You are currently viewing An American in the RCAF

An American in the RCAF

Terri conducted the following interview with her grandfather as part of a school project in 1999. Jim Keys piloted the Halifax from which “Engbrecht & Gillanders” shot down nine confirmed and two probable enemy aircraft.

by Terri Travers

Related Articles

Engbrecht & Gillanders
Americans In The RCAF

In the early stages of World War II, the United States had yet to join the war but this did not mean that it was not affecting them. As 1941 rolled around some viewed World War II as a major event happening half way around the world, but others felt the consequences of war hit closer to home. These were the people who had to deal with their loved ones going off to fight while they were left at home to fear the worst. This was especially true for one working class family in Allentown, Pennsylvania in the 1940’s.

On March 26, 1922, two factory workers were blessed with a son, James G. Keys. Having been born and raised in Allentown, he graduated from Allentown High School in 1940. James Keys’ graduation helped mark the historic time leading up to World War II and this is the point where the following interview begins. After his service in the war James held various jobs in the area of sales, including work in Real Estate. His work moved him to the Harrisburg PA area in 1956, where he still resides today. He was married for 37 years to June Wilson Keys before her death in 1983. Together they had six children, and eleven grandchildren, including myself. Now in retirement, James likes to spend his time by buying and selling antiques. He also has an interest in computers and today is 77 years old.

The following interview took place on Saturday afternoon March 6, 1999. It was conducted at the home of my grandfather, James Keys, in Harrisburg, PA. Before beginning the interview I explained the information I was seeking. Then I made sure to thank James before we got started.


Q: What was the feeling of the country leading up to the war?

The mood of the country seemed to be that sooner or later we were going to be drawn into the conflict. I wouldn’t say that the people had war fever, but felt that the war would involve us and that we couldn’t avoid it. The populace knew that Hitler wasn’t going to stop until he ruled the world.

Q: How old were you at the time?

Having just graduated from High School, I was 19 years old and had a cable splicing job with Bell Telephone of Pennsylvania, which I didn’t care for too much.. It was beginning to sink in that education was the answer to doing life’s work that was enjoyable and at the same time rewarding. I don’t think that my age group gave too much thought to the political and world events. Just emerging from the depression most people were concentrating on getting a job to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. As for people in my age group; they carried on their social life and were just trying to enjoy themselves. As the year of 1941 wore on this group couldn’t ignore world events. The military draft was intruding into their thoughts and some of those just out of high school were enlisting and those that didn’t go away to college were getting jobs in industries that were supplying the allies with war material. I always had an interest in flying. At that time the U.S. services were requiring a college education for Cadet Training. In September of ’41 I decided to go to Canada to enlist in the RCAF (Royal Canadian Airforce). Enlisting entailed having a physical and educational testing. I was told that I would be notified. In December I received the notice that I had been accepted and to report to the Canadian National Exposition grounds on December 14th for taking the oath of allegiance. When it came to the part to swear fealty to the King, the Americans were asked to step back and were not asked this question. Though it presented a dilemma when on December 7th we were attacked by Japan I knew I could be of more service as a pilot than I could as an infantry soldier, so I reported as scheduled on the 14th. Besides this, ever since my childhood I had an intense interest in aviation and wanted to be a pilot. Now was my chance.

Q: After deciding to go to the RCAF, how did you know how to go about it?

A friend of mine was already in the RCAF and when he was home on leave before shipping overseas he told me in detail how to get to Hamilton, Ontario, one of the closest places to enlist. Of course the local people were delighted that our country was to be one of their allies. The first few days were lonely but it didn’t take long to strike up friendships. One of my closest friends, Ross Kelly, was from Toronto and his parents were grand. I received an invitation to stay with their family over Christmas. They treated me as one of the family.

Q: How did your family react?

Understandably, my family wasn’t too happy with my going away. I think they were understandably scared, but I convinced them that it would only be a matter of time before I would be called up. Besides I had infantry training in Civil Military Training Camp at Fort Meade MD, during the summer after I graduated from high school. As I stated before, I would much rather be in the Air Force than in the Infantry. My friends started to enlist shortly after Pearl Harbor.

Q: Were there others from the U.S. enlisting?

At the YMCA in Hamilton I met about five that were there to enlist. We met later at the Staging Area in Toronto. My most remembered thoughts of the time spent at the Exposition Grounds was my first introduction to Tetanus and the various other shots we received. My arms were so sore I was beginning to think that I made a mistake in enlisting. There were quite a few US personnel that I met within a few weeks after we were sent to the Exposition Grounds. We were in Toronto only a few weeks because this was just a staging area. From there we were sent to Victoriaville, Quebec where we were quartered in a former convent. This is where we received our preliminary military training, such as marching and class work. We also received basic training. One of our class work instructors was from New York. He was the son of Adele St. John, the author. There was quite a bit of class work relating to pilot training. We had electricity of course but in this remote area it was about 40 cycles per second. We were accustomed to 60 cycle and the lights flickered constantly. It took a while to become accustomed to it. Also, the locals were not friendly. It got so bad that we were restricted to the camp. The reason for this was that the French Canadians felt that they should not be conscripted. I’m not certain how long we were at Victoriaville but from there we were posted to Three Rivers, Quebec.

This was so much better. It was a cosmopolitan town and was thoroughly enjoyable. Now the exciting part was coming up. My instructor was a WW I fighter pilot and the plane we were to train on was an open cockpit two seater. The first day in the air the instructor went through preliminaries and then to finish the lesson he did a loop. I now knew I was going to be anxious for the next ride. After eight hours of dual instruction I had a check ride by a Polish Count. I still remember his name; Count Jaworski.. He was a rough cob but fair. When we landed he said to take it around and jumped out. I’ll never forget him standing on the wing and shouting, “If you crack it up, just head for the hills and don’t come back.” Everything went smoothly and this was my first solo flight. The rest of the time, until I had a combination of approximately 40 hours of flying time was daytime flying. Though I didn’t record it in my log book during this time I had one bad time when I was soloing. As I was landing I didn’t correct for a cross wind and scraped a wing on the ground. In my mind they were going to wash me out of pilot training, but fortunately for me this didn’t happen. Then we were slated for night instruction. I will never forget that first ride at night with the lights of the city under our wings. Altogether we had only four hours of dual instruction and one of solo. I graduated with 78 total hours. We then had an interview where we were asked our preferences of single or multi-engine. I liked the idea of Multi-engine course not everyone received his preference. The final decision was made by the board which considered temperament and ability among other things. In early October 1942 I was posted to Brantford, Ontario.

At Brantford we would be training on twin engine Anson planes. This was a slow, lumbering plane that was very forgiving of stupid mistakes of fledgling pilots. There is not too much to tell about the training here, but Brantford is in an area of Germanic people that were very similar to the Pennsylvania Dutch at home. One felt almost at home here. I am glad to relate that there were no more mishaps such as at Elementary Training School. On St. Patrick’s Day of 1943 my class of students became pilots when we were awarded our wings at a ceremony in one of the hangers that ordinarily houses planes. My mother, my future wife and her mother were at the ceremony.

Q: What happened after you earned your Wings?

Unfortunately the next few months will have to be reconstructed from a distance of 57 years. Up to now I had my log book to jog my memory, but there are no entries for time spent not flying. After a leave of one week we were assigned to Halifax, Nova Scotia. We had few duties here. Make work duties and physical education were the order of the day. One thing that I remember vividly that was provided and encouraged, was skeet shooting that I enjoyed. I met up with a gold miner from the north of Ontario. He was huge. He could pass a quarter through his finger ring. We had quite a bit of free time, which we used playing snooker at the local pool hall.

At long last we were told that we were going to be moving. We ended up in Moncton, Newfoundland. Here we hurried up only to be told to wait. Finally we boarded a liner and were on our way to England. I must admit that the time spent on the ocean with lookouts for enemy subs was scarier than later flights over enemy territory. The accommodations could not by any stretch of the imagination be called grand. There were bunks three or four high and with my luck I had the top one so that my nose was all but touching the ceiling. When the attack alarm sounded I had no trouble hitting the deck in one jump and donning my life jacket. We finally landed at Liverpool and entrained to the south coast of England. We were stationed at Bournemouth. It was the spring of 1943 and the fields and countryside were unbelievably bright green. The time spent here was very enjoyable. Again we had time to ourselves and could be found at the Tea Time dances that were very popular. It almost seemed that there was no war, except that we were not allowed to swim at the beach. It was fenced off so as not to allow enemy agents being dropped and entering the country.

Q: When did you get back on flying duty?

Finally we were posted to #5 Advanced Flying Unit. At this school we were introduced to some of the finer points of multi-engine flying and easing us into some of the perils of operational flying. After a month of this we were assigned to the north of England to #1514 Beam Approach Training. This was instrument flying that prepared us for beam approach, especially used when returning from a mission. We spent the next two weeks practicing instrument flying and then six weeks testing aircraft that had been through a maintenance schedule. We also had some manual work that involved using a shovel. We were very incensed that as flying personnel we felt we were not to be expected to do gardening work.

Q: When were you assigned your crew?

Now combat flying was becoming more imminent. Also, on November 16,1943 I transferred to the U.S.Army Airforce as a tech sergeant and shortly after became a Flight Officer. In December I was ordered to Ossington to train on Wellington Bombers, familiarly known as Wimpy. This was an aircraft that was a mainline bomber earlier in the war and now used as a trainer. It was a rugged ship that took the beating of student pilots. This is where I met and assembled my crew. I had my choice of one of the two top of their class navigators. I am happy to say that I made the correct choice. I selected Bill Riome. Little did I know at that time and until months later that he was a victim of air sickness on just about every flight. I quickly learned why he was at the top of his class. He was meticulous. He and the other top navigator were good friends and as a result our crews became buddies. The other navigator also had an American pilot. Very unfortunately this crew was shot down about half way through our tour of duty. Our bomb aimer was an Englishman that had been sent to Canada as a boy to avoid the bombings and enlisted as soon as he became of age. He also was near the head of his class. My radio operator was an American who enlisted. He was from New York City and later transferred to the 8th Airforce. Both he and myself transferred but finished our tour so that the crew would not be broken up. Crews trained together and to break them up would mean to restart training together with another member. The one that keeps track of the technical machinations of the aircraft was a Scotsman. He was so good that before our tour of duty was over he received a Commission in the RAF. That brings us to our protectors, the two gunners. My rear gunner was the youngest member of our crew. He was credited with confirmed one and one-half enemy aircraft. My mid-upper gunner was from the Midwest whose parents immigrated from Germany. He was older than the rest of the crew. He was credited with five and one half enemy aircraft and had the distinction of having the highest number of confirmed kills in the night time bombing force and being the only non-pilot ace in the war. The next two months were flying under combat conditions. Toward the end of this phase of training we were given an assignment to drop leaflets to the French citizenry just over their coastline. Now the time had come to transfer to the type of aircraft that we would be flying in actual combat. This lasted about two weeks and the time had come. During this time I developed a bad case of strep throat and was hospitalized for ten days. During this time my crew was posted to a commando training unit. I was released from the hospital and by the time I reached this unit the course was over and I skipped this part. I can’t say I was sorry to miss this training. The real commandos were not too impressed by air crews. Of course this training wasn’t as rigorous or intense as actual commando training for ground troops that were to become battle infantry for the coming invasion. From here we were assigned to our combat unit.

Q: What was your tour of duty like? Did you go on many bombing missions?

We were posted to #424 Squadron at Skipton on Swale. After another week of familiarization we made our first trip. Unfortunately my crew was the ones that did all the work. I was along for the ride. Because British planes had no dual set of controls I just stood beside the Squadron Leader that was flying the plane and observed. The target was Aachen. It was quite frightening; just standing there with no control. But it ended well and from then on I was the aircraft commander. As an aside, when I returned home from overseas on leave before being reassigned we were having a discussion at my in-laws about my experiences in combat. I told them about my first trip and was chagrined to find out that Aachn was my father-in-law’s hometown before emigrating to the United States. It caused quite a lull in the conversation.

After a few easy trips to gain experience and confidence we were ready for the real thing. On our fifth trip we went to Bourg-Leopold Military Camp. We were attacked fourteen times from the target to England. In the process my mid-upper gunner was confirmed as downing two enemy aircraft. One we could identify; it was a Fw-190. The other we could not identify.

On the morning following a trip to Houlgate in France, our navigator called our attention to the returns he was getting on his radar scope. We finally were a small part of the invasion. We could see all kinds of dots on the scope. On the tenth of June on a trip to Paris my mid-upper gunner had two more confirmed downings. Of our thirty-five trips the most harrowing ones were those to the Ruhr Valley. This was the most heavily defended because it was the Third Reich’s main manufacturing area that they could not afford to lose. The sky was lit up by thousands of searchlights, many of which had flack guns in them. Later as the Allies were starting to control the skies we were being assigned day trips. This was quite scary because our night flying 30 caliber guns could not reach the enemy who could lay back out of range. They in turn had heavier caliber guns and cannon that had much more range. The reason we used 30 caliber was that the flash at night on 50 caliber would have hindered our gunners night sight and night fighting takes place at closer range. In fact, the flash would, in effect have blinded them. The bright side was that the Allies pretty well controlled the skies.

One trip of which we were not too proud was to Stuttgart. We actually flew fifty miles past the target and finally had to jettison our bombs when we discovered our mistake. We had to wonder if our fuel would be sufficient to take us back to England. Our Scotsman engineer did a quick calculation and said we could make it if we conserved fuel. It was try to get back or land in Switzerland and be interned. We opted for England and landed at an airport that was built for just such an emergency.

On September 17,1944 we had our twenty-ninth operational flight scheduled. It was a day raid and we were scheduled to take off early in the morning. Everything was normal and we got the green light to make our takeoff. We wheeled into position and I advanced the throttles. We were rolling and the tail of the aircraft came up. Everything still seemed normal but then the aircraft pulled to the right. I was able to straighten it out but by this time we were off the runway and on the wet, dewy grass. The plane just slid on the grass as if it was on ice. The next thing I knew we hit a hedge row that wiped off the undercarriage. It isn’t a comforting feeling with eleven thousand pounds of bombs under you. There was a wisp of smoke that helped us depart the aircraft in a hurry. We ran as fast as we could and as far as we could. Luckily the wisp of smoke was from sliding along the ground and not the start of a fire. The only good thing that came of this incident was that we received our own aircraft, G for Gentry.

The end of our tour was approaching. Our thirty-fifth trip was scheduled for the submarine pens at Bergen, Norway. It was a day trip and volunteers were solicited. I talked it over with my crew and to a man they were all willing to volunteer. We flew north over Scotland to the Orkney Islands and turned East toward Bergen. Our fighter escort did not have the range to go to the target with us. It was a lonely feeling when they turned back. I remember that the weather was stormy and rainy. But since we hadn’t seen any enemy we were feeling pretty cocky. Anyway about an hour or so later we spied the target and lined up our run. After dropping our bombs on the sub pens there was a large explosion. This is about all I can recall. We returned and landed at a drome at Acklington. The next morning I piloted “G” for Gerty for the last time. On October 9, 1944 with Wing Commander in command she was shot down on a trip to Bochum. Fortunately the W/C and five crew members survived and were taken prisoner. As a follow up there are no flyable and only one static Halifax Bombers left in this world. The static one is in Trenton, Ontario and being restored to a place of honor. It was on a mission to drop supplies to the Norwegian underground and was shot down and ditched in the waters of Lake Mjosa. Only one man, Flight Sergeant Weightman survived. After 50 years the Halifax Aircraft Association recovered, for restoration and future display in the RCAF Memorial Museum. On July 20 & 21,1998 a two day event was held at the Aero Space Museum of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. I am proud to say that a piece of the skin of the afore mentioned Halifax from Norway was used to have two replicas of nose art of my ship painted and displayed in the office of the Consul General of the United States in Calgary, Alberta and one in the Museum of the Confederate Air Force in Mesa, Arizona.

Q: Of all the places you got to see, which was the most memorable?

My favorite remembrances of places I visited during my service overseas was Toronto and also London. I met so many people who did their best to make me feel at home. It wouldn’t be right not to mention Mrs. Merlin in London. I no longer remember how the crew became acquainted with her, but when we were on leave we were always welcome at her apartment. We were there when there was a buzz bomb attack. We all went to the air raid shelter but there was only two sent over that night. Fortunately for us and unfortunately for the people in the section of London where it landed, we saw no local damage that night.

Q: You said you transferred to the U.S. Air Force, Why?
What happened once you returned home?

As I said before, I transferred to the American Forces but stayed with the RCAF until I finished my tour of combat duty. I had always had the plan to come into the U.S. Air Force. As I mentioned earlier, I originally joined with Canada so I could fly. When I had the opportunity to transfer, I did. Another reason worth doing this was the pay in the U.S. was double or triple that of which I made in Canada. After I transferred, I then reported to the U.S. 8th Air Force and was set up for returning to the U.S. I came back on a much nicer liner than the one that took me to Europe. The service did their best to send you to an area that you preferred. I asked for the west coast. I asked your grandmother to marry me before my leave ended, in which case we would have been sent to Florida until I received a permanent assignment. Unfortunately she wasn’t ready so they sent the unmarried officers to Richmond, VA. Before my leave ended she changed her mind, but it was too late and we ended up in Richmond. In January of ’45 I was posted to Merced, CA. to be an instructor on single engine trainers. I had trouble going from 4 engine to single engine craft, but I finally mastered them. During my time at Merced I was sent to Roswell, NM to Convert B29 bomber pilots to single engine planes. I found that I wasn’t the only one that had trouble converting. Meanwhile I returned to Merced. We had nice duty while we were there, which was only a short time. As I can recall we arrived in California early in 1945 and left in April. I was separated from the service in June at Fort Dix, NJ.

Q: Looking back, are you glad you joined the RCAF?

From a purely selfish point of view, I never regretted going to Canada to the service. It gave me a chance to meet people with other viewpoints and places to see that normally I would not have visited. I met people in the service that were from such diverse places as New Zealand, Australia, Poland, France and Norway. Unfortunately I lost track of most of these acquaintances. The only one with whom I communicate with on a regular basis is Bill, my navigator.

Q: Was the adjustment back to being a civilian hard?

I would say that adjusting to civilian life again was not my favorite time of my life. I returned to a job that I didn’t particularly like and the pay was horrendously low. I stayed with the telephone company a short time and then went into the life insurance business as an agent. This was more satisfying and the pay was better. As time progressed I was in the sales field for all of my pre-retirement life.