A Fighter Pilot Discovers God
A CANADIAN AIRMAN
These letters nere written by a Canadian lighter pilot. He and his squadron lnder are the only survivors of the squadron in which he originally went into action. The Editors.) _
MY DEAREST Dad and Mom: Today 1 am writing for my own relief—an effort to escape from mental turmoil. The seedling which developed into this disturbing ite must have been planted the day I entered the-Air Force. For it was on that day that l realized for the first time that my connections with home would have to be severed. 1 did not know for what length of time but I realized it might be forever. In short, 1 knew foar, or at least uncertainty of the outcome of this venture on which 1 had embarked. And now as 1 look back on it l can see how it has progressed by degrees through the various stages of my training.
The moment I boarded the train on my initial journey to St. Hubert my outlook on life became an almost material thing of which l was acutely at, times uncomfortably conscious. 1 began to wonder what pattern I should eventually decide upon and how much t he pressure of my ever-changing surroundings would affect the frail pattern l had begun to make. Days, weeks and months went by and at last I began to fly. After the supreme thrills of the first flights and the eventual solo had subsided, there came back to me the
echoes of the vague rumblings 1 had felt on the train. Only this time it was a tangible fear a fear, I freely admit, for my personal safety, and a secondary fear of inability to make the grade.
They say— and it is fortunately true—that one can get used to practically anything if one stays under the existing condit ions long enough. The feeling I have referred to was dulled by constant work and average successes. Came next the proud moment of the presentation of my “Wings.” How small my past difficulties seemed then! “Ha!” I thought. “I can fly-*-1 have my Wings!”—and a fortunate lapse of four months of nonflying activities restored my courage?
But then came England with its different conditions with regard to flying and its different airplanes. The first day I flew’ in England 1 would have given all I had to toss my wings to someone and catch the first boat back home. That haunting, elusive fear scraped hot coals over the pit of my stomach when I saw’ my name under “Spitfires.” I had not much confidence in mv flying ability but, very fortunately, the overwhelming realization that this was my goal, in sight at last, prevented nie from showing a bright blue streak of funk! Believe me, I don’t exaggerate—the thing had reached rather alarming proportions by then.
Spitfires! The first week—two weeks—were real hell. dense, tired nerves—an incredibly powerful
machine, and, to add to my discomfort, not a machine l could trust, having regard to my frame of mind. For I could not help thinking back on the many hours 1 had put in on old aircraft.
Accidents there were. Five of my new-found friends were numbered in the fatalities. The time came when I felt 1 couldn’t face it any longer and 1 had half made up my mind to cry off. Just at that stage one of our chaps openly broke down and confessed to an inability (o stand the strain. He was taken off the course. St rangely enough, it was this incident that gave mo a much needed lift, and my mental processes returned to normal working order.
When 1 got. my posting I knew fear again, for chance had led me to the busiest spot in all England, it is here, then, as 1 sit and write, that these events are culminated; and 1. have found it necessary to seek some' relief in writing. There is a strange satisfaction in knowing that my Fear—my own pet worryhas at last reached its peak. I will get used to it, I am sure, but until 1 do I shall writhe in its toils. For here is life and death. Here today and gone tomorrow. “One of our aircraft is missing,” they say callously. Yet not one hour before its pilot was playing darts with you against the flight room door!
Before this letter comes to its inevitable climax I must say a word about the part that faith plays in this chaotic game. For me there is a God, and though I experience all the physical and mental reaction to injury and death, my conviction is firm that what is to happen will be for t he best. I do not wish to die I do not expert to die—but it is imperative that I face the possibility of such an occurrence and I do so to the best of my ability, and with an open mind.
Words are so futile when an intangible subject must lie discussed. What I want to convey is not any willingness to quit at this stage—nor any idea that I consider my position hopeless. Quite the contrary! I believe that ( '»od will see me through where others have failed, regardless of the odds. Yet l confess to a feeling that is perhaps a little stronger than it should be— perhaps 1 am a coward—though I truly do not think so.
Forgive me if I send t his. It represents a climax —or perhaps an anticlimax—to an inexplicable sensation, and I feel much better having written you about it. Above all, do not misunderstand me.
Somewhere in England.
Your letter of July 16 is here. I had no idea you thought my letters worth passing around. I promise to write as often as I can. There is something new happening to me each day and if I can capture the spirit of these happenings in my letters so you can share them I am glad.
Your letters are a perpetual source of enjoyment to me. I am sorry now that our relationship together when I was home was not closer. I feel that I didn’t quite do my share to encourage a closer comradeship. However, your letters to me, and mine to you, I hope, make up for all that.
Dad, your youngest son has developed into a “God-fearing man.” If ever a person saw life and sudden death, I see it! If ever a man saw clearly the need for a faith and grasped confidently the shell of its pattern in his early days, it’s I.
Believe me, Dad, this faith is my source of courage and satisfaction. No one knows I have it—it’s a sort of personal thing that works for, and with, me alone. I attribute all the amazing good fortune I have had in my training to the workings of this ethereal machine. God is no longer a vague being to whom I used to close my eyes in empty prayer. He Ls now a living personality, who I can feel is working with my interests at heart.
I have definite and personal proof that my faith is justified. Many times when things looked their worst they turned out best. On lots of my landings slips here and there have been made which should have resulted in minor or major pile-ups, but they didn’t. I could quote a hundred examples which prove in my own mind Continued on page 28
A Fighter Pilot Discovers God
Continued from page 10
that such things are not merely happenings of chance.
I am not turning into a religious fanatic, Dad. This is purely personal.
I have been given a new airplane at last. Her name is “Jacqueline”—Bud, for short. She’s only done 60 hours and flies like a dream. She has one fault— typical of the weaker sex—she dislikes being pushed around and shows this by producing high oil and rad temperatures. So I fly her as easily as possible and everyone’s happy.
Somewhere in England.
My dear Dad:
This letter deals with nothing in particular it will probably be purely reminiscent, for at the moment I’m thinking a lot about home. If you won’t take me too literally and if I may use an unoriginal phrase, “ ’tis the eve of a great battle” and much lies ahead in the coming weeks. I’d like to write a little about how I feel, the effects of danger, the joys of a communal life, the excitement and the pleasure I get when I realize that I am an integral part of an efficient fighting unit.
The effect of danger, extreme danger
on a person is an interesting thing to observe. Of course, it varies in individuals but mostly it reacts on the same senses and nerves of every person. Fear plays a great part in our lives—fear, though, which is separately and distinctly apart from cowardice. Perhaps it’s the suspense—the interminable waiting for something you feel sure will come—but you know not from what quarter.
Its first indication is jumpiness. One looks anxiously around if a door slams, a voice is raised, or the sound of aircraft engines is heard. I have seen a whole squadron of healthy men degenerate to a state of mental collapse through strain. I’ve seen people grind their teeth at disturbing sounds—flare into angry verbal flame over the most trivial things —I’ve seen them crack and go stark and staringly hysterical . . . but this is all before and after the extreme danger—never during the actual combat has one batted an eyelid ! One has no time to think in these moments. Actions are purely mechanical and speak well for our rigorous discipline in training.
I think every pilot has his own outlook as to the future. The possibility of death, sudden and horrible, is always at the back of his mind. Some of us are fatalists, though it doesn’t seem to make things any easier for them. Others are sure that “it can’t happen to me.” But all of us worry just the Continued on page 30
Continued from page 28 same, and take the same precautions to delay the day. Its imminence though we all must accept and adjust ourselves to meet as best we can. It’s a hard job! I think one never becomes used to it.
There has developed within me a philosophy. I think it is the finest thing which has yet happened to me, if only because it allows me to enjoy to the utmost my moments of relaxation and to sleep at night. I honestly believe that what will happen is for the best— even if my life is involved. In this way the responsibility isn’t put on fate or luck, which no one puts any trust in anyway, but is entrusted to the wisdom of God, and I have come to know Him more and more intimately of late.
It’s a great feeling, Dad! It doesn’t erase the feeling of fear for personal safety, but it does minimize that feeling and it makes for better fighting.
In this communal life of ours, where each one of us faces the same strains as his fellow, I have learned to be a great deal more tolerant of my fellow man. I have learned that his make-up consists of two sides— a good side and a better side. The good side is evident before we go on active service the side which marks him asa “good lad” but which at the same time retains those little snags of idiosyncrasy and selfishness that go to make up human nature. But then when he gets into the thick of battle comes his better side. Selfishness disappears. Generosity appears; a will to help his neighbors as much as possible —and the sky’s the limit.
An Air Force definition of “respect” would involve consideration of “rank.” A pilot’s conception of “respect” is based on the manbare of rank, decorations and past history. A competent man has no need to urge on his comrades to follow. They are right there for they know he knows what he’s doing and if he be right or wrong, his judgment is theirs. I am sure I have never known anyone quite so well as the pilots I fly with. They say “familiarity breeds contempt.” In all other cases I would believe it, but not on active service. Perhaps it is because our pilots are much too well-mannered to presume upon such a situation but I have never once seen one of our lads overstep the mark.
The Service, if one can survive it, is a wonderful thing —a great leveller, but in turn a great uplifter. The snobs are torn down in no uncertain manner, the timid are imbued with a true sense of the importance of the parts they play, and the whole squadron learns something new from day to day. The result is companionship, strength, unity and perhaps, above all, a gift, to every one of us, the aforementioned tolerance. In my mind a pilot will be a great asset to the world at peace.
I often think of you and Mom, and the picture of you both, which I carry with me, never fails to stir me. I connect you with the garden and I can see you puttering around on a Saturday afternoon while the boys are tinkering with t he car. and Mom is making tea for you. I can see the day wearing on— all of us getting cleaned up to go to our respective girl friends, or wives, and then my asking, rather timorously, for vour car. I’m very grateful to you for the use of your car, Dad, and I did my best not to misuse it. Unlike so many fathers of the present day, you seemed to understand my needs in that way. I take the car as a particular example, but I mean the same in all ways. I realized at the time that you made a sacrifice each time I borrowed it, for without it you would have been lost. Many important memories are connected with it -dances, parties, drives. It helped give me that independence which has stood and will stand me in
good stead for the rest of my life. Have you ever looked at it in that way?
I don’t know why I am writing you in this way. Perhaps it’s my desire to impress upon you just how much my home did mean to me. Why does one have to be away from home to appreciate it to the full? You’ve raised a great family, Dad. A cleaner, healthier, happier, and luckier family I think doesn't exist. When I say this I do not forget Mother—there is no difference in the importance of the part each of you played and neither side has done better than the other. Talk about a goodly heritage my parents have given me the best in the world!
Most sincerelv and affectionately,
Somewhere in England.
My dear Dad:
Because you may be reluctant to pass this letter around the family, I am sending this under separate cover. The sole purpose of it is to broach a subject which neither of us has mentioned in his letters.
None but a fool could fail to realize the risk of sudden death which we must face over here. Destruction is all around us —our aim is to destroy—and the chances are equal as to which pilot in a battle will get away and which one won’t. Now there arises a question. “What if I do not come back?”
From my point of view the greatest tragedy would lie in the grief and disappointment that you, Mom and the family would naturally experience! Nothing can be said by anyone in condolence which could give any sort of relief to you, and so I want you to look upon the situation through my eyesto see with me what I see and to feel the way I do about it.
I think I have written often enough about the part my faith in the goodness of God plays in my life over here. The thought of dying is not a pleasant one, yet the effect of such thoughts upon a persondepends largely upon hisoutlook. If one has reason to be afraid of death, then it must necessarily react on his mind in life. But if he is prepared for any eventuality, in his mind I mean, then by constantly training himself to accept the situation it becomes no obsession with him and he finds he can take it in his stride.
I cannot look upon my future with a firm assurance that “it can’t happen to me!” I can, however, be assured that if it does happen to me I shall know it to be for the best and with not a little pride in knowing I have done my utmost for a cause in which I firmly believe.
I have seen many of my friends perish. Some of them have been almost within reaching distance when they “bought it.” I myself have been very close to it on two occasions. I believe I wrote you about them. But every time I have managed to live to thank God for my safety.
Dad, I do not expect death! As I taxi out to the runway I always turn on my radio and say a prayer for my safety into the transmitter. I feel lots better each time as I hear my own words in my phones. But, at that, I am ready for it if it comes. It is out of my hands, except for the normal precautions anyone would take.
I have lived a wonderful life. I have enjoyed it to the full and I want to enjoy a ripe old age. I am happier here than I could be in any other occupation during war. And, in the hope that I shall survive, I am doing my utmost to lead a life which will enable me to deserve all that has been done for me, and to prepare myself for the time when peace comes.
Most affectionately your