COVER STORY: Sgt. Scratch's final flight
In the still pitch-black darkness of the winter morning, a rumble grew louder and louder, until it shook the Boundary Bay airbase itself.
Dishes fell to the floor in the mess hall. Airmen jumped from their bunks in shock.
The distinctive sound of a large bomber roared directly above the base, as close to the barracks as if the plane had been flying between the bunk beds.
Twelve hundred servicemen and women of all ranks spilled onto the tarmac, covering their heads and ears as a B-25 J Mitchell bomber buzzed the airport at zero altitude, before pulling up sharply into a steep climb, narrowly clearing the control tower.
The bomber looped back to make several more low passes, blowing over some of the dumbfounded onlookers.
Witness Airman 1st Class Norman F. Green described the performance on Dec. 6, 1944, as a “spontaneous and unrehearsed exhibition of flying skill.”
At the controls of the stolen plane was Sgt. Donald Palmer Scratch of Saskatchewan.
According to Green, Scratch enlisted with the Royal Canadian Air Force in Edmonton on July 20, 1940. A skilled pilot, he soon earned his wings as a sergeant. But as the years rolled by it became clear he wasn’t going to be sent overseas to fly missions against the Germans.
On June 19, 1944, while serving in Gander Bay, Nfld., Scratch took a B-24 Liberator bomber for a joyride, doing to the East Coast what he would do to the West Coast months later.
He was arrested and dishonourably discharged following a court martial.
But two weeks later he re-enlisted in Edmonton and was reinstated to the rank of sergeant and deployed to Royal Canadian Air Force Station Boundary Bay.
The Ladner military base was initially tasked with training pilots to operate fighter squadrons of Hawker Hurricanes and Kittyhawks for use against the German Luftwaffe. By the time Scratch got there, it had become a training ground for B-24 and B-25 bombers for operations in southeast Asia and the Pacific.
“There was a continual expansion and building up of operations there,” says local historian Warren Nottingham, who often heard the legend of Sgt. Scratch while growing up.
Airman 1st Class Norman F. Green
The airbase generated jobs for locals constructing roads and buildings and whatever else was needed for the war effort. A strafing target was located where the ferry terminal is today and an observation tower used near the Indian reserve.
“I can recall as a kid in the early ‘50s, late ‘40s, climbing up in the tower and looking out at the target,” says Nottingham, adding that site was also used through the Korean War.
“The local kids picked up tons of strings of 50 calibre machine gun shells.”
In 2001, Nottingham decided to look into the Scratch legend, and came across Green’s 1990 written account.
Sgt. Scratch spent about five hours in the air over Seattle, Vancouver, Abbotsford and South Delta before he presumably ran out of gas.
“I vividly remember seeing a hatless redhead with his sleeves rolled up, and his elbow protruding out of the cockpit window, looking very much like someone out for a leisurely Sunday drive in the family car,” wrote Green, adding he felt he could have reached up and touched Scratch as he flew by.
Scratch flew at a gravity-defying rooftop level for much of his joyride, often with the wings vertical.
One driver of a military personnel truck careened into a ditch after seeing oncoming headlights he thought was an impending collision.
He needn’t have worried, wrote Green. It was only Scratch flying down the road.
Scratch was having fun. He lowered his undercarriage and bounced his tires off the roof of the nearby Capilano Brewery barn, scaring the cattle so badly that one bull got himself wedged in the stable.
After an hour of havoc, three Kittyhawk fighters scrambled with orders to shoot Scratch down if he left Boundary Bay airspace. But according to Green’s account, the pilots did all they could just to keep up with Scratch, trying not to stall out as they chased him. No matter what signals they gave or warnings they made, Scratch refused to land.
“I have seen a lot of superb flying in my time, but never anything like this,” Green heard one mustached officer say as he rose dripping with mud.
Scratch’s luck ran out about the fifth hour, as he got boxed in by the Kittyhawks who circled him “like maypole dancers.”
Nottingham recalls the grand finale from local farmer Steve Harris.
“He was out trapping that day and there was all this activity, planes roaring around chasing each other, and he saw him crash into Tilbury onto their farm,” he said.
Nottingham believes there are still bits and pieces of the wreckage on Tilbury Island, perhaps even the engine.
B-25 J Mitchell bomber similar to the one stolen by Sgt. Donald Scratch
Scratch apparently nodded his head to the Kittyhawk pilots, gave them the thumbs-down sign, rolled the plane over and crashed into the island, ending his young life.
‘”There was a spiral of black smoke, and the three Kittyhawks circled the crash site like buzzards wheeling after their prey,” Cpl. Laurie Lyons, a 19-year-old operator in the control tower, told Green.
Green, now aged 94, still recalls the incident 68 years later from his home in Ottawa, though he has trouble speaking in the telephone.
“After he retired he started writing and he wrote all kinds of stories about all kinds of things,” says his daughter, Pat Levie. “Like a lot of people his age, his experiences then were the most memorable.”
Green has a theory as to why young Sgt. Scratch took a B-25 bomber for a joyride one cold December morning of 1944.
Denied his opportunity to prove his skill overseas, he decided to show his fellow airmen instead.
On that morning of his ill-fated flight, he first stole a B-24 Liberator bomber—a plane which usually carried a complement of 10 men—but crashed it in the darkness before it could take off.
Undeterred, he walked back to the base and selected the Mitchell bomber.
The Vancouver Sun newspaper headline later that day read, “Crazed Airman Amok Over City,” describing Scratch as a madman who put the aircraft into “impossible maneouvres” as he dived crazily and put the lives of thousands of citizens in danger.
But several days later the Sun printed an editorial stating that, with certain reservations, they admired Scratch and felt deeply for him and the suffering he must have gone through.
“He was a great flier,” read the editorial, adding they blamed the war and its machinations, not him.
Green had come to the same conclusion.
“War sometimes does strange things to people and it often places them in positions to do strange things…this writer cannot sit in judgment of that.”