War on Their Minds
1940s   William R. Prendergast
Age in 1941: 18

Interview Team: Marc Rudenaeur, and Chris Hebert

Q: How old were you in 1941?

Mr. Prendergast: 18

Q: Where you born and raised?

Mr. Prendergast: I was born in a little town, in Ontario, called Tillburry.

Q: To what Extent were you aware of the happenings in Germany, Italy, and Japan?

Mr. Prendergast: Japan, very little; Germany and Italy, considerably.

Q: Where did you get your information?

Mr. Prendergast: Mostly newspapers.

Q: Did you have a radio?

Mr. Prendergast: Oh yes, we had a radio we were very aware of the on goings in Germany, a little bit in Italy to a lesser extent and very little in Japan. Now remember that war really started in September of 1939 and in September 1939 I was 16, and when Hitler came to power in 1933 I was 10. I had very little interest in European politics, but as I grew older I became more aware and so did the whole world with the danger that Hitler posed to the world.

Q: Were most people threatened by it?

Mr. Prendergast: We did feel threatened; when WWII started in 1939 I did not expect it to last until 1945. Hitler had such a head start. Other countries including the U.S. were not prepared to fight a war. Hitler had been building up an Army since he came to power building tanks, airplanes and soldiers. They weren’t that much greater, it is just they had been putting so much effort into a military action.

Q: Were you aware of the attack on Pearl Harbor?

Mr. Prendergast: Yes I was, of course it did not change much for Canada.

Q: When did Canada get involved in the War?

Mr. Prendergast: Canada got involved in 1939 when England became engaged; at that time Canada was still part of the British Empire so whenever England declared war Canada automatically became involved. I was thinking about this fact the other day, and I can not recall Canada ever declaring war on Japan. That was more of a United States effort. We felt that was something that the U.S. had to deal with. I did not know any Canadians to be involved in Japan. We felt the war was over in April 1945 when Germany conceded to the allied forces. I would have gladly gone to the pacific. It would have given me a chance to see some combat. I was overly patriotic, I had gotten my wings and I wanted to get a chance to fly.

Q: Did you enlist or were you drafted?

Mr. Prendergast: In Canada during World War Two, I can’t speak for the United States, men were drafted at age 19. If drafted you were placed in the infantry and you had no choice in the matter. If you wanted a choice you could enlist so many people like my self volunteered for something other than a foot soldier.

Q: At age 19 did you enlist?

Mr. Prendergast: Yes I had just turned 19, I went down to see the Royal Canadian Air Force and said I would like to be a part of your organization.

Q: What year was that?

Mr. Prendergast: 1942. Here’s an old, yellowed newspaper dated Tuesday November 12, 1942 and this is the class I was inducted with.

Q: What did you do after you joined the Air Force?

Mr. Prendergast: First, I went to learn about the new fangled field of radar. I guess it was because of the timing that we didn’t go to basic training immediately. Usually when you join any military organization you go to basic training first. So instead I went to school to learn about radar, we went to a high school and took classes there. We went from 4 PM to midnight six days a week for six months. We were housed in private homes instead of barracks; the Air Force paid people to take us in, because there were no military facilities in the area. It was because Canada was not prepared for a war and there were no places to send everyone in the military at that time.

Q: What type of education did you have before joining the army?

Mr. Prendergast: I went to High School; we had five years of High School. People who went to College in America could skip the first year if they completed the fifth year. I finished High School then I worked for a few months for the military making boxes to hold artillery shells. We worked twelve hours a day six days a week. The people working were mostly my age and a few older people. Every two weeks we changed shifts from night to day. There were a lot of injuries even one person got killed they didn’t have all the safety regulations that they had today. We had very little training for the job and we were expected to be able to do it. I worked there until I joined the Air Force.

Q: Did most people want to join the army?

Mr. Prendergast: Most people did, but there were a few people who did not. I knew one person who’s mother picked his draft notice out of the mail and destroyed it. Then the military came looking for him and he had no idea that he had been drafted. He did not receive any punishment because it was not his fault that he did not know about it. There were not a lot of people who tried to avoid going to the military.

Q: Was there a lot of nationalism involved?

Mr. Prendergast: We were fighting for the British Empire, so there wasn’t much Canadian nationalism. I think that most people recognized the evils of Hitler. We thought it was wrong for him to be killing innocent people especially the Jews.

Q: Was that well known during the war?

Mr. Prendergast: It was known more after the war. It was kept secret by the Germans. We did not discover the true atrocities until the allies liberated the concentration camps and saw what was really being done. Hitler never publicized this to the rest of the world.

Q: How did you serve in the Air Force?

Mr. Prendergast: We went to school for six months and then basic training or what you call boot camp.

Q: What was a basic day like at boot camp?

Mr. Prendergast: We woke up at 6 AM. Everyone in the Air Force went to the same facilities. It was at an old exhibition ground. Due to the lack of the military facilities, we were housed in a cow palace, which during exhibition time was used to show off cattle. There were ten thousand of us in one big room. We had double bunks and there was not a lot of privacy. We had to do a lot of hard work marching and running and other hard work. We were young so it wasn’t that bad. The drill sergeants were tough. They didn’t spare anybody. They didn’t care. They would tell you how stupid you were how awkward you were. You weren’t allowed to have feelings. I remember we used to think about what we would to do to get back at the drill Sergeant after the war but of course we never did anything. We used to have to shine our shoes so that they would look like tiny mirrors. That’s how we spent most of our evenings, shining shoes and cleaning our uniforms. In the Military, everything had to be perfect. While I was there they made the offer that anyone who desired could join the Air Corps. As a result I said I wanted to become a pilot. Any one who said this was then subject to battery of physical test. I passed and was accepted to become a pilot. From there I left to go to pilot training.

Q: What did pilot training involve?

Mr. Prendergast: There were three stages. The first stage was classroom work. We learned about how aircraft’s worked and all the ins and outs of the equipment. We were there for sixth months. At this time we wore little white flashes on our hats that indicated that we were pilots in training.

Q: What did you do after you finished your training at that facility?

Mr. Prendergast: That training went on for sixth months, then we split up into smaller groups and left to go somewhere were we would fly airplanes. In the spring of 1944 we went to Windsor, Ontario which is right across from Detroit, Michigan and not far from my hometown. I had wished that I would be able to go farther away because in those days we weren’t very mobile and I had still not seen a lot of the country.

Q: Did you get to go home a lot?

Mr. Prendergast: I had the opportunity but I did not go home that often. This were I got introduced to airplanes and this is what I flew its called a Fair Child Cornell it was the plane that was used for training.

Q: Were these ever used in combat?

Mr. Prendergast: No, they were only used for training. I ended up flying these planes after the war for commercial purposes.

Q: What did you fly after that plane?

Mr. Prendergast: At the time I started my training I had never flown before. It was not like today how everybody flies everywhere. So this was my first time flying. I still remember my first flight and I thought what had I gotten myself into. That feeling did not last long and I eventually got over that feeling. They gave us twelve hours of training with an instructor and that was it, twelve hours, period.

Q: Sitting in the back?

Mr. Prendergast: He was in the back and I sat in the front; he had dual controls and we spent twelve hours like that. After those twelve hours you had to be capable of flying by yourself or that was the end of your flying career.

Q: Did you have to take a flying test?

Mr. Prendergast: Well, not really. We all completed our twelve hours and then we took a day off. Then all of the instructors got together and talked and decided who they thought would be capable of flying solo. After that, half the class disappeared, they were still in the air force but they were sent to do a job other than flying an airplane. The day after that, the other half of us who were still there took our first solo flight. We got in our airplanes this time alone no one to help us out from the back seat. One after the other took off flew a circle around the airport and landed. That was all for our first flight. I was waiting for the guy ahead of me to come down and the moment you touch the runway is the most critical, you have to assert control on the runway, if you don’t you can run into a lot of trouble. Now this guy in front of me did not make good contact and his airplane took a 90-degree turn and ran into a fence. I had to go on my first solo after seeing that. I didn’t know if he was alive or what had happened to him. It turns out that he was fine but that ended his flying career. I did my solo flight and did fine.
At that time all we knew was how to take off and land. After that we began to learn how to do acrobatics. We also learned how to fly with instruments when we flew with instruments we sat in the back with an instructor in the front and a hood came over the back so all we could see were the instruments. One day, I was pretty good at instruments, I landed by instruments, I thought he was crazy making me do that. I think that every one there had special skills. Some people could do things better than others. I was very bad at flying acrobatics but I was very good at flying by instruments. At the end of this training we separated and the people good at acrobatics became fighter pilots and the other people like me who were good at flying with instruments became bomber pilots. The fighter pilots flew in small single engine planes and the bomber pilots flew in larger twin engine aircraft’s.
After six months in the training plane we moved to the advanced pilot training. We did not go directly to the advanced pilot training due to some scheduling problems and lack of facilities. Most of the men left and went to go stay in a barracks on the East Coast of Canada to wait for the facility to be available. I did not have to go because I was a member of the official softball team. We played other teams like the Navy and Army and other professional teams. If I did not have a game or a practice I had no other duties so I would go to tiger stadium to see a baseball game. We got in free for all the games. We played about three games a week so it wasn’t that often that we went to tiger stadium but it was a definite advantage to be on the softball team. At the end of the softball season I went to go meet the rest of the men in the air force at the base on the East Coast. Then I began my advanced training on the twin engine bomber planes.

Q: How many people fit in a twin-engine plane?

Mr. Prendergast: Well, you could fit probably ten people. There were the two pilots seats, the navigators seat and table, I think that was all the seats, there could have been more, but there was a lot of empty space in there. You see there was a lot of difference between a single engine plane and double engine plane. In a single engine plane the wheels didn’t come up and they didn’t have flaps on the wings. In a single engine plane, even today, the throttle control is on the left and you control the other controls with your right hand. In a multiengine airplane where you have two seats the throttles are in the center and the controls are on the left, so we had to learn to switch hands. With this one the control was a stick, which comes up between your legs and on the others it’s a half wheel. So there was a big difference between the planes. They gave us four and a half hours of training with an instructor before we had to fly solo in those things. I made it. I think everybody made it there, solo anyway. Some people dropped out midway through the course. Of the people who entered flying training in the Air Force, only one in four graduated, and only one in eight became an officer and got one of these (pointing to pin) so I was one of the twelve and a half percent, I thought that was pretty good, at age 21.

Q: What does it mean when you become an officer? What do you do when you become an officer?

Mr. Prendergast: Well, it means a lot. It means an increase in pay.

Q: What was the increase?

Mr. Prendergast: I’ll tell you what it was exactly. As a trainee I was making $1.25 an hour.

Q: How much were you making when you were building boxes for the steel company?

Mr. Prendergast: Well the going rate then was probably around a dollar an hour, which meant $72 a week. For a teenager living at home in 1942 that was big bucks. As an officer I made $100 a week. $100 dollars a week in 1945 was pretty good money. Now when you’re an enlisted person you don’t have to buy anything. Everything is provided for you, food clothing, everything. When you become an officer you have to provide for yourself. I had to buy my uniform, pay for my meals and room, so it isn’t as good as it sounds. Being an officer means you don’t do things like guard duty, it means you live in a single room instead of living in a barracks.

Q: Is it a lot more comfortable life?

Mr. Prendergast: Yes, it’s better all around. The big thing is if people who aren’t officers meet you in the street then they have to salute you. So we thought it was great fun when we became officers to walk down the streets in Toronto and spot one of the few women in the military and make sure they intercepted us and saluted us. It’s pretty childish, they probably hated us for it.

Q: Did it matter if they were older than you?

Mr. Prendergast: No, age had nothing to do with it. But it was only the girls we sought out to get salutes from, not the sergeants or any thing like that. See now my drill sergeant had to salute me if I found him, but I didn’t know where he was. I became an officer in late march and we went on leave, know what happened to my hat on the first night? I somehow ended up in Detroit in a bar. And a girl poured a beer in my nice new hat. I was probably being obnoxious. We went on a month’s leave. That was in April 1945. President Roosevelt died. I had a great deal of respect for President Roosevelt even though I wasn’t an American. And it saddened me to see President Roosevelt to die before the end of WWII because he had so much influence to help win WWII but he died less than a month before the end of WWII. I reported back and the war in Europe was over. And as I said we Canadians had little or no participation in the war in the Pacific. I didn’t know any Canadians who wet to the Pacific during WWII, there may have been a few, but nobody that I knew went. So we were honorably discharged. The Department of Transportation in Canada had offered civilian pilot licenses for air force pilots who could pass a written test. So I took advantage of that and I got a civilian pilot license. The airport I flew at was Windsor Airport. The flying club there purchased some of those (tiger moths)? And they rented them. I got checked out as a pilot in one of them. See even though I had a pilot’s license I couldn’t fly anything ˇcause you had to be checked out, you have to have an endorsement in a pilot’s license for each type of airplane. I got an endorsement that said I could fly the (tiger moth), which wasn’t very difficult to do compared to the planes I had flown. I took people who were willing to pay therental fee up for no charge for my flying services. One fellow I had known who lived near where I liveň

(end tape)

Army during the war, he enlisted during the war and he became an electrician and after the war he learned to fly, my brother did. He became an electrical engineer and after the war he bought his own airplane and after a career at Westinghouse they downsized him during his career, being a consultant. He used to fly his own airplane to most of his consulting jobs. What he did is very interesting, he was an electrical power engineer and after his career at Westinghouse he became an inspector for foreign governments who bought electrical power equipment in the U.S. I remember he used to come to GE in Pittsfield to test out big transformers, which may be going to India or somewhere. So instead of sending an engineer over from India he would represent them through the testing. His wife used to go along with him and fly to his assignments. I had one flight with him once. I went up to Canada on a business trip. I used to tell him he should’ve got his flying training when it was free, instead of paying for it. So I didn’t continue very much with flying, I did a little bit but then got away from it. One of the things I did, and I had an opportunity, this is after WWII getting away from the subject, I spent some time in the Canadian Artic region. Following WWII the U.S. in particular was figuring that they were going to have a war with Russia. So they set up a building with a bunch of radar set up across Alaska and northern region of Canada that would detect incoming missiles. They called it the due line, the distance early warning line. I participated in the building of that, the early part of it. That was a t a place called Great Bear Lake just below the Artic Circle. I was there for three months. This opportunity arouse and I figured since I was young and single and had no responsibility I would probably never get an opportunity like this again so I took it. It was a great experience. I have a couple of experiences flying those bomber trainers. One day I had to land one with one engine on fire.

Q: Did you feel the planes were safe?

Mr. Prendergast: Yes, I loved them, but I was fooling around with the undercarriage controls when I shouldn’t have been. I blew the hydraulic system and oil flew out. There weren’t any flames, but there was a whole lot of smoke. We had a lot of training, which I considered very boring, flying with one engine. When this engine caught fire I was glad I had all that training. Now here I am flying this thing with one engine on fire and I have to land this thing. What I had been doing was fooling around with the undercarriage control which controlled the landing gear and I got it stuck, now the landing gear wouldn’t go up or down. They were hydraulic operated and between the seats was a hydraulic hand pump just for that purpose. I had to pump it and fly at the same time because I was alone. I got the wheels down but the indicator, which comes on when the wheels are locked, never came on, so I wasn’t sure if they were locked. We are trained to fly very close to the control tower, which was fun, so they can inspect the landing gear to see if it’s locked, they didn’t have radios so they used light signals to communicate. At this time the engine wasn’t on fire though. A little later the engine filled with smoke and failed. So then I had to land. The flaps were also hydraulically operated, so they weren’t functional, I wasn’t sure if the wheels were locked down. I wasn’t sure if they would collapse if I put a little weight on them. Because I had no flaps I came in faster than normal and I had no breaks because they were hydraulically operated also. So I landed and they had emergency vehicles waiting for me because they could see the smoke. I came down ok. The wheels didn’t collapse. We didn’t have 10,000-foot runways, they were only 3,000 feet, and so I ran out of runway quickly. I was still going pretty fast because I didn’t have brakes. I knew there was a ditch 100 feet beyond the runway because I had flown over it so many times. So as soon as I ran out of runway I hit the rudder pedal as hard as I could and spun the plane around. Then I jumped out of the airplane and left it there.

Q: Did you wreck it?

Mr. Prendergast: No, the wheels didn’t collapse. And of course they had a board of inquiry and I answered all of their questions, but nobody said "were you fooling around with the undercarriage controls?" I answered all of their questions truthfully. In the military you volunteer nothing. So they assumed just wear and tear caused the problem. On another occasion I committed a very serious sin. I almost didn’t get away with it. They pounded it into our heads to never take off without a full fuel tank. So my instructor sent me up at night for just one circle around the airport, which took fifteen minutes. I looked at the fuel gage and I had lots of gas. So I didn’t fill the tanks I just took off. Once again we didn’t have radios so when we were ready to land we asked permission by a Morse Code letter on the wing lights. So I did that and I got a big red light. A green light means you can come in and a red means no you can’t come in. and this was at night in the winter with snow on the ground. So I kept getting the red light. And I’m looking at my gas tanks so I said well I’m at 1000 feet, which is where you start the landing approach, so I decided to get some altitude so I could abandoned the plane I needed to. I had a parachute. So I went up to about 5000 feet. And I was up there for a couple of hours and I throttled way back so I was just hanging in the air. Then I gave it another shot and this time I got a green light. So I came in and turned off the runway and ran out of gas. The engine stopped. 60 seconds earlier I wouldn’t have made it to the runway. I never did that again. In those twin-engine airplanes, some of us, I don’t know how many of us, we used to do something very dangerous. Instead of taking off we used to just pulled up the wheels. I those planes the propellers were just skimming the ground at that altitude. So we would reach down, pull up the wheels and there we were, just barely of the ground. A little thrill.

Q: What was your reaction to Truman’s decision to drop the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Do you believe the decision to drop the bombs was justified?

Mr. Prendergast: When that happened and ever since I was in total agreement. I think it was the right thing to do. I’ll give you some reasons. When news of that reached us I couldn’t believe it. In Europe they had been using thousands of airplanes and tons and tons of bombs. I kept reading this over and over again. I couldn’t they could do this with just one airplane and one bomb, because we had never heard of an atomic bomb. At that time the U.S. was bombing Japanese cities with conventional bombs just as they had been doing in Europe. It wasn’t like the Japanese cities hadn’t been bombed. In fact the military people were urging the atomic bomb people to hurry up or there wouldn’t be any Japanese cities to bomb. The planes were being transported to Japan so all the planes in Europe would have been bombing the Japanese. Secondly the United States was planning an invasion on Japan. Even after the first atomic bomb was dropped one of the Japanese military people was urging formation of a suicide force of thousands of Japanese. If it had gotten to that there would have been millions of casualties on both sides. You see the Japanese didn’t give up like the Germans did. From the experience they had with the Japanese sliders on the Pacific islands they fought till every body was dead. As a matter of fact even years after the war there was still Japanese soldiers on Pacific islands still fighting. They just didn’t stop. They had to go into caves with flamethrowers and burn them out. Also the suicide pilots who were crashing their planes on the U.S. Navy. The Japanese would have never given up. They would have fought until everybody was dead on one side. So although dropping the bombs killed a lot of people in those two Japanese cities, they saved a lot of lives on both sides. So as I learned more about it I felt Truman did the right thing. Now when he became president after Roosevelt died he knew nothing about the atomic bomb he had to be told because it was a secret. But I felt then, and I haven’t changed my mind even today, that it was the right thing to do and it saved lives on both sides.

Q: What do you think of today’s generation of youth? How are the same and how are they different?

Mr. Prendergast: It’s quite different obviously, I think today’s youth has more opportunities and more distractions than my generation. Don’t forget I grew up during the depression. There was a severe depression throughout the world. And opportunities were very limited, even post war they were much more limited than today. Just think of computers and what that opened up. So I think people today have more opportunities but more distractions and more ways of getting in trouble. We drank a little, had a few beers every now and then, but there were no drugs period, no drugs, absolutely none, we had never heard of them. And we didn’t drive cars. We had no parking lot at my high school. Not even the teachers drove cars. I laughed in the newspaper last fall when I read parking lot problem at Framingham high. I had a flying license before I had a driver’s license. I think that you having more opportunity makes the choice more difficult. At a high school age it’s unfair we have to make choices when we don’t even know what the options are. When you gentlemen are thirty years old you may have a job that doesn’t even exist today. Think about that. If somebody had told me that I would spend 40 years of my life working with radioactive materials I would have asked what radioactive materials are. What you have to do is ready yourself because you don’t know what opportunities there may be.


Mr. Prendergast's typical day in the RCAF. (Quicktime)

Mr. Prendergast's Cap

Certificate from George VI

Mr. Prendergast's Crew

Royal Canadian Air Force Patch

RCAF Squadron