Firing last shots

17:00, Apr 25 2013
Jim Murray
WAR VETERAN: James (Jim) Murray of Stanmore Bay is one of a delegation of World War II service personnel who won ballots to a 70th anniversary event in Noumea this week.

James Murray knew something was up when the sky was "aluminium" with planes.

He and other crew members on the cruiser HMNZS Gambia, sailing about 160 kilometres off the Japanese mainland, later watched as a giant mushroom cloud slowly rose in the air above the city of Nagasaki.

It was August 9, 1945.

Mr Murray of Stanmore Bay is one of a delegation of veterans who have been flown by the air force to Noumea, New Caledonia this week, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of war in the Pacific.

It is more than 67 years since the historic nuclear explosion at Nagasaki.

"We didn't see it happen - there was an announcement come over the intercom that a nuclear bomb had been dropped," he says. "From the size of the mushroom cloud we thought they must have blown up the whole island."

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A similar bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima three days earlier.

A ceasefire was called six days after Nagasaki and the Gambia eventually took over the Japanese naval base at Yokosuka. Mr Murray and other crew members represented the Royal New Zealand Navy on September 2, when the Japanese signed the instrument of surrender on board the USS Missouri in Tokyo Harbour.

But Mr Murray's service didn't end immediately. He was in a group that then headed north to Wakayma to help release prisoners of war.

"They were in a terrible state - shocking. All skin and bones - poor devils."

The prisoners were transported back to Yokosuka by truck and put on to hospital ships, he says.

The Gambia left Japan for Auckland on October 11, 1945.

There was no glory-seeking when the baker's assistant from the North Shore joined up as a 17-year-old two years earlier.

"It was a serious decision because it needed to be done - the Japanese were so close."

Mr Murray trained for three months on Motuihe Island and in the Hauraki Gulf before beginning his service as one of the Gambia gun crew.

The most intense times were in the last few months of the Pacific war as the British Pacific Fleet advanced toward Japan, Mr Murray says.

The ship became part of an anti-aircraft screen for aircraft carriers.

In March 1945, kamikaze pilots started appearing, intent on slamming their planes into the operations centre - the "island"- of the aircraft carriers.

Mr Murray found himself working furiously at times in a turret loading the explosive charge cordite in behind shells fired to cover the carriers. Many planes were shot down.

The Gambia was off the coast of Japan by the end of June and again screening aircraft whose planes were carrying out strikes on the mainland.

A month later it was firing on mainland targets.

The Gambia gun crews have the distinction of firing the last shots of the second world war.

Rodney Times