This is a work in progress....

This is a work in progress...I plan to enter much more so please check back. Double click on the photos to enlarge. Do you know something about Len? I'd love to hear from you!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Len's Story......

Len's Path to War

Training in Bakersfield, California  (Aug. 10 - Nov. 21, 1941)

Len's love of flying lured him from his home in Holliston, Massachusetts, to California so he could be closer to the air industry. He first went to San Diego and worked for Ryan Aeronautics but by June 1940 Len was living in Los Angeles. He worked at the Los Angeles Municipal Airport as a flight instructor for California Flyers.  While there he learned of the Clayton Knight Committee's desire to recruit American Pilots to fly for Britain's Royal Air Force. In his younger days Len had badly wanted a future in the military and he had been caught actually trying to alter his birth certificate so he wouldn’t need parental approval!  With each passing year he became more and more resolved that his future was in flying but even after he reached an appropriate age for some reason he wasn't in the United States Army Air Force.  Perhaps it was the requirement of two years in college that kept him out of the USAAF but whatever the reason Len, now aged 30, was not going to let this chance slip away.  If he couldn’t fly for the United States then flying for Britain was a good alternative.  After all, his mother (the former Eliza Thomas) had been born in England.  Len interviewed with the Clayton Knight Committee and he was on his way.  This was tricky business because of the US neutrality act and much of what was going on had to be done somewhat secretly. The first step was a refresher training class at the Kern County Airport in Bakersfield, CA. Len, who stood at least 6'1" tall, is on the far right of the photo above.


While at Bakersfield Len met several of the men he would later fly with once he joined 133 Squadron in England including George Middleton (above, on the right).  At the time this photo was taken in the fall of 1941 neither Len nor George could know they were destined to be on the fateful Morlaix mission that would cost Len his life in September 1942.   Middleton was also shot down on that mission but he would survive the crash and spend the rest of the war as a prisoner.  More on that later.

Another friend was Lee Gover (above on left).  Lee’s story is well documented in a book by General Philip D. Caine, Spitfires,Thunderbolts, and Warm Beer. 

If Len looks happy in this photo above taken while at Bakersfield he probably was.  Flying was his passion.
Going Home To Say Goodbye   (Nov. 22 - early December, 1941)
Len on his mother's lap
After completing the class at Bakersfield in the late fall of 1941 Len likely had only a two week leave to get home to Massachusetts to say his goodbye’s before reporting for duty in Ottawa, Canada. He had traveled across the country before.  He and his buddies were not strangers to taking to the road with their cars. They often broke down along the way but armed with their adventuresome spirits and Len’s reputation for being able to fix anything they had the confidence to explore. But on this trip across the country Len did not have the luxury of extra time and it was probably by train. 
The ever popular Len had a lot of friends to see in Holliston, Massachusetts, and he expected they would have mixed emotions about his decision to go off to war but he knew they would be supportive.  Len’s love of flying was well known and his friends had watched that love strengthen over the years. In 1928 Len, then aged 17, and his friend Roy Jensen had learned that a new airport was opening in Westwood, Massachusetts, and there had been no looking back from there. He and Roy frequently borrowed Roy’s brother’s car and off they drove to Westwood nearly every day.  They did whatever they could to earn flying time.  They mowed the field with a push mower then raked it by hand and spent countless hours preening the planes.  Later Len learned to fly in earnest at the East Boston Airport (Logan).  Something that is hard to imagine today is that Len enjoyed flying over to Holliston and performing tricks in the skies to impress his family and friends.  It wasn’t going to surprise his friends that he was going off to Europe to join the war effort in the cockpit of a Fighter plane.  
A young Len (left) and Frank (right) on a family adventure
It wasn’t going to surprise his family either but Len was probably fraught with anxiety as he approached his brother’s home.  Len had two brothers, Robert who now lived in Georgia and Frank who was just a year older than Len.  Frank and Len had been nearly inseparable in their youth and Len knew it was going to be a hard conversation. 

Len's parents,
 Elize (Thomas) Ryerson
and Wilson Heath Ryerson
The boys had lived an intersting life.  Their father, Wilson Ryerson, was a supervisor for a large construction company and oversaw many important jobs which often resulted in the family traveling.  For example, in 1918 during World War I the family was living in Alameda, California where Wilson was the supervisor for a $20,000,000 job building a shipyard for the production of troop ships. The job was halted when the war ended and the family returned to Massachusetts.  While in California Len's oldest brother, Robert, (really his half-brother although Len never knew that) enlisted in the Marines and Len likely saw Rob board the ship that took him off to war.

Some of Wilson's jobs required him to be seperated from his family. One of the most recent was the construction of the Wyman Dam in Bingham, Maine.  Wilson is remembered as a brilliant man and among the many skills he taught his sons was the skill of problem solving.  Wilson would present situations and there would be long silences as his sons worked out a solution.   Through their father they learned many crafts and could build or repair nearly anything. 

Central Street Property. On this
property they had an apple
 orchard.(Now 249 Central Street,
 Holliston, MA)
Despite the interesting opportunities Wilson’s job afforded he believed he was happiest and felt the most secure when owning land and running a farm and he wanted that for his sons as well. When the family moved to Holliston in 1925 Wilson and his wife Eliza quickly bought two properties to fulfill that dream. On the land now known as Cedarbrook Estates off of Washington Street they owned the Ryerson Poultry Farm and on the Central Street property they had a large apple orchard. When Len took an interest in flying at a young age his worried father made an agreement with him that if Len would just try farming for two years his father promised to be supportive if Len chose flying over farming.  Len did the time but his heart was always in the sky.

Washington Street. 
Ryerson Poultry Farm
(now 1797 Washington Street;
Holliston, MA)
The Ryerson Henhouse
Ryerson Poulty Farm
Len's brother, Frank with Frank's daughters
Elaine (baby) and Jean (forefront)
As Len prepared to say goodbye to his family on that December morning in 1941 he was still mourning the loss of his father.  In early June the year before Wilson had gone to sleep in his easy chair but had not woken up. Len was living in Los Angeles at the time.  It was a devastating blow to the family and by the time Len came home on this last visit his brother Frank’s family and Len’s mother had moved to 121 East Street in Whitinsville, Massachusetts, to be closer to Frank’s job so it was there that Len came to say goodbye.   He had armed himself with farewell gifts for his two nieces, 11 year old Jean and 7 year old Elaine.  His goodbye to his brother Robert’s family in Georgia would have to be by phone or mail. 

It is unknown to me exactly how that farewell conversation went but to Frank’s everlasting regret his final words with his brother ended in a quarrel.  There was no chance to resolve their issues because Len was quickly off to report for duty in Ottawa, Canada.
Len always wanted to be taller than his 6'5" brother Frank.
 Len was tall himself (at least 6'1") but here he stands on a pail behind the
hydrangea bush to have his moment as the tallest!  
Len and Frank were very close. 
Their last conversation was an argument which Frank forever regretted.

Off to the War.... (December 1941)

Len began the journey to Canada that would forever change his life. What could have inspired him to venture into such a dangerous path? Surely his love of flying was a factor. He would have been surrounded by printed material extolling the glories of the aircraft of the RAF and the chatter among his friends and colleagues in Los Angeles would have only heightened his desire to fly Britain’s Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire. Len had always aspired to have a military career as a pilot but for some reason he was not in the United States Army Air Force. Now no longer in his 20’s perhaps he viewed this as his last opportunity to fulfill this dream. But did he realize how dangerous this would be? Could his previous flying experience really have prepared him for the realities of being a Fighter Pilot? Author Philip D. Caine, who interviewed many of the Eagle Squadron pilots who survived the war, offers a plausible opinion in American Pilots in the RAF: The WWII Eagle Squadrons:

…even those who claim they knew about the risks, considered them, and decided to go anyway probably didn’t really understand what they were getting into. There was simply no way they could know…The reality of flying an airplane and having another pilot trying to shoot you down was beyond their realm of understanding….

Len was older than most of his future squadron mates and one of them, Bob Smith, reminisced many years later that “Len was more level headed than most of us.” Yet Len may still have subscribed to that youthful confidence that nothing would happen to him. Another squadron mate later recalled that when a pilot was killed they privately assured themselves that the victim must have made a mistake, “it wouldn’t happen to me.”

Fully aware of the danger or not, Len was now on his way to Ottawa, Canada. When he arrived in Ottawa he was met by an RAF representative and likely treated to high quality hotel accommodations and daily pay. Perhaps he had time to tour the city and take photos but soon he was on a train headed toward Halifax where his journey to the war would intensify.   

View Len's trip Autumn 1941 in a larger map

The Letitia. Image courtesy of Nova
Scotia Archives andRecords
Management, Halifax, NS
Halifax was a hotbed of activity in 1941 as Canada’s staging point for the War in Europe. Once here, Len was going to find that the first class accommodations ended and military life began – breakfast at 6:30, lunch at noon, supper at 5:00 and military training in between. On December 13, 1941 Len became a Pilot Officer in the RAF and soon after boarded the HMS Letitia. As Len boarded the ship he did so with the knowledge that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor less than a week before and now Len’s own country was at war.

A convoy.
'Image courtesy of Nova Scotia
Archives and Records Management,
Halifax, NS

Traveling on the Letitia with Len were several other Americans, ten of whom would later become pilots in 133 Squadron with him. A trip across the Atlantic Ocean in 1941 was a hazardous venture and the Letitia would be part of a 40 ship convoy - Canadian Troop Convoy 16. The convoy was escorted by United States destroyers Ericcson, Ingraham, and Ludlow and departed on December15th. Light cruiser Nashville had been doing neutrality patrols in the central Atlantic but once Pearl Harbor was bombed she headed north and joined this convoy. On the 16th of December the convoy was joined by battleship Arkansas and destroyers Livermore, Eberle, and Hamilton. It must have been quite a site as Len and his companions scanned the ocean. But despite the presence of so many ships they knew safe passage was not a certainty as they heading into the thick of the Battle for the Atlantic where Wolf Packs of German U-Boats likely patrolled.

On the Letitia with Len was Irvin Miller who later recalled that “the crossing was rough. I remember tables and chairs being tied up in a corner so they wouldn’t slide around the deck.” He recalled hitting “hellish weather,” and referred to the ship as a small and crowded. James Goodson who traveled to England a few weeks later on another troop convoy recalled, “my memory of the crossing was one of fear of being torpedoed of course, but much more the terrible overcrowding. Trying to sleep in bunks three high surrounded by snoring, sweating bodies was a nightmare... As one desperate character put it, ‘with any luck we’ll get torpedoed.’ "

As Len’s convoy progressed eastward through the Atlantic they approached trouble. What was happening ahead of them was that Convoy HG 76 had left Gibraltar heading for England and was quickly attacked by a German Wolf Pack. A multi-day battle ensued and didn’t end until December 23. Len’s convoy was forced to turn north toward Iceland to avoid it. As they neared Iceland the US escorts departed to return to Canada and from December 22nd the convoy was escorted by destroyers Blyskawica (Polish), Havelock (British), Newport (British), and Sherwood (British) for the final leg of the trip. They spent Christmas on the high seas far away from home and family but on December 26, 1941 they arrived safely in Liverpool, England.

More coming soon.........

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