Doc Seaman and Tom McGlade became best friends during their careers as pilot and navigator in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War.
Doc and Tom flew many missions together and Doc often credited Tom's exceptional navigation skills for always getting them to their targets, and then more importantly, always getting them home again. Another good friend and member of Doc's aircrew on several missions was Bob Turner, who was a wireless operater and airgunner.
Doc and his aircrew flew a twin-engined Lockheed Hudson, which carried eight rockets, several bombs, depth charges and four Browning machine guns. Some of the crew's other missions included convoy escort to Malta and reconnaissance flights over the Mediterranean, with many of their missions taking place at night.
The photo above was a particular favourite of Doc's. It was taken in Annaba, Algeria, North Africa in August 1943, very close to the Tunisian border. The North African campaign had just ended and the crew had arrived after completing an anti-submarine patrol over the Mediterranean. LtoR, Robert (Sam) Turner, Doc Seaman and Tom McGlade.
Doc Seaman's Wartime Memoirs
I dedicate these memoirs of my career as a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force to my late best friend, Tom McGlade. He flew with me as observer, or navigator-bomb aimer, during all my time in operation in the Second World War. Tom died in 1971, of heart disease, on a holiday excursion to the United Kingdom to revisit places where we were stationed during the war.
I write these memoirs at the request of Tom McGlade, Jr., who was very young when his father died, to give him an idea of the role his dad had as an essential member of an operational bomber crew.
I enlisted in the RCAF from the southern Saskatchewan town, Rouleau, which is now the location of Corner Gas on CBC Television, where I was born in 1922 to Byron L. Seaman and Letha Mae. I had an older sister, Dorothy, and younger brothers, Byron and Donald.
My parents immigrated to Rouleau from the Middle-Western United States. By 1928, dad built up enough capital by working on the local farms to purchase road-building equipment. He built municipal roads and highways in and around Rouleau until the onset of the Great Depression and dust bowl in the early-1930s almost eliminated construction.
In the mid-1930s, when I was 13 and big enough to contribute to the family livelihood by handling a Caterpillar tractor, we were able to go back to building roads in the district. Revenues were meagre, but our father-and-son team made ends meet because we had no wages to pay, worked 10 to 12 hour shifts, did our own cooking and camp chores and only took Sundays off to go to town for supplies.
By the standards of the Dirty '30s, with the support of an industrious mother and a large garden, we lived pretty well. I was able to become active in sports, playing senior baseball by age 15 and senior hockey at 16. We had great rivalries with nearby Notre Dame, the college at Wilcox that the famous Father Athol Murray made into a celebrated western Canadian breeding ground for athletes and team spirit.
Although times became increasingly difficult for farmers and business people in the Rouleau district, our fortunes turned a bit when dad secured a contract in 1939 to build Highway 21 south to Cypress Hills Park from Maple Creek.
I had just finished high school, joined the crew and we worked until the ground froze in the fall. We had a good camp with decent meals and our shifts generally lasted only eight hours because we did much of the earth moving on this job with horses and dump wagons.
Life changed, although I did not at first suspect how much, on September 3, 1939. Dad and I heard the announcement that historic day on a radio in the Chinese Café in Maple Creek: Britain had declared war on Germany and Canada immediately joined the fight. By the November end of the construction season, I was still only 17, enrolled as planned in technical school in Moose Jaw and signed up to play hockey with the Junior Canucks.
I only had a short stay in Moose Jaw because I came down with jaundice and returned to Rouleau to recuperate. In the spring of 1940, I was 18 and we returned to Maple Creek to work on an irrigation project. I drew the 12 hour shift from 6:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m. Those were long, lonely shifts on the Cat on the south Saskatchewan prairie. We finished by September. I decided to try a course in engineering at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
Recruitment and Training
By Christmas of 1940, most of my buddies were joining the South Saskatchewan Regiment (SSR). When I went home for the holiday, I was inclined to go with them. When a recruiting team came from Rouleau in February of 1941, I went to the municipal office to join up. Part of this process included a review of academic records.
When the recruiter saw that I had good marks in high school, he suggested I should enlist for air crew in the RCAF. This was the first happy intervention by a kind fate in my military career. The SSR became the principal attack force for the Dieppe raid in August of 1942, when nearly half the 7,000 men in the assault were lost, largely as prisoners.
By early Spring of 1941, I went to Number 19 EFTS (Elementary flying training school) at Virden. We learned to fly the Tiger Moth, a single-engine biplane. Beginners had to learn fast enough to solo in less than 10 hours of training or wash out of flight school. The exercise was not always straightforward. One of the boys from Rouleau was killed on a routine training flight in the class that followed mine at Virden.
By mid-November, after completing elementary flight training, I was posted to Number 12 SFTS (Service Flying Training School) to move up to twin-engine aircraft, Cessna Cranes. This step up the air force ladder involved more intensive training, with numerous cross-country navigation trips including night flying. It was extremely cold in our training area around the southern Manitoba city of Brandon in winter. By March 12, my class completed the course and we were presented with our Wings. My parents attended the Wings Parade.
We new pilots were granted a few days of embarkation leave before going to Halifax to go overseas. On March 22, 1942, a Sunday, I boarded the train for a five-day trip to the capital and principal seaport of Nova Scotia. We had only a short stay in Halifax and were often CB (confined to barracks) for security reasons.
This was the time when German U-Boat activity and notorious submarine "wolf packs" made the North Atlantic extremely hazardous. The security seemed ineffective, at least for keeping our movements secret from any German intelligence operations. On May 1, we soldiers and airman marched through the street of Halifax to board troop ships assembled for a convoy. My unit boarded HMS Batory, a Polish liner that had been converted into a troop ship. I was assigned a bunk somewhere below deck.
The conversion stripped away any traces of pre-war luxury. The accommodation was extremely crowded. Instead of double-decker bunks, we had five-deckers. You could not sit up in one and had to crawl in sideways. Then once we left port and hit rough water, there was a good deal of sea-sickness. Even apart from the stench, it was a tough place to be for anyone from open country or who had a trace of claustrophobia.
I spent a lot of time on the deck in the fresh air, although it was cold out on the North Atlantic in May. The Batory sailed in the middle of the convoy, within a ring of smaller transport ships that were in turn surrounded by patrolling destroyers and other escort vessels. The trip gave us our first taste of real war.
There was continuous activity, with depth charges going off around the clock. It was a relief when after eight days of this we docked in Scotland, at Glasgow. On May 12, we took a train to Bournemouth in southern England and were billeted in the Bath Hill Courts to await postings to more advanced training.
Stationed in England
At Bournemouth, our introduction to war continued. We were constantly bombed by German fighter-bombers. Several air crew died when bombs hit a nearby billet. As a result, we dispersed to various military camps. With a number of others, I was sent to the 11th Devons, a British infantry unit in Cornwall. We participated in army manoeuvres for a short period, then returned to Bournemouth, where I was posted to Number 15 AFU or advanced flying unit.
We trained on twin-engine Oxford aircraft, doing a variety of navigational programs. It was at this time that the South Saskatchewan Regiment got the assignment to lead the attack on the beaches at Dieppe. The badly wounded there included Murray Greer, who had been catcher on our Rouleau ball team and whose brother, Bobby, had already died in the first inning of RCAF pilot training. Except for my luck in getting in the air force, I might well have been a casualty too.
As part of our advanced training, we had seven days of BAT or blind approach training at Dishforth, in Yorkshire. Then I went to Harrogate for a General Reconnaissance (GR) course until Monday, October 26. This training concentrated on astral navigation, or fixing positions by taking star shots with sextants.
Learning the ancient methods of mariners was critical for flyers in the Second World War. We did not have the navigational aids taken for granted today. Yet we had to be precise. Our airfields were blacked out against enemy bombers at night. To get even minimal brief guidance from a landing light, we have to come close enough to the runways at Gibraltar.
Flight to Gibraltar
We also learned that the Germans were taking accurate fixes on aircraft ferrying to North Africa and there was a very high rate of them being shot down. We left Portreath shortly after midnight. At dawn, over the Bay of Biscay, a flight of three Messerschmidt 109s crossed at exactly our elevation about 1000 yards ahead. Luckily, we were coming out of darkness behind us and the German fighters did not see us. If they had, we would have been shot down in short order, particularly since we had no armament aboard to protect ourselves.
I kept FK 640 on a lean fuel mixture and a constant altitude. That proved to be an intuitive good judgement as the flight continued. Tom McGlade’s dead reckoning navigation was bang on. We entered the Strait of Gibraltar precisely as planned after making landfall at Cap Finesterre, and following the west coast of Portugal. But there was a severe thunderstorm in the Strait, and no visibility what-so-ever.
The Rock of Gibraltar rises steeply. There is no room for error. After trying unsuccessfully a number of times to find the runway while flying "on the deck" or virtually at ground level, McGlade and I had a talk about making that diversion which the briefing officer back in England told us could not be done.
We had been to a movie where the newsreel highlighted the famous Casablanca conference by Churchill and Roosevelt. We decided to try for Casablanca, reasoning that if we ran out of fuel it should be possible to ditch the airplane near a beach on the west coast of Morocco then hopefully swim to shore.
Fortunately, out of caution, saving fuel early on the trip paid off and we made it to Casablanca after almost 11 hours in the air. I am sure there were just a few gallons of fuel left when we landed. The planned duration of the flight to our first target, Gibraltar, was only 9 hours.
From Casablanca, we radioed Gibraltar to advise of our whereabouts and two days later returned there. We were instructed to report to Blida, a French air force station a few miles south of Algiers. The C.O. or commanding officer was D.G. Keddie, A.F.C., a Canadian in the Royal Air Force.
Our flight commanders were a mixture of British and Commonwealth personnel. Commanding A Flight was squadron leader Peter Holmes, D.F.C., a New Zealander. B Flight was led by Paddy Simpson, D.F.C., an Irishman. There were many Canadian, Australian and New Zealand flight crews. The administration and all ground crew were British.
Attacked on Patrol
After a few days of orientation, we started "ops". They mainly consisted of convoy escort, U-Boat searched and strikes, and general reconnaissance. Our squadron was armed with bombs and depth charges depending on the targets. Some of our aircraft were also fitted with eight rockets, four under each wing.
After a few weeks, a number of crews from 500 Squadron were dispatched to Tafaroui, a small air base near Oran. After a few routine ops, on March 29, 1943, McGlade, Fletcher, Thorpe and I were sent to finish off a damaged U-Boat said to be somewhere between Balearic Islands and Corsica. We went up in Hudson FK 440, loaded for action to finish off the submarine.
We left Tafaroui in very difficult weather conditions at about 0400 in order to reach our target at first light. We did a thorough search of the area, both visually and with radar. Just as our allotted time over the target area was running out, our crew thought they spotted a periscope or submarine conning tower. We banked sharply around and opened the bomb bays to attack. By the time we made it back to the suspected enemy position, there was nothing to be seen. We climbed back up to 2000 feet to take another look around.
As we levelled off, a Messerschmidt 210 twin-engined fighter-bomber attacked us. The German plane opened up with its guns at us in a frontal assault from about 1000 yards away. At that range, our nose-mounted .303 and turret guns had little effect. We were hit almost immediately. Our radio operator, Will Fletcher, took a cannon shell in the chest and died instantly. I took machine gun bullets in my right thigh and through the calf of my left leg. Then we were lucky enough to escape from the ME 210 by reaching a thin band of clouds about 500 feet overhead. We played hide and seek in the clouds, and eventually got away.
McGlade and Thorpe laid Fletcher’s remains over the bomb bays and dressed my wounds somewhat. My left leg bled profusely because a bullet went completely through the calf muscle. The boys tied my leg to the left rudder pedal and we headed back to base. There was no other recourse. I was the only pilot on board. Only later in the war, when more trained pilots became available, did we fly with co-pilots.
Thorpe took over Fletcher’s position at the radio and sent an emergency message. But no confirmation came back. The cannon shell that killed Fletcher also took out our radio receiver and our I.F.F., or identification-friend-or-foe device. Without that I.F.F., we became concerned that our own anti-aircraft guns or fighters would finish us off when we returned to base. Fortunately, our distress signal did get through. As we crossed the coast, two Spitfires met us to escort us home.
The weather was still bad, with a tough cross-wind, but I was able to make a safe landing. By this time, my legs had stiffened considerably. After being untied from the left rudder pedal, I was carried to an ambulance that took me to a nearby American field hospital. Will Fletcher was buried in a local military cemetery. McGlade and Thorpe attended the burial, along with other buddies from the squadron.
Fletcher was a good young Brit who did not deserve to go out so young. After being repaired at the American field hospital I spent a month on crutches. On my 21st birthday, I was released to return to my squadron. After a thorough medical examination and a few familiarization flights, my crew and I, McGlade, Thorpe and Archie Henderson, a Canadian WAG who replaced Fletcher retuned to active duty. We resumed ops by May 10, 1943.
Back in Action
I suppose I could have asked to be grounded. My leg was stiff and strained because a bullet had clipped the tendons. It would have been easy to say I have a pinched nerve and the pain was excruciating. But I went there to do a job. The cause was well defined. The enemy was well known. It was a real challenge. Where you were 18 years old you never even considered that anything could happen to you. Bad things could be going on all around. We would just say, "Well, that’s not going to happen to me." Looking back, I often wonder how you could get into that frame of mind "nothing will happen to me".
If you think about the risks, there was another consideration. Your file could be marked L.M.F. – lacking moral fibre. If there was any suspicion that you were setting down because you were chickening out, you got that designation. It was a disgrace. Also, remember the times that formed my generation. There was a period in the Depression when we had men come through Rouleau on freight cars, looking for work. Some hung out down around the tracks for weeks and we got to know them.
They had finished high school or university and hit the rails looking for jobs only to find no work. You could see the desperation of these young guys. No matter how ambitious they were, there just were no opportunities for them. It was pretty easy to get them into the army and air force when the war broke out.
On September 3, 1943 our crew was dispatched to try locating two French P-39 fighter pilots who had been shot down. The weather was bad but by flying on the deck, we found the flyers in the sea, floating in their Mae Wests. An Air-sea rescue crew picked up the pilots. For this trip, our crew received a citation from the officer commanding the Free French Forces in North Africa under General Charles de Gaulle.
By this time, we ranked as a senior crew in our squadron. Our proficiency was well recognized and we were often given the toughest assignments. This was particularly true in periods of bad weather when navigation was of extreme importance. McGlade was a very competent navigator. Using dead-reckoning, and with the aid of radio or astral fixes at night, we always got back to base safely. This was not always the case with other crews. A number of them got lost and had to bail out, abandoning their aircraft.
One night, returning from an op, we had to fly through a severe thunderstorm. We had been given a diversion to Bizerte, but it was too late because we did not have enough fuel to make the alternate destination. It was particularly rough; we were being thrown all over the sky and lightening flashed around us constantly. For a few moments, I was transfixed by the storm, with my head out of the cockpit, and began to loose control.
Fortunately, I had a great deal of experience with rough weather and knew I had to keep total attention on the instruments or we would be in big trouble. The storm continued over our base, which could only instruct us to take our best shot at landing. We flew at a few hundred feet with no landing light in sight. By good fortune, I crossed the "chance light" at the end of the runway. By making a sharp turn, with wheels and flaps down, we landed safely.
A Beau Fighter was only a few yards ahead of us on the runway. We learned at debriefing that there were two flights of this type of fighter-bomber in the circuit around the airfield at the same time. In the early days of the fighting in North Africa, when the fields were regularly bombed, we had to get back over base and give the signal of the hour before we were allowed to land.
On another night I remember well, our squadron had an assignment to patrol an area where intelligence believed the Italian fleet intended to make a run from Taranto in southern Italy to Marseilles. The first two crews sent out from squadron 500 were never heard from again; no distress signal, nothing. Our crew was the next one scheduled to go out.
After patrolling the assigned area for several hours, we returned to base without incident. The memory of this mission helped me keep in perspective another experience I had just a few years ago. I had to face the reality that I had prostate cancer. I was told I had the prospect of a few more years. This did not seem so bad compared to that wartime assignment, which looked like a ticket to live for only a few more hours.
We were stationed at Bone, just a few miles west of Bizerte in Tunisia. This was just before the Allied Forces pushed Rommel out of Africa, then through Sicily and into Italy. On different occasions, in October through December, my crew and I had different assignments in Sicily, Sardinia and on the easy coast of Corsica at a village called Ghisonaccia. We moved in only a few days after the Germans were kicked out. We had Christmas Dinner there in 1943 and after a short stay, we were sent back to North Africa.
On February 23, 1944, having completed 82 missions or ops, my crew and I were posted to a Communications Squadron. Our job was to ferry high-ranking military personnel and priority materials around the region. We initially flew out of Maison Blanche, near Algiers, then Pomigliano, an Italian base near Mt. Vesuvius and just outside of Naples. We often dropped in on Malta, where McGlade and I had some good times. Malta was the principal supply point during this period and pubs were well stocked.
Sometime in early September of 1944, McGlade was sent to visit Canadian personnel officers at Allied Headquarters at Caserta, just north of Naples. When they learned we had been overseas three years, and in the Mediterranean for almost two years, they decided we should have a rest leave.
On September 23, we caught a ride on a Dakota from Pomigliano to Hendon, England. By this time, the Germans had been pushed out of Italy and the war in France was well established. Our flight across France was uneventful. We spent a short time in London and were granted a few weeks leave. We spent our time at a nice home in the Lake District of Cumberland.
It was organized as a rest home for air crews. Then we received word that we were headed back to Canada for an extended leave. I arrive in Saskatoon in December of 1944 having travelled on the liner Aquitaine from Liverpool to New York City. By chance, it was the same vessel that brought my dad back from service as a machine gunner with the American Expeditionary Force in the First World War.
We docked at New York, took a train to Ottawa and then the long rail trip to Saskatoon. McGlade and I intended to take our next assignments in Mosquito bombers after our leave. McGlade’s home was Smith’s Falls, southwest of Ottawa. He went in to RCAF headquarters to see about our next posting when he learned that Mosquito’s were not among our options.
We could stay in Canada as flight instructors, or we could demobilize. McGlade found out that he could enrol at McGill University in Montréal and I decided to go with him. But when I visited the office of the Department of Veterans Affairs in Saskatoon, I was informed that they planned to offer courses for veterans at the University of Saskatchewan in January. As my parents had moved to Saskatoon, and my brothers B.J. and Don had enrolled in engineering, I decided to stay home and also take engineering.
I remained officially in the Air Force. My records had stayed somewhere overseas, so my discharge took until August of 1945. McGlade completed the period’s counterpart to a degree in commerce and eventually became an underwriting partner in Wall Street firms. We kept in touch and had a lot of ongoing relationships in business. He helped my brothers and I navigate our Bow Valley Industries through financial shoals by taking on a share issue when it proved to be a tough sell in Canada.
In the discharge process, the military medical office advised me I would be eligible for a good pension because of my war wounds. I decided I did not want to take any handouts and feel as though I might be handicapped, and therefore dependent. It was the correct thing for me to do psychologically because I did not want to feel that the government or anyone owed my anything.
The experiences I had during my years in the air force were probably the best learning years possible for an eventual career path. All of us matured quickly at very young periods in our lives. We took on difficult assignments and it was a great confidence booster to know that we competed favourably with our peers around the globe. That was where I learned to pick people out pretty quickly. You could tell who the guys were who had the real stuff and who did not.
We became harder to scare too. I’ve always enjoyed risk in business. I still do. I love to drill wells, and not the easy ones. When you have risked your life, as opposed to risking dollars, risking dollars becomes a pretty easy choice. For me, wartime service was a rewarding experience. I have many fond memories and everlasting respect for my comrades who were my crew mates and best friends on many hazardous missions. By Daryl "Doc" Seaman.