Aviation over our islands during World War II
By; Will Johnson
One of my earliest memories of when I was a child is when my father came riding home on the Governor’s horse. He was a foreman for public works then. He was working on the building of the road leading from the Bottom in the direction of the Windwardside. Years before that, he had worked on the road as it was being built from the Fort Bay to The Bottom. The Governor had asked him to take care of his horse while he was on St. Maarten. We had recently moved from our home and farm at Behind-the-Ridge to the home of my aunt in Windwardside. That was something unheard of in those days, but my mother insisted that she wanted her boys to get some kind of education and we would overcome all difficulties in order to achieve her goal.
The second thing that I remember must have been when I was about five years old, just after the war. There was a strange noise around the island and people were running out of their homes looking towards the skies. What proved to be a plane flew over and dropped something which landed somewhere in the bushes and turned out to be a bag of letters. These planes during the war flew regularly over the island. They served as escorts for convoys which would head down to Belem Brazil and from there over the Atlantic to Africa and on to the European front. Years later I got a call from a Mr. Lloyd Cooley at Captain’s Quarters Hotel. He was one of those pilots flying over Saba during the war and dropping letters in the hope that some young lady would contact them and get married. So much had been written up in magazines in the United States about Saba being the island of women that these pilots flying over considered that Saba was the mother lode of beautiful women. Saba turned out to have a particular attraction to have on American airline crews. The then very isolated and exotic appearing island was known from articles written in the National Geographic Magazine, among others, while the American press after 1940 wrote extensively about America’s Caribbean backyard. In its issue of November 1940 the National Geographic Magazine wrote an extensive article about Saba. On June 24th 1941 six American military planes flew several times low over Saba, while two days later St. Maarten was checked out by two planes.
In connection with these two incidents the Governor on Curacao via the ambassador in The Hague sent a protest to the government of the United States. The complaints did not make much of an impression. The fact that Saba had a surplus of women led in September 1941 the crew of a military plane to fly low over the village of Windwardside and they threw out a letter in a small parachute. The letter was addressed to “the most beautiful girl on Saba”. The sender was Sergeant Maurice Berry stationed in Puerto Rico who requested that he get an answer. Quite a number of “the most beautiful girls” answered his appeal sent by parachute.
I had a number of wonderful conversations with Mr. Cooley and he brought with him a number of photographs of the planes he and his colleagues used to fly even one with him flying over Saba. Regrettably during one of the hurricanes a number of the photo’s got destroyed as well as the notes he had made for me. I thought all was lost.
A few weeks ago I got to work on a job I had promised to do since 2007 when I thought I had left public office for good until in 2010 I decided to run for Senator and had to go back and serve. The job was to try and bring some order into my downstairs office. What I had been putting off for years was achieved in a matter of two days. Now I am going through all the old documents and trying to file them as I go along. And in doing so, I continue to come across correspondence which I had with other people doing research on our history in the Windward Islands.
I found a file with correspondence I had with Jerry Casius and there were some of the photo’s from Mr. Lloyd Cooley which I had sent to Jerry, so therefore now the article giving some indication as to what was happening in aviation around the islands during the World War. I was good friends with Jerry when he was the Chief mechanic for Windward Islands Airways at the airport on St. Maarten back in the sixties.
After he married a woman from the United States he moved to California, I think, and years later we picked up friendship again when he was again living in the Netherlands. I had no idea that he was a writer in the meantime until I got this letter from him dated November 9th, 1996 when I was a Senator.
I would like to share the letter from him and also the fact that I did some research for him the copy of which I have not come across as yet.
Possibly you can remember that when I last saw you at Saba, about two-three years ago, I mentioned that I was collecting information and doing research about the history of aviation in the Netherlands Antilles, with the aim to publish a book like the one I already did about Indonesia (entitled “40 Jaar Luchtvaart in Indie”). In the course of that undertaking, I thought that I should include a chapter about the events involving military flying in WW-2. That idea has sort of turned into a project of its own and I have been able to write an extensive manuscript on the submarine-war around the Netherlands Antilles, which means, of course, mostly about Curacao and Aruba.
I have collected a fair bit of material about the happenings in this respect around the Windward Islands, but it is “skimpy’. I am tracing the War Diaries of the US Air force and Navy aircraft squadrons which operated around the islands from their bases at Puerto Rico and St. Thomas and these yields a bit of information.
I am enclosing a draft copy of what I have found out about events around the Windward Islands so far, but I would like to have additional information which ties the story more to the experiences and observations of the inhabitants of the islands. Thus my question: is it possible to research the Saba Onder-Gezaghebber’s diary of the war years (1940-1945)? I suppose that if anything was seen over and around Saba of airplanes and warships, etc., it would be noted. This would be very valuable material because with an event and date, I can flesh out the narrative and continue my search in the American records.
Please let me know if there is a Xerox copy of the Diary which I could borrow or purchase, or, when I am at Saba if you could arrange that I research the original. I do still visit Winair two or three times a year (my company overhauls the Twin Otter engines) and it would be a pleasure to fly across. Or, is there a copy in Holland, for instance in the Algemeen Rijksarchief?
Please note that the enclosure is a draft only and not yet finished, so should not be used as the whole truth, although what is there so far, is pretty accurate.
I hope that all is going well for you and look forward to hearing from you. Please give my regards to Freddie.
Speaking about Freddie! He was born in 1932 and the following incident happened when he was around nine years old and we lived Behind-The-Ridge where there were only four houses, three belonging to the Johnson family and one belonging to the Green family, though there were always visitors. My grandfather had a shop there when the Sulfur mine was in operation and if he sold an item which was one cent cheaper than The Bottom people would walk from there to buy the item as well as potatoes, small corn or anything else which he produced from the land. One day they saw a large unidentified object approaching Saba. As it came closer they became terrified as it was such a large object in the sky. One of the old timers urged all to get on their knees and pray as this was surely the end of the world. Freddie was the only one who remained cool and observed the large object closely. My brother Eric told me this story and I wrote that it was German. However my brother Guy told me afterwards that it was American. Freddie calmly informed the small crowd present that it was a blimp and explained what its function was. In that isolated atmosphere of “Behind –the- Ridge” which my mother described as behind God’s face, with no books available Freddie had read about and could explain and reassure those present there was nothing to fear as it was just a blimp passing over the island. No wonder that even though he was a teacher before the class for over thirty years he was always fascinated with planes and served as Winair’s agent until his death.
Also on St. Eustatius the people there received an unexpected visit from a plane. On September 25th 1941 (I was three days old) there was great consternation when suddenly 14 parachutists descended from a plane flying over, some came down on land and some landed in the sea. The first impression of the Statians were that it was a German invasion of their island, but it soon became clear that it was the crew of a flying boat of the US Navy, which was underway from Antigua to Puerto Rico and had developed complications with the steering mechanism. The pilot let his crew jump out, but still was able to make a good landing close to shore. Nine of the parachutists landed on St. Eustatius, but of those who landed in the sea only two were saved. A message was sent to Puerto Rico and within a short time three planes were flying over searching for the missing, followed by some water planes and ships. This affair had consequences for a young Statia boy. When I used to stay at the plaza hotel on Curacao there was a man from St. Eustatius playing the piano in the dining room. I would always ask him to play the song “Don’t cry for me Argentina’ and whenever he saw me coming into the dining room he would play that song. One night I saw him getting up from behind the piano then taking crutches and walking out. I asked Senator Kenneth van Putten what was his problem. Kenneth told me about the affair with the plane during the war. That was the first time I heard the story. He said that the piano player (Mr. Courtar) who was a boy at the time had climbed into a high tree and to imitate the parachutists had jumped out of the tree and upon landing he was so badly hurt that he was taken to Curacao and survived but was a cripple for the rest of his life.
The first regular visit of an American plane on St. Maarten took place on March 2nd, 1942 and was an event of the first order naturally. This took place after a U-boat had attacked the oil refinery on Aruba in which eight Saban seamen lost their lives. Seeing that there was no airport in the Windward Islands the plane was a Gruman Duck sea plane of the US Marine corps Scouting squadron 3 (VMs-3) out of St. Thomas flown by Major Carlson , which landed in the Simpson bay lagoon. This landing was followed by many more regular landings in the lagoon some of which carried government officials from Curacao including Governor Piet Kasteel who landed in the Simpson bay Lagoon on November 30th 1942. Also given the fact that the French islands were under Vichy Control, the Americans were preparing for an invasion, and so starting May 11tn, 1942 there were many flights over the islands on their way to Antigua and St. Lucia where the Americans had bases. There were also many German U boats in the vicinity of our islands and several times bombs were dropped in the hope of destroying these submarines.
Space does not allow the complete history of the war. The Windward Islands were not considered important enough for an airport. However the KLM station manager on Curacao Eric o. Holmberg made a report to the Governor that an airport could be built on St. Maarten from three possible choices, either in the valley between the two hills at Pointe Blanche, the great salt pond or at Simpson bay. To his credit he suggested his preference for Simpson bay. On December 3rd, 1943 the first plane landed on the partially completed airport and the pilot was Gerrit Jan Schipper. On St. Eustatius an attempt was made in 1940 already but the 600 meter grass strip, and which cost fls.600.–, was first landed on by Remi de Haenen on October 5th 1946.
My last letter from Jerry was July 11th, 1997 which among others stated;” I am enclosing some pictures of the other types of us navy planes which could be seen over Saba in World War II. The small planes belonged to Marine Corps squadron at St. Thomas. I have traced 8 to 10 veterans of this unit and they all remember Saba vividly, because of the contact with Saba people who waved at them. Some of them became like personal acquaintances. “
Who knows perhaps they saw my brother Freddie waving at them as they passed over!