- Contributed by
- BBC Learning Centre Gloucester
- People in story:
- Vivian Blake
- Location of story:
- Jamaica, Virginia USA, Plymouth, Scotland, England
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 07 March 2005
Vivian Blake was only 17 when he joined the RAF in Jamaica and came to Britain in 1944. He never returned to the West Indies.
This story, partly from of an interview on BBC Gloucestershire and partly from Our Untold Stories, a multicultural memoir, was submitted to the People's War site by the BBC Learning Centre on behalf of Vivian Blake with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
Q: You were a teenager in Jamaica when war broke out. What brought you to Britain?
"I joined the Air Force in Jamaica and arrived in Britain in 1944.
"We were given our introductory training and then dispersed to different stations - my first station was Mountbatten in Plymouth and there I encountered a lot of people who were involved in the war, Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders.
"After a period of about six weeks we were dispersed to training centres and my training was done in Scotland. From there we were sent to different RAF stations all over England."
Q: Did you join the RAF because they were recruiting from Commonwealth countries and you wanted to help the war effort?
"Yes, definitely. At the time I was on a scholarship and actually I was planning to go back to college. Then I went to Montego Bay and I ran into some of my ex-schoolmates and they were sitting a test to join the Air Force.
"This recruiting sergeant came over to me and asked me if I was going to enlist as well. I said no, I was a schoolboy, I was only 17 and they were recruiting at 18. He said: 'Nobody has to know, if you claim you're 18 we'll accept that - so that's what I did.
"It was a shock to my parents when I did get the call and they contacted my headmaster but he told them if I had been his son he would have come and joined the RAF with me."
Q: When you arrived Britain did not have as many black citizens as it does today. Did you experience any racism?
"No, not really. People were glad to see that everybody, regardless of colour or creed were prepared to help the war effort."
Upon arrival in Liverpool, the troops were taken to Lime Street Station, where Vivian recalls they were greeted with cheers from the local people.
But Vivian did experience segregation while he was at Camp Patrick Henry in Virginia, USA, on his way from Jamaica to the UK.
The camp was in effect two camps; a white one and a black one. The Jamaican recruits were treated placed in the white camp and were forbidden to mix with the black Americans. However, the white Americans were not pleased with this arrangement.
Vivian recalls: "When we got there it was a very large station and we found there were different sections for blacks and whites and blacks weren't supposed to be able to join certain regiments like paratroopers.
"We were regarded as 'honorary whites' because we were British and we were billeted with the whites."
Vivian remembers a white American officer reminding his men, 'These ain’t Uncle Sam’s N****rs, these are King George’s N****rs'.
Q: Was there any antagonism with you as black British and the black Americans?
No, because we didn't associate with one another. They were in a different section of the camp and we were kept separate from them.
Q: Do you think enough is known about what the people of the Commonwealth did for the war effort?
"No, I don't think our effort has been highlighted enough. As far as those in charge were concerned we were just British and they didn't state we were Commonwealth citizens.
"At the time we were proud to be British. England was our mother country and whatever befell England affected us as well.
"When we were in America before we embarked for England I was put in charge of the commissary and supplies for the camp. I had to go with a detail to collect laundry and other stuff.
"When it was time for us to leave for England the captain under whom I served in the commissary wanted me to stay in America and said I could become an American citizen but I said 'I am a British citizen'."
It had been Vivian's intention to return to Jamaica to resume his studies after the war was over, but by this time he had become accustomed to Britain and saw the opportunities available.
He moved around the country for a while, living and working in Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Bradford. He worked for British Rail for a while and then took up a career in engineering.
He moved to Gloucester in 1960 with his wife, who had relatives in the area, working at the Hawker-Siddeley plant in Hucclecote.
He left Gloucester for a few years to work in Birmingham, but returned in 1966. He now lives in the Matson area of the city.
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