"Get some mud on your boots!"
The place: RCAF No. 2 Fighter Wing, Grostenquin, France.
The time: September 1952
The first of four fighter wings had invaded the Cold War European continent. Well, not exactly an invasion, more like a toe in the water. I was on a North Star to arrive after the advance party had made all the preparations. Ha! The base at GT was far from ready and its premature opening coincided with the onset of bone-chilling temperatures and continuous rain. We of the muddy boots quickly learned the true meaning of "cold" war.
The groundcrews of 430 Squadron had been herded into a North Star at North Bay, Ontario, and aimed at a place we only knew was in France. It was a long, ear-destroying flight via Goose Bay, Keflavik, London and Paris. At London we landed to a radio crystal that would get us into Paris. The Paris overnighter was made absolutely necessary by Grostenquin's inability to entertain an IFR landing. Ha!
Ah, Paris - the City of Light (and enlightenment"). We could not believe the friendliness of the Parisiennes who rushed our bus. It was reminiscent of the liberation scenes. By accident or design the boys at 1 Air Division HQ then based in Paris had managed to find us overnight accommodation in the heart of Pigalle, a thriving bordello district. Weary as we were, not many of us wasted our first visit to this fabulous city on sleeping.
Our arrival at 2 Wing the next day jolted us back to earth. It was already dark and the electrical system on the entire base was out. The place looked like a movie set for WWI trench warfare. We were advised to walk carefully on boards so as not to sink our polished boots angle deep in the gumbo. At the end of the boards we entered a dark building. It was suppertime at the fashionable hour we were to learn about in France. The only light came from a shop mule that had mounted its headlights through a window. All ranks dined in what was to become the "Works and Bricks" shop.
Across the bench that served as a steam table we were handed aluminum trays with indentations into which the food was aimed by the kitchen staff. I was surprised to recognize LAC Roger Arcand, a met observer from St Hubert, Quebec, manning a giant spoon charged with mashed potatoes. Next spoon: lima beans, then a dark lump of something. So much for French cuisine.
Finding your way with your tray was a combination of groping in the dark, shielding your eyes from the glare of headlights, and trying not to traygoose the guy in front of you. It might be the CO.
Accommodations were equally haphazard. The barracks were unlit and unheated. But some of them had the luxury of duckboards to counter the mud, if you could see well enough to stay aboard. In the dull light of the morning the camp looked very much the same in all directions- squat aluminum buildings accented by a network of ugly overhead pipes. These were intended to supply heat to the buildings. Ha! Warmth in the barracks was a hit and miss affair. The slightly warmer stuff in the pipes was supposed to be captured in a small vessel in the middle of each H-hut for distribution throughout the building. But each H-hut also housed 100 or so residents, each of whom knew a better way to keep the heat moving through the pipes. The locally hired farmer-turned-steam-jockey in our block had no idea how to compete with the committee of 100 and so just shrugged. He did demonstrate how to keep warm by wrapping a newspaper around one's torso. The air force answer to the problem was to install a Herman Nelson heater at the entrance in the hope of driving warmth throughout the building through a large flexible air duct. Needless to say we slept under extra blankets and greatcoats and dreamt of rustic comfort in a hunting camp back home.
Early on there was scramble for rubber boots. The supply section had acquired, by local purchase, an inadequate stockpile. But if we were lucky enough to keep our feet dry there was still no substitute for the new cloth raincoats which quickly sogged up the never-ending drizzle. Oh for the old oilskins the new coats had replaced.
In spite of sheer silliness that seemed to surround us at every turn the station slowly began to take shape. Problems were taken with a grain of c'est la vie. All ranks shared the adversity. Morale and discipline remained much higher than one might imagine.
It wasn't long before a corner was established as the airmen's "wets". Scottish ale in cans was the temporary and unpopular substitute for Molson's Ex. But soon we learned to swallow the local Neufang beer and formed a baseball team in its honour called the Neufang Clowns. If nothing else, such free advertising yielded results.
Lower ranks with higher levels of adventure found the Klien Charles Café (aka Ma Hammering's) in the nearby village of Hemering. The good lady had transformed the tiny pub she had operated for the locals into an emulation of a raging Gold rush bar. She learned to blaspheme vigorously in two Canadian languages. Senior NCOs and officers jury-rigged their own facilities elsewhere. The earliest officers' bar consisted of boards spread across sawhorses.
Only the approach of an early spring brought conditions close to normal. The buildings designed in the original plan gradually supplanted temporary accommodations. (Along the way a wild wind blew the roof of one of the buildings.) The airmen's mess hall got functioning but occasionally felt the pinch. When the NCO in charge rationed the milk, Moscow Molly announced that same night on her propaganda program from Russia that F/Sgt. Marchand was in everybody's bad book. That was a signal that the red spies we were warned about actually existed. Molly was equally alert when the first airwoman arrived; announcing that "comfort women" had been supplied to the Canadian troops. Ha!
Other NATO units began to show fraternal recognition of our presence. A USAF squadron based to the south began to visit. Their Marauders would sweep low at 2 a.m. and drop thunder flashes. The explosive resonances through the tin barracks were heart stopping, especially during a deep, Neufang-induced sleep. But it was all in fun. When GT squadron's pilots invited a Marauder full of Americans to a social gathering, all the hands came out to greet them. While the officers entertained the Yanks, GT ground crews went into action. They painted the entire aircraft a bright pink and decorated it with large stars. The Americans had to call for a fighter escort to get home without being shot down. This caper brought about a truce imposed by some spoilsports at high level.
Early entertainment included Cpl. (later Maj.) Howie Higgins spewing a mouthful of JP-4 across a lighter. But the prospect of greater fireworks drew a more attentive audience on another occasion. Some Algerian workmen- known on camp as AY-rabs- were digging a ditch not far from the armament shack. Suddenly one hit a metallic object with his shovel. A group of armourers, lounging in the lunchtime sun, ran instinctively for cover. That part of France still had lots of live ordnance lying around after various wars. The airmen cringed out of harm's way and waited for the explosion. But the metal turned out to be a German helmet that had worked its way down four feet in the clay.
Arts and crafts facilities were scare but not totally absent. Sitting in the barracks one Saturday we heard a clanging noise down the hall. As the racket became increasingly annoying, armament corporal (later squadron leader) Dick Kerr decided to investigate. There sat the hobbyist pounding on a large cannon shell, trying to get the top off so he could make a lamp. Dick quickly cleared the barracks and had the shell removed. It was alive!
By the time the camp began to show signs of order, we were already on our second CO. G/C Pollard called the first CO's parade. And so we polished and pressed and began to feel a bit more military. In front of the hangars we assembled, fell in, sized, answered the roll call, opened order for inspection, and then marched past in salute. It was like Manning Depot all over again. After his salute the CO addressed the formation.
"In all my air force experience, he said," I have never seen such a sloppy demonstration…" It was the end of an era. Even the mud had started to dry up.
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Updated: March 10, 2002, 2002