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Posted: October 2, 2012 8:48 p.m.

British pilot trains, teaches in Georgia

During World War II the British media grumbled, "The trouble with Yanks is that they're over-paid, over-sexed, and over here." One good turn deserves another. British pilots trained in America but unlike their American counterparts, they were under-paid, welcomed here, and not criticized for what comes naturally - not too often, anyway.

Born into a military family on Sept. 11, 1919 near Devonport, England, Denis Payne graduated at the age of 15 from the Colchester High School for Young Gentlemen, then studied engineering at a Royal Air Force School. Upon graduation, 19-year-old Payne was assigned to an RAF Squadron near Peterborough where he flew as flight engineer on the obsolete Fairey Battle, a single-engine bomber. Venerable and slow, the Fairey Battle became easy prey for German fighters over France at the outbreak of World War II.
Payne said, "I realized to have a chance of surviving the war, I needed to get out of the backseat and get into the pilot's seat." He applied for fighter training, but before orders came through, Payne fought the Battle of Britain as a crew member on the famous Bristol Beaufighter. "The Beaufighter was used for night fighting," he said. "I remember the missions, all the bullet holes in our plane, a bit scary, it was."

In the summer of 1941, Payne finally received orders for fighter pilot training - in America. Dispatched to Montgomery, Ala., Payne said, "We spent two weeks getting adjusted to the weather and trying to comprehend the language. We soon found out Winston Churchill was correct when he said, ‘We are two countries divided by a common language.'"

Summertime in Montgomery is broiling hot, plus the British boys got even hotter under the collar upon receiving instruction in the West Point technique of military inflexibility. Payne said, "They got us up at 5 a.m., we hustled everywhere, they told us when to eat, they screamed at us; we weren't very happy." Payne's next port-of-call: "Secret" training in Americus, Ga.; adapting to the Southern way of life, and speaking a new, sometimes problematic, dialect.
To keep things "secret," the British pilots were not allowed to wear uniforms into Americus because of American ‘neutrality' at the time. Payne said, "Every soul in Americus knew we were there, and the people treated us great. We were invited to a ‘weinie roast' during our first week. We had no idea about ‘hot dogs' and we had our own meaning for ‘weinie,' so needless to say, we were concerned about what was being roasted."

While learning to fly the legendary bi-wing PT-17 Stearman, Payne said he fell in love with America. "England had a class system, but we were treated as equals in Americus, with respect, and everyone was easy-going, friendly, a big difference."
And Southern food? Payne said, "I loved it, still do. I ate fried chicken for the first time. We ate peaches, corn on the cob, black-eyed peas, and I ordered a banana split for the first time. Good Lord, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven." When asked about fried okra, Payne said, "I'm only 93 years old; give me a little more time." And Southern iced tea? "Now, there's a problem. It's bad enough you put ice in tea, but then you add sugar to sweeten it, then add lemons to make it sour again. It doesn't make sense." And American beer? "Put it this way, we walked into a store to hopefully purchase a beer. They had Root Beer. Not exactly what we thought. We figured the Yanks were really hard up for alcohol."
Payne said, "I was in town one weekend and ran into the mayor's wife. A very nice lady; always had the time to talk with us. When I asked what she was doing in town, she said, ‘Oh, just piddling around.' We were stunned. If a British pilot is ‘piddling' it's because he's had one too many at the local pub. I sort of worried about the mayor's wife after that conversation."

A young girl from Manchester, Tenn., named Mary was working in Macon during the war. Payne met Mary one weekend in Americus and the couple married six weeks later. They've been fighting the language barrier for 70 years. Payne said, "When we were dating I told her to meet me in front of Gaham's the next weekend. She had no idea what I was talking about. I told her it was the large building with the name plainly painted on the front in big letters. Well, the building was advertising Georgia hams; the lettering was GA HAMS."
Mary Payne automatically became a British subject by marriage. Once in England, she was slated to work for the British military, but an American general scooped up Mary because of her dictation skills. Mary said, "My skills on the piano helped, too." Mary had entertained the ‘boys' with her musical aptitude en route via a 60 ship convoy to England.

When sharing a meal with American families, British pilots would return the favor by offering to, "knock you up with a cup of tea," which meant, "let me knock on your bedroom door in the morning and serve you tea in bed," which was actually a polite suggestion from the British boys. However, as Payne recalls, "The fathers would be quite disconcerted by the offer, especially if their daughters were at the dinner table."

While teaching navigation in Macon, Payne corrected map and plotting errors by the new recruits with a large red eraser. This leads to another of miscommunication: "Well, I corrected so much I needed a new rubber, that's what the British call an eraser. I went downtown to a Woolworth's Store and told a young female clerk I needed a big red rubber. She stuttered a bit then instructed me to go across the street to the Rexall Drugstore. I didn't understand why, but I did as she requested. I approached another young female worker in the drugstore and asked for a big red rubber. Her face flushed before she excused herself and called the manager. He was a nice guy, but I had to request the same from him. He said, ‘That's fine, sir, would you like a dozen?' I said, ‘Good Lord, man, I only want one!' He said, ‘Yes, sir' and walked behind the counter and pulled out a handful of Trojans. I finally realized my blooper. I was too embarrassed to speak; so I bought one, walked back to the British barracks, took the thing out and pinned it to the bulletin board with a large note that read: Warning. This is what the bloody yanks call a rubber!"

Payne's flying abilities earned him an instructor's slot. He received the patriotic pitch from his superiors, "Good instructors are more important than pilots," at least three times during World War II. Payne taught in Macon, a twin-engine fighter school in Scotland, and taught British Bomber Command pilots how to safely land Lancaster, Ventura, and Wellington bombers in bad weather.

After the war, the Paynes returned to Mary's hometown of Manchester, Tenn. "She had not been home in more than three years," he said. "Mary needed to see her folks, and I was arrested for running corn liquor." As a prank, Mary's friends packed their car with corn liquor and called their accomplices - the local police. Payne said, "It was pretty funny, after it was over. I still have the distinction of being the only British subject to be arrested for running corn liquor in Manchester, Tenn."

Payne's father fought in Burma; his oldest brother in Africa, his second brother fought in Egypt, and the youngest brother served in the British army. Payne eventually worked for and retired from the British Consulate in Atlanta. "Yep," he said. "I'm actually the prototype James Bond, 007. And if you care to believe that, I'll knock you up with a cup of tea."


Pete Mecca - Vietnam veteran, columnist, and freelance writer. Contact Pete at aveteransstory@gmail.com Visit his website at aveteransstory.us.

 

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