A British Cadet’s Odyssey to NAS Grosse Ile and Beyond

by Norman McKinstry, Pilot 1850 Sqdn. HMS. Vengeance.

June 1940 brought the end of term for me at Dover College in England. It was also the start of the Battle of Britain, and my roundabout journey to Grosse Ile, Michigan, USA.

When possible, school children were evacuated to Canada or somewhere safer. The siege had begun. I was 16 and watched the aerial battles over the South of England stretched out on the grass looking skyward. My two sisters were also at school in Kent, not far from Dover. We were sent to Bristol to join a ship for Jamaica. Air raid sirens sounded as we waited at the railway station at Bristol. Our ship sailed from Avonmouth to Milford Haven where a large convoy was formed. This convoy was bottled up at anchor for 15 days, as the Germans dropped mines that night all over the large harbor. Two ships were sunk when hit directly by dropping mines. Because our ship was faster than most....we were able to leave the convoy 4 days out....and bee-lined it to Bermuda & Jamaica at 18 knots.               

That fall, I was enrolled at Munroe College, Jamaica. I graduated in June 1942 and signed for Hostilities Only in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserves at Kingston, along with 9 others who wanted to do a part in the war effort. My family was not happy; because there was no conscription in the colonies....I did not have to go. My Dad thought I should go to Cambridge University in England to study Law. Picture a healthy 18 years old....in civvies, at University....whilst the rest of Britain was preparing for the German invasion, which seemed imminent? I just knew that would not work!!!!                

And so....the 9 of us on Sept 7, 1942 joined a troopship....the USS ALGONQUIN???? with 5000 GI’s on the way to New Orleans from the Panama Canal Zone, which was a nice, safe place to be at that time. Soon the troops and nine greenhorns were on a troop train to Brooklyn, NY. At the US Navy yard, we were issued British sailor uniforms & utensils, hammock, etc. But no instructions on how to wear or use them! We were sent to a converted CCC Camp near Peekskill, NY to await convoy to UK. I became ill at Peekskill & wound up back at Brooklyn in the Hospital. I missed the ship & caught a later one after 10 days in sickbay. Eventually gained passage on a converted liberty ship/baby flattop British Carrier loaded with F7F Grumman night fighters & TBFs. Also learned how to get into and sleep in a hammock....as did all Navy non-coms.

Boot camp in the UK was at Lee-On-Solent, near Portsmouth on the South coast. Next stop was HMS St. Vincent....a main land base for training Naval Airmen, not very far from Lee. We were the lowest form of naval life....classified Naval Airman Second Class. It felt like 3rd class!!! Studies included Seamanship, Signals (Morse code & Semaphore) Surface Navigation, Aircraft Identification, Gunnery, Oarsmanship, etc. Graduates became Acting Leading Seaman (A). The (A) was for AIR ARM. Also....a pay raise, you couldn’t notice. Pay was 2 shilling & sixpence per week....about 95 cents (22p. UK) in today’s money. We got to wear a white band around our sailor caps!!

This success brought assignments all over Britain to various land and sea bases awaiting assembly of a Draft to US for 48th Pilots Course. 350 men (boys) graduated....half destined for US....half to train in UK.

A buddy and I (Both from Jamaica) were sent to a small trawler in Glasgow for 2 weeks of continuous attack by Fairey Swordfish Torpedo bombers as we sailed from Greenock to the Isle of Aran each day. Swordfish pilots were using dummy torpedo’s set at 14 feet depth to pass under the small vessel. Sometimes they "Porpoised".... were coming out of the water instead of running deep. To avoid being struck, the trawler would take evasive action. Our job was to log the aircraft numbers, angle of approach, altitude of torpedo release, etc. It was boring stuff.

By a show of hands....half the 350 graduates were to go to US. My hand was UP. Troopship QUEEN MARY took us across the Atlantic....unescorted except for Catalina & Sunderland Aircraft from time to time....back to Brooklyn, NY. Then we took a train to Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada....and on to Grosse Ile. At Grosse Ile we were issued US Navy Summer uniforms, except for Caps with white band....indicating we were Aviation Cadets. The first 2 weeks at Grosse Ile were intensive physical training at sun-up every morning, followed by 10 hours a day in ground school learning Meteorology, Aircraft Identification, Aerial Navigation, Theory of flight, Engines & Airframes, Local maps, etc.

On Aug 5, 1943 my instructor took me up for 90 minutes of orientation/observation. I think he also tried to make me airsick!!!??? He almost did. I sat in back seat of N2S-1. He could speak to me but not vice versa. He pointed to landmarks, emergency landing strips, throttle settings, stalls, etc. The most difficult task of this flight was trying to turn the Inertial crank handle to start the engine. This was done by standing on the lower starboard wing and turning a very heavy flywheel device up to revs high enough to get the cylinders moving fast enough to fire up. It was hot, hard work. Later models had cartridge....then electric starters.

By August 31, I had completed 15 HOPS with instructors. On August 14, I soloed. This was important, because if not....you were WASHED OUT....or dead. This was after eleven and a half hours dual instruction. At end of August I had accumulated 14 hours of solo time and 12 hours more dual. By October 20, EBASE (elimination base) was completed. My personal instructor wrote in my logbook "Has right temperament for combat flying”. This was more a statement of his personal desire to be at the front lines, than of my ability in combat. Consensus of most other instructors was "Fair".... Total flying hours at Grosse Ile were 54 dual...48 solo. BASE was broken into stages: A-B-C-D-E. After each stage a different instructor CHECKED cadets. If he gave an UP CHECK, you went on to next stage.

Oct 9 and 10....I gained two up checks, thanks to LT. JG Mitchell & Bernstein. The time at Grosse Ile seemed much shorter than it actually was!!! Each day was very full of activity....flying and ground school, which seemed never to end. It was like College all over again....but more concentrated....due to the war.

I cannot remember a single meal, nor where the mess hall was located. Nor can I remember what was fed to us. In any event....the food was abundant and not rationed! We slept in wooden barracks....2 stories, I think....all 160 of us in one or two buildings. Mornings came too soon. Night flying was not scheduled....thank goodness.

Here are the names of instructors I had while at Grosse Ile. All were ensigns unless noted other wise: Dangott, Kowal, Lawler, Probst, Rogers, Sessions. Scheehan, and Meyers. Ltjgs. Chanter, Humphrey, Wilcox, Pardoe, Mitchell, Bersteir, and Fuhr. Lts. Castleman, Parsons, Christie, and Shaw. Lcdr. A.S. Deitrich was the superintendent of Aviation Training. All the instructors were US Navy I believe.

After Grosse Ile my flying skills must have improved, because I got only 3 more down checks from Nov '43 to April '44....the time spent with N2S, SNV, SNJ 3,4,5, at Pensacola and its outlying fields. I was awarded US Navy wings of gold on April 14, 1944 and had by that time accumulated 104 hours dual & 152 hours solo flying time. VN608 was the training sqdn. at Pensacola. The FAA flying award was concurrent with US wings. Wings themselves differed in that British wings were embroidered & outlined with gold braid, whereas US wings were pinned on & made of metal; Brit wings were sewed on to sleeves, not worn on chest like US wings.

From Pensacola, about half went to Jacksonville, Florida to VF-5 for fighter training on F4U-1. The other half went to Ft. Lauderdale or Vero Beach for torpedo bomber training on TBF's. I was in the fighter group. TBF lads were more responsible and mature as they were responsible for a crew of 3. At the time of earning wings....a few of us (3 or 4)…. were under 21, so could not hold regular commissions. We were made Midshipman (A)....for air branch....then Sub Lieutenant (A) RNVR at age 21. More pay than Middies.

After JAX (Jacksonville)....we went to Lewiston and Brunswick, Maine., to be re-trained in the British style of formation flying, tactics, carrier approach, terminology, etc. Manifold pressure was called BOOST in Brit terms, for example. Brits also had different hand signals for formation flying and tactics when radio silence was required. At a small field near Bar Harbor and Ellsworth, Maine, we practiced Carrier landings and approaches on a runway marked off like a carrier deck. Our CO was the LSO (Commanding Officer – Landing Signal Officer). LSO signals were also different from US methods....just the opposite. In Maine we formed squadrons. First carrier landings were done at Norfolk, Virginia., but for some reason I cannot recall, I did not participate. It was later....in Scotland that I qualified on HMS Venerable....a new carrier in the Firth of Clyde, based at Greenock.

The rate of pay for Brits in the US, had to be subsidized so as to bring it nearer parity with US servicemen’s pay scale. Cadets received $230.00 each two weeks. Not many expenses were involved as food, lodging and recreation were on base. Cadets paid for Dry cleaning, laundry, and cigarettes when not provided free by the Cigarette Manufactures. Many were able to send money home. My folks did not need any....so I spent mine gambling at cards....or otherwise fritting it away. Occasionally....at Pensacola, I’d rent a sailboat or a Hertz Auto. Gas was rationed and engines “governed” not to allow a speed of more than 45 MPH. We'd drive back to base....ask one of the mechanics to remove the restrictor plate in the carb....fill up with aviation gas.... go racing at JAX beach or Daytona beach at speeds as fast as the 1942 cars could go!!!

The war was on.... and we did not expect to live to see the end of it. But the Allies were winning at this point....so our ship....HMS Vengeance....sister ship to Venerable….was readied for the invasion of Japan in the Pacific. It was my good fortune to survive it all. I lost three room-mates due to flying accidents during training. No fellow officer wanted to room with me.... so I got a cabin all to myself from March 1945 to wars end. Vengeance ended up at Hong Kong in September 1945. Hostilities ended, I asked to be repatriated to Jamaica, and was sent home via Sydney and Vancouver, BC....to Montreal & NY where I became engaged to a US lady I met at a USO dance at Lewiston, Maine. Then went to Tampa and took a ship to Kingston. I had circumnavigated the world and was still just turned 22. How could anybody have been so lucky??  This September, my Maine bride and I will celebrate 55 years of happy marriage.