When I arrived in Toronto in 1941, it had a population of 700.000. Outside Toronto, there’s several islands where people from the city have their summer houses. On the westside of one of these islands, Center Island, Norway had situated it’s air force recruiting school in some old barracks during the summer months of 41. The airfield was also situated at Center Island, and called Island Airport. The Norwegian Air Force also took over the airfield. From the airport you could take a small ferry over the small channel to Toronto. This is where Little Norway was located.
When I arrived there in the summer of 1941, most the barracks in Little Norway were already finished and put up. They lay nicely around a big lawn where we had drill commands twice a day. Eight o’ clock in the morning, and one o’ clock in the afternoon. In the fall of 1941, while I was still there, the two nicest buildings of them all were constructed. One of the was Radio City, as it was called. It consisted of two floors, and was mostly used a sleeping quarters. It was also used for lectures in the first floor. The other and most popular building of the two was the gymnastics hall with a sauna included. It also had study rooms in the second floor. The barracks were well constructed, they were perhaps much to nice to even call them barracks. They had central heating, and several layers of panel in the walls. They were also well equipped with showers and washbins. Our beds were stacked in two, on top of each other. Little Norway also had three kitchens, one for the privates, one for the sergeants, and one for the officers. The food from all three kitchens was always in good portions and well in taste. One of the barracks were designed as a hospital with doctors and dentists where skilled people were working. They had first class equipment for their work. In the cafeteria we could buy everything we wanted, even ice cream and sweets.
The camp was surrounded by a large and solid barb wire fence, and the camps own police force kept a close eye so no one could come inside or leave the camp. If we were caught sneaking out, we had to pay ten, fifteen or twenty dollars all depending on how long our ‘register of sins’ were. We always thought twice before trying, because there was so much we could use our money on but this. The north side of the camp bordered to the Maple Leaf stadium, and this place was a weak spot. It had a wooden fence which was very high. It was impossible to get over it, so no guards stayed much in the area. Some of the chaps had discovered this little fact, and one evening they went over there to saw a hole in the fence. They put a door in as well. For a long, long time they used this little door when they wanted to get in and out of the camp. The military police discovered the door in the end. One evening, when they knew their catch would be significantly high in numbers, they showed up in force and waited for their first catch. When the boys showed up, one after another was caught, and sent straight to a detention cell. Ironically, the camp police also had authority to do their work outside the camp as much as they did on the inside. They had razzias weekly in Toronto, and drove to restaurants frequently visited by Norwegians. If they found anyone intoxicated or making trouble in the city (usually both), they were caught without further fuss and brought back to the camp to sleep it off.
The Norwegians, at first, were very popular in Toronto. However, wherever Norwegians tend to go there’s plenty of alcohol and trouble to go along. After a while, the Canadians became more skeptic towards us. From what I know though, nothing ever got as far as newspaper headlines, Canadian girls being advised to stay away from dances we arranged, or banned to show themselves publicly with Norwegians in uniform. Quite the contrary, we were more than welcome in Canadian homes, and spent many evenings with Canadian families. Naturally, it was the daughter in the household that was of most interest to us. Most of the Canadian girls were sweet and charming. They were nice to talk to and easy to get along with. When we started to speak of skiing or sailing they didn’t quite follow us though. It was not difficult to keep the conversation going even we sometimes used very long and clumsy sentences to make ourselves understood. They helped us find the right words, and I am sure that many of us can thank the Canadian girls for improving our English.
The Norwegian Air Force in Canada was administered from Churchstreet 341, about 15 minutes from Little Norway. Commander of the camp, Ltn Colonel Ole Reistad, had his office here. This was the place where I would be meeting him when I arrived in Toronto. I showed up early in the morning. I discovered quickly I was not the only morning bird. Five or six others had already taken their place outside the building, all of them around my own, young age. It didn’t take long until we were chatting away. We had all arrived in Toronto the day before. One of them had come the same route as myself, from Montreal. Three others had worked in New York and arrived to volunteer. Another had travelled all the way around the world, and had just arrived from San Fransisco. Another had partly walked and driven from Portland, USA. He spoke a little sloppy, so I guessed he was a Norwegian-American. He told me he was born in Trondheim by Norwegian parents, but they had left for America when he was very young.
Our talk was interrupted when the door was opened, and we were showed into Ole Reistads office. He wanted to greet us. He wished us a warm welcome to Little Norway and Canada. He asked for our names, and showed keen interest in how we had managed to get ourselves to Toronto.
«We need all the people we can get,» he said, «because these days a whole lot of men are needed to keep the Air Force in good condition. I’m sure you all want to be pilots, but remember that not all can be up there. Each of you have to do as good as you can at the place which is right for you. Every man is equally important.»
This were words we would hear more than once from Reistad, and my own hopes of becoming a pilot sank a bit each time he said it. I already knew that each airplane needed about ten men on the ground. I had problems seeing why I would be the chosen one to fly these machines. However, I was firm in my decision to work hard towards the ultimate goal of learning to fly.
After this first interview with Reistad, things moved quickly. First we were rolled into the military ranks and each of us got his own military number. After that first day I was just another number, like everybody else. Then we would be vaccinated. I am far from happy about needles stuck in my arm, and when I already had been vaccinated in Stockholm four months ago, I brought evidence to prove it. I explained this to the doctor at Little Norway, and told him that I was more than fine in regards to vaccinations. It was simply a waste of time for him to vaccinate me. In return he told me that he had plenty of time, and it didn’t matter what I had done or had not done. So, the needle went in. My comfort was that I would most likely not get a fever and a couple of days in bed this time, as I had gotten in Stockholm the first time around. My arm was very sore and tender afterwards, and it didn’t make all those drills with a weapon any more comfortable later on.Next up was delivery of uniforms at the depo. We walked in our civilian clothes, and an hour later we returned outside in full military outfits. From war-paint to a steel helmet and a weapon – it was all there. I was finally in uniform. I was very proud walking out of the depo in my new battledress with a steel helmet on my head, a rifle on my arm and a big blue backpack filled up to its absolute limits. We were now going out to the training area at Center Island to learn the basics of military behaviour and discipline. It turned out that my class had already been at it for a week already, so yours truly and Harold Odman, the name of the Norwegian-American I had met at Reistads, had a bit of catching up to do. That first evening we found ourselves a spare room and available bunks. Harold took the lower bunk, I took upper one.
The next morning we were awakened by some horrible choice of music. It turned out to be the reveille. I do not like to get out of bed at the moment I wake up, so I decided not do it this time either. I did find it a bit odd that everyone else jumped out of bed at once and stood by their bedsides. Me on the other hand, turned the other way, and tried to go back to sleep. I never got much more sleep. A sergeant came roaring into the room, pulled the blanket off me and asked me if I had ever been taught normal behavior for a human being. I listened to him for a few minutes, and when his flow of words finally died out I tried to explain to him that this was my first day at basic training. I continued to tell him that from now I would be a good boy, and stand by my bedside when he showed up in the morning. We had one hour to wash up, eat breakfast, polish our shoes, do our beds and mop the floor. Time was short by the time we came to the breakfast part, but after a while, once we got into this system, we had a good amount of time to eat.
At eight o’ clock, it was time for the drill command. Harold and I were placed at the back. We would join the others for military parade. We had big trouble following the corporal in charge, so he gave up on us and promised to show us how it was done later that afternoon. We were seated on the lawn, looking at the others marching and turning. They did this until noon. We had an hour’s rest after that. Then it was back to these drill commands, and again more parading. After that we were given lessons about weapons, and at the end of the day we had an hour of gymnastics. It felt extremely good with a bath after such days, and we could take baths as much as we wanted too. After all, we only had about forty meters to go down to the lake. During those first days, both myself and Harold were feeling much too stiff in our bodies to even think of going out of camp. When we had finished with the parades and training, we simply dove into our bunks. We didn’t even have time to think about these wonderful days we experienced before we fell asleep.
As the days came and went, I got used to the life of being a recruit. I vividly themember all those inspections were some sergeant walked around and looked into the barrel of our rifles. If he found just the slightest bit of dust, another hour of cleaning was ordered. There were about a hundred men at the school while I was there, and practically all of them had sent in an application to join the Air Force. Everyone with the right qualifications, which meant being qualified for university or college education, was checked closely by a doctor before being accepted as combatants. Many of us were very nervous for this ‘test’ by the doctor. We had heard rumours it was important not to have high blood pressure. The result of this was that everyone ate a considerable amount of oranges for weeks before the test took place. If that helped or not, I have no idea, but I guess the main issue was that we thought that it could help us. The test was not as hard as it was rumoured to be, not for a person with normal functionality. Our lungs were tested by blowing up a column of mercury, and keeping the mercury up for 60 seconds or so. Our eyesight was tested to see if we were colour-blind, and if it was sharp enough. After that was over we were put up against a wall and X-rayed. We were by all means closely examined.
There was also an intelligence test involved. We had to answer a lot of basic questions in very little time. I was really nervous about this test after I had taken it. My impression was that I did not perform very well. I got even more nervous when I was called back in to do the test again. I sat down at the table once again, and started to answer the same questions. This time I did much better. It was very nice of the Air Force to give me a second chance, even if I didn’t really understand the point of serving someone the same intelligence test twice. I enquired further on the subject, told them I had taken the test twice, and asked if I had been completely hopeless the first time around. However, after further investigation it turned out that the entire affair was a misunderstanding and that I had not done so poorly on my first test either.
This first introduction to army life would be finishing off with a gathering with Ole Reistad present amongst us. We were all nervous about this too. Reistad though, seemed to be pleased with our results, and held a little speech in our honor. Once again he touched upon the subject about not all of us could become pilots and how this was the position that was most sought for. It was the pilot that brought results to the table and got the credit, but we had to remember – he told us, that each man had to do his duty wherever that may be. Not one of us could be spared, and we were all necessary for the Air Force to run smoothly.
After the gathering, we would be told which one of us that would be accepted for flying school. Only forty of us would be accepted, so tensions were running high. We tried to calculate which of us would be accepted. Discussions ran wild, and it was interesting why we tried to comfort and support each other. Finally the list was published, and both Harold and I were amongst the lucky few. We had reached one of our major goals.
We then moved to the heart Little Norway. A busy time was ahead of us, we realised that at once. We got a ton of books to read; navigation, radio, meteorology, engines, weapons, and geography. At the same time we got a schedule that started at eight in the morning and finished four in the afternoon with an hour rest in the middle of the day.
We spent most of the coming five months studying, but we still had drill commands and gymnastics. This was in the middle of August, so the weather was nice and warm. It was therefore hard to study in the afternoon for obvious reasons. Another rumour told us that the five lowest graduates would not be accepted to start flying, so that kept us on our toes.
It was during these days that I bought car. When I arrived in Canada, I had sent in an application, asking to be paid back my expenses for travelling all the way to Toronto. This application was accepted. I put all the money in the bank, and originally decided to let them stay there until the end of the war. However, one afternoon I was in the city with a friend, and he was looking to buy a car. We tried one car after another, and after a while it ended with me also having to purchase one. When I got back to camp that afternoon, the bank account was empty, but the car was mine. I had much pleasure from this car for as long as it lasted. When I had been driving it around for about six months, I ran into a big lorry and that was the end of it.
Harald and I drove all around Ontario on our time off. One weekend we went up to the Niagara Falls to look at this wonder that we had heard so much about. It was indeed an impressive sight, and it was an incredible amount of water falling off that gigantic cliff. But for some reason I was a bit disappointed. I don’t know why, but I guess I had too high expectations. Other weekends we visited villages close by. There was nothing to do in Toronto on Sundays or holidays. Theatres and cinemas all closed. No places to go.
Exams were closing in on me, and the speed of things increased. There was less and less time to do other things than studying. I stayed up, studying far into the evenings. I specifically had some problems learning about weapons. My problems were due to the fact that we had to learn all names of all the parts in English. With only two days to go until the exam, I felt I knew as little about weapons as when I started. I had no choice but to get hold of the different parts and weapons and lock myself into a classroom. I stayed there for 24 hours straight, learning the names of all these parts and mechanisms.
Some of the pupils started to doubt their own abilities to become pilots, and thought they wouldn’t make it. They were comforted by the teachers telling them there was nothing magical about the heavens above. The air was just like water, they told them. It also acted like water. He was sure that this was something most of us could relate to. Harold was one of those who walked around camp doubting his own abilities. It was later proven that he was a very skilful pilot. Harold was not yet up to par in Norwegian language, and he had problems understanding how to address different people the proper way. Every time he made a mistake, laughter broke out. He approached the teachers the wrong way, and had other issues with speaking in general. Later on, when we were sent to an English school, it was his time to laugh when it was our time to explain matters in his language.
All of us passed the exam, and we would now start flying for real. The next day, each of us got a parachute, packed our bags and left for Emsdale.