Sometimes you sit down and you say “What the hell am I doing here? There’s no war in our country”
Jamaican I was living in Kingston, Water Street, when I joined up. I was still going to school. A friend of mine and me, we set out one morning to go to school and we had to pass the recruiting place. There was a queue of lads standing outside – high school lads. The place wasn’t open yet. My friend, he said ” What about we go join the Airforce?” I said “Oh no, your Mudder will kill you if she hear you join the airforce” for there was only one kid in that family and the mother and father work – the father was a tramcar driver and every penny that he earns he spend on this lad. But anyway, we plucked up the courage and we went in and we joined. It was done on the spur of the moment. I was 17. I had been staying on at school.
I had no idea what I was going to do when I left school. I had no idea. My uncle was a joiner – what we call carpenter, back home. I used to be with him all the while – every spare time that I get I always with him. I picked up a lot of work off him. He said “All right, if you want to leave school you can come with me as an apprentice.” The work situation wasn’t too good. Things was cheap but the unemployment and the work was very appalling. Most of the work was in plantations – sugar. For tradesmen the money was very, very good but for ordinary labourers the pay was very bad. Joining the airforce was something I did on the spur of the moment.
After we joined, the hardest part was when he come back for he to tell his mother that he joined the airforce. it was a row. I didn’t tell anybody. Nobody know that I joined the airforce. My Mother was living in St. Ann’s. She found out eventually, when I was on my way to England. I don’t think she was very upset, for actually I didn’t grow with them you see. I didn’t grow with my parents at all. I grow up on my own. I went away to Montego Bay when I was 8 or 9, and I spend most of my days there until I came back home, and when I did come back I spent about three days with them, and I was away again. I was a rolling stone. I couldn’t settle one place. I was living with my sister at the time.
When the card came for me to report to camp, I didn’t. I decided to change my mind. At this time the Americans were building a camp at a place called Sandy Gully. It was swampland. America said “You can have all the material that you want, but you won’t get one man from America to fight for you.” This was at the beginning of the war. America was supplying Britain with all the material that they wanted and they didn’t see anyway in which Britain could pay for it, so they said “We’ll lease the West Indian islands off you – Jamaica, Trinidad.” It didn’t cause any bad feeling with us for actually it provided work for thousands and thousands.
When the Americans came here and started to build the base the pay was so great, they would have been glad if they built the base all over the whole island! If I remember rightly, when the Americans started the base Churchill told Roosevelt not to pay the amount of money they were paying to the Jamaican worker, for after they finished there would be no more work and they’d be looking for the same pay. But the American’s said they wanted the job doing and as long as the man can do the job, he got paid for it.
It was because of this fantastic money that they were paying that I was having second thoughts about joining the airforce. After I received the card saying I should report to camp three days passed and then a Landrover pulled up. (1) It was morning. I was just getting up and I come out onto the steps. There was police and an army corporal. They said “Mr Campbell in?” I nearly said “Yes” but I realised what was going on. I told them that he was away. They said “When you see him, just tell him he’s to report at the camp.”
The next morning I’ve got to go away. I still didn’t tell my sister. I just get out and catch the bus to Palace Theatres and reported to the camp. Palace Theatres is a part of Port Royal. Palace Theatres was so small for this army camp they had to dump in the sea tons and tons of big rocks. There were lorries rolling past every day with rocks and all the earth they could find, and they dumped it and pushed the sea back that they could build the camp. That now is the civil airport in Kingston.
When we got on the train there was only the Salvation Army. They was there giving us cups of tea and cake. That’s all you could see – just a hand coming through the window
I went to the camp with two pairs of shoes, for in Jamaica you scarcely see a bloke with just a one colour pair of shoes. His shoes is either black and white or brown and white. You can just imagine six or seven hundred people on the barrack square drilling, and all of them have different shoes on – and different pants, for there was no uniform at all. One of my pairs was black and white, and one brown and white, for we scarcely in those days go in a shop and buy a pair of shoes. My sister had a greengrocer’s shop at the front, and in one corner there was a shoemaker. He make all hand-made shoes.
In a fortnight, after all this drilling, I had no shoes at all, except the uppers. Some of us used wires, and tied them on. Finally we got the uniform. The boat that was coming with the uniform was sunk. A second boat came, but there wasn’t enough uniform to go ’round. I just had pants – no tunic to fit, you see. In a couple of days another boat came in and we all got fixed up. There was a lot of shipping getting knocked off in the Atlantic ’round the West indies. The Germans used to have submarines waiting – as soon as they see a ship – it’s gone! The fisherman, they were coming in every morning with barrels of salt fish and all different kinds of provisions from these sunk ships. A lot of lads got scared and wouldn’t join up. It was either the first or the second batch of men to leave Jamaica for the airforce, that their boat was sunk. They never made the Atlantic. We all got scared then.
As soon as we were properly fixed up with uniforms we was on a 36 hour pass, for we were going away on the Monday. The news got out, somehow or another, because they were trying to keep it secret. It was very hush-hush, because the news was getting out and these boats were going down. It was dark when we left. The boat, the ss Cuba, come in. We come by launch across the sea to the boat. When we looked back the pier was full of people come to say farewell. We arrived in Britain in the winter.
We arrived in Greenock in the night. The whole place was in darkness. We couldn’t make out anything at all. Even the train was in darkness – just this little light with the long shade. When we got on the train there was only the Salvation Army. They was there giving us cups of tea and cake. That’s all you could see – just a hand coming through the window. I looked out the window after the train set out – there wasn’t much to see. I turned to another lad, I said “Where the hell are we going? Can you see anything of houses, or anything?” He said “No”. Then we start to make out shapes. I said “I can’t see anything here – all I can see is blessed factories.” Which was the houses! For seeing chimneys on houses, that is something we don’t have back home. In the early hours of the morning we reached our destination, which was Filey.
We spent about ten weeks there and then I went to Henlow, and then I came back to Filey for a while. I was with the third batch of lads that came over. I was trained for air-gunner. Most of the time I was on stand-by. It was about thirty shillings I was getting when I joined the airforce, I think. Once we leave Jamaica the Jamaican government was paying five shillings a day to Jamaican airmen, on top of the RAF pay. I was still getting that right until I came out.
We used to get extra sugar. I adapt quickly to tea without sugar, or just a little bit, but a lot couldn’t. The thing we couldn’t adapt to very quick was this heap of spuds. We didn’t like it. In some camps we had our own cooks. When we first arrived they tried to make an effort. As I say, the tea had no sugar in, as everything was on ration, but as a lot couldn’t drink it, so we used to get an extra ration of sugar. On the West Indian table there’s always extra sugar. We used to have all the English trying to get on the West Indian table. They were always there. We got extra tropical food. Some camps you go to there was older men and that have been to the tropic countries and they liked the tropic food, so when they see it on the West Indian table they want to get onto that table too. At first the extra sugar caused a bit of resentment. When they understand that all this extra sugar was being paid for by the Jamaican government they then said it was a different matter. They believed we were getting extras, that we were getting privileges.
At times I thought “Why on earth did I volunteer.” Especially when we had was to go ’round Filey, on these ack-ack gun for target practice. You’re shooting with this plane up there at 6 o’ clock in the morning, It was always early in the morning. The plane would be up there with the target on. Winter, summer or autumn you’re at it. Sometime you sit down and you say “What the hell am I doing here? There’s no war in our country.”
1. Landrovers went into production in 1947. Obviously a reference to a similar type of vehicle.