15: The Royal Dutch Air Force
Nearly 47 years old (January 1942) Ivan was mobilized and sworn in as captain of the Royal Dutch Air Force. The ceremony was held at Andir Airfield, Bandoeng, Java. In battle-dress again he stood, with his left hand on the propeller blade of a military aircraft, his right raised in a kind of Wolf Cub salute, swearing that he would be a faithful soldier of Queen Wilhelmina, so help him God! She was the third monarch he had sworn to serve - first the Czar of all the Russias, then the King Emperor of Great Britain, now the Queen of the Netherlands.
Ivan Smirnoff at Andir Airfield, Bandoeng, Java
One of these days Ivan got one of the most hair-raising operations in his life. The Japanese were pressing on, they had reached the top of Sumatra. Forts and landing-fields it was no longer possible to defend had to be destroyed before the invaders arrived to make a spring-board of them to attack south. Most of the forts were old and very strong, they took a lot of knocking down. Just as Ivan was going off duty one evening his chief sent for him. "Load yourself up with 2 tons of TNT and take it to this place," he was told, and handed a rough map.
"Refuel at Medan, they will give you exact particulars of the fort's position, these maps aren't much good." The airport was blacked out as Ivan took off with his dangerous cargo. One Jap bullet through this lot, he reflected, and up we go! The weather was terrible but they had been warned not to use radio for outward signals - it would give away their position to foe as well as friend. Their safety lay in nobody knowing they were there. The radio man, with nothing to send, lent all his attention to other people's messages floating through the ether - it was as well he did. Approaching their refuelling depot he handed a message to Ivan - Medan has just been bombed, Japs were still in the area. The last thing the people at Medan would want would be 2 tons of TNT trying to land on their still-smoking runways.
2 Tons of TNT was carried 1700 km across Equator to an area north of Medan.
Passing Equator there was still 645 kilometres to fly to the fort - could he juggle the plane there on the juice in his tanks - and with the scanty information on the rough map? It was territory he did not know, he was flying blind towards a blind landing. When he judged he was nearing his goal he dropped down, hoping the hills shown on his map were no higher than marked. Not a sign, not a light anywhere. Lower he dropped, his only hope that the fort's defenders would hear the noise of his engines and switch on landing lights - if they had any.
He had made many blind landings before, but never when carrying such a cargo. His fuel was almost finished, a crash landing would blaze them to heaven or hell - the radio man, white-faced, teeth clenched, sat with his eyes glued on Ivan. Lover still, and suddenly, beneath him, two tiny twinkling lights came on. He circled, wondering if they meant that he could land between them. He hoped so, for that was what he was doing. There was no proper runway, just a fairly flat piece of ground. Then he was down - there had been no explosion. Ivan got out, shook hands with the officer awaiting him, explained how the TNT should be unloaded, then walked into the darkness and was physically sick. The strain had been almost too much for him.