Inventor & Telecommunications Pioneer
The War Years: 1939 - 1945A Few Stories
A CANADIAN VOLUNTEER, 1939Volunteers are selected for their best abilities to aid the prosecution of a newly declared War by our government. It is one of those moments in a lifetime that stands out clearly. I had traveled from our Rossland home in the Kootenays to Spokane, Washington, to take out my first patent on a new kind of two-way radio communication instrument. Spokane was our nearest city with an authorized Patent Attorney. I remember it was near midnight and I was walking back to my hotel, tired from trying to teach electronics to a senior Patent Attorney. Suddenly some newspaper boys came rushing out of an alley shouting "Chamberlain Declares War, Canada is at War with Germany". I fell asleep reading the paper in my hotel room.
The next day the Patent Attorney said the patent would now have to be taken out first in Canada through an authorized Canadian Patent attorney.When I got home we discussed possible plans to go to Ottawa. Several things had yet to be prepared. New demonstration two-way radios had to be made. A demonstration was arranged with the Air Force in Vancouver. We needed to form a local company as the Air Force would not recognize an individual. Several of us at the Trail smelter floated a private company with the radio invention was the collateral. The trip was made and results were successful. Air Force then notified the National Defense Department in Ottawa, who in turn told the Signal Corp. We then got a request for a demonstration from a Colonel Harold Taber, officer in charge of the Signals Research and Development Establishment.
With my young assistant, Thurb Cushing, we demonstrated our small two-way radio equipment on the grounds and in the National Research Council Building on Sussex Drive, Ottawa, under the observation of their technical staff. Col. Taber then asked that we move to Ottawa and become members of the Signal Corps. I asked that he discuss it directly with our bosses in Trail, B.C. They were cooperative but made the stipulation that whoever I needed from our radio lab could also go, but our wages throughout the War would continue to be paid from Trail. So, we would not be joining the Army.
The time had come for our family's 3000 mile drive across the continent.
A CANADIAN VOLUNTEER, 1940At Rossland we were a family of 5, Elaine in diapers, Doreen was 5 and Donnie was 8 and it was midsummer. Our Ford Sedan was now loaded with boxes strapped on the back and as we started down the Rossland Hill we waved goodbye to our neighbours and our home we would never live in again. We first drove to gas pumps in Trail, the owner was an old friend who had the Dodge Chrysler agency and always kidded me to change from Fords of which this was my 7th. His last remark was "we will get you yet". We drove mostly through the USA close, or on Highway #2 crossing the Great Lakes on Ferries.
Five days from Rossland we stayed at a Motel near Ottawa and we started our new life under strange conditions. I reported to the Research Council and it was suggested I get the family settled in. We searched for a house with nearby schools and found a two-story brick house with a large Oak tree that a family of black squirrels treated as home. We had completely changed our environment, from living at an elevation of 4000 ft. in Rossland to near sea level, with flat narrow streets and ancient streetcars, but very friendly people nearly all working for the government.
We went to a good furniture store and paid a deposit on furniture we still have today. We also eased the pain of the change for the family by getting a sharp little Dog we called Black Sambo.
At the National Research Council I was given a large second floor room that overlooked the surrounding lawns and the Rideau Falls into the Ottawa River. Also I had a blonde Secretary who we called Jonesy. He was a bald Sergeant but really knew the score on any event, he proved invaluable to me. After making some small pilot models for bench trials that were successful, I was notified by the army that my Patent was to be made secret for the duration of the war and our work was to be treated as such. Also, that I must periodically be prepared to make overseas flights to England on the Bomber Ferry Command.
A CANADIAN VOLUNTEER, 1941It was during 1941 that our laboratory workload increased the most. Thurb Cushing married his fiancé Honor and Dick Pattinson married his fiancé Chrissie. Both were established in apartments near us. At the lab we had made a few C-18 sets and went to Toronto where all the Radio Manufacturers were shut down. We were to see which of them could best tool up for the C-18 set, which turned out to be a Refrigerator Manufacturer.
We also took two more C-18 sets to an enlistment drive in downtown Toronto where a Soldier walked about with a C-18 set strapped on his uniform. A News Reporter asked him, "What does that do?" He replied "Well you can talk with it, while you walk with it". So the Reporter wrote in his newspaper there was a new invention on display, a "Walkie Talkie" and the name remained from then on.
With our help the fridge plant made over 18,OOO C-58 Sets before the war ended. The change to C-58 came about from a lot of new requirements, such as withstanding being thrown around over high rocky ocean beaches.
This also was the year we developed a Command Vehicle Mobile Radio Station consisting of a table-mounted transmitter of over 300 watts with scrabbled speech both sending and receiving. These were manufactured by a consortium including vehicle manufacturers mostly in the Toronto area. The receivers were made in Vancouver. All were produced from the Patent held in secrecy. I was advised at NRC to expect a phone call from the Bomber Ferry Command. I got a call from a Nurse who wanted to know if I had eaten any vegetables of the cabbage family recently. On my negative answer she said, "report to the Bomber Ferry Command at Dorval at 0600 tomorrow. You will be fitted in flying gear for the flight to U.K.". Suddenly I found I was going to the War.
VOLUNTEERS ALL 1941We met at daylight in a hanger where a Liberator Bomber was being serviced. I was given a sheepskin lined jacket, pants, gloves and a flying helmet. A vehicle arrived with an air force group who were carrying their flying suits. Surprisingly 6 of them were dressed in RAF fatigues and they had the flashy blue and white ribbons of the distinguished Flying Cross on their tunics, representing having downed more than one German Aircraft. Apart from the Bomber crew there was a Senior British Brigadier. He had an artificial leg and all the pilots were looking at the Red stripe on the side of his pants as he was getting into his flying suit. Possibly he was a staff member from the British war office.
We were all given pills who some pocketed. A Canadian co-pilot checked us out on the veneer benches set up in the empty bomb bay saying "we're going to roll her out now". There was a great deal of back-firing with the warm up. The RAF boys looked at each other and pointed thumbs up or down on each engine. When we started down the runway and one engine was getting worse. Nevertheless we continued, but with all thumbs down we came to an abrupt stop then turned back to the hanger. The Canadian Captain leaned down into the bomb bay saying "Sorry about that, there will be about an hours delay". At this point the Brigadier said, "What seems to be the trouble?" The Captain replied, "The spark plugs needed checking." Whereupon the Brigadier replied, "Ah yes, and you might check the oil as a precaution you know, trans Atlantic and all that sort of thing!" The Captain let out a boisterous laugh and replied with a smile, "Yes Sir, and all that sort of thing" and this eased the tension of formality.
It seems this group of Decorated Pilots were sent out to Hollywood, Cal., both for a break and in the hope that some young American Pilots might join up. It seems they were more socially engaged with the female stars and were now in need of a rest.
The next try put us on our way to the Gander Airport in Newfoundland where we would refuel. I held my gloves over my ears to keep down the noise of the engines. We were due to be airborne for 13 hours with no outward visibility, but with open air, sandwiches and coffee service.
ON THE BRITISH HOME FRONT 1941One soon develops a deep respect when the determination to win over the invader can be witnessed in all human exchanges. On the train going to London a large group of Navy Sailors squeezed in with an assortment of passengers. They were mostly Common Naval Seamen, youngsters who had been in a naval skirmish and their cockney banter was hard to follow. They apparently were on a leave home authorized by their Medic, after they had spent time in the sea.
One said to another "I thought I was goin' to bloody well freeze and I kep' wavin' so som'un might see me. I figured I was fish chuck. I don' know if the ol' place still has a roof on it". Then one leaned over and said, "the birds will be there," and they all laughed and slapped each other. Cigarettes were handed around.
I checked in at Canadian Military Headquarters at Canada House. They sent me to the Royal International Society which was being utilized as an Officers stop-over in London for the night. Upon being escorted to my room I noticed only a large bomb hole existed where the neighbouring room should have been, but I was too weary to care and was soon asleep.
PURPOSE OF U.K. TRIPAt this point I should clarify the problems created by international differences in the development of Radio tubes in 1941. The degree of vacuum pulled on the tube during the sealing of the glass by flame determines it's "hardness" or performance in the Radio spectrum. If other gases exist they short out the radio signals. In Canada we had never made "hard tubes" for radio sets as they were supplied by the Radio Corporation Of America to the makers of radio sets in Canada who were licensed by RCA.
Therefore, the R&D at National Research Council in Ottawa was all done using the hard RCA radio tubes. The C-43 Set was designed and tested with these hard tubes. To provide tubes for these C-43 sets, another Canadian source was set up by a different Canadian Government department.
The Inspection Services did NOT give them a hardness test so shipments were made to U.K of unknown hardness to the Signal Corp. Prior to leaving Canada I made a test harness for measuring a tube's hardness on an cathode ray screen. Some of these tubes were put into test model C-43 sets in England that failed to perform to specs.
This led to them ordering a shut down of the C-43 set production lines in the consortium of production plants in Canada. The purpose of my trip to the U.K was to show where the fault existed so the plants in the Toronto area could reopen. Unfortunately, there were some strong opinions held in the upper CMHQ Command that were not readily changed even after the harness-tested tubes on the C-43 Set, out performed the much more massive Broadcasting set installed in an enlarged vehicle.
For my criticism of the Inspection services blunder and of some local intolerance, they held a court marshal at Army Headquarters in southern England. I was cleared and given a direct signals link to Ottawa with the recommendation not to pull my punches. We had to scrap the replacement storage of soft tubes.
The C-43 Set manufacturing plants in Toronto were now back in production. I was put on the transit list for a flight back to Canada. I remember it was the 22nd of December, 1941, when I received a call from Army Transport. They were sending a car and I was to be at Hendon Airfield at 1300 hours. As I waited for the car in London a little old lady offered me a bouquet of small flowers for my missus for Christmas. I said she is in Canada, she said, "give them a little water then". The Army drove me directly to a small twin-engine military aircraft and said, "have a good flight sir," and drove away.
HOME FOR CHRISTMASFrom the beginning it was a most extraordinary journey. I stood with my bag near the open door of the twin-engine transport plane watching an official group ready to go on parade.
A few minutes passed when an official vehicle, flags flying with a motorcycle escort, stopped at the parade group - who struck up the band, escorting the vehicle to where I was standing. A Colonel stepped out and held the door for a civilian whom I recognized as the Canadian Minister of National Defense.
He immediately got busy shaking hands and saying goodbyes. When he got to me I said, "I believe I am going along sir", whereupon he said, "oh good" and turned to the crew who took his bags.
On the way to Prestwick, we shared sandwiches and he asked me what department of the government I was in. I replied for Army at NRC under Brigadier Tabor. He said, "your name?" After hearing "Don Hings" he thought for a moment and said, "Are you from out West?" On the affirmative answer, he said "did you work under WMA before the war?" My confirmation brought out the statement that "they went to school together in Truro, Nova Scotia."
Upon arrival in Prestwick, I was checked by Immigration, then sent upstairs where a lot of flight crews were sitting around listening to weather reports. Tea and scones were in good supply and I spotted our Captain W., from the flight from Montreal, and received a welcome hand shake.
We settled at a table and he explained there were two flights ready to leave. The nine flight crews, impatient to be home for Christmas, had one Liberator and he had the other. It was a V.I. P. Liberator equipped with passenger seats and oxygen bottles. Apparently the headwinds over the North Atlantic were too severe so other routes were being worked out with the British Navy. Everybody stood up when a lot of military red tab officers came in and Canada's Minister was introduced to Captain W. As he settled in, he saw me and was about to introduce me to the Captain, who quickly said we had traveled together before.
We waited into the small hours of the morning before we got clearance for take off. We were to fly south off the European Coast to a group of volcanic islands, the Portugese Azores, where the British navy had laid out a metallic Runway! The Minister remarked "that will be interesting - I have never been to the Azores," whereupon the Captain said, "Don't let it worry you, but neither have I."
I was to accompany the Minister and have the adjoining seat in the V.I. P. Liberator. Both aircraft roared off into the Atlantic storm after the Captains had chosen their own elevations.
THE ODDITIES OF WARAs we climbed, we took a southerly course and to my amazement there was a city below with all its street lights shining brightly. It was Ireland. Unlike England and Scotland they were not at war, so there was no black out. We climbed to 13000 ft. and were between layers of clouds. There was radio silence so we were on compass courses. The Captain explained we were to land on the side of a crater where the British had made an all-metal landing strip beginning at a cliffs edge, some 500 ft above the ocean waves.
We began our descent into thick clouds knowing there was a 7,000 ft. mountain in this group of four Islands. It was turning daylight and we dropped down until we could see the ocean waves and located the landing strip on the cliff. The Pilots' Liberator landed first and we circled above, watching a jeep follow them with fire extinguishers to put on the overheated brakes.
They did the same with us but apparently the damage was done and we would have to stay over until new brake linings were installed. It would take about 24 hours.
There was a military trailer village set in a hollow With Navy, Air Force and Army. It also had V.I.P. accommodation. I was given a comfortable bunk in with Army who had the smallest group. After breakfast, the Minister asked me if I would like to go to Legos on the far side of the Island for some Christmas shopping. I accepted and a flagged Army car was supplied with British Army interpreters for the Island Portugese dialect.
The Canadian Minister must follow protocol and review the honour guard in a fortress on the highest part of the Island. The Army car wound up a dirt road to a small crater with a few stone huts around the rim of the crater. There were a dozen or so soldiers with rifles standing at attention, and one with a cap was saluting. Some had shoes, some did not. The Minister turned to me and said, "Come on Don. Shake hands with these fellows". They were very proud and it capped it off when he saluted the leader.
We continued on to Legos about 20 miles away, near sea level. All fields along the way had volcanic pumice rocks piled up for fences and they used oxen for motive power. Amazingly, there were no gates. They just dismantled the wall to let the two-wheeled cart through, and rebuilt it when we were on the other side.
We also witnessed a funeral. A white-haired Priest led a small parade where two relatives carried the corpse in a sack hung from a pole across their shoulders. The family walked behind in single file. The deceased was not buried but was covered in a mound of pumice until he was gone with the winds.
CHRISTMAS SHOPPINGIt was all downhill to Legas, the only harbour on this volcanic island. It was a bright little town with a large central plaza tiled in black and white polished stones in a large swirling pattern. The plaza had a periphery of palm trees and there were stone seats spotted throughout. The town's shops were on the seaside and the food markets on the roadsides. There was a candy store with soft Turkish Marzipan candy slices in sealed bags. I couldn't resist getting a couple of bags.
Another was offering choice cuts of pineapple which were delicious. The store keeper sold the pineapples in individual small wooden boxes with the date on them when they were to be eaten. Thinking of my baggage, I suggested two of them be packed with the Turkish candy whereupon he flatly refused to sell them to me. So I agreed to take the boxes. They were to be eaten on Christmas Day (tomorrow). My prize purchase was a pair of handmade brown brogue shoes of soft oxen leather. I prized those shoes for years after the war.
On arriving back at military headquarters it was dark. The other Liberator had been serviced and was gone. We were due to take off about midnight. There was a sea fog moving in to limit visibility to the metal runway, which was downhill and over the cliff.
The Navy had set up a large searchlight pointing straight up. It was turned on for take off. After we had gone down the metal mat and over the cliff, we made two slow climbing turns and headed North West. The search-light was turned off as they wanted no beacons for the Geries to see. We were back on compass navigation and flying at 19,000 ft., North Star time navigation.
The Minister was busy going over papers with Colonel D. I watched the sky through the gunner's cockpit, above me. After about an hour, the minister took a sleeping pill and asked me to keep an eye on his oxygen mask breathing movement.
It was a long night. I would lookup at the stars and my oxygen mask would slip aside and there would be clouds over the stars. I would take more oxygen and the stars would reappear clearly. After several repetitions I realized how easily one's mind can be fooled, and secured the mask.
After about 5 hours the Minister wakened and went to the washroom. With an electric razor, he got all cleaned up ready for a bite of breakfast and coffee before arriving in Montreal.
On the other hand I was totally exhausted and as it was now Christmas morning, the train would not get me home on time. After the big welcome for the Minister, a twin engine plane showed up for them to go onto Ottawa, and he had me come aboard. We landed in Ottawa and he had a Wac drive me home for Christmas - Daisies and all.
WINDING DOWN - WHERE BEST TO GO?As the European War decreased, becoming more of a Russian War, our research for production was over. France was once again freed from the Germans and the fighting had moved on to Russia.
The Asian war with the U.S.A. was heating up, creating a lot of West Coast activity which was also being felt in Vancouver. Our Research group had stayed together with the intent to do development of peace-time products in electronics. So, with an opportunity to fly to the West Coast (to the Boeing Plant), I took it. My wife had said she would like to visit her mother who was renting a house on 13th Avenue near Vancouver General Hospital. She would go by train and leave her sister in charge of our three children back in Ottawa.
I was the first to arrive in Vancouver. I hired a U-drive car to look for a hilltop I remembered as a boy - which had giant trees on top, out beyond what was called Vancouver Heights. It later became known as Capitol Hill. As I approached the hill I could see small houses on the hill slope and a bulbous water tower high on top. I managed to drive as high as Grosvenor Avenue which was a gravel road up to the top, where I walked East to where the big stumps were all that was left of the giant trees I had remembered. Cambridge Street did not exist.
It was an ideal location to do Environmental Electronic Research - away from power lines, traffic, and even noisy household appliances. My wife was on the train and at Winnipeg she crossed the station with a young traveling companion, who was going to Vancouver to meet her Officer husband. They went to the phones to call her parents and when they returned, the train was gone, baggage and all. The next train wasn't due for another 12 hours.
My wife had her purse so they were able to get a hotel room for a few hours sleep. The railroad took their luggage off the train for them to pick it up in Saskatchewan. They were a day late getting into Vancouver.
I had been to the old Municipal Hall on Kingsway and 12th Avenue and purchased the plot North East of the water tower on Capitol Hill for a laboratory site, "providing we were not going to work on Atomic Bombs!" The building of the laboratory, plus homes for the others is another story, plus the long drive back across the country when there was a shortage of everything.
GOODBYE TO OTTAWAAfter our trip West, we returned to Geneva Street in Ottawa by train. Shortly after V.E. Day was announced we had so much to do with all our furnishings to pack and ship, so we rented a CPR box car. We found we had room to spare even with the Cushings and Pattinsons belongings. We picked up an Army station wagon on auction for use as a truck to build the laboratory, which we drove into the freight car. Our car was a 1943 Dodge Sedan with room for Don Jr., his turtles, Doreen and Elaine in the back seat. My wife Rakel, who was very pregnant, sat in the front and made lunches to save time.
Tires were the problem but we had purchased some good looking spares in Ottawa and we felt secure as we started out, up the Ottawa valley to Pembroke. By the time we were 20 miles North we heard a loud blow-out as the inner tube burst. Rakel screamed which scared the kids.
All tires were pre-war and the rubber had latex in it that rotted with time. We stacked spare tires on the back of the car and headed for Sous St. Marie on the headwaters of Lake Superior. We booked passage on the steamboat Wetaskowin destined for Port Arthur, Wisconsin. This seemed like a good change from motels and anxious driving. We had barely got underway when we got a telegram from Vancouver to say Mac, Rakel's younger brother, had been killed in a streetcar accident in Vancouver. We were all depressed but realized it was fortunate we were able to be intercepted.
Back on the road, South of the border, it became a series of blowouts and buying more tires. About four days later we reached the Rockies at Glacier Park in Idaho. The next day we entered BC. As we passed through Trail, I stopped at the Dodge dealers garage where an old friend welcomed us back. I showed him the tires and he laughed, commenting on how I'd finally smartened up by getting rid of the Ford and buying a Dodge. He fixed us up with some good tires and off we went to Rossland where we were happy to stay with Rakel's brother's family for a few days.
From Rossland we drove South, through Washington State via Winachee - where we bought a lot of fruit. Now that all the old tires were gone, we had more room. So fruit, turtles and family arrived to stay at Grandma's house on 13th Avenue near the hospital, which was convenient for the upcoming birth of Mary Lynn.
By Donald L. Hings
Written in December, 1996