Veterans head back to remember their mates
The occasion may be their last reunion
Blenheim war veteran Jack Wakefield won't be leaving behind the good times of his teenage years when he returns to London as a 90-year-old, he joked yesterday.
Mr Wakefield is among the 32 old airmen who left New Zealand yesterday to reunite at London Bridge as part of the World War II Bomber Command commemorations.
The occasion may be their last reunion, but they were still up for a laugh or two.
"A couple of women are waiting for me at London Bridge," Mr Wakefield said yesterday as they waited to board their plane, drawing a laugh from fellow tail-gunner Tom Whyte, 87, of Auckland.
"And yes, they're easier to chase now they're older."
The veterans, aged between 87 and 94, are flying to London in a Royal New Zealand Air Force 757 jet for the unveiling next Thursday of a monument in Green Park to the thousands who died in the nightly bombing raids over Nazi-occupied Europe.
About 6000 New Zealanders flew in Wellington and Lancaster bombers; 1851 of them were killed.
Mr Wakefield, who did two tours of duty in Wellingtons, said yesterday he remembered practically everything.
"What is most important is that in our minds we can see the faces of everyone 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 played 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," he said. "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 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, of 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 idle chatter among the crews, unlike in the movies.
But there was one time they were "coned" by German searchlights and their Lancaster was hit by flak.
The navigator came on the radio telling the skipper that was too close. A piece of flak had gone between his legs and through his chart table.
Mr Prebble was grateful for the chance "to remember, for a moment, those young faces, those who did not come back".
Travelling with the party is Air Force chief Air Vice Marshal Peter Stockwell.
He said they were 32 veterans "with 20-year-old minds on older airframes".
"Our challenge is to ensure that those 20-year-old minds don't let the undercarriage get too far ahead."
Mr Whyte said he felt 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," he said.
- The Marlborough Express