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- 04 August 2003
This story was written by my father, Roy Hails:
It was a lovely summer's day in May in 1943, and I was sitting in the garden with my mother, talking about my two brothers who were out in North Africa. She was talking about how long it would be before she would see her two sons, Billie and Arnie again. I was having a break from gardening. I was building a new rockery in the front garden. It was almost finished but needed more plants on it.
To reassure her, I told her that things were going well according to the latest news. Mother never listened to the news on the wireless, she said it depressed her... she was sick of listening to reports of British retreats and defeats. I told her that we had driven the Germans out of North Africa and Billie and Arnie would not be in action or danger for a while.
She said she was glad that I had been conscripted into the pits instead of the army, and that she would be left with at least one son. I thought it best not to tell her that a Bevin boy, like myself, had been killed the day before at Easington Colliery.
A knock on the door interrupted our conversation. Opening the door I was confronted by a telegraph boy. They were nicknamed the angels of death, because poor people only got telegrams informing them that their sons or husbands were missing or killed in action.
Looking at the telegraph boy's face, I knew it was bad news.
The Air Ministry regrets to announce that your son LAC William Hails has been killed in action. Letter to follow.
'No reply,' I said to the boy.
The lad mumbled, 'I'm sorry, sorry.'
I could hear Mam humming a tune, 'We'll meet again, don't know where don't know when.'
I did not know what to do, what to say to her. I went into the toilet to give myself time to think. Perhaps it was a mistake, after all the North Africa campaign was over, there was a lull in the fighting. Yes, it had to be a mistake. After all, we had received an airgraph from him this morning, telling us how he had met Arnie in Cairo on a two-day pass and that he was sending us a photograph by post as it couldn't be put on an airgraph.
That's it, I thought. I'll look at the airgraph and check his service number. It had to be a mistake.
There was no mistake.
Mam was still humming her tune, I hadn't seen her so happy for years, it must have been the news about the lull in the war.
'Who was at the door Roy, was it one of those Kleenezee men selling brushes and dusters?'
'No, it wasn't,' I said, staying behind her so that she wouldn't see by my face that I had been crying.
How was I going to break the news to her? I had to be careful, as she had in the past had heart trouble.
'Mam, would you like a cup of tea? It is getting a bit breezy out here, I'll put the kettle on.'
'Good idea son, but you will have to go to the Co-op for some milk and sugar. My purse is on the sideboard. You will have to take the ration books, I think we still have two pounds of sugar left on one of them.'
'I'll be as quick as I can Mam, will I see you over the step?'
'No, I will be alright; oh, bring a jar of Golden Shred if there is any jam left on the book, Billie loves it on toast, you never know, the lads might just arrive unexpected now the fighting is over.'
I felt as if I had just been stabbed.
Walking to the shop, my mind was in a whirl. What was I going to do? I was thinking of all the options - should I wait until teatime and break the news to the family at the same time? Dad might not be home until nine or ten. He had been working long hours on the aircraft carrier at the naval yard to get it out of the yard before it was bombed. There was a raid just the night before and a bomb got stuck under the slipway, but it had not gone off. Work was held up until the army de-fused it. Mabel and Lena, who worked in Vickers Armstrongs shell shop, were always in by six. Margaret, who worked for Parsons Marine at Heaton, got in by seven.
Yes! I thought it best that all the family should be there for support, so decided I would wait until then.
Mother sat in her favourite seat overlooking the garden; I placed her tea on the little table beside her and sat on the floor at her feet. My mind was in a whirl, I was wishing it was teatime and all the family were home. In my head, I was thinking about how to break the news. Should I wait until the meal was finished so as not to put them off eating? Maybe they will be better prepared. Should I take one of them to one side to deal with it - yes, but whom?
Mabel, happy-go-lucky, always giggling and talking about boyfriends and dancing. I don't think she could cope. Margaret, the baby of the family? No, it would not be fair. Lena, the eldest and most sensible. Yes, it had to be her.
There was a knock on the back door. I knew it was my pal Willy Lathan, as we had a secret knock we both used when calling on each other. Willy was sitting astride his bike, his face flushed and all excited and stuttering out, 'Howay get your bike, we are going to the Jingling Gate at Westerhope, a Dornier was shot down last night and it just missed the pub.'
I was wondering what to say to him, when Mam shouted along the passage, 'Is that you Willy, how's your Mam getting on at Vickers, plenty of overtime eh?' Willy didn't answer. Mam continued, 'Go on Roy, get on your bike, I'll be alright, Lena will be in soon.'
I was relieved in a way. I felt guilty but I thought it would give me time to think. Perhaps I could talk it over with Willy.
'OK Ma, I won't be long.'
Reaching the Jingling Gate, we went to the back and, to our delight, the Dornier was still there with its nose stuck in the car park and its tail black with smoke. Standing beside it was an RAF police sergeant.
He told us to go away when we asked him for a bit of the fuselage with the black cross on it to go with our shrapnel collection. He got annoyed when we kept asking and threatened to set his dog on us.
Willy said it was no use staying, so we went to the Yankees camp on Ponteland Road. There were about a hundred tents there between Ponteland Road and Stamfordham Road. Sometimes they handed bars of chocolate over the fence, and they were very generous - but more so to the dozens of girls who flocked there for nylons. At the finish the local police stopped them from going up the road.
Willy and I stopped to talk to a black GI who was on sentry duty at the gate. He showed us his rifle, which he called a Bondook. It looked like a toy. As we were talking, a jeep with four white Yankees drove up and turned to go through the gate, but the sentry stepped out in front of them and told them the whites gate was further up the road. One of the Yanks in the jeep said, 'We are coming through boy, stand aside.' Earlier, the sentry had told us his name was Charles and he was from Virginia.
Charles walked towards the jeep, pointed his rifle at them, then he cocked it and put it up to his shoulder and said, 'Move it man, or I'll blow your brains out if you've got any.' Willy and I looked at each other in amazement. We had seen things like this at the Regal Cinema, sitting in the back row, but this was more exciting.
The jeep backed off after threats that, 'We will get you boy.'
I asked Charles what it was all about. He told me that this field was the black quarters and the top field was whites only, and they both had their own gates.
I said, 'But you are all Americans, you are in a field in Northumberland England, what will you do when you are in action together?'
He said, 'We just do cookhouse and drive the trucks and we keep out of each other's way.'
I asked him what he would have done if they hadn't backed off. He grinned, looked down at the ground, slowly shaking his head, and said, 'They'd know what I would have done, that's why they backed off. I'm in my rights this time and they know we now have our own very clever captain, I was only doing my duty.'
Charles turned around and stood looking towards the west. He looked rather sad. I felt sorry for him, miles away from home, just like Billy and Arnie. A dark cloud crossed my mind as I fingered the telegram in my trouser pocket. I had to get back home, I thought.
'Come on Willy, I must get home, me Mam's on her own I said I wouldn't be long.'
Picking up my bike, the chain fell off. Willy laughed, saying, 'Roy what are you like? I told you last week to take two links out the chain, you couldn't put a string on a carrier-bag.'
'Willy, you know I'm not a mechanic like you, howay, fix it for me.'
'I'll loosen the wing nuts and push the wheel back a bit to make it more tense but you will still have to take the links out.'
We cycled past the Italian PoW camp on Stamfordham Road. Some girls were throwing newspapers and old Reader's Digest magazines over the barbed wire and chatting to the prisoners. I had chatted to some the day before, poor sods, they never really wanted to follow Mussolini. Some had family living in England who came here to get away from him, but even they were interred on the Isle of Man.
We then reached the tank-trap, which ran alongside Silver Lonnon. I shouted to Willy to stop, as I wanted to talk to him. We sat on top of one of the concrete pillboxes.
'Willy, something is bothering me and I wonder if you can help.'
'I knew you were worried about something, 'cos all the way to Westerhope, you never said a word.'
I handed him the telegram.
'Oh Roy, I am sorry, your Billy was a good lad, he always had time for us youngsters.'
He put his oily hand on my shoulder. I shouted at him, saying, 'Now look what you have done, our Lena will go mad, it will never get clean!'
Willy looked hurt. I felt sorry I had shouted at him about such a trivial thing. I thought he was going to go in the huff but he just quietly said, 'I think you should wait and tell your Dad first, he will know the best way to let your Mam know.'
Good old Willy, he always seemed to know how to deal with a problem.
Reaching home, going in through the scullery door, I was surprised to see Dad at the sink washing his hands.
'You are home soon Dad.'
'Yes, the RE bomb disposal squad wanted the yard cleared, they think there may be another unexploded bomb under the carrier.'
I was about to tell him the news when Mabel came in from the kitchen. She glared at me then shouted, 'What have you done with my torch, I had to go for the bus this morning in the blackout without it.'
'Haven't seen your torch, I always use my own.'
Mabel continued, 'I am sick of people moving my things around, now I cannot find my leg make-up.'
I do not know how but I laughed and said, 'It is not my shade, anyway why do you put that muck on your legs, go down to the Yankee camp and scrounge a pair of nylons.'
Mabel left the scullery, banging the door behind her.
I had to tell Dad now, before any more interruptions. He was still scrubbing his hands over the sink.
'Dad, we got a telegram today, at least I did, but nobody knows yet.'
Dad turned to face me, 'It is Arnie isn't it.'
'No,' I said, handing him the telegram. He read it and let it fall to the floor. Staring down into the sink, he suddenly erupted.
'Bastards, German bastards, they took my brother in 1916; now this!'
He then went quiet, and mumbled, 'I will tell mother, just give me a minute.'
Lena came in through the front door. She never used the scullery door. I was standing in the passage. Her top lip curled a little as she said, 'I see you have been messing about in the garden again, who is in the grave you made, I hope you cleaned your boots before you came in.'
I could not speak, my throat was dry. Dad squeezed past me to go into the kitchen.
The next few moments I will remember all my life.
Lena and I were still standing, looking at each other, when this most awful howl sounded from the kitchen. It was like the howl of a wolf in the wilderness. It went on for a good five minutes. Lena had rushed past me into the kitchen; I ran into the toilet and stuck my fingers in my ears.
I emerged later to hear Mam, screaming over and over again, 'My baby, my baby, what have they done to my baby.'
The next day, which was hot and sunny, I asked Mam if I could put her chair in the garden. She paused for a while then said, 'No, but you can put me under your rockery, I have nothing left to live for.'
I was annoyed at her, but because of what had happened, I waited about ten minutes, then I had to let it go.
'Well, thank you very much Mam, so you have nothing to live for because your favourite son has been killed, so do I write to Arnie who is still in the desert, longing to get back home to see you, do I tell him you want to die. What about the rest of us, do we not matter?'
We stood looking at each for a moment, then fell into each other's arms sobbing. I was blubbering, 'I like Golden Shred on toast as well.'
The atom bomb brought widespread happiness. No more telegrams.
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