Guinea Pig Jan Black was 20-years-old when he arrived in Belfast on a freighter carrying meat, provisions and 180 volunteers from Buenos Aires. Answering an advertisement calling for volunteers to fight for Britain during the Second World War, his dream was to be a pilot in the RAF. Two years later, the only survivor of a plane crash, he was left fighting for his life with terrible burns. In this guest blog, Jan tells us how Sir Archibald McIndoe healed his wounds and how a young British girl helped him on his road to recovery and won his heart.
Jan Black recalls his voyage to Great Britain from Argentina on the Highland Chieftain across the Atlantic, which was laden with meat, provisions and 180 volunteers. It took four weeks and they constantly dodged torpedoes and German U-boats along the way.
"We were always in danger of being a target for German submarines," he recalls. "So the boat never took a straight course. Instead it zig-zagged across the Atlantic on its journey to Belfast taking us four weeks - much longer than it should have."
Jan, who was born Jan Stanryciuk in eastern Poland, wanted to join the RAF as a pilot but he ended up training as a rear gunner in Blackpool. One of his first sorties was dropping propaganda leaflets over occupied France.
In November 1942, the engine of the Wellington Bomber he was flying in seized up and crash-landed a few miles from base in the English countryside. When Jan regained consciousness, he made his way down the length of the burning plane and tried to free the pilot who was still strapped, unconscious in his seat.
"I could not untie him," recalls Jan. "The plane was in flames and I couldn't see anything. I knew I had to find an exit. The plane had broken in two and I managed to squeeze myself out, I knew that if I didn't get out my days would be numbered."
Sadly Jan was the only survivor of the crash. Local people had rushed to the scene after seeing the aircraft come down and they helped Jan, who suffered severe burns to the right side of his face, to safety.
"They helped tear my suit off," he remembers. "That's when I started to feel this terrible pain and I thought I would be better off dead than to suffer this nasty, nasty feeling. These people were my saviours and I will always remember their help, without which I would not be alive today."
Jan was taken to an RAF hospital in Cosford but was later treated by the pioneering plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe at the East Grinstead Hospital, requiring a total of 20 operations to his hands, face and ears.
Of Sir Archibald, with whom Jan used to play snooker, he says: "He was a great man – our doctor, friend and advisor. He would meet us in the evenings in a bar – he didn't have to do that but he wanted to support our mental recovery. I will remember him until my dying days. He gave us everything he could.
"He worked long, strenuous hours because he wanted to give us young men, with our burned faces, hope for the future. Sometimes you looked at yourself in the mirror and you’d remember how you were when you were young and not disfigured. He not only made us look better but he gave us spirit and we trusted him."
After the war Jan married an English girl, Evelin Black, and they settled in London, where he worked in a rubber factory. Jan had met Evelin before he was injured, but afraid of her reaction to his injuries he didn't tell her where he was recovering. She tracked him down and after the war they married – a union that lasted 52 years until Evelin's death five years ago.
The camaraderie of the Guinea Pigs is something Jan holds dear.
"Our British colleagues treated us Poles like brothers. We faced the same dangers, we were committed to the same cause. The friendships I made with the Guinea Pigs will live with me for the rest of my days."