Ottawa, Canada

My name is Harold Edward Holland. I was born on August 31, 1922, in West Kildonan, in northwest Winnipeg. I was from a family of fourteen children: six boys and eight girls. As far back as I can remember, we spent our summer holidays on a farm in Saltcoats. It's in Saskatchewan, near Yorkton, which you've probably heard of. I went to standard public schools in Winnipeg, and college much later in British Columbia, where I earned a degree in mechanical and aeronautical engineering.

When I heard that the war had broken out, I was working as an apprentice at the CNR in Winnipeg. I knew I was the exact age for joining up, and I knew I was going to be conscripted, so I went and joined right away voluntarily. I didn't know what was going to happen, but I did what I needed to do. It was just around my 18th birthday in 1940.

I knew I wanted to be a pilot, but during my medical examination I could not cross my eyes, so they told me I could never be in the aircrew. You can't have depth perception if you can't cross your eyes, and as a fighter pilot you have to have pretty good eyes. So they sent me to do guard duty. And guess what? During my guard duty that summer I attached a bayonet to my rifle and spent hours putting it up to my eyes. By the time I finished guard duty two months later, I could cross my eyes as well as anyone. That allowed me to become aircrew, so I continued my training and became a pilot.

I stayed in Canada, on the west coast, for about a year, continued my training while defending the country in case of a Japanese attack. But the Japanese never came, so I was sent to England. My time was easy there. I did nothing but chase girls. They were expecting a German invasion at that time, and I sat on guard duty, waiting. The Germans never attacked, so I was then posted to Burma. My commanding officer called me and told me, "You're going to Asia. Burma." I didn't know where it was, but I thought it was a great idea. We travelled southward from England, all around Africa by boat and landed in India. I reported in and was sent onward to Burma, where I stayed for six months doing fighter pilot courses.

It was an interesting experience arriving there, because I had to cross a body of water to get into Burma and then I was supposed to take a train. When I arrived at the railway station, it was just getting dark, and someone was supposed to meet me. I sat at that railway station by myself all night, listening to the tigers and lions howling nearby. It was frightening, but at 8 o'clock the next morning someone came to pick me up and took me to the base. I ended up at a training camp with four other people also just coming into Burma. We did exercises flying the Hurricane fighters that would be used in operations. I was there for about six months or so before, with the luck of the draw, I was posted to the RAF Number 11 squadron. When I arrived, I reported to the squadron commander's tent and introduced myself as Harold Holland. The commanding officer said, "I have never known a Holland that wasn't called Dutch. Your name is Dutch." That was a long time ago, but I've been Dutch ever since.

The first night I arrived at the squadron I had one of the best dinners I ever had during the war. Someone, a New Zealander, had gone out with his rifle and brought back a couple of dozen ducks. I think they were farmer's ducks, but we had a great dinner - the best during the war. From there on in, the food was lousy. But we ate better than the Japanese. They ate us, I was told. We were given poison to keep in case we were ever caught. I almost got captured by them once and I remember thinking, "Oh God, I don't want to be a prisoner of war." But fortunately, I got out of that situation.

I spent the next three years initially training with Hurricanes, then fighting the Japanese on the Burma front. I was flying once when my engine failed. I was about a hundred miles into the enemy territory when I saw my instruments indicate that the engine was starting to fail. So I flew a hundred miles back toward our lines. I didn't have many options on where to land. I was going to land in a lake that I saw, even though I had never learned to swim. I would have drowned landing if it hadn't been for a voice on the radio. Someone directed me to fly up a bit higher, over some trees, until I saw a swamp. With wheels retracted, I landed right at its edge. It was a frightening experience, but I got out of it without a scratch. I never found out who it was on the radio that told me where to land.

For two days and one night, I ran like hell from the Japanese. I was near the British lines and several British soldiers from Nepal, the Gurkhas, helped me back to their camp. I had gone two days without any food before arriving there. It was just after supper, around 9 o'clock. I went straight for the kitchen and found the cook. I think I slept for about two days after that. But I survived it and then returned to my squadron, hitchhiking back. It was a hell of a long way, but I eventually got back.

I remember one mission, when we were flying very low, about 500 feet, when one of my boys suddenly said, "Oh, I see a target!" And immediately he turned his craft over, stalling the airplane, and crashed, killing himself. That was a real shocker. I was leading this flight, leading him, and I didn't have a chance to say anything to him. That shook me quite a bit. It wasn't a valid target, but a derelict truck I had destroyed a few days before. I knew that as soon as I looked at it, but I didn't have a chance to tell him before he killed himself. He had been a good friend.

I was near the British army another time, when we had to help them get supplies across a valley. They were stuck because at the both valley ends there were Japanese soldiers. They had guns and were shooting into the middle. In order to get the army through, I flew out from my squadron, into the middle of the valley and set myself up as a target. It was a foolish thing to do, but while I was out and they were firing at me, the remainder of the army were able to sneak through. I had to do this several times because even though I told my team what I was going to do, they began shouting, "They're shooting at you! Get out of there!" They were so intent on watching me instead of looking for the Japanese gunners on the ground, I had to repeat my action two or three times before everyone passed through safely. So, the British got through, and that's why I think I later got my Distinguished Flying Cross Medal.

In March 1945, we stopped the Japanese who, up to that point, had been advancing. We avoided the need for a huge battle and started driving them back with our support in the air.

Before the war was over, I was sent back to an army base in Vancouver to be demobilized. Once they discharged me, I went straight over to the University of British Columbia and signed up to become an engineer. I spent five years there and, one night, while on the bus heading home, I met my future wife. When I met her, I was still in uniform and I asked her for a date. We hit it off very well, and a year later we were married.

Once the war ended in 1945, I re-joined the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) because they offered to pay for my university education. I was employed as both a pilot and engineer, managing the maintenance of the aircraft. In 1955, I was sent to England on a course for guided missiles. I was one of the first of people to get involved with this in Britain.

After retiring from the RCAF, I got a government job and went back to Burma. Burma had tractors and other equipment for their timber operations, but they were rusting away. No one in Burma knew how to fix them, plus they didn't have the necessary parts for them. I was brought over with a bunch of maintenance people to get all of this equipment back on the road. I developed a complete scale of tooling for maintaining the vehicles. I spent about three years there, managing and training young engineers and mechanics before then going to Tanzania on another project. I taught and trained mechanics there too before I came back to Canada.

I am now involved with adult day programs with other veterans. Until the end of last year I used to recite "A pilot's prayer" at military ceremonies. I had the whole prayer memorized and would recite it at annual gatherings such as the Battle of Britain parade. For a while, I was involved with the Air Force Museum. I also like to play golf ...when there is no snow.

country category: