While dining recently at Outback Steakhouse in Conyers, my wife and I were having our usual pleasant chitchat with Shannon Smith, a long-time Outback employee and family friend, when he conveyed his admiration of "A Veteran's Story." Shannon said he loved the articles, especially the stories of our aging warriors of World War II, and asked if I'd consider writing a story about his grandfather, a British fighter pilot. You bet'cha.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill said it best when he honored the British fighter pilots who defeated the German Luftwaffe during the desperate yet famous aerial struggle known as the Battle of Britain, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
Jim Page was only 15 when Britain declared war on Germany, yet he was destined to become one of "the few" later in the conflict. At 15, he joined the Civilian Home Guard until old enough to enter the Royal Navy pilot training program at age 18. Trained in America, he earned his wings and commission at Pensacola, Fla., then completed advanced fighter training at Opelika, Ala., (spelled Opa-locka by the British press). In September 1943, Page joined 1837 squadron being formed in Brunswick, Maine, an F4U Corsair fighter unit.
Trained and ready, Page and his squadron were assigned to the Eastern Fleet in the Southeast Asia Command. Their floating home would be the British aircraft carrier H.M.S. Victorious based in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). Operating primarily in the Indian Ocean, Lt. Page and his squadron flew air superiority and air-to-ground combat missions. They attacked oil refineries, radar stations, shipping, airfields, harbors and provided air cover for the fleet. Page also served as the ‘spotter' for the French battleship Richelieu.
I've been privileged to have access to one of the few written accounts that Page penned of his combat missions during World War II. The following excerpts are his, as it was lived, fought, and sometimes, as friends died.
WITH THE EASTERN FLEET - 1944 - BY: SUB/LT. (A) J.B. PAGE, R.N.V.R.
Frequently, we made raids against Japanese-occupied territory from our carrier, H.M.S. Victorious. However, we did not spend all of our time on board the carrier. We flew to a strip cut out of the Ceylonese jungle at Minnerya where we acted as fighter defense of the island.
Later, on another mission flown from the carrier to strike enemy airfields, Page penned the following:
Our attacks were coordinated with the U.S. Navy and Marines and our attacks were made several days ahead of planned landings on Japanese held islands in the Pacific.
We the pilots, were all good friends. We had trained together, flown together, and had many good times together. What was more, we lived together and saw each other daily. On this occasion, we were going to pay a visit to the once British Nicobar Islands.
We attended to our flying equipment, Mae Wests, and jungle suits to be sure everything was in working order; we had to be up at 3:30 a.m. We were awakened at that unearthly hour and climbed out of bed irritable and heady as one does in that fearfully hot and damp climate. My dress consisted of pants and vest, boots and anti-leech stockings and the jungle suit which, with all the gadgets neatly stowed in the numerous pockets, weighed a ton. I then strapped my revolver round my waist and went to breakfast.
Once on the flight deck, Page continued his story:
I climbed into the cockpit and strapped myself in. The mechanics wished me "good hunting and good luck," then jumped down to attend to the chocks at the wheels. I pressed the "tit," would she start? She was a good plane and with a short turn of the prop, she jumped to life and purred like a kitten.
I looked at my flight-leader who was a short way across the deck from me. He caught my eye, smiled, and gave me a ‘thumbs up.' He was a good lad and had always been a great pal of mine. Little did I think that within an hour, he would be in another world.
Now airborne, Page continues:
There were 15 of us altogether who would take part in this strike. In our flight, there were only three instead of the usual four. We climbed to 800 feet and we were all in formation, headed for the target. We daren't fly any higher in case the Japs would pick us up on their radar.
Soon the coast loomed up ahead of us. The wing-leader rocked his wings and we all dropped down to sea level, at the same time changing our formation to line-abreast. A voice came through the earphones clear and loud, "Pull up, pick your target and let them have it!" We all pulled up and picked our targets.
The largest of the two airfields lay directly ahead of me. I noticed two pieces of machinery sitting at the end of the runway. Down I went and let them have a good burst from my six 50 caliber machine guns. I could see my bullets bursting into the metal with bits flying in all directions. As I pulled up, I saw a truck driving down the runway. I dropped to a couple of feet off the ground and pumped lead straight ahead of me into the truck.
The Jap defenses had come to life. Tracer bullets were now beginning to fly over my plane.
As I pulled over the truck, I was surprise to find another target, three steamrollers at the end of the runway. I put my sight on them and pulled the trigger. Again bits started to fly in all directions.
I pulled up to a thousand feet over the sea where all the planes rendezvoused, except one. It had gone down in flames. We went down again and this time, our target was the smaller airfield.
Page and his squadron strafed the airfield as the anti-aircraft fire became more concentrated and extremely accurate. They strafed a gun position, a jetty and several landing craft. As they pulled up, Page noticed a ‘red glow' in his flight leader's cockpit.
I called him up on the radio but received no answer. Michie called him up but received no answer. I flew as close to him as I could but could see nothing but a red glow. Suddenly, the plane nosed over and headed to earth which was only 500 feet below. As the plane stuck earth it exploded and a sheet of flame leapt up past my wing. Michie and I headed out to sea side by side. It was time we returned to prepare for our next flight so we said goodbye to our squadron leader and headed for the carrier.
Back on the carrier, Page and the squadron's survivors ate, washed up and were debriefed as other Corsairs launched for more raids. In the coming days, British flyboys would hit targets near Car Nicobar and Nancowry, shoot down Jap planes and lose some of their own. When the war ended, Page was assigned as POW Liaison Officer to care for British POWs returning home through Australia.
Written by Jim Page in May 1995: "The men who gave their lives so that we may enjoy the peace also expect us to preserve it. Let their deaths not be in vain."
Pete Mecca is Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. Contact Pete at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit his website at aveteransstory.us.