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AIR GUNNER T.F. EWATSKI:
THE FIRST CANADIAN IN SOUTH-EAST ASIA AIR COMMAND OVER BURMA
Freddie Ewatski is a proud man. Now aged 74, he talks about his service as an air gunner in the RCAF and the RAF, and especially with the RAF over Burma, with the RAF over Burma, with a mixture of pleasure and nostalgia. The pleasure is undoubtedly connected with the friends he made, the good times he had, and the many places he visited, and -- most important -- the fact that he survived because "the good Lord was with me". He worries about the fact that the part played by Canadian airmen over Burma in 1944 has not been given appropriate recognition in the histories of World War II. Although there were ultimately close to 1000 Canadian aircrew in the Burma campaign, there are few accounts that do them justice.
Freddie Ewatski was probably the first of these Canadians to be involved in the Burma campaign. He was already there in April of 1944. What follows is some of the untold story of this Canadian's involvement.
In 1944 the Japanese were still pressing into India and especially in the Imphal valley, usually a beautiful lake district between India and Burma. In April they again attacked fiercely towards Imphal. Freddie's first mission came before he had undergone local training, as gunner on a Liberator of 159 Squadron. His plane dropped 9,000 lbs of bombs on a Japanese troop concentration at Indaw on May 13, 1944, with a total flying time of 8 hours and 5 minutes. The distances were to be much greater later on.
Freddie joined the Canadian air force in Winnipeg in the Fall of 1942 with two of his school buddies. All three had attended first Isaac Newton and then St. John's High School in Winnipeg's North End, where Freddie still lives. Together they were sent for training in Brandon and Paulson, near Dauphin. Following this they went to Montreal for IT (Initial Training) as air crew. Freddie was then posted to Gunnery School at Mont Joli, Quebec, from May 31 to July 9, 1943. Then it was off to England, in a group of 450 Canadians, for additional gunnery training and flying experience. His "report card" from the O.T.U. Gunnery Course stated that Segeant Ewatski was "A good hard working and intelligent gunner".
What happened next remains somewhat of a mystery, but is likely easy to explain i you know Freddie. During the winter of 1943-44, by some chance or deliberate happening, he was separated from his buddies. While the other 449 of his group were posted to RCAF squadrons, Freddie was assigned to the Royal Air Force. He never found out why.
It wasn't easy being the lone Canadian among the Brits and being confronted with strange foods. Freddie recalls:
"I had herring for breakfast and Welsh rarebit for lunch, and fried bread and beans for supper, with hot chocolate. So I went to the kitchen and asked for a cup of tea. The Chap there said 'Laddie, when you're in Rome, you'll do as the Romans do. You'll drink hot chocolate'. The next day I asked the English lady with the NAAFI wagon for a jam and cheese sandwich. And that's what I lived on. They asked me what I normally ate for breakfast. I said we had corn flakes, or ham and eggs, or bacon and eggs; for lunch we had a bowl of soup and a sandwich, and the heavy meal at supper time. This Scotsman, my wireless operator, said 'Ewatski, you're a bloody liar -- nobody eats as good as that'".
Some of the quaint ways of life in the RAF have remained with Freddie. But the jam and cheese sandwiches diet must have been good enough because by 1944 he was busy testing out in bigger and better RAF planes. Freddie doesn't mind telling you that "they thought more of their aircraft than they did of the personnel". In England he went on practice runs and once on an Air-Sea rescue, looking for a dinghy in the water. It was all part of the preparation for the long flights he would be taking in the Far East, but there it would be over jungles as well as over water.
The winter of 1943-44 brought unhappy moments too. Freddie was rear gunner on a Wellington Mk 14, a lonely position at best, and made tolerable only because of the heated vest, trousers and gloves that the rear gunner wore. On this flight the heating equipment malfunctioned and, as Freddie says, "I froze". He got pneumonia, was hospitalized in Leicester for ten days in a civilian hospital, and then got seven days leave in London.
While in London he found out that his two schoolmates who had joined the Air Force with him had both been killed in action: Kenny Smith, who lived on Boyd and Arlington, and Jimmy Waters, whose dad was a policeman on Salter street. "I died with them", Freddie says. Depressed by the loss of his friends, he was eager for a change of some kind. In the late winter of 1943-44, back at his base in Bruntingthorpe, his skipper, an Australian, one day said to him "Freddie, they need two crews for the Far East. Would you like to volunteer?" Recalling how skillful Pilot Officer Goody was, Freddie readily agreed. Goody had started an engine in the air in one of their practice flights, so Freddie said to himself "If you can do that, buddy, I'm sticking with you".
It took them 29 days on an Indian ship, which served "Indian grub", to reach Bombay via the Red Sea on April 7, 1944. The port of Bombay was a most important supply base, full of ships, servicemen and dockworkers. On April 14, 1944, two massive explosions in an ammunition ship created havoc in the docks and in the city itself. Hundreds of lives were lost, including 66 firemen fighting the blaze, and hundreds more were injured; 27 ships were sunk and the harbour was a shattered mess. Freddie Ewatski was among the thousands of Allied servicemen called in to clean up. His task was to help clean up the storage sheds. His work at the docks taught Freddie something about India and its 440 million people. Again, he tells his own story:
"I had a permit to take a hundred people to fight the fire, to move grain from one pile to another. Every third bag I turned over, there was a nest of rats, So I said to this Indian guy, 'Sir, why do you feed the rats and not the people?' He said 'We would only use that grain for a famine'".
It was not long before Freddie faced another kind of fire. He was posted to Digree, about 120 miles from Calcutta, at the end of a railway line. From there he flew on his first operation, on May 13, 1944, as already described. Freddie believes that he was the first Canadian airman in action over Burma. His 159 Squadron was the first four-engine bomber squadron in India; it was also later commended by King George VI for its pathfinder activities.
There was a lull in Freddie's flying time. It was not until June 6, D-Day in Europe, that he was in the air again, for some days of practice against simulated fighter attacks against the Liberator bomber in which Freddie was nose gunner. His next op was a front gunner on June 14. The mission, in relief of Allied troops at Imphal, was to drop 6,000 lbs on Japanese troops and supplies on the Imphal-Tiddim Road, an operation that took them 5 1/2 hours starting at 6:40 a.m.
The monsoon months from June to November inhibited air activity, though the land fighting of course continued in the thick jungle. The Japanese were pushed back from the Imphal area and along other stretches of the front. Freddie's log-book shows very little flying time -- a few hours practice as rear gunner in early September, with his old friend P. O. Goody, now promoted to Flying Officer, and non-combat flight to Allabad and Delhi. To Freddie's great regret, he was not to fly with P.O. Goody again. He spent some weeks on leave in July and October through November, seeing the sights, hearing the noises of India, and hiking in the mountains. This made for a welcome change from the monotony of routine maintenance work on base and the constant heat.
Freddie recalls that on the base at Digree the servicemen were housed in huts with thatched roofs and no windows. The grub was miserable, largely because of the isolation of this base at the end of the railway line from Calcutta. By the time the train reached Digree, 4 other bases had been through it and taken the best of the rations. Freddie describes some of the problems: "They had frozen mutton which they couldn't cook. Of the 24 dozen eggs they had, there was only one dozen that was good on account of the temperature -- 135 degrees Fahrenheit".
That the food did not measure up to Freddie's expectations was, he thought, also due to cultural difference between British and Canadians. Crew members didn't share what they had: "Nobody shared anything. The RAF types were brought up a little differently than the RCAF types, who [were used to} a good feed".
The heat also kept them from doing much work during the day: "We would work from 6 to 10 am, and then we went back from 6 PM till we finished our work". Sleeping had to be under mosquito nets. Freddie recalls one Australian "who wanted to go home so desperately that he left his net open, got malaria, and got himself shipped home".
For bath facilities there was an open area which usually had only cold water where the men showered. "In the morning you had to wear big boots because there were snakes there...If they bit you, you were in trouble". The heat make the aircraft so hot that nobody could work with the guns except the armourers who were prepared for such work. One time a sergeant "forgot to tell this English chap not to go to the airplane. He put his hand on the plane and the skin just peeled off".
Once the monsoon was over, the allied bombing campaign could resume in support of the forward movement of British and Empire ground troops. The bombers' main objective now was to cut the Japanese communications and supply routes into Burma, and to destroy ammunition and fuel depots and Japanese shipping. The distances which the bombers had to cover become ever greater as important targets were identified deep inside Japanese-held territory in Burma and Thailand. Freddie agrees with a published statement about such bombing missions. Their greatest obstacle was neither enemy fighters nor anti-aircraft fire, but the vast distances they had to fly. Between 1000 and 1100 miles lay between the heavy bombers and their target.
Freddie's 5 missions in December 1944 were daytime bombing raids, though they would return well after nightfall, in Liberators piloted by F/Sgt. Dorman. Liberator VI's had a top speed of 270 mph, but in practice speed and range would depend on loaded weight. On December 8, with Freddie as nose gunner, his aircraft laid mines off Victoria Point, and bombed and strafed ground installations from a height of 500 feet. 6,400 lbs of bombs were dropped, three "Jake" seaplanes were machine-gunned and left burning. The mission took a brutal 14 hours, and they returned with at least 5 holes in their aircraft.
Freddie Ewatski was again nose gunner on December 11, when they dropped 6,800 lbs of bombs on shipping at Heinz Ban and also strafed ships there from a height of 500 to 600 ft. The mission was uneventful but long -- twelve and a half hours. Three days later, on December 14, Freddie was rear gunner, as he was on all his remaining flights. This time the target was the storage and railway sheds at the railway station a Kanchanduri, about 120 miles from Bangkok. Despite attacks by two Japanese fighters, 6,800 lbs of bombs were dropped from a height of 5000 feet. Flying time on this run to a distant target was 13 hours and 25 minutes.
On December 17, they attacked the Japanese radar installations on Great Coso Island in the Andaman Sea about 150 miles south of the Burmese mainland. In an operation taking 9 1/2 hours, 8,800 lbs of bombs were dropped from a height of 2000 feet. Freddie recalls seeing people run out of the radar station to take refuge in the bush. The next sortie was on December 23. The target this time was the locomotive sheds, stores and fuel dump at South Moulmein. Moulmein was a very important harbour and supply base for the Japanese. This time they encountered heavy anti-aircraft fire but succeeded in dropping their 8,800 lb bomb load from a height of 5000 feet. The operation took 12 hours. Freddie believes that the remained as the only Canadian in 159 Squadron, RAF, at this time. His pilot, F/Sgt. Dorman, was English, the wireless operator was a Scot, the nose gunner was a Welshman. During operations the aircrew each had a thermos of water, a thermos of tea, an orange and a sandwich. Freddie never ate his cheese sandwich. There would be no bacon and eggs or tot of rum waiting for them when they got back, as some said there would be: "That was the big story they gave us".
Freddie racked up 61 hours 25 minutes of operation time in his 5 missions in December 1944. He recalls that there was not much Christmas celebration in the 135 degree heat at 159 Squadron's base -- it was just too hot. He was back in the sky on New Year's Day, 1945, his 24th Birthday. This time his crew took off at 3:15 AM to attack a vital railway bridge in Bangkok. They had eight 1000 lb bombs. Dive bombing from a height of 500 feet, they scored a direct hit. This was one of the longer operations, with 13 hours 15 minutes flying time.
A week later, on January 8, the destination was again South Moulmein, with the engine sheds and sidings and fuel stores as the targets for their 8000 lbs bomb load. Freddie now flew with a new aircraft, Liberator KH255, with the latest turret and .50 ammo to replace the previous .33. This mission, which took 11 hours, 55 minutes, and the next were uneventful. On January 11 it was off to South Moulmein once more, to lay eight mines and drop their eight 100 lb bombs. They were twelve and a half hours in the air on this, the second-last of Freddie's operations.
The last op, and the one that Freddie remembers all too well, was the longest and most frightening of his sorties. They took off at 1700 hours in the sturdy KH255. The target was complicated, for there were allied prisoners of war in the vicinity. The Primary objective was the Rajburi bridge, which the Japanese had to cross to get to a merchant vessel that had food stores for them. The target was heavily defended. At the pre-op briefing the Intelligence Officer warned the crews:
"Gentlemen, there are six of you going out, but there are only three of you coming back, because it's a heavily fortified target".
In the event, Fredddie's plane was late on target and the crew decided to bomb not the bridge but the road leading to it. In his logbook Freddie even stated that they jettisoned their bombs. They also strafed the Japanese ship. Freddie later recalled:
"When we did the Rajburi bridge, we went to strafe the merchant ship. It was the first time I used .50 caliber bullets and strafed the deck. Sparks were flying off it. We were right on top of the boat. We had seven holes in the plane when we got back. One bullet come just behind my head and knocked out my intercom. So I couldn't talk to the crew. They thought I was shot. I war really shaken because, you see, I was pinned in the turret. We were two hours late getting back because we hit bad weather... We had to go out to sea and come back. It took 14 hours and 40 minutes".
As it turned out, Freddies's combat days were over. The whole crew was "shaken up" and greatly in need of leave. Since arrival in India in April 1944 Freddie had done 11 ops, as nose and rear gunner, all in Liberators and all but the first two with F/Sgt. Dorman as pilot. He logged 91 hours 20 minutes of day operations and 38 night op hours. His proficiency assessment rated him as "above average" as a gunner, and his C.O. commented "A most satisfactory gunner, keen, intelligent and industrious".
Freddie had a leave which he remembers with great happiness because he was able to do some mountain climbing, go through a pass that Marco Polo had gone through, and get a well-deserved rest. He believes that he was given an extra 4 months of staff duty on base because he had tried to help F/Sgt. Dorman get a promotion. Given Freddie's general feistiness, there may have been other reasons too. Nevertheless, Freddie himself was promoted to temporary Warrant Officer I before he was demobilized in Canada in November 1945. Many years later he was one of the founders and the first President of the Canadian Air Gunners Association. Not bad for a Ukrainian Canadian boy from the North End of Winnipeg.
Written by Stella Hryniuk, Associate Professor of History, University of Manitoba, on the basis of Freddie Ewatski's log book and interviews with him.