WWII veteran Herb Pike smiles for the camera. His Royal Air Force jacket hangs in the background.
Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name...
Herb Pike recited those words, from the Lord’s Prayer, countless times during his days flying planes for the Royal Air Force.
“My very first flight we were at the end of the runway and we were ready for take off and my navigator said to me, ‘Skipper,’ he said, ‘will you do me a big favour?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I’ll do you a big favour if I can.’ He said, ‘I would like to say the Lord’s Prayer.’ And we all said the Lord’s Prayer, and he said, ‘Thank you, Skipper.’ And away you go,” recalls Herb during a recent interview at Valley Vista Senior Citizens’ Home in Springdale, Newfoundland, where the 94-year-old resides. Herb and his crew of seven faithfully kept that tradition on every flight thereafter. “Isn’t that something?” says Herb, smiling at the memory.
Originally from Bishop’s Falls, Herb’s family moved to Buchans when he was five years old. He still recalls arriving in Millertown and crossing Red Indian Lake by boat to reach his new home, where his father took a job with the Newfoundland Railway to support the large family of six children.
The Second World War first touched the Pike family when Herb’s older brother, Earle, joined the Royal Air Force; a couple of years later, Herb followed in his footsteps. Having trained as both a gunner and a pilot in Canada before heading overseas, Herb was ultimately chosen to take the pilot’s seat.
“I was 19 years old and there was seven members on the crew who was 25 and 26 years old - and me, a little pickaninny like,” laughs Herb. “I was the boss, oh yes!”
Herb went on to fly Hudson Bombers, Lancaster Bombers and flying boats on missions that took him mainly over France, Germany and Africa. In 1943, he was part of a risky operation tasked with destroying one of Germany’s main power supplies - hydroelectric dams located in the Ruhr Valley. He and his crew flew the dangerous route several times, dropping depth charges on the massive cement structures.
“And sure enough, we broke through,” says Herb. “And everyone in England was [saying], ‘Oh, this is wonderful!’” A short time later, however, he flew over the area again and was dismayed to see their work undone. “Christ, the water was built up again; they repaired it,” says Herb.
But it was another mission that would become Herb’s closest brush with death - and his greatest claim to fame.
“We were called to do a suicide job,” begins Herb. “[Hitler] had a place in France, a big place in France. They had thousands and thousands of rounds there, and they were building up, getting ready to kill everybody.”
Herb was to fly the plane over the massive ammunitions plant at an extremely low altitude while his crew dropped bombs that would, hopefully, destroy it.
“If you didn’t make it, you wouldn’t know it; you’d get killed,” says Herb. “We went in and we dropped the bombs and we gutted her, cleaned her right out. [Hitler] had everything ready to conquer Europe - and we blew it to hell.”
Herb later received the Queen’s Medal for his courageous actions that day.
“I never thought we wouldn’t make it, that’s the way we felt, or I felt. I know we can make it, I know we can make it. That’s the attitude I had,” says Herb, adding in hindsight, “We were very lucky.”
It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane!
Not all of Herb’s tasks were life and death, however - like the training of homing pigeons for use in the war. On most of Herb’s flights, six pigeons (no doubt conscripted into service) accompanied him and his crew. As Herb explains, training began with releasing the birds close to home base; once the pigeons proved they could successfully make the return journey, the airmen gradually extended their flight path on subsequent trips. It was extremely important work; later, those pigeons could provide vital communication links - able to return to shore with messages from downed planes, for instance.
And many, many planes did go down - including one that carried Herb’s brother, Earle. The brothers from Buchans were stationed at the same base at the time of the tragedy.
“It was a big base. He was on one end and I was on the other end. We’d see each other a couple or three times a week,” says Herb. “He went away on a trip and usually I knew, and he knew when I was gone.”
In November 1944, Earle left for a mission. Herb anxiously awaited his brother’s return, which never came. It was a bitter blow for the young pilot.
“I didn’t want to fly anymore. I wanted to call it quits right there and then,” Herb recalls, an air of lingering sadness straining his voice. But he returned to the pilot’s seat and carried on anyway. Herb assumes Earle’s plane was lost in the English Channel, though he’ll never know for sure.
In Love in London
Whenever Herb had breaks from flying, he’d head away for short holidays. Two places he especially enjoyed visiting were Scotland, where the Newfoundland Forestry Corps was located; and London, England, where the Newfoundland Caribou Club in Trafalgar Square was the place to be.
“The Newfoundland Caribou Club was the best thing over in England because you had good food, all Newfoundland food and everything like that,” says Herb. The hostel and social club for Newfoundlanders serving in the war effort officially opened in July 1943, thanks to funds raised by the St. John’s Rotary Club. “Their bedrooms had four in each room and the beds were spotless. They really had it nice,” recalls Herb. But as much as he loved the club’s food and accommodations, Herb loved a woman he met there even more. An English girl, Doris Lawrence, was in the Caribou Club one day while Herb was on leave. She invited him to her family’s house for dinner, and they soon fell in love. According to Herb, Doris was eager to get married, but he insisted they wait until war’s end. True to his word, on January 26, 1946, the pair wed in the annex of a London church - all that was left of the bombed building after years of war. Doris’s parents sold the family’s food stamps to pay for the fabric that became her wedding dress and the leather that became her shoes.
Herb was honourably discharged from the Royal Air Force in 1946, and returned home to Buchans with his war bride in the fall of that year.
“She loved it here because the people were so nice,” says Herb of his wife, who passed away in 2001.
The war behind him, Herb went on to work as a chemist for the American Smelting and Refining Company in Buchans until the mines there closed in the 1980s, then moved to Springdale where he managed a laboratory for Atlantic Analytical until his retirement.
He and Doris had three children together, including a son named Earle in memory of his late brother.
In recent years, Herb has seized opportunities to head back to his once war-torn stomping grounds, spending time at Vimy Ridge and Flanders Fields.
“In Flanders Fields I had the honour and privilege of laying the wreath for Newfoundland. My dear, the nicest thing in the world that could ever happen,” says Herb. “I went up and did my salute and laid the wreath and I could feel the tears coming to my eyes, that’s the truth - thinking about an awful lot of accidents, planes that didn’t return from a trip…and I lost my brother, grave unknown.”
The men he flew with still hold a special place in Herb’s heart, too.
“I heard from all my crew. Christmas time I used to get cards, and every year one card less, next year another card missing,” says Herb. Last year, there were no Christmas cards from his comrades. Now, Herb may well be the last to tell their heroic tales - stories of training pigeons, bombing dams and foiling Hitler.
“People have called me that, a hero,” says Herb. “But there were thousands and thousands of other fellas did the same things I did. So we’re all heroes? Or we’re good friends.” - By Ashley Miller
You are very modest, thank you for your service.
This is truly an amazing story that I had the privilege to read on this remembrance day. Thank you so much for posting. Calvin Perry
I had the pleasure of spending lots of time with Herb & my Mom in September/October of this year. Herb is very proud of his medals & enjoys telling his experiences, lots of laughs, however, there were times a tear trickled down his cheeks, when mentioning his dear brother & lost comrades. Thank you & thanks to all veterans for your service in making our country a better place to live & going forward to enrich our country with your presence. Thank a veteran, my great Uncle Nathaniel Croucher was one. We remember & honour his memory every year as well. Herb, it's an honour to see you here in this fine magazine, thank you for my copy, from you & Ann :) Patsy