By Hugh Halliday
Letter written by P/O Kenneth McKellar White (RAAF) respecting loss of Hudson AE523, No.62 Squadron, 9 September 1942. Precisely how this came to reach his family (and authorities) is unclear, but a copy ended up in the file of Flight Sergeant Albert Abraham Margolis, RCAF.
“Ever since I have been here I have had the desire to put some of my thoughts down on paper, and I am now going to endeavour to do this and the method I have decided on is to put it in the form of a letter.
“Whether this letter will ever reach its destination or not has yet to be decided but as the writing of it will give me a lot of pleasure and help to pass away the seemingly endless days, I shall persevere. It will undoubtedly appear disjointed for I am often assailed with many and troublesome thoughts and in any case all thoughts when diagnosed are pretty disjointed, so I must ask you to bear with me and try to understand the ideas or expressions I am going to attempt to convey.
“The first thing I wish to write about is quite apart from the rest of this letter and it is the circumstances in which I became a prisoner and the rest of my crew lost their lives. My reason for writing this is that in the event of my not surviving my present circumstances and this comes into your possession you may be able to trace their families and put their minds at rest as to their fate.
“First I shall give you their names and addresses as I know them –
“Observer – Canadian R.60404 – Flight Sergeant Albert Margolis, Centre Street, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
“Wireless Operator/Air Gunners – RAF No.110880 Sergeant Neil McNeil, Glasgow – Flight Sergeant George Oliver Maughan, DFM
“We were engaged in a bombing attack on Akyab, a port on the western coast of Burma about 200 miles south of the Indian border and flying in formations of three at a height of approximately 2,000 feet. There was quite a lot of clouds about and unexpectedly we flew into one of these and I became separated from the other two machines in the formation and when we got out of the cloud I saw them a short distance ahead of me and it was then that our troubles began. I opened the engines to catch up with the other planes but the port motor instead of increasing its speed started coughing and cutting and no matter what I did it kept gradually dying away. In the midst of this Mac’s (McNeil) voice came through to me on the telephone saying that there were two fighters up above us and were closing in to attack. Mac was in the rear gun turret and immediately following this I heard the crackle of Mac firing his guns. Mac never spoke again. I again opened the motors and the port engine by this time was more or less useless and [I] started twisting and turning the plane in order to dodge the Jap fighters. One of them came belting down in a dive on my starboard side and pulled up underneath me and a burst of cannon fire from its guns rocked the plane from one side to the other. The starboard motor was hit and stopped dead and burst into flames. Other cannon shells burst inside the plane and in a matter of seconds the whole of the front of the plane was a mass of flames and a choking white smoke. The smoke was so dense and hard to breathe that in order to see where we were going and also to breathe I was forced to hang out of the window and at the same time to try and keep control over the plane which was a pretty difficult job.
“Even had I wanted to control the plane by the instruments I could not as they also had been hit and in any case the smoke was so thick that it was impossible to see them. All this had happened in a matter of a very few seconds and all the time I could hear Mac firing his guns, although as I said, he never spoke again. As the Jap fighters continued to attack us, and by this time the plane was almost beyond control, and we were diving at the ground at a terrific speed. Immediately after we were first hit, ‘Happy’ (Margolis, the observer) came rushing back from his position in the nose with blood flowing down his face, he had been hit by shrapnel and started combatting the fire with extinguishers and kept fighting the flames in the terrific heat and choking smoke until we crashed and when I got his body out later he was still grasping a fire extinguisher in his hand.
“Simultaneously George (Maughan) who was operating the wireless immediately commenced a message to air base telling them of our plight and advising them of the rough position where we would crash. One of the last things I remember was the sound of George transmitting continuous S.O.S. and then we crashed. My own part was a frantic endeavour to try and control the plane and as both motors had gone and the plane on fire I quickly realized that a crash was inevitable and my only chance was to try and make a crash landing. As I said the smoke in the plane was choking and blinding and all I could achieve was to poke my head out of the window, get a very rough idea of where we were going. I could not see very much even so, as I was nearly blinded by the smoke and then came back in and try and get the plane out of a dive it had got into.
“On the last occasion, I looked out and I caught a sudden glimpse of the ground rushing up to meet us and I just had time to get my head inside and shout through the telephone to the others to hang on and to make a last attempt to get the plane out of the dive, which was successful and we then hit the ground with a terrific crash and I remember no more. Events after this I cannot bring myself to write about; the result was that ‘Happy’ and George were killed instantly and Mac died in my arms a couple of hours later. That I did not lose my life is nothing short of a miracle and although I was pretty badly cracked up I do not think that I have any permanent disability and I am firmly of the conviction that it was not God’s will for me to die then. Then and again later I have faced death and very narrowly escaped and I now know that my job in this world is not yet done and as I have in these times of peril and of course at other times resorted to prayers and these have been answered so whatever my ultimate fate is to be I know that it will be His will and that He is with me.
“As I said at the beginning of this rather long winded narrative my object in writing this story is that you may be able to inform their people and the story itself brings out how well they all did their job even when faced with death and how they actually gave their lives doing their duty. The three of them were the best friends any man could ever have, and the fact that I, who was the only one who could even attempt to avoid this catastrophe, should have been the only one to survive makes me feel responsible for their lives and wonder whether I did my part as well as they. My conscience is quite clear, but nevertheless there are times when I wonder.”
Pilot Officer White died in captivity in Rangoon, 29 November 1943, apparently through British bombing.