‘But we survived’ A look at a Coquitlam man’s wartime journey from a North Road farm to 18,000 feet over Germany

That’s Ron Moyes, second from the left, alongside the men he served with. photo supplied Coquitlam Archives

It was New Year’s Eve 1944 and there was a fried egg with breakfast. That meant he’d be flying a mission that day.

Usually, breakfast in the barracks was fried potatoes, toast and tea. But if there was an operation, if they were going to be risking their lives, they got a fried egg.

During the Second World War and Ron “Shorty” Moyes travelled from the family farm on North Road in Coquitlam to an air force station just north of York, England.

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From York, they boarded Halifax bombers and flew a series of missions into Germany’s Rhur Valley to drop bombs on oil refineries, railroad junctions and military bases. Moyes is a rear gunner, one of the most dangerous spots somebody could be.

He’s also a teenager.

Straight off the farm

It’s hard to see it now.

But if you peel up the concrete and push away the skyscrapers from your mind, you can imagine North Road in a late winter’s day in 1929.

Moyes is three years old.

He’s surrounded by cows, pigs, chickens, ducks and fruit trees, and within putting distance of the Vancouver Golf Club.

The Great Depression will hit soon. Neighbours will be on relief. “Welfare today,” Moyes writes in a short memoir preserved at the Coquitlam Archives.

Moyes’ father will lose his apartment building after being unable to find anyone able to pay rent. He’ll keep the farm, though.

Moyes recalls the days when they’d toboggan down the hill.

“Lots of fun, no cars,” he writes.

He also recalls getting the strap for calling his teacher by her first name.

“Boy, that stung. Never called her Evelyn again,” he reminisces.

In his early 90s, Moyes still regularly kept in touch with a couple of his Grade 1 classmates from Mountain View elementary school.

One of those classmates was a Japanese/Canadian student who was interned in 1942. He wasn’t the only one, Moyes notes.

He recalls an orphaned neighbour boy named Joe Ono. “He was like a brother to us until he was shipped down to Ontario in 1942,” he writes.

Moyes is still a kid, delivering newspapers along Austin Road and North Road when there’s talk of war in Europe.

“All the boys liked that, sounded exciting, as there was no work around,” he writes.

He hadn’t graduated high school and he was going to war.

“I remember that my parents had to sign a form of consent, as I was only 17 years old,” he writes in his story of the Second World War, Coming Home . . On a Wing & a Prayer.

The hard way in, the fastest way out

The transition from family farm to Manning Depot boot camp in Edmonton, Alta., was quick.

“We were soon made aware that a Corporal had the power of a General,” Moyes writes. They learned discipline, “the hard way,” he adds.

Moyes’ older brother was serving as an aircraft engine mechanic. He told his sibling that the fastest way to get overseas was to train as an air gunner.

Eager to get across the Atlantic, Moyes took his brother’s advice.

“I found out later that air gunners had the highest casualty rate,” he writes.

photo supplied Coquitlam Archives

After a month of housekeeping, marching, and “getting needles for every disease under the sun,” he was transferred to McGill University in Montreal where the RCAF had taken over one residence and some classrooms.

Aside from learning Morse code, which, “just about drove us all nuts,” Moyes seemed to enjoy his time in Quebec.

In one passage of his memoir, he describes heading to New York on a 96-hour pass. He heard Glen Miller’s orchestra and, in Grand Central Station, he saw television for the first time.

On May 3, 1944, he boarded the Empress of Scotland alongside 3,000 troops and headed across the Atlantic for Liverpool, England.

“The first night we just about froze – no heat and the Atlantic is cold and miserable that time of year,” he writes. “For nine days we never had our clothes off. It was awful, but we survived.”

Once the journey was complete, Moyes was met with a familiar face.

Arriving in the barracks, the first thing the Coquitlam teenager recalls seeing was a picture of his sister.

It turned out that his neighbour, Fred Jones, was also in the barracks, and Jones apparently had warm feelings about Moyes’ sister.

“I thought that was really something,” he writes.

Throughout his account of the Second World War, two things become crystal clear: it was usually too cold and the food was almost always awful.

During his first few months, Moyes got care packages from his neighbours, family and girlfriend in Coquitlam.

“Oh, were they ever welcome, as the food in the mess hall was terrible,” he writes.

Following one mission, Moyes recalls hitting heavy fog and being diverted to a U.S. Air Force base.

“This was alright by us as the food was better than ours.”

Cooked goose

On the ground, there was drinking, the odd wager, and the occasional practical joke.

On one training run, Moyes was on board when the pilot flew so low that a team of terrified soccer players sprinted from the pitch.

Shortly after, Moyes and his pals found out the soccer team was the Royal Canadian Air Force Headquarters team.

“Our goose was cooked, as they say,” he notes.

But their attitude shifted with their altitude, according to Moyes.

“While we engaged in a lot of horseplay and ignored rank on the ground, a total transformation took place when we climbed into the aircraft for an operation,” he writes. “We were no longer young men fooling around, just men with serious business at hand, men who set about doing their various jobs with discipline so as to stay alive.”

Dressed for the sky

After the fried egg, it was time to get ready for the mission.

Besides the danger of his role, rear gunners also faced unrelenting cold, which is why Moyes wore a wool stocking, a wool turtleneck sweat, a “thin electrically heated suit,” and a one-inch thick, heavily padded “teddy-bear suit.”

All of this, Moyes would somehow cram beneath his flying suit before topping it all with his parachute harness and a “Mae West inflatable life preserver.”

Then he’d have to take it all off for a “nervous pee,” he writes.

Before they boarded the aircraft, Moyes was charged with handing out escape kits, which included six Mars bars for seven men.

“I had to keep track of who missed out of their Mars bar on each operation,” he recalls.

He writes about seeing direct hits and later being told what he was were “scare crows,” which were shells filled with oily rags designed to look like direct hits, presumably to give the Germans a psychological advantage.

“Since then I’ve read where the Germans had no such things,” he writes.

There were collisions in the clouds. Sometimes, when the bombers flew in stacked 500 feet apart, planes ended up getting bombed by their allies.

“This did happen many times when crews weren’t paying proper attention.”

Following a mission, airmen were debriefed. They were also issued a cup of “so-called coffee.”

The coffee came with or without a good sized jigger of navy rum.

“Boy that sure settled the nerves,” Moyes writes.

Full moon, no clouds

Every night, Europe seemed to disappear in the darkness.

In that darkness, Moyes remembers seeing German flares that burst “just like chandeliers lighting up the whole sky.”

On New Year’s Eve, 1944, there was a full moon and no clouds.

The mission was a raid near Oslo, Norway where Moyes and his fellow airmen would drop mines with altered fuses in shallow water.

The plan was for the Germans to recover the mines and study the false fuses.

“Of course, whatever they did would be entirely wrong because of the altered fuses installed,” Moyes writes.

They dropped the mines. “Then all hell broke loose.”

Looking back as an old man, Moyes still isn’t sure if it was ships or barges below. All he knew was that they’d been spotted.

“The sky was full of tracer rounds,” he writes.

The plane went into a dive toward the water while Moyes fired back.

“We didn’t take our fingers off the triggers,” he writes. “My guns were white hot when Stu, the bomb aimer, called out, ‘skipper, pull up, I can’t swim.’”

They were about 75 feet above the water when they pulled up.

“Whether the Germans stopped because of our gun fire or because we were too low for their guns, we’ll never know.”

Moyes recalls spending New Year’s Day eating turkey, drinking beers and trying on roller skates.

“After many falls, we quite before we killed ourselves.”

Moyes alongside his wife in 2011. photo supplied Coquitlam Archives

Heading home

Moyes was still in his teens when the war ended.

He remembers volunteering to go to the Pacific.

“Before anything could come of going to the Pacific, the atomic bomb had dropped and Japan surrendered,” he writes. “We got discharged around the 19th of September. Said goodbye and wished everyone well, and that was that.”

Readjusting to life in Coquitlam proved to be hard, Moyes writes.

“From the time I was discharged to my re-enlistment, I was depressed, as I had betrayed my girlfriend of two years,” he writes. “I couldn’t face her as I figured she would just tell me to ‘Drop dead, I don’t want to see you.”

Moyes stayed with the armed forced until 1974, when he started work as firearms technician at RCMP forensic laboratory until 1989.

He settled in Ottawa along with his wife Margaret Winters. But into his early 90s he retained his affection for Coquitlam.

In a letter kept at Coquitlam archives, he remembers being home after the war, driving around the neighbourhood and asking for flowers to decorate the church for his sister’s wedding.

“Memories and memories, what a beautiful neighbourhood it was,” he writes. “I won’t go into all the mischief we got into.”

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