The bond of Burma: Douglas Hayes and Ward Stevens
Every night, after they’ve shared a delicious dinner with their six Abbeyfield housemates, Douglas Haynes and Ward Stevens say the same words to each other in the Hindustani language.
Stevens said, “We say ‘Have a good night’. That was the language we learned in India.”
The men were stationed not 40 kilometres apart near the India-Burmese border almost 70 years ago during the Second World War. Now they find themselves sharing lodging in Duncan.
Haynes recalled how they came to realize they had been serving in the same location.
“We discovered it quite naturally. We got talking one day and we asked each other ‘where were you serving?’ We each said Burma.”
They were in Bengal, in the east of India, working with their respective squadrons as part of the Burma Campaign. For that, each earned The Burma Star — the only two men with this distinction living on Vancouver Island.
In 1943, Stevens was studying for a Masters in Biology at Iowa State University when he was conscripted into the Canadian army. He was sent to Edmonton to train as a navigator in the Air Force.
“I was old. Almost 25. Most of the rest of the crew were under 20. Except for the pilot, he was 29.”
Stevens learned to navigate with a sextant, a tool used to determine one’s location using stars and the horizon.
“There was no ground position indicator like there is now. The only thing a navigator had was a sextant to shoot the stars. I wish I could have found a sextant for old times’ sake. It was the most demanding of skills, except being a pilot, of course. Right from the outset I said I wanted to be a navigator. That’s where I ended up.”
After his training in Edmonton, Stevens went to Boundary Bay, B.C., where he joined the crew he would fight with in Asia.
“We had a pilot, a copilot, two wireless operators, a bomb aimer, a navigator and three gunners. We flew four-engine Liberators. They’re not big by today’s standard but in those days it was a big plane.”
Stevens still has his wartime maps made of silk to resist mildew, and his log books in which he kept track of the long flights he and his crew made over Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, and Malaysia in the two years he served. They flew up to 20 hours in one day dropping supplies and people who were seeking intelligence in enemy territory.
Stevens is grateful his crew never dropped bombs but those long flights took a toll on his health.
“I was in really good condition when we got there because I’d always been active. And we’d had commando training like climbing ropes and going over obstacles. By the time the tour finished, I was like a wet rag.”
He remembered one close call near the end of the war. While flying down the coast of Sumatra, they were met with unfriendly fire.
“We were jumped by three Japanese fighters. We didn’t have any guns on board except the waist guns, which couldn’t shoot forward or backwards. The tail gunner had a chance to get a shot at them but by that time they would squeal off and he didn’t even have a chance to get his guns around. We were more or less defenceless.
“We got down within about 1,200 feet of the water, which meant they couldn’t come at us from below. So they each came around and I could see the cannon shells bursting closer and closer to us and I thought, ‘I’m next.’ They missed us.”
After that incident, Stevens’ crew was put on leave and not long afterward the war ended. Stevens remembers arguing about whether or not the atom bomb should have been dropped on the Japanese.
"It was a terrible thing and it shouldn't have happened. The people who were in the Air Force were a pretty select group and were educated in one field or another. They knew about fall-out from bombs and how it would affect a large area of country, and especially what it would do to people who were subjected to it. It all turned out to be true and I think that was a terrible thing to happen to the Japanese."
Haynes, meanwhile, volunteered in the British war effort at age 18 in September 1939. His first action was as a fighter pilot during the Battle of Britain in 1940, the first major campaign fought entirely by air forces. Two years later, he was posted to Burma as a radio operator.
“I chose to join the war effort. I thought it was the thing to do. In Burma, we kept communications with radio. We were stationed on the ground but we moved around all the time.”
Haynes encountered some fighting but mostly gathered intelligence. He was in Burma for 3 1/2 years before returning home in 1944. Haynes moved with his wife and three children to Canada 12 years later.
“I came on a ship in 1956 to Calgary first. I was there about a year and my wife couldn’t stand the altitude. Doctor said ‘you’ve got to get her out to the coast’ and we came out to Nanaimo.”
Haynes was a self-employed builder and his three children now live around the Cowichan Valley. He was three times president of the Cobble Hill Legion in 1955, 1963, and 1972.
More than sharing medals, Haynes and Stevens share a history, one that is still hard to deal with. An emotional Haynes said on Remembrance Day he thinks about all the men who died during the war. He finds comfort in living with someone who understands what he went through, but they rarely talk about it.
“We don’t talk about the war days. We’ve got too many things to remember.”