16th October 2005
Thanks for your news letter and all the info. It certainly shows that we are in our last days, however we must not complain we have had the best days and so many of our contemporaries have not been so fortunate.
My report of the Veterans safari to the south west Pacific is as follows. I had felt for some years that our efforts in the Pacific had been set aside by European strife and we were not being given any recognition for our efforts in the war in the Pacific. This was rectified with the recent trip to Noumea and the Canal and the final Parade in Wellington.
The whole exercise was total success and Jennie Gunn who was the organizer deserves top marks for her efforts. I discovered that she was a retired Colonel from the army so obviously she knew her drill. I have also discovered that she is the OC of our Veterans Department and Eric Kelly has a pipe line into her Dept and holds her in high regard.
We, that is Bernice and I, went to Wellington on Wednesday as she had to report to Government House to be presented with a Q.S.M. She dropped me off at Trentham as that was where the 80 vets assembled for our jaunt. We were allotted a room in the barracks and were briefed on our movements over the next three days. We were also issued with a hat which was made especially for each one and this was the measure of Jennie Gunn's attentions to detail-all were our exact fit.
I was unfortunate enough to trip over an obstacle during the briefing and decided that I should not go on the trip. However, when I made this suggestion to Jennie she flatly refused to accept it and forthwith appointed an Army man to be my mindel' for the whole trip. Owen Sheehan was my constant shadow and was always with me.
It was "up with the sparrows" on Friday morning and by bus to Rongotai - first class seats in a 757, and away to Noumea. An uneventful flight and landed at Tontouta about lunch time. It had to be Tontouta because the names were all unpronouncable and the local constabulary was all in flat hats.
After the usual queues and customs clearance we were into Renault buses and delivered to our hotel in Tontouta. We were accommodated two to a room. I feel that we must have drawn the bridal sweet as it had a bath that was big enough to swim in, so we contented ourselves with a shower.
On Friday at 4pm we paraded on the park in front of the Government Building and were given a resounding welcome. Flag hoisting, National Anthem, La Marseilles, wreath laying, speeches in French, in fact it was the whole treatment. George Hawkins our NZ Parliament Representative gave his address in English and said a heap of most complimentary things about our efforts of 60 years ago. It was a rather humbling time, as we all are inclined to make light of our contribution to forestalling "TOJOS" efforts to invade Aussie and NZ.
At the conclusion of these formalities we were entertained at the City Hall by the Mayor and all who had something to say, in French so we mostly remained in ignorance. However George Hawkins and AVM John Hamilton spoke in English so we were given an update of what all the chatter had been about.
Dinner was the next on the agenda. After trying to crash the language barrier to buy a beer, as no member of the bar staff would accept payment in US or NZ dollars, I was obliged to borrow some Frog Francs from the AVM which was accepted and my faith in international relations was restored.
I was smartly off to the sack after dinner. There were some parties going on but I am over the hill when it comes to that sort of caper. Saturday it was feet on the floor about 7 am and away in our bus headed for Bourail, which was about a 2 hour drive away from Tontouta. The rain was fair hissing down and my faithful minder unbeknown to me produced a wheel chair that was my carriage to the memorial and parade ground where the ceremony was to be conducted. I felt a proper Charlie, but more so when the going got rough they hoisted the wheel chair and carried me and the chair shoulder high and deposited me under a tent that was there for just that purpose.
It was a most inspiring ceremony. The Maori concert party sang a Waiata, the Army Padre gave a blessing, the Bugler gave the last post and Reveille, and John Hamilton and George Hawkins gave a eulogy, and finally we all placed poppies at the base of the Flagstaff. It was a most impressive service for the 449 casualties who have no known grave. All the names are recorded on bronze plaques that are attached to the memorial. We were all given a typed list of all the people recorded on the Memorial.
On our bus trip back to Tontouta we stopped at the town council office at Bourail and we were welcomed and treated to afternoon tea before pressing on to our hotel at Tontouta. We were mostly a trifle damp so changed before dinner. In the course of this change I stumbled against the edge of the bed and knocked a great lump of skin off the front of my leg. It bled profusely and my minder happened to come to check my progress and shot off and found a Doctor who was one of our support team, he cleaned up the mess and stuck a patch on my leg that I still had on when I arrived home in N Z.
Sunday 14th of August - We were up and away bound for the Canal. Gerry Burton and I were seated together and he was good company. It was a pleasant flight and when we landed at Henderson Airstrip it was somewhat different from the last time there. There were no GI troops and no service aircraft but there was a line up of men belong Solomon Islands waiting to greet us, some with service ribbons displayed that they had earned during the war 60 years ago.
Gerry Burton's brother's grave was on the Canal and that was where Gerry went first to lay a flower and spend some time in remembrance. His brother was one of the NZ pilots who were lucky to have got out of Singapore when the Japs overran the place in the early days of the war, but lost his life in one of our first fighter squadrons in the Pacific.
It was a sad time for our families, and there is no winners in times of war. After we had all greeted our welcomers we were loaded into buses and driven up to the memorial which is on a hill overlooking Iron Bottom Sound, where most of the Naval actions between the Japs and the Allied forces took place. Once again I was wheeled to the ceremony in a wheel chair, in this instance I would have almost qualified for a PURPLE HEART for my wound sustained in Noumea.
The dedication ceremony was much the same as at Bourail Flag raising. The Padre's dedication, Maori contribution, and various others spoke in English and the sun was shining. Also the view was splendid there was also a large gathering of the local people. And they were apparently happy that our Veterans were in attendance. At the finish of the Service it was back into the transport and next stop the Honiara Hotel for lunch. We were entertained by a group from Malitia a singing and Drumming group followed by our Maori party who were with us. It was a well conducted finale to a whirlwind trip and we boarded the aircraft at 3.30pm and airborne for NZ.
It was a smooth flight home and we were on the ground at 8.30 pm. It is worthy of note that the service on the RNZAF transport was absolutely perfect. Top marks for the crew who looked after us. We were housed in the Plaza hotel on Sunday night and Monday morning were delivered to the Wellington Town Hall, where we were briefed by an army man as to the form that the rest of the day would take. It was to be a parade to the Cathedral for a memorial service which entailed the Veterans being loaded onto trucks and transported to a situation close to the Cathedral from where we would disembark and march into the service. I did not feel up to this so I took a taxi to the Cathedral and was seated when the troops arrived. The service was really inspiring - all the civic dignitaries spoke and the choir was top line.
At the end of the service the Veterans marched down the hill to the Parliament Building where we met all the sitting members. Jennie Gunn who had planned the whole of the tour took me by the arm and led me out of the service and followed the troops to the steps in front of Parliament House. I was doubtful as to my ability to climb the steps so found a lift that took me up into the foyer.
We spent an hour or two socializing with our representatives, in fact, I had my photo taken with our Prime Minister. The election was in the near future so we were all buddies. At 3.30pm we were called to board our bus for Rongotai and our flight back to Napier. A measure of Jennies attention to detail - a girl who had gone out to the airport to see us off had been instructed to do just that! Back in Napier at 6pm delighted to be home. A fairly strenuous few days.