
That is right. If I hadn’t been able to land at such-and-such that would have been the end of my career.
And the end of your life.
The end of your life, possibly.
Apart from your RAAF activities you must have had some time off for R&R [rest and recreation] during your time at Parafield. What were you doing in your?
Not so much at Parafield. We would occasionally go into Adelaide, but the rest of the time we were just around there concentrating on the aircraft.
On that particular time towards the end of the war I was at Brisbane.
What were you doing on your days off?
In Adelaide, were you having any time off, going to the pictures, going to dances, anything of that nature?
A little bit, but not much. Adelaide was a very sedate place and we didn’t go, you were only there for a comparatively short time and it was mainly
the winter time. There was a bit of a closed place there, although on the base there were pictures and things like that going on. But we didn’t divert too much away from the actual airfield.
Did you have a girlfriend at this time?
No, had a girlfriend back in Sydney.
Did you keep in touch with her?
I would imagine you would be exchanging letters.
Exchanging letters and that sort of thing, and hoping you were going to get back there. It was a very comparatively quiet time there. The trouble is you were
a young bloke too and you’re kicking around the town. I suppose at that time I wouldn’t have gone into Adelaide once a month.
At the base there must have been a canteen.
Canteen and officers’ mess and things like that.
It was interesting, some of the old people you could talk to. There was one old chap there who used to fascinate me. He was the barracks officer but he had been the pilot for Hudson Fish in the First World War. His name evades me.
He was an old terror and I used to think, “Here it is, you were a pilot and you are really back to this, being a barracks officer, which is the absolute end, and there is Hudson Fish running Qantas.” And his favourite trick, what he used to like to do, this old chap, if you didn’t watch him, if there was a padre there sitting up there reading a paper he would light the paper.
A real scallywag.
Sounds a considerable character.
Yes. He would raid the kitchen at night and cook chops for everybody. He was tolerated but only just.
Getting us into 33
Squadron, what was the first that you knew that you would be moving to 33 Squadron?
Just purely and simply a posting signal came back and we were on the way within two or three days. It looked as though at one stage we were going to have to pick up an aeroplane and take it up but no, that had fallen through.
Consequently we went up as passengers into 33 Squadron.
Where was 33 Squadron based?
At Milne Bay, which is the end of the world.
That is interesting. Could you elaborate on that?
I think we must have had four or five hundred inches of rain in the twelve months that I was there. It was surrounded by mountains and a very good harbour
and it always seemed to be raining. Tent accommodation, but nevertheless you were young and happy and we set to. I suppose within three weeks of being there I was a fully-fledged captain, and off we went.
It was a dangerous place. Once you took off in the morning, and often it was a six o’clock start, once you took off in the morning you just had to keep going to about four thousand feet, steer on your course because of the surrounding
terrain. This was drilled into you and quite rightly so, too. There was one chap came up there and I had flown with him and tried to teach him, he was an old flying instructor and thought he knew. And
this morning, from a meteorological point of view, often over in the tropics you get the build up of the thunderstorms over the ocean at night, it’s only a difference in temperatures. So on this particular morning he took off and he was straight into it and getting knocked around, but you just had to keep going,
flying attitude. But this bloke took off about five or six minutes after me and struck this stuff and thought he could get back onto the airfield. He came back but it was low cloud and things like that, an aircraft accident, just straight into the trees and killed everybody on board.
I think there were five crew and he had five passengers on board as well. It was a case of real pilot error, as far as I was concerned.
Were you a witness to that accident?
No, I wasn’t a witness to the accident but I came back later in the day, I was trying to pinpoint where he had gone in. And the jungle was pretty impenetrable
and it wasn’t till next morning you could see it properly because the aircraft had burnt and the leaves on the trees were starting to shrivel a bit, so they were able to retrieve them. They knew roughly where it was, but you couldn't actually get into it.
What sort of impact did that incident have on you?
To make certain when I went off I kept going to four thousand feet. It took, you had a little bit of feeling of failure because this chap had flown with me.
Why did you feel a sense of failure?
Purely and simply I had been trying to impress on him, “You must do it this way and if you don’t do it that way you can get yourself into big trouble,” and sure enough he did.
You had known this man. Was there also a sense of loss?
Not too much. I felt a much greater sense of loss for his wireless operator and his navigator and the other pilot because I felt, well, this had been a stupid act and as far as I was concerned he should have known better. But, you know,
his wireless chap was a nice bloke, a crew member, I had flown with him. He was married and had a small babe back in Australia and you felt a sort of a loss. But as far as the pilot was concerned it was very much a professional thing, from my point of view, that this was something that he shouldn't have done.
You mentioned Milne Bay as a dangerous place. Were there any other ways in which it was dangerous?
Not really, but it was only a comparatively, a single strip. Sometimes you would get a little bit of a cross wind. But it was mainly the terrain around, and that applied generally to New Guinea.
It was a dangerous place to fly in. People that were kicking around New Guinea, especially in the daytime, the build-up of cloud and thunderstorms and things like that, it was just a part of everyday activities so you always tried to cross, if you were going from one side to the other, to do it in the morning.
Another funny little thing later on, I was in the Department of Defence, we had all these small aeroplanes trying to get photography of New Guinea to get up-to-date mapping and it had gone on for a long time. But they would go out in a small piston aeroplane to
take photos, civilian operators, the cloud would build up and they would have to come back so there was a lot of time being lost. And so we said, “Let’s fit a camera to a Canberra and you can get out there, fast up, five hundred and fifty knots, and out you go and take the photography and you are home.”
We got about ninety six per cent in the first year of the whole thing.
Keep going with these details, they are good. You mentioned becoming a captain, was it within several weeks of arriving up there? What did that involve?
Purely and simply you had been through, you had flown the odd little trip with the flight commander
and he is sort of saying, “You’re on your own,” and off you went and you had to learn quickly. One of the worst things, apart from weather, you had to overcome as the captain was a bit of a cross-wind landing. You are coming in, the wind blowing across the strip and just like that until you are about to touch on and you had to kick it around and
land straight on the strip. Once you got these sort of skills what you were virtually doing up there was roughly every hour you were doing a take-off and landing, so you very quickly got that way you felt as though you were in complete control of the aircraft.
I used to practise the drills, which stood me in good stead later on. But, you see, we were operating those aeroplanes at about almost three thousand pounds in weight over what the civilian operation [was]. The civilian clearance was for twenty six thousand, two hundred pounds and we were
operating at twenty nine thousand and so that affected, if you had an engine failure it was really going to affect you, that little bit, it made the difference.
You mentioned a drill, what was the drill?
The first thing and one of the hardest things initially [is] identifying which
engine has gone. There was many a chap, it’s all right, if you pull a throttle down you can obviously see that. First of all identify that and then watch out for fire, but you just bang off with the mixture control and the pitch on the aeroplane and stop the engine and then be ready to hit it with a fire button,
if you have got the slightest thing of fire. You had to do that and do it quickly, just one of those automatic things.
What was the purpose of 33 Squadron?
The purpose of 33 Squadron was really primarily the distribution
through New Guinea of spares, food, all logistics. One trip you would be, say, out to some of the islands like Goodenough Island and then there was also out to the Trobriands
where the ladies were supposed to be lighter in colour than in New Guinea, but then you would be up to Lae and up the Ramu Valley and places like that. Finschhafen and some of these airfields that you were going into, all sorts of aeroplanes operating out of them.
I’ll never forget going into Finschhafen on one occasion and I burst a tyre and I held it down and I called out, “Burst tyre!” and I heard this bloke in the control tower calling out, they had a bulldozer there, “Push him off!” I thought, “Goodness, gracious me!
If I allow them to push this aeroplane off I needn’t go back to base,” and I managed to get to a turn-off place and around there. The old wheel is flapping round but I got it off. They would have pushed you off because they had fighters there that were short of fuel and had to land. So there was another little experience.
Object lesson, by the sounds of it.
We’re at the end of another tape.
Interviewee: John Cornish Archive ID 0559 Tape 05
Could you describe 33 Squadron base at Milne Bay?
The transport squadron really, carrying out logistics at any point through New Guinea that was under allied control, so consequently it went out to some of the outer islands as well.
That was about the sum total of it.
What did the base look like?
It was all those great big coconut trees. And when you first went there you would get the natives to go up and get the coconuts out so they didn’t come through your tent for a couple of cigarettes. And after the Americans really took over, it would
cost you a dollar. The base was just set in a coconut plantation and just a series of tents and all very basic. The other thing about it, life up there, everything was provided, didn’t matter what it was, cigarettes, we were all given a carton of cigarettes a week.
And there was no alcohol but it didn’t matter what it was, there was nothing to spend money on. The only way you could spend money would be to gamble. That was one of those things, but life was very basic.
What would you do for fun?
We would go to the cinema once a week and I
played bridge the other six nights of the week, and having done that and sort of mastered it I haven’t really gone back to bridge, I thought I had enough of it. We used to play bridge around a box in the tent. It was good for meeting the minds of people and things like that.
What sort of films would you see at the cinema?
you’d see in the cinema, they were the latest. Just the usual thing about films, you would go and take a tin to sit on or some of the places would have logs out. Later on, when I was based just outside of
Brisbane, we used to run through to the Philippines. Now, the last thing they put on that aeroplane was a film. The first night was always Townsville, Higginsfield, which is right on the tip of Australia. Now the war had passed by and everything like that and here it was, this little staging post of probably fourty people. They would take the film
off and show it, and it was a single projector that they had, and this thing was a screen up between a few trees and you sat on logs. This one night we decided to go along as a crew and watch the film after a meal. After about three or four reels it started to rain a little bit and we all had groundsheets
and it went through, and here was going to be this deep mystery and it was all going to be revealed in the last reel. And someone in Brisbane had mixed it up so when it came on, here was this Russian dancing away, and I don’t think they ever forgave us for that because these people were bored stiff. That was a funny cinema story.
Getting back to Milne Bay, you were talking about the entertainment that you used to partake of, the bridge and the movies. What were the conditions like in Milne Bay in terms of your living quarters?
They were practically, they had one hut as
a mess hut for eating in, but apart from that there was really nothing. It was all very basic indeed. And what you had to do was every night the adjutant would hand you out ten letters to censor, so you always had to do that,
it was a chore, so that people weren’t saying where they were or anything like this. We never got around to going fishing or anything like that, there were no little boats that we could use. People became a bit preoccupied too with the humidity and the rain and what have you,
there were always fungal diseases and things like that, for people in the medical side. It was a pretty dreary type of existence. We were lucky in some ways because every second day you were flying off to some other place so you were seeing it, but if you left bright and early in the morning you would be away all day and just come back. And then next day you would probably
have off, do a bit of washing and things like that. But there wasn’t too much to do. This is one of the things, when you look back on it, a great consolation was that people were smoking. At about the age of twenty, twenty one I was smoking fourty cigarettes a day and a couple of cigars when you went to the cinema. There was no, when you look back on it.
On one occasion we had to divert to a little place, Woodlark, which the Americans had as an emergency landing strip, we struck very bad weather and had to divert in there. They had a place about as big as this house and there were only ten Americans there, but the thing was absolutely full of cigarettes.
They each gave us a case of cigarettes. “Nice to see somebody,” ten thousand cigarettes, and you could take your pick. It was quite incredible when you look back, and the harm people were doing to themselves, smoking away like chimneys.
You got a case of cigarettes. How big is a case?
A thing like that, ten thousand cigarettes.
That would have lasted the whole war.
Yes, but people down south couldn’t get any cigarettes anyway. The difficulty was with this, if you didn’t watch them by the time they were opened a day they were all starting to go mildewy and things like that.
It is interesting though because obviously that has changed
significantly. You mentioned diseases before. How was your health at this time?
Fine, I had no worries whatsoever in the whole time I was there. You were young and reasonably fit and getting out and about, so you had no difficulties at all.
Perhaps a little shaky from the cigarettes, but apart from that. Other people too, there were all sorts of odd things around. You had to take Atebrin for malaria, some of the people got scrub typhus so it was a fairly heavy toll that was taken of people. Scrub typhus
came from the kunai grass so consequently it was mainly the army that were affected by that. That was about it.
What about interaction with the locals?
Interaction with the locals, the only thing you ever told them was, “Get up there and knock those coconuts off.” There was very little reaction. They had
corps ANGAU [Australian New Guinea Administration Unit] which was a New Guinea organisation used to come around and they were very strong on malaria control, so the natives would come around under supervision and spray any water or anything like that about. But as far as that is concerned you didn’t really have any contact with them at all.
I had contact with a couple of police boys later on. They were just there, you would see them and of course you felt sorry for them, because you looked at them and there used often to be ringworm and things like that on them, but you didn’t really have any contact
We have heard that some of the men would hook up with some of native ladies. Had you heard of anything like that?
No, not really. It was only the reference, that they used to say that those ladies out in Kirawina, which was over there, were much lighter in colour than anybody else. I never knew of any sort of
activity or anything like that. There used to be the odd reference, it was only a reference, that some of the native women, because they were so precious, would suckle pigs and things like that, and so you regarded them a little bit as second-class citizens.
You didn’t really have, there was no sort of hospital at Milne Bay so there was very little contact. Sometimes, and this was interesting, we would have to fly with American nurses and it’s really the old business of
shell shock. There were so many Americans that came into the place and didn’t see a shot fired in action, but they went into this shell shock condition. Often you would finish up with twenty seven litters in the aeroplane and taking them out to a hospital.
Some of these people would be from around American cities and so first sight of a jungle and things like that, that really pushed them over the edge. It was pitiful to see, but again you just looked at them, and sort of to me they weren’t patients but of course to
the nurses just carried on that one flight they were.
How were they behaving?
A lot of them were tied down, they were strapped onto the stretcher and wobbly in the eyes and what have you, like that. It was just interesting of how it can affect people.
Young chap, you felt sorry for them.
You mentioned before that you were given maybe ten or so letters a night to censor. What was that like reading other people’s mail and censoring it?
All you were looking for was whether they had given away anything about where they were based.
It only hit at me once. I got this letter from this chap and here he was, a transport driver, writing home to his wife to mortgage the house for three hundred pounds. He had been gambling and lost the money, and I felt so sorry for that lady. Fancy opening your letter and reading your husband had been
gambling and half the house was gone. So there was nothing you could do about it, you couldn’t counsel them or anything like that, all you had to do was censor the mail. You thought to yourself how foolish he was, just one of those things. That was all that people could spend money on was gambling.
Some of the gambling that went on was very high stakes indeed. I kept completely away from anything like that. You looked at it and you just sort of followed the rumours and heard about it and things like that, what people would be playing for.
Really it was astronomical sort of money.
What sort of games would they be playing for the gambling?
Poker probably, but there was always a swy school going, the old two-up school, and that was always tucked away in the jungle somewhere because it wasn’t supposed to be,
it was not really frowned on. But if there was an air raid, dreadful, upsetting the two-up school. I went along to it about the second-last night I was up there and just to observe. It was very good,
there was free tea and coffee and soft drink and things like this and it is a very fair game. But nevertheless it was a great thing and you think a lot of those people who were up there it was an opportunity to save a lot of money, but they never did. I only thought of it the other day. But I came home
and I hadn’t drawn on my pay book the whole time I was there. I had enough money there for two-thirds of a house and I thought to myself, “Two-thirds of an average house, and here am I at age twenty one,” so it was quite remarkable. But there was absolutely nothing you could spend it on.
What did those in command think of this gambling that was going on at Milne Bay?
Some of them were very much into it themselves.
The big money was really only at probably wing commander, group captain level and higher, but you learn as a lad, not participating, what it takes to be a good poker player, as opposed to one chap over there,
he was always betting on that inside straight and things like this.
It is very interesting because we have heard in passing that this went on, but it sounds like it was really a big part of the culture there.
This one night, and I wasn’t there,
I was told about it, but they were playing poker and on one hand if you wanted cards, you were dealt a hand and if you thought you could improve on your hand, it was two hundred and fifty-six shillings for cards. The basic wage was somewhere between four and five pounds or a hundred shillings, so people on just one hand
of cards are really betting the equivalent of two and a half weeks of wages. That is bad stuff unless you are a good player.
Were people going crazy with boredom up there? It sounds like they could have been.
No. You get some people and it’s a culture, I don’t know, but if they’ve got money they have got to
spend it. You look at the present time, the number of Lotto tickets and what have you that are all bought, the amount of money that’s spent. You pick up the paper and have a look at the reporting races in all sorts of out-of-the-way places and you think, “Why in the world would they be having this?” but somebody’s betting money on it.
It’s something that’s intrinsically Australian I think and it’s also, apparently gambling is like the second biggest industry in Australia, something like that.
That’s why that wife of mine bought some TAB [Totalizator Agency Board, which operates betting agencies] shares.
That was a good one, I am sure. During this time you were talking about the censoring of the letters. What about people receiving letters from home? I am thinking of like ‘Dear John’ letters [informing recipient that a relationship is over], were there anything like that
going around the place?
Just sort of normal mail happening. It was always a great occasion to receive a letter.
I know a lot of men that had girlfriends or wives back home would often get what they call a ‘Dear John’ letter breaking off with them because they have gone off with someone else.
No, I had no experience of that.
It must have been a dreadful thing because people up there, you really knew it was sort of twelve months and they would be home, but I don’t know of any one case of that occurring. What it was, there would have been an allocation of money going to them and things like that, but I
wasn’t completely unaware of it.
During this time what kind of interaction did you have with the Americans?
Not that much. You’re going into some bases run by Americans, but I didn’t have very much contact at all
with Americans. Often we were carrying them and they were always very pleasant chaps. We used to go across to Goodenough Island. The chap who was there in charge of handling aeroplanes was an American, he was a nice enough chap, but apart from that we didn’t really have too much contact with them.
I remember on one occasion, it’s being a bit rude but we were heading off, and I think we were going up to Biak Island or somewhere like that, and the weather was very bad and they diverted into some other place, and we had to wait around there for an hour or so, and they started a game of two-up so they got some of these
Americans into it as well. And one of these Americans sort of eventually said, having lost quite a bit of money, he said, “What do I do? I push it up and all I see is those wallabies’ backsides.” They were looking for heads. In some ways they were sort of, they were very gullible, there were a lot of people up there ready to exploit some of these things.
Some of the ground crew, they used to get bits of aluminium, and there was a Tek toothbrush, just little plastic things and they would take bits of this and put it in a little bangle and then sell it to the Americans as ‘genuine Tek stone’.
All it was, it came from a toothbrush.
What was it, it was like a Tek toothbrush?
The actual sort of handle of the brush was different colour, one colour, but they were able to cut this up and insert it in a piece of aluminium or what have you as though it was set in, like a jeweller’s, and then
sell it to the Americans, good enterprise, ‘genuine Tek stone from New Guinea’. There was a bit of fun that went on as well.
How important was humour?
Humour was always important. In some of that you always had to have a sense of humour. And
I’ll tell you my story now, and you work it out with my police boys. Late in the war I was in Brisbane and I was sent up into the Aitape area. The army had got themselves into trouble, they were virtually sort of still pursuing the war, and what they should have been doing
was just maintaining perimeters and starving out the Japanese, but no, they had to go after them. The squadron had lost an aircraft up there, another squadron, and my boss said, “I want you to go up there for a fortnight. Do as much flying as you can. I can spare you for a fortnight, no more.” I thought “Gee, this is dreadful,” so I went up there and we were flying every day.
And the army had built this little strip about sixty miles out from Wewak. And it was fairly late in the afternoon and we had been hard at it all day, and they called up and they said, “Can you land out there? We have two Japanese prisoners and we want to bring them back to Wewak tonight.” I said, “No, hang it, why can’t you hold them overnight and we will bring them back tomorrow?” “No, no,” they wanted them tonight so
we agreed to land out there and pick them up. It was a bit dicey because the weather wasn’t the best, it would have been much better in still conditions in the morning, and getting into this funny little strip but nevertheless good flying practice. I landed and there are these two big police boys with their 303’s and what have you and these two miserable looking Japanese prisoners. “OK, hop in the aeroplane”
and there we were with the door wide open and crew up the front. All we were interested in was getting these things across to Wewak. And we were based at Aitape, which was just up the road awhile. And sure enough, landed back at Wewak, got out and no Japanese prisoners. I said, “What happened to the Japanese prisoners?” They said, “They jumped,” because the big door is wide open.
I don’t know whether they were pushed or whether they just jumped, but those poor Japanese prisoners, they must have jumped out at about, we had to cross the mountains. If they jumped they were trying to jump down about three thousand feet. That is the sort of little thing you remember, how you lost the prisoners, but nobody was worried about it.
What was the, those were locals, the police?
Yes, they had these police boys and there were all sorts of police boys picked out because they were pretty rugged sort of chaps, but there they were in the aeroplane, complete with their bayonets and 303’s, and we lost the prisoners.
How did those locals regard the Japanese?
I think it
varied. In some ways a lot of those people were very primitive and with some of them it would depend on how the Japanese treated them. At the same time there was talk around the place of cannibalism but whether that was what they
call ‘long pig’ or whether they were eating Japanese or not you didn’t really know. They’re out in just little villages here and there and they are strung out, and what the army used to do was to enlist these people if they were out and there was supply dropping going on.
What they used to do was in two bags, say, it might have been corn or flour or something like that, you had two bags one inside the other and some of them were just a free drop, out they went. If they opened up a new drop zone and they didn’t instruct these natives properly these natives would be out there trying to catch it. The thing is coming down about a hundred and fifty miles per hour, there were
quite a few killed that way. They learnt fairly quickly.
How did you regard the Japanese yourself?
One of the things that happened up there at the time we were at Milne Bay was the beheading of Newton,
so you used to think “How could they do this, capture somebody and put his head on a block and, bang, off with the sword and kill him?” So consequently at the same time you had quite a lot of respect for them because you appreciated that they had completely different standards
to what we had, and you must admire people that stick by their standards. You look at Kamikaze pilots, this sort of thing, just going straight, bang, into an aircraft, there is no chance of survival, and so consequently it was fair enough. There were other places
that you had respect for them too, you knew in certain areas you keep away from that area. They had one bloke around Wewak, he was always called ‘Dead-Eye Charlie’, with aircraft coming over he was very accurate in his anti-aircraft fire,
and so this one chap got four or five aeroplanes at one stage. You had that sort of ambivalence towards them. But then again another thing which I hadn’t brought out, but they overstretched themselves so from a strategic point of view they overstretched themselves
and the numbers of aeroplanes they lost in New Guinea was phenomenal. Up on the north coast running up from Finschhafen up to Wewak it was like a real graveyard of aircraft up there. I came back with, I took a compass out of a Japanese aeroplane one day,
just sort of wandering through, but I suppose on each airfield there must have been seventy or eighty aeroplanes on average that had been caught on the ground or shot down. They had a lot of aeroplanes up there.
You mentioned the Kamikaze pilots, as a pilot yourself what did you think of
the mentality of the Kamikaze pilots?
You must admire it, that somebody has that dedication for their country that they are prepared to get up in an aeroplane and go straight, bang, into something. When you come round to it you think, “Oh, gee.” What it comes back to is belief of where they are going, and this is the same with
a lot of the Muslims. You have at the present time these people who are suiciding and it is very much involved that they are going straight to heaven and there is going to be half a dozen lovely ladies waiting for them. That is a genuine belief. And you start probing in on Christian people, there’s a lot of Christian
people that don’t have, they say they are Christian people, but when you delve in there’s not too much faith there.
Religion is quite interesting. I know that it had, for a lot of people during the war, religion was a backstop for them and it helped them get through.
Did your faith help you get through at times?
Yes, I’m sure it did. You didn’t see too many padres but you had been brought up in that mould from early life so consequently it translated that you’re always trying to do the right thing. It’s
something you have got to continue, trying to do the right thing. If you look in this world there are a lot of very selfish people and things like that. You always seem to have that sort of faith. You question at times and think things like this, but at the same time
I think it’s sort of Christian principles that you’ve got to apply right through your life. That sort of helps you through the bad times, doesn’t it?
Were you during this time flying with the same crew?
Not necessarily. I was often
flying with a pilot that was getting close to captaincy and watching him closely because I really had the sort of last say of whether he was going to become a captain. Our CO [Commanding Officer], I didn’t have too much admiration for him, and he’d been an old pilot
at one stage and things like that. It depended on the number of people that, navigators and radio men, that you had. Sometimes you were a bit short and they were doubling up. Drills and that were much the same, so that you could sort of fly with anybody, you had to be standard, so it was good from that point of view.
You look back on some of these people and it was quite a thing to grant them their captaincy because in future they were in control and there was no backing away from it. You hoped they shone through.
What was the relationship like
between the crew and the ground crew?
Always very good, because I think there has always been that recognition of your dependency on them, that you’ve got that engine fitter, he is responsible, so I
always came at it of trying to make certain that they were part of the team. And sometimes we would just, if we were down a bit we would take a couple of them on a trip with us. I’ll tell you a story.
Let’s tell it on the next tape.
Interviewee: John Cornish Archive ID 0559 Tape 06
You were just about to tell us a story.
About the importance of team work. I had the base at East Sale and consequently you were away from the rest of the places, no senior officer coming down, there has to be a reason for coming there, so you were a little bit isolated and it was good. I used to go flying every
morning and I used to say, “If anybody wants to come flying with us,” it was in little twin jets, “put their name down,” so I always had a passenger with me, one of the ground crew. They thought it was good because they worked on the aeroplane and so would go flying in it. I would get them up there
and have a look around and I would say, “Would you like to do a few aeros [aerobatics]?” “Yes, I would like to do a few aeros, sir.” I would watch them very closely because you would do a few barrel rolls and once you saw them getting a little, the colour going and staring to get a little greenish, “I think I’ve done enough aeros now,” you’d say and you’d stop. I never made one sick but a lot of them were very
close to it. It can be very messy.
That’s very decent of you to stop. How important was teamwork, both with the ground crew and with the air crew?
Teamwork is absolutely paramount, it doesn’t matter who it is. There’s a very close discipline in the air force, always has been, to make certain
you don’t have any surplus manpower. Consequently if that chap is not doing his job properly something is going to give. All the time you’ve got to work on it and you have got to think that that bloke is working on your engine or aeroplane and you don’t want it to let you down. We always regarded it as very important indeed.
Was there ever a time that you can recall where you were let down by the ground crew?
No. There was almost a time. I moved a unit down from Richmond to Canberra in the middle of winter and
what happened was that the ground crew were up in brick accommodation at Richmond, very nice place, or they were living out and were suddenly transported down to Canberra, really for the politicians’ benefit. And we moved at the end of June. They went from this sort of accommodation down to twenty seven
to a hut, with the old galvanised iron on the outside. Next morning I thought, “I’d better go down and see how everything is, that the breakfast is right and things like this.” I got out and what had happened there was some chap in the middle of the hut had taken his teeth out and put them in a glass and they were solid next morning.
You learn a lot about morale from that. So consequently what we did was we got agreement that on Friday afternoon we would fly them up to Richmond and they could go home and [we would] pick them up first thing on Monday morning. We did that for a few months.
Getting back to Milne Bay,
what was the longest operation that you flew out of Milne Bay?
The longest you would do would be about two hours. That would be it, you would be two hours and then you would be landing somewhere or other, and from there you would be hopping to another one, might be over to Port Moresby. You are back there that night, so it was a matter of air-hopping from one
base to another.
Could you describe for me what a typical day for you would involve while you were at Milne Bay, from getting up in the morning?
We would get up in the morning, you would up at about half past four, have a breakfast. You are down, go through the mess, it would be six o’clock. By the time six o’clock comes it’s just dawn, you’ve been around your aircraft; off you go.
When you say you’ve been round your aircraft what do you mean by that?
Checking your aircraft and making certain that all the covers are off. You have a little cover on the pedo head and if you don’t take it off you are not going to get any air speed.
What is the pedo head?
It is a little head sticking out from the aircraft and it relies on impact pressure of air coming in.
That’s on the nose?
Impact pressure coming in acts on a diaphragm which gives you, is tied to your air speed indicator. Just going around generally checking, making certain, there were little taps, that you hadn’t got any water in and so you would just check a bit of the fuel to make certain it was fuel and not
water because water will sink to the bottom of the tank. Little things like that, just going round. Probably the first trip you would check the load, that it’s tied down properly. It might be over to Goodenough Island and then they quickly unload that, and from there it might be up to Finschhafen and again you’ve taken something up to there. And it might be picking up
something, people, take them across to Port Moresby, and then you might have to come back to Lae and then by this time down to Dobodura somewhere and then eventually home. In that time you would have done about eight hours’ flying and about four hours’ sitting around the deck waiting for someone to unload, and things like that.
This is a silly question, but would you take a packed lunch?
No. You would, at somewhere along the way you would have, probably Salvation Army would have a few sandwiches, and just have a quick sandwich on the way. Sometimes some people would take some drink with them, some cordial of some description.
I was just wondering how you got your lunch. You just mentioned
the Salvos, the Salvation Army people. What kind of role did they play up in New Guinea?
The Salvation Army were always great ones for on the strip, having some sandwiches, tea and coffee and things like that, they were always great. We used to have a Salvation Army chap who lived in our base but the number of times he would have that,
often they would have a couple of natives working for them as well, so they would make sandwiches and things like this. They would provide you, if you had an aircraft that came in from Townsville, it’s a bit over four hours in from Townsville, they’re taking passengers out, and so
it was great for them, they would give some sandwiches, typical Salvation Army, they would be there ready to fill in.
It sounds like they really had quite an important role for practical things like sandwiches and coffee but also with morale.
It has always been great. Anybody who has been involved
during the war has always got a good word for the Salvation Army. Looking back on it they did very well indeed.
Before we leave Milne Bay was there anything else significant that happened while you were there?
No, not really. We used to get the odd reconnaissance aeroplanes come over. One morning I nearly got cleaned up,
away from Milne Bay, that was up in the Ramu Valley, and I had the crew on alert and they saw a couple of aeroplanes coming straight towards us. I just at the last minute dived down very close to the trees. A couple of Nip aeroplanes, they just went straight past, whether they were short of fuel and didn’t come back. Things like that, nothing of any great significance.
That’s pretty significant.
I suppose it is. You’re young and what have you, you didn’t take too much notice of it.
When that was happening what was going through your mind, when you saw the Japanese planes coming?
When you saw it you had your crew on lookout and
you had the astrodrome [navigation lookout] up the top and normally if you were in that sort of territory you would have one of the crew up there watching out. He sort of said, “There’s something coming at you!” “Oh, watch out, there’s something coming at you from the left,” and so I had a quick glimpse, I could see it and I had a couple of extra hundred feet I could very quickly drop off.
I thought, “Oh gee, they’re coming.” They were over there, they’d come around and come straight up behind you, but no, they just kept on going, so they must have been short of fuel or something like that. I don’t want to know.
I guess when that happens to you it’s a real test of your training.
Yes, of course it is.
What happens to the mind when you are in a potentially dangerous situation?
have got to think of your crew too, you’re practically automatic. If you are trained properly you’re practically automatic. I suppose you get a bit silly, you think more of the aeroplane than what you think of yourself, how dreadful it would be if you lost an aeroplane. I suppose
for married people it could be something different, but I wasn’t married in those days so I didn’t seem to worry too much.
I would have liked to have been your plane.
Aeroplanes are always feminine, did you know that? And you daren’t go round
kicking the tyres, you have always got to talk to them nicely, and this is why pilots make good husbands. If you go around and kick the tyres and say, “I’ve got to fly you, you rotten thing,” that sort of thing, you’ve got to talk to them sweet talk, “We are going up there and we are going to have a look at some lovely things today and we’re going to do this and going to do that.” and it really works,
gets you in the right mood for it. You think that’s funny but it’s very true. I used to always be very careful.
I’m just imagining you kicking your wife’s tyres.
No, they were all females, all aeroplanes.
It sounds like you really loved your planes, the machinery.
Yes. What you’ve got to do, you’ve got to admire and what have you, and it comes up in a completely different dimension and you get a lot of pleasure.
If you’re coming in to land and you just sort of vary that last little touch and you don’t know you’re on the ground and that is hard in a Tiger Moth, it wasn’t too easy in a Dakota, but you just get that way it’s what they call a ‘greaser’, you just greased it on.
What is the best
thing about flying?
Getting back on the ground. I think you have a great, it’s something, every time it’s something different, and you can go up there on an absolutely beautiful morning and flying an aeroplane around is an absolute great joy.
Other times you’ve got the greatest admiration for, you look and see a big thunderstorm or something like that. The other thing is there is a sense, with jet aeroplanes there is a sense of great power too, because I was over at
Edinburgh in South Australia and we used to do a lot of low-level work. They were trying to develop a low-level bomb, and so you would be racing across the desert first thing in the morning doing about four hundred and fifty knots and then let these things go. You would let them go at about two hundred feet and the thing was supposed to retard so that it didn’t go forward and burst and
catch you. That sort of thing, it gives you that great feeling. What used to frighten the life out of me, I used to have to fly with the aerobatic team. I said, “OK, you can practise,
but I will fly with you before you are able to do it properly in front of people.” I was a little bit older and so physiologically I wasn’t really capable of it and I started to black out at about four or five G [Earth-standard gravity] and these young blokes about twenty to twenty five could just keep going.
You could feel yourself fading away and think, “I am so close to him,” so that was a test, it is a great sense of achievement. And I think sort of you probably have got more sense of achievement out of landing if you just come in and sort of
quietly put it down when everybody is watching. As long as everybody is watching you are OK. I badly fell out one day. I had this air trials unit over at Edinburgh and I had seven different types of aeroplane, very few ground crew, and it was mainly air crew that I had.
And amongst all these aeroplanes there were two old Bristol Freighters, they were the ugliest aeroplane that was ever built, and you’re sitting up in the air about twenty feet in the three point position. And I was running around flying Canberras and Meteors, I was having a great time,
instead of these things that are kicking along at about a hundred and thirty knots. And a couple of these people, they used to flog them out Maralinga, Giles, and head up into the North-West Coast and they got quite pointed about, “When are you going to fly the Bristol Freighter?” I said, “I’ll get around to it.” And there was a friend of mine that had been flying them and
he said, “If you sit in the seat of the Bristol Freighter,” he said, “on the horizon draw a blue line. You would be sitting up at twenty feet and you are normally used to sitting down at about three or four. It doesn’t matter, as long as you get that blue line on the horizon she’ll sit down like an old lady.” Having read the book there was nothing you could do about it, so fixed undercarriage, there was really nothing you could do.
The chap who was normally there, he said, “Come on,” so off we went. Coming back I got this blue line on the horizon, beautiful and you have always got to do a single engine landing, we cut one engine and I did this and he said, “Do you want to do it by yourself?” and I said, “It will have to be done,” so I had to go off on this and I did two landings, and I was just about to bring the aeroplane back and
they called up from the tower and they said a friend of mine was visiting from Melbourne, “He’s running late; could you give him a lift over to West Beach?,” the civil airport. The last thing I wanted to do. They said, “He’s on the way.” Out he came and hopped into the aeroplane and over we went to the West Beach. I’m coming in to land at West Beach and I am getting it back on the blue line on the horizon and I suddenly remembered I’m landing
into the Adelaide Hills, and mentally I couldn’t remember where that blue line should be, a bit above or a bit below? And we hit and bounced all over that airfield. I reckon I could have put fifty people off flying for life. I swore him to secrecy about it and I just took it back home after that. That’s the sort of things that happened.
Everybody knows now. Just getting back to the DC3, were you flying the same plane every time you went up on ops?
No. Just what was available, bang. You never, there was nothing you could say was your aeroplane.
I know one chap that worked on that basis, an old CO of mine but with everybody else you just flew the particular aeroplane.
How would you say the RAAF evolved during World War II?
It was a little strange in some ways because
what you finished up with the air force, there were a lot of people that were pre-war and what happened to them was they went into staff jobs and developing the Empire Air Training Scheme and all this, so it did finish up sort of that you didn’t have
people in charge that had too much flying experience. There was one thing that has been very much sort of corrected, that you have people now, if a chap is in charge of a base or what have you, you can guarantee he is in good flying practice and he’s out there leading the team.
It was a bit unfortunate in some ways and what happened too, later on, these senior people in various ways some of them have been quite good and quite good war records, I suppose, about twenty percent of them but a lot of them had just sort of gone into staff positions and hadn’t
really done any modern flying, of modern aeroplanes, and I don’t think I am being unkind when I say that. I had a funny experience. I had a CO at Richmond and I thought he was an old woman, he was out of this world, he had been a POW [Prisoner of War].
And I didn’t realise it at the time, I found out later on, he had sort of had a squadron in Singapore. It was up at Kotabaru and the night before Pearl Harbour, Japanese transports had moved into the territorial waters, and he was trying to contact people
in Singapore and tell them this and couldn’t do it, so he launched a war himself. He finished up, they got a Japanese transport in territorial waters, and I found out later on when he came over and I took him out to lunch with another chap who was a POW in the same,
happened to be a POW in the same unit. It is bit hard to comment on that one. What they did later on too, I suppose I was a beneficiary, they woke up to the problem of having a lot of these people at the same sort of level depart from the air force, and so they took a lot of people and moved them
around fairly quickly. I thought I was going to be in South Australia for at least three years. I was bang, no, moved down to Sale to command the base down there, and bang I was moved up to Malaysia. You were moved around very quickly, which was pretty tough on family. It worked out OK.
Getting back to Milne Bay, where were you when the war ended?
I was only there for twelve months. I came back to Australia and then I was posted to 38 Squadron. We used to run through to the Philippines
and back again. A great job it used to be, two and a half days up and two and a half days back, and then you would nick off to the Gold Coast for about five or six days.
This was before the war ended.
Yes, just about the end of the war.
What were the stops to get up to the Philippines?
We used to do from Townsville,
Higginsfield, right on the tip, and then we would fly across to Hollandia, have you ever heard of Shangri-La? I know exactly where it is up there. Shangri-La, Morotai, Biak, the Halmaheras and then we would be up to Samar or one of those bases up there or sometimes we would have to go across
to Borneo and across to Balikpapan or one of the other bases where the Australian Army was.
Why did you change from 33 to 38?
They only kept you twelve months up there and at various times I had to go back with 38 to do a small detachment,
but you were virtually sort of twelve months in the operational area and then out again. But we came back into it in flying up and down. Right on the end of the war we were on standby over at Morotai and then we went into Singapore as soon as the war finished and we spent
ten days or so just carrying POWs back to Singapore.
Before we go into the POWs, because I know that’s a fairly significant part of your story, what do you remember of the war ending?
I remember the war ending.
I was coming down with a load of what they call the five year army chaps, people who have been in the army five years, and I was heading down coming to Townsville and we heard over the
radio that the war had ended. So I said, “We are not letting this crowd loose, just don’t tell anybody, we will keep them in the aeroplane.” We refuelled and brought them straight through to Brisbane because I thought, “Before you know where you are, [if] they know the war has ended there will be people, we’ll never round them up again.” That’s how I ended
What went through your mind when you heard that news?
It was great but I think everybody could see it coming. It was getting so close and in some ways Australia became a little bit isolated,
they were certainly over in Borneo, and they were still sort of fighting around New Guinea. But that was a bit of a side show. The Americans were pressing on so close to Japan itself, so consequently you had the feeling of a little bit of an anti-climax that was going on.
I think the Americans were really prepared for an assault on Japan and it looked as though there would be terrific casualties from it, so that was about it.
The war had ended and you were about to
start telling us about the role you performed in bringing the POWs out of Singapore. What took place there?
It was just purely and simply you went over there with three or four aeroplanes that went in and they said, “Yep, today over to this place, you have got to pick up some people over there,” and the next day you would be off to somewhere else. It was martial law in Singapore so you
could grab a car off anybody and then that car would disappear from out the front next morning, and so it was only a matter of three or four. But you saw these people who were completely sort of wrecks, just skin and bones and things like that, and you brought them over. I remember going over to a place in South Borneo or Kalimantan as they call it now
and I think normally you carried about twenty seven in the aeroplane and we put in about fifty. The peculiar thing about it too was we were there for a couple of hours. It was unreal because here are these people, war had ended, and only by a few days certainly, and all the Chinese merchants and everybody like that still
were operating on occupation money. You could have, and the jewellery shops and things like that, you could have bought a chaff bag full of occupation money in Singapore for about five bob and then here they were all over there still operating on that. And this is, of course, at various times, you had this sort of unreal feeling
of people’s lives certainly being so completely disrupted by war, the changes. You can imagine some chap over there and he has been, there is no stability in currency and things like that. I also struck the same thing in China.
Getting back to those
POWs that had been in Singapore, what impression did seeing and communicating with those men have on you at the time?
They were so pleased to actually do it. Some of them were different nationalities, there were some
civilians, some military, but when you looked at them it was dreadful from the point of view of food. And it was the way the Japanese regard POWs, of which you are well and truly aware, that “This is a great disgrace so these people are not worthwhile worrying about them.” To see these people absolutely skin and bones,
things like that, it had quite an effect. They hadn’t been washed and they all smelled and things like that. Again I suppose it just brushed off, it was just another job you had to do, and you thought how lucky you are that you are not being fired at, and things like this.
Were you able to communicate with any of them?
Yes, we had a bit of a chat, but your main concern was to get them out there and get them safely over to Singapore. So it’s a bit of strange area that you are operating in so once you sit in that seat, you don’t worry about what’s behind too much, and you don’t go out and have a chat with them or anything like that,
you just sort of concentrate on the job to get them home safely, and that was about it.
Is there was one image that you saw, one person who you saw, that would sum up what you did see during that time?
Yes, I remember seeing one chap and he must have been about aged thirty,
or at least I thought he looked aged thirty, and he had been a POW over there for three years. And I thought, “This is a completely broken person,” and “how will he ever recover?” And you don’t know what happened to him. He was just a chap, looked OK but with a complete glassy stare about him.
You wondered whether they would ever recover and get back to a normal life. It just brought it home to you how dreadful it was.
Who were they accompanied by?
We had a couple of nursing sisters on board and they looked after them as best they can, but it wasn’t that
far away, it was only a couple of hours’ flying and you were back, off they got off the aircraft and bang, next day you were off somewhere else. We only did it for ten days, I think it was.
You must have gotten to them pretty much immediately after they had been released from the camps and things. You would have seen them at their worst.
Very much so, and you didn’t know about death marches and things like that that had occurred, which was a dreadful thing. But it was the Japanese mentality, if you got taken prisoner there was something really the matter with you, it should never have happened, you should have died for the fatherland, that sort of
We’ll pick that up on the next tape.
Interviewee: John Cornish Archive ID 0559 Tape 07
John, just to backtrack slightly, you were talking about the pleasures of flying before and I would like to revert to something much earlier in the interview where you spoke of flying as being part of a third dimension, and you said that you might talk about that later in the interview. Is that something that you can talk about now?
It’s a third dimension inasmuch as it is a little bit like a cube.
On one side, you can go that way or that way, but you can’t go up. And I think having that third dimension, that depth in it, it does bring something special. I’ve had various experiences, like it’s wonderful seeing something from a height.
Nowadays you can see it quite happily from fifty thousand feet so you get a real bird’s eye view. At the same time there are some of the sort of experiences that you can have on a very dark night of seeing the stars coming up and you think that they are below you. It is perhaps a bit of an optical
illusion, but nevertheless those sort of things. And it brings it home to you that it is a very big firmament and what have you.
It makes you a little closer to the solar system and heavens and whatever else you might like to interpret it. That’s nice, that gives us a sense of further fleshing out the angle.
Staying with the POWs for a moment, how much did you know at that time of what the POWs had been through in places like Singapore and presumably other places like Borneo?
You didn’t really know at all what they had been through, and it’s a combination of being a POW in that area, lack of food,
there were punishments and things like this, it came as a great shock to suddenly see these people who, for the last few years you have been seeing everyone as being quite normal and then suddenly you are seeing these people who are absolutely skin and bones. You certainly associated it with the Japanese but you didn’t know the full stories or anything at that stage.
You also had some connections with Hong Kong and Chungking at this time. You said earlier there is a bit of a funny story here. What is this story?
Why do you think we would be flying from Hong Kong up to Chungking and back? I don’t think you would know the answer, but what it was, it was to
help the Australian building industry inasmuch as around Chungking and that area is the only place in the world where they had the patience to pull the bristles out of the pigs. What used to happen was that this came down the Yangtze [River] by boat, but it was civil warfare operating in China
at the time and this was the only way you could fly the goods out. Consequently we used to fly up to Chungking, take our own fuel in fourty four gallon drums, refuel up there, get a load of these pigs’ bristles and fly them back to Hong Kong. We did that for about a month.
How were the pigs’ bristles packed?
They were packed in a typical Chinese [way], done up in wooden crates. Bristles were the only thing we used in paintbrushes and this was the only place you could get them. We had several funny experiences up there too, because the one chap had, it used to be the
headquarters during the war of General Shanult and his flying Tigers, and what had happened, they moved out but this little chap set himself up as the meteorological officer and he had no reporting. You would say to him, very poor English, “What’s the weather like in Hong Kong?” “Hang Cow very good, Peking very good.” “What are the winds like?” “Very good winds.” You didn’t
know whether they were strong winds, whether they would whip you, it was real barnstorming stuff. In one part coming across there one of the chaps reckoned it affected the compasses, some sort of magnetic affect from the hills. Getting back into Hong Kong was never an easy place. What it was, there was no airstrip
running out into the harbour. It was simply a funny little airstrip on the side of the present strip. But you used to have to come over some hills and pull everything off and just land on this little funny strip. It was a real testing time but nevertheless we did the job, but there were RAF aeroplanes doing exactly the same thing as what we were.
What sort of aircraft were you flying at this stage?
DC3s, the workhorse.
Something caught my attention in what you said before. You used the name Shangri-La and you said you knew where it was. What are you referring to here? Are we talking about West New Guinea?
Up there in West New Guinea, but I am not divulging exactly where it is.
There was a film made there, called ‘Rescue From Shangri-La’. Were you involved in that in any way?
No, it was just, you see, at that part of it the mountains go up to about sixteen thousand feet and you would look down on the mountains and it’s really up and down, and you would look down and see a little bit of fire coming from some chap way
down there, and so it was always a bit of a joke amongst pilots we knew where Shangri-La was. “One of these days we’ll crash the aircraft there and live happily ever after.”
You were familiar with that film, ‘Rescue from Shangri-La’?
No, it was just Shangri-La?
This was what it was known as.
It was just one of those little things.
Shangri-La seemed to be a concept that was being kicked around. The film might have been later on, but there was always this mystical reference to Shangri-La.
Why don’t you wish to divulge the location?
It sounds like something from Lost Horizon in the first place.
Yes it does.
That’s exactly what they were on about, they were not wanting to divulge the location.
You answer is in the spirit of James Hilton’s novel, of the film.
Yes, of the film. One of the things, you were up there at sixteen thousand feet sucking away on oxygen and you had to operate with those aeroplanes a high blower to get across the mountains because it’s a bit unusual. Here we are at seven thousand feet down here and you are up there with sixteen thousand feet that
they shot up to, so that’s Shangri-La.
Moving back to China, you mentioned the civil war was in progress at that stage. Did you ever see any activity of the civil war?
No, nothing whatsoever. I know that old Chiang Kai Shek had that old printing press going
as fast as he could, because one day we were refuelling the aircraft and this little chap came along, he was carrying a bag and he said he wanted to buy a cake of soap. I was the only one that seemed to have a spare cake that hadn’t been opened. I said to him,
“There’s a nice cake of soap, how much will you give me for it?” “Half a million Chinese dollars.” I thought, “That’s unreal,” so I gave him the cake of soap, so I gave away my first half million. It was quite incredible. There was a Professor Copeland was up there as the Australian sort of High Commissioner at the time, Ambassador
it would have been. We used to go up there, stop at the Embassy overnight and back next day.
Did you ever feel that you were flying a hazardous operation, flying in to that territory?
You didn’t want to be coming down in it. And the other thing which was quite remarkable, you got a feel for the size of China. Here it was, we were nine hundred nautical miles flying inland and then
no matter where you looked that sort of terracing on all the mountains that ran up, you got that feeling of the numbers of people that are up there.
Obviously the immensity of the nation.
And the largeness of the outside world, must have been quite an eye opener.
It certainly was, for a young chap it was.
You have mentioned in your summary the possibility that you would return to teaching at the end of the war, was there any possibility that you would leave the RAAF?
I was looking around because I thought, “Well, if I get married,” and what have you, but [I thought] some time in the near future the RAAF is going to say, “Oh no, we
don’t want you,” and I would have been then prepared to go back and go to University on the training of the systems they had in there, which would have been the way to go, and I think I would have enjoyed it. But that was not to be, it just came straight out of the blue that of all the people who were around they just said, “We want to send two crews
to the UK to participate in this Commonwealth Squadron.” And that was a carry-over from the war where it had been so successful. So when you were there you could find you are the captain of the aeroplane you had, might have been an RAF co-pilot, a South African navigator, a New Zealand what have you and a
flight engineer from somewhere, so it was completely mixed crews that you came up with.
Can you describe for me a little more precisely what the Commonwealth Squadron was?
The Commonwealth Squadron was, the idea behind the Commonwealth Squadron was that they had picked crews and that there were
two elements to it. There was a long range element and there was a comparatively short range for around Europe and that type of thing. The long range we were equipped with two types of aeroplane, the York and the Lancastrian. We had extra fuel tanks in the York and it
was really a derivative from the Lancaster bomber. It had been put together, a grand old lady.
This was the York, was it?
The grand old lady, why do you call it that?
You have always got to call them ‘lady’ but it was a very good aircraft, very reliable. If you had those engines,
Rolls Royce engines operated on twenty four hundred revs, you could go around the world and forget having to check your magnetos. The rest of it was very good, it never ever, I had one engine failure in the whole time I was there.
Why could you go around the world without having to check your magnetos?
I’m just saying that you had such confidence in the aeroplane and as long as you did it, but
it came up that you were virtually operating world wide. One trip you would be out to Ceylon, the next one you would be down to South Africa, the next one over to the States. And so it was a very happy time, but at the same time you worked very hard. They don’t let anybody loose with that.
You had an examining unit which you had to face up every six months for flying tests and every twelve months for a complete ground examination and also flying examinations. You felt when you beat the trappers you were doing well.
You ‘beat the trappers’?
The trappers, the examining unit, they were the people who were really out to
make it tough for you.
How was it, do you think, that you had been chosen for the Commonwealth Squadron in the first place?
I don’t really know. I had been in the unit, I had been sort of put forward and just been given an Air Force Cross, and I suppose it was the work I was doing at the present time, and my CO
and up further had no doubts that I could do it. It was a very demanding type of work, I must not sound self-praising, and what have you. Transport Command had four categories, you had A, B, C and D. D was inexperienced, B and C
such-and-such, but you had to get your A category, they really put you through the hoops before you got that A category. They had things such as a four engine aeroplane and at night instead of a full flare path they would give you four flares and they would pull an engine on you, that sort of thing. They’d put you in
all sorts of emergency positions. As a result of that you had great confidence in your ability, but you had to face up to that every six months. There was no letting down because at any time you could be called upon to fly some VIP [Very Important Person] from A to B. They did try to get it so that you
had been to the area before. They didn’t let you go racing down into Africa unless you had some flying down there before. They worked it pretty well.
Your involvement in the squadron was long range, was it?
You mentioned VIPs, can you define for me what your brief, your objective was as a member of the squadron?
That was purely and simply to fly VIPs. For example, I took Field Marshall Slim when he was just about to take over as the chief of the imperial general staff, and I flew him. I flew the
secretary of state for air and these type of people that you would be called on to fly, but at any time they could be, you could be called upon. I will tell you another funny story, it really was, I was put on standby to fly Princess Elizabeth.
We haven’t recorded this.
No, I haven’t recorded it, but we were due to fly her down to Malta if the weather hadn’t improved. So we went through all the full process, you are already there to fly her, so that was the sort of thing, their whole process, that they had to have faith in you that you could do it. It was good.
Did that flight eventuate?
No, it didn’t eventuate. I put up the big black
Why didn’t it eventuate?
The weather had cleared up and the normal Queen’s flight were able to take her down. It must have been a nice romantic flight, and what I did was take my wife to the concert and put up a big black mark.
Of course you have been married by this time hadn’t you?
Can you give us some essentials on how you
met your wife and when you actually married?
I had known her sister and I didn’t know her, and I came home on leave and I recognised her. But I went to a dance and she was there, and so we linked up and everything was fine. And after
sort of six months I proposed, she accepted. Her mother said, “Don’t marry a pilot under any circumstances.” Her father said, “You never know the aeroplane is not going to fall out of the sky. He might get run over with a bus.” That’s the way they talk about you.
We had been engaged only a short period and it suddenly came up, this posting to the UK, and I was ‘told’ in inverted commas that I could take a wife so I rang up and shortly afterwards we got married. It was the start for both of us,
a very happy time, because she loved to explore, when we were over in the UK, going to concerts and all sorts of things, and she was a great one on art and craft so it was one of those things. We came back to South Australia after various times, the second
time we came back, and the one thing that she wanted, we moved into this old house out at Salisbury which was owned by the Weapons Research Establishment, and the one thing that she wanted was what was in those days called “body carpet.” She said, “Can we have body carpet?” I said, “We don’t know how long we will be here.” “Oh no, we’ve been over in England for three years, we are sure to be here for three years.”
So we agreed that the body carpet would go in and it so happened there was one room that was missed out. There was this aged relative who had been very good to us in England decided to come out for a trip to Australia and she said, “We must get body carpet in that room.” This duly was going to happen on this day and
this chap, carpet layer, came with the carpet and he was just starting off and I got notification down there, “You are posted, you’re off to East Sale.” This is only twelve months after I have been there. I rang her up and I said, “Are you sitting down?” “Yep, sitting down,” I said, “We’re posted, I am promoted, we are going over to East Sale.”
She said, “Just hold on a minute.” She called out to this chap, “Not too many nails in the carpet, it might have to come up.” This chap was completely nonplussed, “What in the world is going to happen here?” He was very good, he didn’t put too many nails in, and then he came back later on and I got the dimensions of the new place we were going to over at Sale, so he cut up the carpet, to get it to fit into
the new house. I flew it over in an old aeroplane and we put it down so eventually when we moved it was there. She was very alert, saying, “Not too many nails in the carpet.”
She sounds a very switched-on person and very cool under pressure. What were your impressions of post-war Britain?
Britain, it was very difficult conditions for people. What they had to put up with. We were in a bit of a privileged position, because I was in and out of the country I could bring things back, also they had a canteen in Australia House, you could buy things. You had to admire people. It would come out “two ounces
of meat this week.” And then next week “one and a half ounces.” And the way they scrimped and scraped with things was quite incredible. The general health of the people was quite reasonable. I think they all had hoped that it would be much better times very quickly. And instead
there was still rationing and people automatically, didn’t matter where it was, you automatically formed queues. If you went down to the baker you got in line, and things like this. You felt sometimes a little bit subservient to the whole thing.
Can you explain why you felt that way?
I don’t know, it was just
purely and simply that you felt, “Well, here is a people that has won the war” And you would go over, we went over at one stage to Switzerland, everything was, they were living the lap of luxury, big cream cakes and things like this. But there has always been a great sense of, in the UK,
a great sense of fairness like that. At the same time you felt sometimes that you should be giving them quite a shake to get on with it. I don’t think that for the RAF, which is held in the highest of regard in the UK, but pay and conditions
were pretty poor. We, being over there, we had all sorts of little luxuries and people used to send you over cakes from Australia and that sort of thing, but it was completely different when we went over later on, but at that time that is about the way it was.
years were you over there as part of the Commonwealth Squadron?
From the end of ’47 until the middle of ’50.
That is quite a stretch, actually.
Were there changes to living conditions in Britain during that time?
Not really, not very much change at all. What you had to do in that time you had to actually do your conversion
onto type and gain some experience, and then it was a bit over two years in VIP flying.
Just going back to the York aircraft, could you give us a bit of a walk-through description of the York aircraft itself?
On the York it was a fairly wide-bodied aircraft, side door,
which wasn’t a good feature for the adaptation of a transport aeroplane. And the one good thing about it they had run all the cables in the roof, which turned out to be an advantage. They could seat about seventy five or eighty people. And then you just came into
the crew compartment which was a navigator, wireless operator, two pilots and a flight engineer. You had to work closely with the flight engineer because of all things the full throttles were up here and you could control them to a certain point, but after that you had to
rely on the engineer. You would say to him, “You boost, take it to plus eighteen,” and you left the final detail to him and you were controlling the aeroplane. The funny part was, when you were coming into land, he was controlling the throttles as well. It was a two-man action and
if you are going a little bit fast you would say, “Cut,” and I reckon half these engineers, they just dribble it off and then if you are going a bit slow you’d say, “Slow cut,” and I sometimes said, “They’d bend the throttle,” as they pushed them off. But it was a very nice aeroplane to fly.
What was the size and scale of the aircraft?
It was about, we used to operate about seventy two thousand pounds, four engines, I think it was twenty five hundred horsepower, each Rolls Royce, and it used to get along very well. We used to indicate, just at normal cruise, a hundred and eighty knots, so we had quite a range of speed and you can
if necessary push it up to almost two hundred knots. Which would translate to a true airspeed of about two hundred and fifteen.
I imagine it was a much larger aircraft than the DC3.
Yes, much larger indeed. Again, good flying characteristics, very gentle on the stall,
to land it you had complete control right to the end. It was a happy time. With all British aircraft they don’t like the hot tropics too well. We used to land at a place Habenair [Karbala] which was about fifty miles south of Baghdad
and out there it is hot, and you used to hold off on your descent as long as possible and land quickly and taxi and then stop, and you would be out to try and get a breath of air and the ground crew would be trying to get in to get a cold whiff as well. It was an interesting time.
You said the York didn’t handle the hot tropics too well, in what specific ways?
From the Rolls Royce engines, if you were taking off, say, from a place like Habenair, you really started up fairly quickly and got off the ground quickly. If you didn’t watch out they were tropicalised
but at the same time they were really built for cold climates.
You have just used the term “tropicalised,” what do you mean by that?
It was sort of extra dry cold they had in the cooling system and things like that to try and overcome it, but you never completely overcome it.
Who made up the crew of the York? Could you describe how many crew members there were?
Two pilots, flight engineer, navigator and a wireless operator, and so it was just normally under those circumstances. If you were on a VIP job you had a flight steward.
Did you fly with the same crew throughout that period?
No, they were completely different crew, but your training had all been exactly the same. One time you would go off it might be with an RAAF navigator, the next time it is a RAF navigator and the next time it could be a New Zealander or a South African. Their system [was such that]
you had to work closely with the navigator as well in bad weather because he guided you down, they had a beam approach system that they used to use, as opposed to the Americans’, which was a ground controlled approach. You interpreted the beacon and from his interpretation he had a distance and
an azimuth as well, so he would bring you, as a sort of dashes and dots, so he could bring you down on a centre line calling out your height that you should be at. If you were doing a descent you started at fifteen hundred feet, four miles, you were down to twelve hundred feet and
three miles, and we used to operate down to two hundred feet and eight hundred yards’ visibility, and you are travelling at a hundred and twenty five knots, that was your safety speed, so you had wheels down and flaps down. If you weren’t going to make it you just had to give it full bore to go round again.
The other thing about it was that if you go off now on a 747 or one of these other aircraft you have reached the safety speed on three engines before you leave the ground, but with the York you got airborne at about a hundred and five knots but you had to be about hundred and thirty five knots before you were safe on three engines. There were a few chaps
were caught in that as well.
Caught in what way?
One night on the Berlin airlift the chap immediately in front of me took off, and we were operating an extra couple of thousand pounds heavier, and he lost an engine which was the critical one, number one engine. So he thought he could make it and
he couldn’t, so he started to turn. Once you start to turn the aerodynamics is that your lift is greater on the outside of there, so he went round and suddenly in. What he should have done was pull everything off and land straight ahead. He would have had an opportunity to just land into a field.
Where did he crash land?
About a quarter of a mile
over to the left of the airfield, and he was probably half a mile over there.
Did he land in an urban area or a rural area?
No, a rural area and nobody else was injured or anything like that. They said to you, “Line up to take off and the fire services won’t be there.” Off you went. That was the sort of
thing that could happen. It’s two o’clock in the morning so the average person is not at their best.
Did you see that incident?
Yes, you could see him go round, and suddenly boom, a big bang.
We might pick that up on the next tape actually.
Interviewee: John Cornish Archive ID 0559 Tape 08
With this particular air crash, where were you when you saw this crash?
I was lined up ready to go. We used to have three minute intervals. This was very strictly adhered to, so I just saw him take off. While he was doing that I was sort of next in line, just coming round onto the runway, and
holding there for a minute, and they used to send them off in waves, so you just watched him go off, disappear and a big bang and flames shooting up, and that was it.
Did people die aboard that aircraft?
Yes, they all were killed and finished up the aircraft on its back, so it was coming down, bang, straight into it.
What was your reaction when you saw that happen?
You think to yourself, “There has been a bad accident,” but there is nothing you can do about it. So you knew the chap, you knew the crew and you just had to play your part, and people said, “Well, get on with it.” I don’t know, there was a great spirit, great RAF spirit,
and that seemed to rub off as well.
In what way?
They had been through the war and with their pilots and things like that they were prepared to take risks, but they had been through so much and so consequently, to them, losing somebody like that was just sort of part of life,
you got that feeling, nobody went into hysterics or anything like that, they just accepted it and life just went on. A bit of a blow.
Just moving back to the York and the Commonwealth Squadron, there was a system called the ‘category system’, wasn’t there?
What was the category system?
The category system was
you were in one of four categories. Category A you were allowed to fly VIPs, B and C were very much the same, that you were able to fly passengers but it was just routine people, and D was the inexperienced. And you had to stop initially as an inexperienced pilot,
you were not allowed to fly passengers, you were only allowed to fly freight. And they applied this system rigidly and it worked out pretty well, too. Except for us referring to them as the ‘trappers’.
I wonder if they ever knew that.
I am sure they did. I had an experience one night with a trapper.
It gets technical, but we had gone around night flying, feathered number one engine, and I am just coming around and committed and number two engine, which is on the same side, started to play up, which is a bit unusual. And he was in charge of the aeroplane and he said,
“Unfeather number one.” I said, “Over my dead body,” I said, “I am coming in to land.” I went in and landed normally. I thought, “I will be in for it now,” but he said, “You did the right thing,” so he recognised that he had panicked a little bit. To start up an engine like that you get a terrific drag initially and until the thing gets going, it gets power. And the idea of
when you’re down at six hundred feet of unfeathering that number one engine, that was taboo. I thought I would really get dragged over the coals for it, but we kept it solely between us.
You were sticking to standard operating procedures.
He wasn’t really sticking to standard operating, I was sticking to standard operating procedure, because once you hit six hundred feet on that
aeroplane you were committed. If you only had three engines you were committed and if you start to fiddle around with that instead of concentrating on landing and your approach, because you could still use the power of the other two engines to regulate a little bit. But it was just one of those little things that we agreed that no more would be said about it.
I understand the essence of the story, but what was ‘feathering’ and ‘unfeathering’?
It is if you’ve got an engine like that and it is playing up you had it so you turn the blades, which are normally at that angle and you turn the blades so they are into the wind and stopped. You cut out all the drag from that engine. So
to start them up again you have got to go through off with fuel and other things, to start it up again you’ve got to do that, start it up, let it windmill and start, and that is a very critical time. It was just something.
That is a good story. How was it that you became to be involved in the Berlin airlift?
what happened was that we came off our flying course, our operational conversion unit, as inexperienced pilots and we were posted to an RAF squadron, 242 Squadron, to gain experience. And so we were being specially tracked
in some ways because I no sooner got there than, whang, you are off on a trip out to Singapore to get your flying hours up on type. I had only done about two trips but it was two trips quickly within about a month. Then one morning at ten o’clock
the CO called us all together, said, “Go home and get yourself a bag, they have this problem over in Germany and we are all off, so be back here and ready to go by two o’clock.” Sure enough, home we went, packed some clothes and came back, aircraft are allocated and we all took off. We landed at this place called Wunstorf which is
very close to Hanover. Three squadrons converged on that place that day and of course nobody was ready for you. From there we finished up that night and for about a week we really slept in the attic of one of the buildings down the mess.
We started off the next morning flying into Berlin.
You said you heard there was trouble in Germany. What was your understanding at that time of what the trouble was?
We didn’t really know. The CO didn’t brief us on that at all. “Ours wasn’t to reason why, ours was but to do or die.”
At what point did you learn what the trouble was and what the purpose of your mission was?
As soon as we got over there everything was explained to us and what we were going to do and things like that. Germany at that time, being occupied for a while, it was a very sleepy place so the reception that we got when we got over there,
it’s one of those things, you’ve suddenly got thirty six big new aeroplanes landing on your aerodrome and there had only been half a dozen small jets there, and suddenly it was a big logistic problem that they had. It took some time to sort out.
How did they sort it out?
There were all sorts of things to sort out. Some of the accommodation was
sorted out by taking over buildings nearby, off the airfield. Some of the worst things was the control. Here you had experienced people but controlling aircraft to get in and out was quite a problem.
Just to move back a step here, you said that when you got to Germany it was explained to you
why you were there. What did they tell you?
Just that the railways had been closed and the roads had been closed and we were about to undertake this big airlift into Berlin.
There will be some people among them students and school children who don’t necessarily know what the Berlin airlift was. Could you define for us what it was?
The Berlin airlift
was the substitution of the logistic support of this, of Berlin, which was divided into four sectors and instead of normal road transport, rail transport in, everything suddenly had to be carried in by air. When you start to think about
a railway truck and what it can carry and a train, as opposed to what an aircraft can carry, it was a mighty undertaking. The other thing too was the airfields. There were two airfields in Berlin, there was initially Gatow and Templehof, so there was
a certain limitation there. The other limitation was that there were just three corridors leading into Berlin which had been granted, when they decided to cut it up into sectors.
Who were they who made that decision?
This was the Russians, British,
UK and the French at their Potsdam Conference, I think it was, decided that this is the way Berlin would be split up and administered, and so this is the way it all started to happen.
What did you understand your role would be? I presume you are still flying Yorks at this point. What did you understand your role would be?
Our role would be part of this big
transport operation in there and it was going to be a matter of food, fuel. They were trying to keep Berlin going so everything that was going to have to move was going to go in by air. We started from day one.
Where were the materials being taken from?
British Army, and the British Army, instead of loading trucks and railways and things like that, diverted it all onto airfields and they did the loading of the aeroplanes and things like that. We had to check it of course, but they had all been trained to
do this, with their Royal Army Service Corps I think it was. They did a pretty good job too.
Could you talk me through the chronology of your involvement with the Berlin airlift and what happened to you at different times, including the places you would have flown from?
We were solely flying from Wunstorf.
What used to happen was that initially, for about the first two months, you did three round trips a day and it was waves of aircraft, a wave from Wunstorf would go in, that would be followed by probably American aircraft from Sella, which was nearby
and then there was another load, other airfields that they would feed in. And you would go in, so you would report, be given an aircraft, you would be given timing, time to start up, time to taxi, take off and then various
times on check points going down and entering and going down the corridors. Navigation wasn’t really a problem because you had the system called ‘G’ which was very good and very accurate, just because it was twenty miles wide that wasn’t a difficulty at all,
you were able to hit the various checkpoints right on time. We had quite a range in speed. We could if necessary come back to a hundred and thirty knots or I could push her up to two hundred knots. You got the last point, you’re coming out into Berlin, it didn’t work like this initially, but
then there was a ground controlled approach took over from you and it guided you around, reduced speed, do this and do such-and-such and they would feed you into the stream. You had an aircraft landing every three minutes and an aircraft taking off every three minutes. You no sooner landed and the chap who was waiting would be out on the
runway, he would take off. He was no sooner on the way and there was another one coming in. It was German unloaders at the other end and you normally carried about twenty thousand pounds in weight. These chaps would take about fifteen to twenty minutes to get that load off the aircraft, which was quite good because it was a
side-loading aeroplane and things like this. Having got that off you then went, started up, out, took your turn to go back to base. One very bad feature initially was you were being controlled into Berlin but it was a little bit of “Last home is lousy,”
the expression, you would go home, there would be one chap going home at a hundred and sixty knots and you’d think, “We are going to jump the queue a bit,” you would push it up to a hundred and eighty so you would get home or you would get an earlier aeroplane and get to bed a little bit earlier tonight. That was a very bad feature and it almost got me at one stage,
because there were about four or five aeroplanes had quickly taken off and heading back to Wunstorf, and a warm front had moved over. And the control over there was dreadful so we were all short of fuel and aiming to get down quickly and it wasn’t being controlled, and I passed, there was a converted Halifax, which is what they call
a Holten and I reckon I passed that chap by about twenty feet, exactly the same height. He didn’t realise that I had almost hit him. After he landed I said, “Did you see me?” “No, I didn’t.” Forever afterwards, the worst thing you can do to an airman is not feel as though he is completely controlled, and forever afterwards they got it that way,
when you took off from Berlin you had to come home at I think it was a hundred and sixty five knots and you weren’t allowed to exceed that or you were not allowed to be less than that.
You hit a bird at one stage, didn’t you?
Could you describe what happened then?
One night we were going along.
In the corridor you used to fly at fifteen hundred feet, suddenly bang, and you think, “What in the world has happened?” and you think the hydraulics have blown up because they are under pressure. No sign of that, I put the undercarriage down, I thought I might have blown a wheel and they looked OK so we declared an emergency.
And they didn’t send us straight back home, they let us land and we had hit a bird. It might have been a swan or a goose, right on the button, and when we pulled up in the hangar and looked at it there were bits of bird and feathers and things like that stuck around. But it frightened the life because there is a little false nose cap where they can get to the back of the instruments,
it was only from here to you away. You hit this bird and you are doing about a hundred and sixty five, he made quite a noise.
The bird had hit the false nose cap?
That is what you mean by on the button?
Yes, right on the button we were. And so it was just a funny little incident, it frightened the life out of you.
Sounds like a close call.
It didn’t really matter, but you
thought that something serious had happened to the aeroplane, and all it had done was push it back about four or five inches. But that is better than going into the engine.
Absolutely. Many disasters created that way.
What interaction did you have with the Russians?
Not very much. The
Russians initially flew some aeroplanes in the corridor but they didn’t harass us, they finished up flying the other way at about five hundred feet.
Did they ever come near you?
Not really, couldn’t have been anything within two hundred feet of us. The only time they ever came near was a few times they formated
on us at night on the way home. One night there, you see, you had about seventy five or eighty miles to go before you left the Russian zone and you would take off and just hit fifteen hundred feet and sometimes you would look out and there he is, just sitting on your wing tip. And the first time this happened to me
somebody tried to grab an Aldis lamp and I said, “Put that down,” flashing it into his eyes, you’d dazzle him, he would be in with you. They’d stay with you, just sitting out there about ten feet off your wing tip, and as soon as you were getting close to the border you would look out and he is gone. You had that feeling as though there has been a ghost along there with you.
Almost, that is quite an evocative image actually.
What was the relationship of the Russians to the other powers that were involved in the Berlin airlift?
It all went completely quiet. The Russians I think were hoping that this thing would fail completely, and I used to think, “They’re not very good at picking their timing.”
They started this thing mid-year, in the summer time.
In terms of general story telling we’re missing a bit of a link here in terms of just explaining Russia’s responsibility in relation to the Berlin airlift and where they stood in relation to the other powers involved in the airlift.
The Russians’ approach was, “We have repairs that have got to be
done and things like that to the roads and railways and we can’t allow this to continue. We are sorry but we are stopping everything,” and having done that they sort of took that position. And I am not privy to it, but there were probably meetings that were being held.
The Russians were just maintaining that stance and eventually when they saw what had happened they gave up and said, “Everything is OK,” and they opened it up again just like that.
I imagine this was fairly satisfying work for you. Was it satisfying for you to be part of the Berlin airlift?
Yes, satisfying. And the
beauty of it too was that you were doing a lot of flying, and so you are building up your time on the aircraft and in actual fact after a period, and it could be done squadron wise, they cut us out, instead of inexperienced
we became experienced so that was good.
What level of personal satisfaction did you get out of the fact that you were contributing obviously to a humanitarian effort?
It was great to feel that you were doing this and you were lobbing in three times a day a payload of twenty thousand
pounds. At the time Australia had a military mission in Berlin. It was headed by a Brigadier Callagan who was famous for Singapore, POWs and standing up for the Japanese, and he was over there, and he
passed word down that any Australians would be welcome to come over to the military mission. What we used to do, was to fly ten days on, I forget the sequence, whether we went daytime first and then we did ten days night.
You would start at six o’clock in the morning, you reported in and when you went to the other it was six o’clock at night. In between you got a day off and so several times we just hopped on an aeroplane over to Berlin and made contact with the military mission. The first time the old chap, who was quite an old soldier, he took us for a drive
so we went right out and he was able to take us through the Russian sector and around. The big impression was that Berlin, and this is the one thing you found about Germany, it was almost every place, I used to think of it as though a big grab had come in and grabbed the centre of the city or town.
I will never forget him saying to us, and the Germans looked pretty solemn and things like that, but he said, “You realise, lads, that underneath this rubble here that we see lying around there is people still buried there.” And this is about two and a half years or more
after the end of the war. It was good to go and make contact with them. And the worse thing that happened was that little girl, being the three thousandth aircraft in there.
Tell me about that.
No, I can’t.
You must tell us, you have shown us the photo, you must tell us.
There it was, just by sheer chance I was that three thousandth aircraft in there and
met by this big delegation. There was the Mayor of Berlin, there was the senior air force officer, there was some army general came up and this exaltation to us of how wonderful we were and I slipped, and this little girl kissed me on the cheek and gave me those roses. That was a very bad feature, I have never lived it down.
Why? I don’t know, it’s just something that they bring up.
Who brings it up and why is it embarrassing?
The last time it was brought up was only comparatively recently. You were referring to this nephew of mine and they had a relationship with somebody over in Germany, a school relationship, sending people over there, and Peter was over there and he said
the Berlin celebrations were on and I had all sorts of invitations to go over but I wasn’t going to do that and he said, “I had an uncle that was over here,” and his mother had saved the cuttings and so Peter sent these cuttings over to this German. This German came back and said, “We might be able to find this
fraulein [woman].” That is the last thing you would want to do. I said, “No, Peter, forget it, please.” It was just one of those little things that happen to you.
Did they make any effort to find the fraulein?
I don’t know. I didn’t want to know any more about it.
So okay, you arrived, the photograph was taken, what was it about the fact that the photograph had been taken
that was embarrassing to you?
It wasn’t too embarrassing, but you took a lot of stick as a result of it.
Where did the photograph appear?
The papers would appear on the breakfast table for my wife the next morning over in England. There she was and all these young chaps from Harwell, all young graduates, “What did you say your husband was doing over in Germany?” and this sort of thing.
She was abused.
Did she quiz you about the circumstances?
No, I told her. I didn’t know anything about this until I got back to England. It appeared in English papers. There was a little bear, which is the symbol of
Berlin, and ribbons and a few things like that, but I made sure we didn’t keep those.
I don’t see why you are so embarrassed about it.
I am not embarrassed but it just keeps on cropping up, so there is people around here who have seen the photograph and say, “That’s nice, that’s lovely,” so they really pull my leg about it.
I suppose you are hoping the Fraulein won’t turn up at the front door here.
I hope she won’t turn up at the front door. It was an interesting time. And the unfortunate part about it was a chap that had gone over as, he was supposed to be my co-pilot, and you know how things happen. They said to them, “Look,
we don’t think it’s right that if you’ve got an Australian crew, you come over with a co-pilot. We will put him on and give him a Dakota conversion. He can be a normal captain,” and so he was posted to an RAF squadron, I think eventually with the hope that they would come back and he would be involved in the 24 Squadron
with the rest of us, the Commonwealth Squadron, and consequently he was on the Berlin airlift. One night he was coming in to land, and it was difficult weather conditions and what have you, I reckon there was a bent beam as well, over this place and blew back, and he eventually sort of just came down and
straight into the hangar and all the crew was killed. That was a bit of a blow. He’d married an English girl during the war time so she was over there but she was pregnant. We still keep in touch with her. Her son came out and
at one stage he worked for the equivalent of the RTA [Road Transport Authority] in the UK, so he has a very responsible position. When he was out here we had him up and saw him. I had seen him as a young toddler and now he’s fifty years old and a bit more. Just another tragedy
Did that impact on you at a fairly deep level?
Yes, you had gone over there and that had happened to him. It was just a little bit after we had left the Berlin airlift, after six months they said, “Yes, OK, we have got enough trained crews,
you are due for 24 Squadron, out you go.” I was able to go over, he was buried at Hamburg and things like that. I have kept in touch with his wife and have helped in various ways. Strangely enough, his medals hadn’t been collected and superannuation. I made certain that that was being
handled OK and she was getting her full entitlements and things like that. It is just nice to keep in touch. About once every six months the phone will ring and it’s her from a nursing home and we have a little chat. They did a big thing about the Berlin airlift, carried that up after fifty years, and they have established gardens over in the UK and things like this and
That is a nice link, nevertheless, in maintaining that contact.
How long were you involved in the Berlin airlift?
Only for six months, a little bit over six months, and after six months they took us out to make certain that we were heading to what we had originally come over for.
By that time the crews were not a problem. Crews were a problem to them initially because you were often flying three trips and sometimes you were getting held up on the last trip, it might have been a bit of fog around Berlin or something like that, and so you get home an hour and a half late
but then you are expected to be back at six o’clock that same night. There was a real shortage of crews to keep the thing going so they trained up some other people. So they said, “Go and do what you want to.”
So what did you do next?
Going off to the 24 Commonwealth Squadron.
I very quickly got the A category that we had to get and then off we went, doing all sorts of interesting things. I finished up I was able to take the secretary of state, one of the first trips I did was to take the secretary of state for air back around
the airlift. The first night we stopped in Hamburg.
It might be good to pick this up at the beginning of the next tape.
Interviewee: John Cornish Archive ID 0559 Tape 09
You were talking about Material, and obviously this comes into it later, but while you are thinking of it could you just mention it?
One of the things as chief of air force material that I insisted on [was] that we come up with proven equipment and that we operate and make certain exactly that that aircraft, or whatever it is, is going to operate properly.
I introduced four different types of aircraft and we came in under budget and they have all been very successful, including the FA18’s [fighter jets] up at Williamtown. It was a philosophy that I thought was very important to follow.
gave us a comparison with naval procedure.
It’s that when you go into something, as you have, it is a complicated bit of machinery. They went in with submarines, and when you look at the basic parameters it’s something I would never have done.
There were far too many unknowns and as a result of that there has been
all sorts of additional money being spent. Because you are going to have to look at who you are going to work with, and the second thing is who you might to have to work against, and if you keep those two things in mind you can come up with a much more modest vehicle than what you have tried to do. That’s a bit of a criticism.
I think with the navy, the context which
we are referring to would be the Collins Class submarines.
Collins Class submarines, yes.
Moving back to the trajectory of your career and your life after the Berlin airlift.
I came back, did a staff position with the School of Land Air Warfare, back to flying and back to the DC3s, the old Dakotas. I was very fortunate
that I was selected to fly the Queen and that was a very rigorous time, but at the same time a very happy one. I spent several months over on the Queen’s flight in England and in typical good British style they run the rule over you. I had to appear and meet the Queen’s private secretary and things like that. They just satisfied
themselves that this chap Cornish who had been over here flying, that he was going to do the job OK. It was fine, we did about fourty odd flights and there were no real incidents in it except the Duke would never get us in to those.
Just tell us briefly about this, once again we were discussing this in a break.
The Duke was learning to fly and
no sooner you took off he appeared in the cockpit, wanted to fly the aeroplane, and then after that he wanted to stop in the seat. And in typical Australian fashion, rather than British, we had gone to the extreme of putting down circles. I was supposed to put the wheels in those circles, I was dependent upon that co-pilot, and it was Prince Phillip and he didn’t get it right
once. That was it, but apart from that everything was go. From there I eventually went off, I spent several years in the UK and taking family with you, our young children were going to school over there. I came back to take over an Air Trials Unit which was
a plum job because every day you were doing something different. One was with the Weapons Research Establishment, one day you’d be dropping bombs from fifty thousand feet, checking on the accuracy of the bomb and things like that. The next day you would have some low-level bomb and trying to do that. The next day you are trying to get a toss bomb whereby
you came up and tossed the bomb out in front of you and then backed off out of the way. A very happy time. But from there I went down to take over the base at East Sale and that is a plum job in the air force because you have the Central Flying School, School of Air Navigation, these types of units, so a good flying
job. We had the aerobatic team, you are responsible for that. Unfortunately, about two years before I went there, there had been a horrible crash. They had started off a barrel roll too low and the whole four aeroplanes had just gone bang, bang, bang, straight in. One other chap had got it started again,
but then we had to do it. So you had to apply the rigours and say, “Watch them very closely.” I thought I was destined for something else, and I was only there eighteen months and the last three months I was sent off to language school to learn Malay. I went over and I had a lovely job in Malaysia.
I was the Deputy Chief of the Air Staff under an RAF officer by the name of Timbalikatuatustutenturada. You had to learn the language and speak the language but you had complete, in many ways you were able to achieve things there that you could never have achieved in your own air force. As an example, it was about a fortnight after we got there.
I had a real powerhouse of a boss, an RAF officer, and we started a base at Kwantan. We selected the base and before I left two and a half years later we had small jets flying off it. The other thing was that sort of decision, but what I did was to say, “This is what should be the base structure
for the Royal Malaysian Air Force. We should make certain that Butterworth, we get somebody in there,” and things like that. So we made decisions, we acquired land. I’ll never forget having been there and then I came back, it was a very interesting time.
Just before we deal with your coming back, how many of these things that you have described in Malaysia could you have not achieved in Australia?
I could have never have been in the position of
deciding and getting it carried through, deciding, “Yes, we are going to have an airfield there.” I quote as an example with this Kwantan [?] that we decided, “There is going to be an airfield there,” and it was built. I came back and after a while I was in the Operational Requirements Shop and my boss, the deputy chief said to me,
“Quick, tomorrow down to Sydney, they are going to decide on the second Sydney Airport.” He said, “If they decide on Richmond, don’t come back.” Off I went and here it is, they are still fiddling around with it. That was in 1972, so it was over thirty years ago.
Clearly Richmond was not decided upon.
But Malaysia was a very interesting time. You could see young people, we sent them off, trying to expand at a great rate. We were extremely fortunate that there was one RAF officer was a Malay, and
they brought him back and made him chief of the air staff, and he did a good job as well.
What was his name?
Saliman Binsujak. He worked hard and he was very good at getting things going. We had some
funny experiences. My wife was very keen on golf and we went up there and she said, “You play squash, you can’t play squash up in this climate, you’ve got to take up golf.” I had a couple of lessons. She said, “I’ll play with you for the first half a dozen,” and I am a left-hander, she’s a right. The sixth game it looked as
though I was going to have a win, my first win at golf. We are both hitting off, and your caddies go racing up there, walked up the fairway and suddenly coming straight towards her is a six foot black cobra, and you would know that you have got to keep half the distance away from them. So her caddie was there and this right handed club, which I am not used to,
I asked for a number five club and I think he gave me a number six, I hit out at this ulay unbasar. I didn’t quite get it properly the first time so second time I hit it and it was dead, and she said, “Two strokes on your score.” That’s a dreadful story but a true one.
I had insured myself against hitting somebody with a golf ball, it was just a difficulty if you are a bit of a wild hitter, so consequently I’d insured myself, and came home and told her and she said, “Did you insure me?” I said, “No, I forgot about it.” She said, “You should insure me as well.” Me thinking she is just a little straight hitter and
not too far. But one of the bonuses from this was that if you had a hole in one the drinks in the bar were paid for by the insurer. The next Saturday I walk in the bar everybody is having a great time, Elma Cornish got a hole in one, and so consequently she was given all sorts of things.
We still have her golden putter outside. From that I went off, did the Royal College of Defence Studies in London, came back and it was, took over, they were bringing all the intelligence organisations together. And I had an intelligence post before so I became the senior military officer
on the joint intelligence committee. It was an interesting thing, but a pioneer appointment.
Can you tell me a little bit about the joint intelligence committee at that time?
The joint intelligence committee was headed up by, I think it was civil external affairs or foreign affairs officers. There were various spooks [intelligence officers] around the place.
I was the military officer on it, there was the director of what have you and consequently, as far as I was concerned, it was an interesting
appointment, but bringing the whole of the three services together. And at that time Sir Arthur Tang was the Secretary of the Department of Defence. I was there for several years and I went over as Director General of Operational Requirements. Under that you say that we want an aircraft with these characteristics
and you define the type of aircraft you want, and that was major equipment as well. It is always a very important appointment in the air force and it was very interesting, but when you have been doing an intelligence job and such-and-such,
there’s always great background to catch up on. Nevertheless we did, and I was promoted into this new post of air force materials, so you had the three services and it was a reorganisation of reporting. I had to report to Sir Arthur Tang and also had to report to the chief of the air staff.
Consequently we developed projects, worked it out, and then you had money allocated to the project.
Could you define for me what air force material actually meant?
Air force material,
you had the primary responsibility for recommending the selection of particular aircraft and equipment, and from that then their introduction into service. You had a comparatively small staff, you were using other staff as well,
it was a pioneer position. I purchased a little training aeroplane and the C130s [transport aircraft] which was only a replacement aircraft, but it was a matter of defining new navigation systems and things like that. Then it was the maritime aircraft, the PC3 [Orion long range surveillance aircraft],
[this was] a very doubtful project because what they were trying to do was the sort of processing of the Australians had developed a sonar buoy, the Weapons Research Establishment developed a sonar buoy, and the processor was developed by the UK and then you are putting this into an American machine. There was little danger signals keep on
cropping up. I remember saying to Sir Arthur on one occasion, “Look, this is a doubtful project. I have got to go through this process of getting people to visit them in the UK and I don’t want to have any problems with this.”
Why was it doubtful?
There was a committee for overseas travel who, they all
seemed to regard this as some junket or other. And it was a very difficult project, because what you were trying to do was pick up signals from sonar buoys up into the aircraft to process them, which comes out as position lines that automatically then finishes up as
you go over it to drop a depth charge. Pretty complicated sort of project.
What is a sonar buoy?
A sonar buoy is where you drop a sonar buoy, it goes down in the depths a couple of hundred feet, and picks up signals from submarines and also picked them up from dolphins and things like that. But you are
picking up the signals, and this was a special array which was a very sensitive sonar buoy so it was supposed to be the last thing in technology. It was the marrying of the sonar buoy to the processor that was the difficult part of it. The other project was the FA18
and you have all these people that hope that their aeroplane will be selected. So we went off, I did the initial valuation with several other people so we were able to define it down that obviously the American aircraft was going to be the one.
At the same time there were all sorts of things come up, I’m sorry I’m getting on my high horse but people get over there, and you are going to have this great big undercarriage that is capable of landing on carriers and banging in. “We can build you a nice much lighter one,” and things like this, and we said, “No, we take that exactly the same as what the US Navy is going to have it.”
Sure enough, that is what was done. When you come back to logistics of spares and things like that you were just exactly the same as if you were a United States Navy unit. We went over and I had this engineer with me, an air commodore engineer,
and we had to do the thing thoroughly. If you didn’t do something thoroughly with Sir Arthur Tang you were in real trouble. We had gone and visited the French and explored their aeroplane and they thought they were going to be on a winner. The Germans were building an aeroplane in conjunction with the British
and we knew we would be talking to the British, but we thought, “OK, we have got to go and talk to the Germans.” We got late out of Paris, a little bit late, and we eventually got to Bonn fairly late that night and next morning we have to line up at the German Ministry of Defence. The secretary was there and
he was a true Arian type and he was a very difficult man. He was saying things like, “I do not think I can speak with you, you are not a member of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization].” All we wanted was their intentions, you could practically read it in any of the aviation magazines, but things weren’t going too well and we were only allocated one day there.
Things were improving a little bit but come lunchtime and we sat down at lunch, and here he is sitting opposite the table to me. My air commodore was next to me and the chaps are scattered through the table. He said to me, “Have you ever been to Germany before?” I said, “Yes, I have.
In actual fact I’ve been to Berlin about a hundred and sixty times,” and he looked at me as much to say. And then he said to Ralph Anstee, the air commodore, “And how about you, air commodore?” Ralph, he had been a former bomber command pilot, and he said, “I have been to Germany thirty times but this is the first time I have landed.”
The chap saw it right away but he very quickly changed the subject. The final project hadn’t been finally approved.
It was very satisfying to see that we had developed the project and we got the number of aircraft that we wanted and that they turned out well.
Just to finish off the German story, that was resolved, was it, the trip to Bonn?
as you can see from this, I was sort of dragging the wife and family around but at the same time they were able to cope with it. I think a lot of it fell to my wife in education. For example, we came back on the British system, we came back to
South Australia which was on the South Australian system, you are only there for twelve months, Victorian, you are there for twelve months and then you’re up to Malaysia.
You are talking about different education systems?
Different education systems. Quite different, but the children seemed to cope with it OK.
What was your wife’s contribution to helping the children with these changes?
She encouraged them, and being in
a position of being able to help them with their homework, of always being there for them in some ways. And she always regarded it as most important that when they came home from school she was there. “What have you done today such-and-such?” She said if you are away and then came home and said, “How was it today?” “Oh no it was all right” and you didn’t get it. So there was a big education
problem there. We had our elder girl at Sale, she was in the private school there, and we had to leave her there to finish off her School Certificate. And my wife would have it that she came up to Malaysia, they went to school in Singapore, a British Army school there.
But study and the tropics don’t go too well together but she managed it, and from there she came over to the UK for a few months, but then came back to ANU [Australian National University], down at the University, accepted in there. It was always one of those things, that you are moving children around.
It was a pretty difficult old time to do it.
What was the greatest difficulty?
The greatest difficulty I think was with our younger one who tended to cling to friends that she had left, but it worked out, they both finished up with good careers and graduated.
It worked out fine for them, but it was mainly her work that did that. We are over in the UK, and this is a true story, and I was working at the air ministry and I had to go off to Singapore to give a tender, a convention and give a lecture. In January, it was in
the UK and we were living just outside of London at Cheem [?], and the day that we got the car out for my wife to drive me to the station with my bag it started to snow, it really came down, and she had great difficulty in getting that car back into the garage. There it stopped for a fortnight while I was away.
With British plumbing, it was a funny thing that from the bath the pipes went outside and dropped down and in this sort of weather they used to get frozen up. You could have a bath, pull the plug out and nothing happened. What she did was to try to disturb the ice in that pipe. She had reached out and hit with a toilet brush
the pipe, and I don’t think she cleared it but then the toilet brush dropped down in the snow. She forgot about this and about two days later she is there and she says, “Children, look at that poor little hedgehog out there. You should take it out some warm milk and bread.” They took it out and put it beside this thing and as soon as the thaw comes there it is, they were feeding the toilet brush.
That is a true story. I think that is about it. But it has been an interesting type of life, and you hope that, and I think it is from the things that are being done, that the RAAF today is a very professional and hard working force.
Just moving back a little, you mentioned your time with the Weapons Research Establishment and your
involvement in watching the testing of various weapons. What sort of weapons were they?
I wasn’t watching. We were carrying them in the aircraft.
What sort of weapons were they?
There was often a different type of bomb, they would be testing a high level type bomb, and making certain sort of
the accuracy of it, that it was going OK. Another one that we did was a low level bomb, that you come along, let this thing go at low altitude, back bits go out so it retards it so you can get away, and then the bomb drops and goes off. You are doing that sort of work.
The other thing which, it wasn’t so much a weapon, but these people were having difficulty in firing off rockets to take atmospheric bits and pieces and couldn’t locate the head when it came down, so they came up with this concept of a small bomb, radar tracking of
the thing, a small bomb, and they would fit you with about five of these with a little light that would come on in the front of the bomb. All experimental stuff. What you would do, you would go up there and dive from thirty thousand feet, max dive down to two thousand feet and then let one of these little bombs go and they were supposed to be able to pick it up on the radar to know exactly where it landed.
This is a bit dicey stuff because you would get into a deep dive like that and sometimes you would have no real horizon, so when you pull out you still think you’re heading for the deck, but this was the type of thing, it was good flying.
I presume these were all conventional weapons, they were not nuclear weapons?
nuclear weapons. The only time that, which was a bit silly, I decided to go on a trip, one of these trips out into the North-West, and we used to go from Edinburgh out to Maralinga and then up to Giles Weather Station and then eventually out to the
North-West, and this one chap, a friend of mine, was the army officer at Maralinga, he met the aircraft and said, “I’ll take you up to the range and show where we have been doing this work.” I said, “We have got to be quick because they are only refuelling the aircraft and then we are off.” We were away no more than twenty five minutes. All it was were some big holes up there. We came back and I hopped on the aeroplane and off. Forever afterwards,
you had to sign in, I kept on getting all these questionnaires, “Your time at Maralinga.”
What did the questionnaires regard?
The questionnaires regarded how close were you in contact, all this type of thing. It didn’t worry you.
I presume you were there
at a contaminated site?
Have you ever had cause for concern about that?
No cause for concern whatsoever. But it was 1945 I did a flight through to Japan, and the only thing that worked in Japan at that time was the railways so we hopped on the railway
and went to Hiroshima, which is about four stops up. And we just wandered all over this place and having a look. It was very interesting. There was only one building standing in a radius of, it must have been about three miles, there was only one big concrete building. But typical Japanese, it’s all wood construction.
So that was my only other brush with it. But you didn’t quite appreciate it.
The trip to Hiroshima, I’ve seen film footage of that and the whole place was levelled with the exception of a few buildings. Were there people about?
Very few indeed. There were a few round the station, but when we went off wandering, looking around, there was virtually nobody.
But it was getting on cold time and things like that, but I think the Japanese were just sort of avoiding the place anyway. There had been so many people that had been killed there.
How were you personally reacting to what you saw there?
Not really reacting very much. You had seen it,
read all about it, but it was interesting to go and have a look. When it’s all said and done, you tended to think if we hadn’t been smart enough they would have been down in Australia. You didn’t hate them, you admired them in certain ways, but that was just the general feeling, so it wasn’t too much one way or the other.
It must have been quite a momentous experience.
It was, but it was interesting that you just get on the train and up three or four stops and you were there, and you just got out and wandered around. You could see charred, everything was charred, and there was a lot charcoal around where everything had been burnt up.
You think of the horrific experience, but at the same time you were really thinking about getting back to Ewakuni and then flying back to Australia because at that time it was a bit, you were virtually pioneering a route. And I remember coming into Okinawa
on the way up and very bad weather and we had to do a ground-controlled approach to land, and the chap came along and made us members of the ‘Soup Sweaters Club’, a little bit of paper that he had to land in instrument conditions at a two hundred feet cloud base and something or other visibility.
You just remember these funny little things.
We’re approaching the end of the interview now, it’s been quite a momentous as well as fascinating interview. Before we finished I just wondered if there were any other aspects that we haven’t covered that you wanted to mention before we close?
No, the one thing that I don’t think we got on there was that I flew Gary Cooper.
When was this?
This was about 1943 in his visit to New Guinea, and I will try to find my short snorter and see if I have his signature. Generally speaking it has been a very satisfying life. You have tried to contribute,
you have tried to instill into the air force professionalism and you hope you have done that. It is great to see some of these young people coming along. You look at society, I see some of these young people around here, they
seem to get everything they want and it makes you wonder where it will all finish. But generally speaking I think at this stage in life I think it looks pretty rosy ahead for Australia.
Thank you very much for a superb interview, definitely one of the most fascinating, one of the best interviews we’ve recorded in this project so far. On behalf of Rebecca [interviewer] and myself and the war archive, thank you very much.
Thank you, it’s been interesting from my point of view too.