More research from Clarence Simonsen
No. 111 Fighter Squadron R.C.A.F.
In October 1941, Curtiss-Wright P-40E-1 aircraft were supplied to Commonwealth air forces and were identified as Kittyhawk Mk. IA fighters. Today sixteen of these aircraft survive in North America in flying and static displays, and each one flew with the Royal Canadian Air Force during WW II. Over half of these fighters were assigned to No. 111 squadron of the RCAF, which was part of Home War Establishment Western Air Command. The Smithsonian P-40E served with No. 111 squadron of the RCAF and today is painted as an aircraft of 75th Fighter Squadron, 23 Fighter Group, 14th U.S. Army Air Force.
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The Home War Establishment was formed in 1938 to patrol and protect Canada’s two seaboards. Top priority was first given to the Eastern Command due to the threat of German surface and U-boat raiders, while Western Command flew a variety of obsolescent aircraft. When Japan entered World War Two in December 1941, the Canadian west coast lay defenseless, then Japan invaded islands in the Aleutian chain and Western Air Command was threatened. Priorities were now reversed with reinforcements and new Curtiss Kittyhawks began arriving on 3 November 1941.
In February 1942, due to serious losses suffered by the United States in the Pacific and the lack of reinforcement troops for Alaska, an agreement was signed with Canada, under which RCAF squadrons would assist in defense of Alaskan bases. In May 1942, two RCAF squadrons, No. 115 [B.R.] and No. 118 [F], known as “Y” Wing, flew with the Americans based on Annette Island, where they were deployed until November 1943. In June 1942, “X” Wing was formed with H.Q. at Anchorage, Alaska, where No. 8 [B.R.] squadron arrived on 5 June.. Note – No. 8 bomber/recon. Squadron was replaced by No. 14 fighter Squadron on 3 March 1943. The fourth and last RCAF squadron, No. 111 [F] was based at Kodiak, Alaska, flying with the Americans in the worst weather conditions in the world. My painting is based on the fact and fictional history of No. 111 Fighter Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
The United States purchased Alaska from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million, and the new land came under U.S. Army control for the next ten years. During this time military out-posts and Forts were constructed on the main land and island chain. In 1884 a civilian government was formed and by 1910 all military activity was hauled. In 1922, the U.S. Government signed the Washington Conference Treaty with Japan and other nations, which limited armaments, but most important the U.S. agreed not to fortify the Alaskan Island chain. In 1935, General “Billy” Mitchell addressed a Congressional hearing and stated – “Alaska is the keystone of the Pacific arch, Japan is the dangerous enemy in the Pacific. They will come right here to Alaska”. The U.S. Congress was in no mood to listen until 25 April 1939, when they passed a bill to build two Navy air stations at Sitka and Kodiak. The new Alaska Defense Force was established in July 1940, under command of Lt. Gen. Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., who wrote to the Walt Disney design team to create a new insignia.
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The Disney insignia featured a seal on the Bering Sea ice, balancing a white “D” on his nose, with a background of northern lights. This Disney insignia is found in my painting.
By mid-1941, Gen. Buckner was still fighting a battle to build Alaska strength for the large territory he had to defend. When the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941, military strength in Alaska was 20,000 Army troops, 2,200 Air Force and 550 naval personnel.
No. 111 [F] Squadron RCAF
The roots of the fighter squadron began on 5 October 1932, when they were formed as No. 11 Army Co-operation [Auxiliary] squadron of the RCAF at Vancouver City airport. It was renumbered No. 111 Coastal Artillery Co-operation squadron on 15 November 1937, and activated when Canada went to war on 10 September 1939. On 14 May 1940, the squadron moved to Sea Island, flying four obsolete Westland Lysander Mk. II aircraft. They were converted to a fighter squadron on 14 June and flew obsolete Blackburn Shark Mk. II and Fairy Battle Mk. I’s. The squadron was disbanded on 1 February 1941. In the summer of 1941, RCAF first-line fighter protection of the Canadian coastlines was non-existent. When No. 1 [F] Squadron moved to England with its Hurricane Mk. I’s in early June 1940, Canada’s fighter defense consisted of six obsolescent Grumman Goblin biplanes with No. 118 Squadron at Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Finally, on 16 October 1941, the Canadian Government diverted 72 Curtiss [P-40E-1] Kittyhawk Mk.I aircraft from their RAF production contract to RCAF units. No. 118 [F] Squadron received the first Kittyhawk aircraft and next in line became the re-formed No. 111 [F] Squadron RCAF.
No. 111 was re-formed at Rockcliffe, [Ottawa] Ontario, 1 November 1941, where they received their first new Kittyhawk IA fighters on 3 November. Training began under a veteran Squadron Leader A.D. Nesbitt, DFC. S/L Nesbitt DFC joined the RCAF on 15 September 1939, obtained his wings at Camp Borden, 11 April 1940, and was posted to No. 1 RCAF Fighter Squadron. Nesbitt was one of the fighter pilots based at Calgary, Alberta, where they received new modern Hawker Hurricane Mk. I’s. He proceeded overseas with the squadron and joined the Battle of Britain in August of 1940. On 4 September he shot down a Bf110 and a Bf109 on 15 September, during this battle his Hurricane P3080 was shot down and he bailed out wounded. He returned to action on 9 October 1940, where his Hurricane was damaged by a Bf109, but he landed safely. On 1 March 1941, the RAF gave Canadians the new 400 block numbers. No. 1 RCAF Squadron became No. 401 RCAF squadron, and he took command of his original squadron. Nesbitt returned to Ottawa, on 18 September 1941, and took command of the reformed No. 111 Squadron on 1 November 1941.
Today it is clear to see during the first two years of World War Two the Canadian Government directed its full attention to the war in the Atlantic and England, giving little thought to the defense of the West Coast. The huge area North-West of Edmonton, Alberta, was total wilderness; open in the summer by boat and some civilian and bush pilot air routes. In August 1940, this would all change with the creation of the Canadian-American Permanent Joint Board on Defense. It was during these meetings the Canadian Government authorized the American building of airfields at Grande Prairie, Alberta, Prince George, Smithers, Fort St. John, and Fort Nelson, British Columbia, and Watson Lake, Whitehorse, in the Yukon. By December 1941 these airfields had been established for daylight use.
The sudden crippling attack by Japan on the United States naval and air forces at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 quickly changed the war defenses in Canada and Alaska. No. 111 [F] Squadron was ordered to Sea Island [Vancouver] on 14 December 41 and again moved to Patricia Bay [Victoria] on 18 February 42. The unit completed training in their new Kittyhawk Mk. I aircraft and became operational on 12 March 1942. On 17 March a special ceremony took place on base when the West Coast Saanich Indians adopted the squadron as “Thunderbird” and presented S/L Nesbitt with a 20” wooden carved Thunderbird Totem. From this date on the squadron took the motto “Thunderbird’ and painted two forms of the totem as nose art on the port side of many [below] Kittyhawk aircraft.
On 8 June 1942, 12 Kittyhawk aircraft of No. 111 RCAF Squadron landed at Anchorage, Alaska, flying under U.S. Alaska Command, RCAF “X” Wing. This marked the first time any RCAF units served under American operational command. On 15 June, Nesbitt was promoted to Wing Commander and given command of RCAF Station Annette Island. No. 111 flew their first operation on 1 July from Elmendorf Field, to intercept an unidentified aircraft. The Canadians had arrived without long-range fuel tanks, which was required for the long flights of the widely spaced islands in the Aleutian chain. On 13 July long-range tanks arrived and the squadron [12 Kittyhawks, 21 pilots plus 60 RCAF ground crew] was assigned to Umnak Island, the most forward American base in the Aleutians. A few of these aircraft carried the Thunderbird nose art into battle with the American Forces in Alaska, another RCAF first. The little wooden Thunderbird Totem remained with W/C Nesbitt at RCAF Station Annette Island for squadron good luck. The Canadians formed “F” flight of the 11th Pursuit Squadron, commanded by Major John S. Chennault, the son of the famous Major Gen. Claire Chennault of the Flying Tigers. In a few days the famous American motion picture producer Col D.F. Zanuck arrived to shoot color scenes of the war in Alaska. No. 111 RCAF Squadron took part in some of the unrehearsed flying scenes, another Canadian first. You can view this film on-line today.
On 25 September 1942, four Kittyhawk Mk. I’s from No. 111 took off from Umnak Island with 37 American aircraft [12 P39’s, 20 P-40’s and 9 B-24’s] for an attack on the Japanese base at Kiska. This was the squadron’s first offensive operation [mission], the Canadians strafed ground targets and S/L Boomer destroyed a “Rufe” Japanese seaplane. For these actions the U.S. Air Medal was presented to S/L Boomer, F/O J.O. Gohl, H.O. Gooding, and R. Lynch.
The RCAF awarded Boomer with a D.F.C. as his was the only victory scored on an enemy aircraft by a Home War Establishment Squadron. After two tours of operations against the Japanese forces on Kiska Island, No. 111 Squadron returned to Pat Bay, B.C. on 15 August 1943. On 20 January 1944, they departed for Ayrshire, Scotland where they were renumbered No. 440 [F/B] Squadron flying Hawker Typhoon Mk. IV. The location of the Thunderbird Totem is unknown today but I believe it was retained by W/C Nesbitt.
Over 500 RCAF personnel served in the Aleutian theatre, 11 received the United States Air Force Medal, one the OBE, one the DFC and four AFC. Eight Canadians lie buried in the U.S. cemetery in Kiska, four have no known grave and their names are inscribed on the Commonwealth Air Memorial on Green Island in Ottawa. Today this Canadian part of coming to the help of the United States during the second world war, has been forgotten by history and historians.
My painting records No. 111 Squadron Kittyhawk Mk. I, RAF serial AL194, [RCAF #1087] of “F” flight, over their base at Umnak Island. The large white squadron code letters were ordered painted over by the Americans but the under-line white bar remains. The aircraft code letter “V” and under-line bar remains with RAF serial AL194. The white fuselage stripe was used by all Allied aircraft in Alaska.
The outer red roundel ring has been painted over with blue paint as ordered by American command, not to confuse with the Japanese meatball. This gave off a reddish purple effect to the outer roundel. This fighter also carried a large Thunderbird painting as squadron nose art.
Terry and the Pirates
In 1934, American cartoonist Milton Caniff, was approached by the New York Times newspaper and ask to create an action adventure comic strip. This was the beginning of “Terry and the Pirates”, a strip where characters were believable and the artist was not afraid to take a stand on the issue of the day or month. Four years before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Caniff depicted his characters fighting the Japanese. In 1942, Caniff created Col. Flip Corkin who was based on real life Col. Philip G. Cochran, an Army Air Force commander in North Africa and the Orient. Caniff frequently drew actual servicemen he met while on tour of the war front, making some functional characters in Terry and the Pirates. This caught the eye of R.C.A.F. Sgt. Jerry Bricker of No. 4 Training Command at Calgary, Alberta.
Before the war Bricker was running his own printing and advertising business, which he left to join the R.C.A.F. in April 1940. In the Air Force his trade was equipment assistant, but he was soon involved in the RCAF Camp Newspapers. In Edmonton Manning Depot he became editor of “The Airman”, published “The Aircraftsman” at St. Thomas, Ontario, and founded “Reconnaissance” at No. 4 SFTS at Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. While working on the camp newspaper in Calgary, Sgt. Bricker noticed Milton Caniff had featured all the allied country heroes in Terry and the Pirates, but by 1942 not one single Canadian had appeared. Canada and its 11 million inhabitants had been at war since 10 September 1939, but this had been totally ignored by Caniff in Terry and the Pirates. Sgt. Bricker wrote to Caniff in New York City, and for the next two months the artist and publisher perfected a typical Canadian fighter pilot who could fight the Japanese. Bricker had followed the career of No. 111 RCAF [F] Squadron S/L Nesbitt, DFC, and the new comic character was based on this proud RCAF Canadian fighter pilot. On 30 October 1943, tall, handsome, Canadian [Scottish background] F/L “Tote” Bonny flew RCAF Spitfire #228 into the strip of “Terry and the Pirates”. Bonny appeared in over 50 comic strips and for good luck he carried a Thunderbird totem, just like the one presented to No. 111 Squadron by the Saanich Indians of British Columbia.
This was one of the only times fact and fiction come together to form new RCAF WW II history.
The new Scottish-Canadian F/L “Tote” Bonny flew his RCAF Spitfire serial #228 into the comic strip of “Terry and the Pirates” on 30 October 1943. He also carried a little Saanich Indian Thunderbird Totem, thus earning the nickname – Tote.
This montage of No. 111 squadron history is painted on original skin fabric taken from Noorduyn Norseman Mk. IV, RCAF serial #494. The skin size is 46” by 18’. Total panel size is 48” by 24”. Norseman 494 was delivered to the RCAF on 9 September 1942, assigned to No. 3 Training Command, [Montreal] transferred No. 10 Training Unit, Chatham, N.B., 8 Jan. 1943. Transferred 18 October 1945, No. 6 REMS Mt. Pleasant, P.E.I. 1 August 1946, placed ready for disposal. Sold – McDonald Aviation Co., Edmonton, Alberta, and 14 May 1947, registered as CF-EIH. On 25 August 1947, landing at Allen Lake, N.W.T., it hit strong downdraft and crashed into water. The remains were recovered by Alberta Aviation Museum in 1993, and today it is restored to original colors as CF-EIH.
Original Norseman aircraft skin was saved from the garbage by Tony Jarvis and mailed to Clarence Simonsen during restoration in 1998.
This painting is in the private collection of Dr. Stéphane Guevremont, B.A., M.A., Ph.D. history teacher at University of Mount Royal and University of Calgary.
Sgt./Pilot Clifford Hicks, London, Ontario, No. 111 Sqn. with Totem in Alaska