Baker, James

Letter
Date:
March 21, 1943
From:
Jim
Sunday March 21st, 1943

Well, we set sail at midnight on Friday night and a 6.30 AM. when I went on deck the next morning, we were going along with the coast of Scotland to starboard and Ireland to port. They were both obscured by mist until nothing but a blue majestic swelling shadow could be seen of either. That was my last glimpse of Great Britain. A blue mysterious shadow settling slowly into the broad rolling wastes of the North Atlantic. Thus has ended some of the happiest years I have ever spent. Another chapter in my life has closed and another is about to open. I wonder if it will be as happy as the last has been?

Today is Sunday, a beautiful, clear sunshiny day with hardly a cloud in the sky. It is ideal weather for U-boats but we have a Liberator and a Suderland stooging around all day long so I guess we have not much to fear from the black devils, anyway, we are going happily along oblivious of everything. I have just bought a copy of the ship's newspaper. It is only one sheet but it gives us a general idea of the news. We have no radio so this is better than nothing at all. We spend the day very idly. There are no parades other than boat drills and meal parades, but we have to do fatigues in the mornings. I am hospital orderly which means I clean the hospital bathrooms. I am through about 10.30 AM., so it is not too bad.

There are quite a few women aboard, but they are all travelling first class, which means the officers have them all to themselves. We can gaze at them from afar. Yesterday I helped two to their cabins; they were quite green in color and helplessly seasick.... I was nearly tempted to laugh out loud as they were both so sure they were going to die! Most of the girls are wives whose husbands are in the Services and going home on this boat. A good many of then are married to Canadians.

By a particular coincidence, the Colonel who recommended me for my release from the Army - Col. Mason of the Seaforth Highlanders from Vancouver, is also on this boat, on his way home to a new appointment. I met him yesterday afternoon and had quite a chat with him. He remembers me quite distinctly and wanted to know how I was getting on and what I thought of the change. There are quite a few Canadian regiments represented on board - both sick men invalided home and sergeants recommended for OCTU or officers taking up new appointments.

I have just finished reading a very wonderful book, "The Last Enemy" by Richard Hillary. I have been wanting to read this for sometime because Mrs. Kaplan (an American lady who works with Mrs. Sayers at the Eagle Club in London and who has become a very good friend of mine during the last few months) knew him while he was in hospital at East Grinstead and used to go to visit him every Sunday. She typed out part of the script of the book for him and she advised me to read it. It first came into print last July and has been consistently sold out since then, even though a reprint is made every month. Yesterday I got hold of a copy and read it right through. Richard Hillary was going to Oxford when war broke out and was a member of the University Air Squadron. During the Battle of Britain he was shot down over Margate and though he managed to bail out, was severely burned about the face and hands. He landed in the sea and was picked up three hours later by the Margate lifeboat. This book describes his sufferings and his life in hospital and how it changed him from an egotistical, self-seeking young man with no goal or ambition, into a selfless crusader, fighting to redeem mankind from the threat of evil. It is marvelously well-written and one can see him wrestling with his soul "until the sweat ran into my eyes and blinded me" so he says. He had many close friends but the closest was Peter, a very religious, quiet - reflective sort of chap who was fighting from the very first as a crusader. While Hillary was in hospital suffering untold agony during the changing of his dressings, he had a vision in which he saw Peter killed before his very eyes.

That was the turning point in the redemption of his soul and when he met Denise - Peter's fiance and a very beautiful girl who seemed the living embodiment of Peter's spirit, his redemption was complete. You might think from all this that it sounded like fiction but it is not, every word if it is true. I know, because Mrs. Kaplan has often told me how she watched the metamorphosis take place before her eyes during the 18 months that she knew him. Since then, Richard Hillary has been released from hospital with a completely new face - a miracle of plastic surgery which he describes in his book, and after many months of waiting, got back into fighting, flying Spitfires again. He was shot down over the Channel again - about six weeks ago, and was killed. It was probably best that his life was ended in this way because he was the last of the boys in his Squadron and he said "They - the boys who gave the most were gone. And I - the one who gave the least, was left. It does not seem fair somehow, this inequality of sacrifice." He meant that they were giving their souls and minds to the task while he was only giving his body. But in the end, he gave most because he gave his soul and their souls too, embodied in his book they live today as brightly as they did during those brief autumn weeks from August to September, 1940. I shall never forget them, I - who saw them in action, who listened to the drone of their planes overhead, who counted their victories one by one and felt a loss - near personal grief, every time one of them came tumbling out of the sky. I shall always remember them, those quite ordinary seeming men who "danced on the clouds and flew the realms of the air on laughter's silvered wings."

Original Scans