Lofty band of brothers
It might be the solemn last reunion of the men who as teenagers flew in World War II's Bomber Command, but as 32 of the old airmen left New Zealand today, they were up for a laugh or two.
"A couple of women are waiting for me at London Bridge," said Jack Wakefield, 90, from Blenheim, drawing a laugh from fellow tail gunner Tom Whyte, 87, from Auckland, "and yes, they're easier to chase now they're older".
The veterans, aged between 87 and 94, are enroute to London aboard a Royal New Zealand Air Force 757 and the unveiling of a monument in Green Park to the thousands who died in nightly bombing raids over Nazi occupied Europe.
Around 6000 New Zealanders flew in Wellington and Lancaster bombers with 1851 killed.
Wakefield, who did two tours in Wellingtons, says he remembers practically everything.
"What is most important is that in our minds we can see the faces of every one that meant anything to us and was close to us. Most of them didn't make it," he said.
"It was a war we had to fight and we are bloody proud we paid our part... We were all pretty tough in our minds."
He flew in three of the 1000 bomber raids, on Cologne, Essen and Bremen: "that is when we knew we were winning....
"I was a tail gunner, I used to see where we had been and that suited me fine; the rest of the crew saw where the hell we were going."
Going on leave in London was always memorable.
"We made our mark. We liked the ladies and we were generally gentlemen but then we had times and got very very drunk and sang naughty songs in the pub."
Ray Tait, 88, of Russell was a navigator and remembers friends not even 20 years of age who were killed.
"We certainly felt the Nazi menace had to be wiped out and we had no compunction about doing what we were doing - that evil could not be allowed to continue."
Frank Prebble, 88, from Auckland, was a visual bomb aimer in a Pathfinder Squadron.
"I spent my time up in the nose of the aircraft; you saw everything, more than the pilot."
His pilot was from Oxford University and there was never any idle chatter between the crews, unlike the movies.
But there was one time, he said, they were "coned" by German searchlights and flak struck their Lancaster. The navigator came on the radio: "'Jesus skipper that was too close to the balls', a piece of flak had gone right through his chart table."
He is grateful for the chance to "remember for a moment, those young faces, those who did not come back".
Travelling with the party is Chief of the Air Force, Air Vice Marshal Peter Stockwell.
He said of the 32: "Veterans with 20-year-old minds on older airframes and our challenge is going to ensure that those 20-years-old minds don't let the undercarriage get too far ahead."
Tom Whyte says as the youngest he feels like the baby on the trip.
"I feel a bit inferior because I got so little done before the war came to an end and I flew in aircraft so much better than the inferior ones of all the others."
London leave was an alcohol haze - but he remembered his tail gunner or air gunner (AG) song, singing it with gusto at Whenuapai:
"I want to be a straight AG,
"And fly right over Germany,
"And watch the flak come up at me,
"It is foolish but it is fun,
"In my turret I will sit and try and shoot a Messerschmitt,
"But if I miss we are in the shit..."