Merchant Navy Day a time to remember
A national commemoration to honour civilian sailors who served in the Merchant Navy in wartime has been held at the Pukeahu National War Memorial Park in Wellington.
September 3 is the anniversary of the sinking of the first British merchant ship in 1939 after World War II began.
The service in the Hall of Memories honoured the several thousand New Zealand seafarers who served in both world wars, mostly sailing under the British red ensign.
Seventy New Zealanders lost their lives during World War I and another 140 were killed in WWII. The civilian volunteers sailed convoys of ships delivering troops, military equipment, food, fuel and raw materials. Many of the merchant ships were torpedoed or bombed.
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"No other group of New Zealand civilians faced such risks during wartime," Ministry for Culture and Heritage group manager Heather Baggott said. "Some were as young as 14 years old and others were in their 60s and 70s."
The work of the Merchant Navy was so essential to the war effort that it was regarded as the "fourth service" alongside the army, navy and air force.
The national commemoration was attended by the Merchant Navy Association, the NZ Shipping Federation, NZ Company of Master Mariners, NZ Merchant Service Guild and the Russian Convoy Club of New Zealand.
Chris King, a past president of the Russian Convoy Club, attended the ceremony.
He served in the British Navy from 1941 after volunteering as a 19-year-old.
His ships were charged with guarding merchant navy boats on journeys of 10 days or more from England to Russia.
King remembers New Zealanders as always well represented among the men he guarded.
"We had to escort the merchants to Archangel in northern Russia," said King, who emigrated to New Zealand in 1957.
"I was in four different convoys. In the first there were only six ships but for the the second there were was almost 40.
"They were heavily laden, with trains and tanks, and they were slow.
"I remember we used to zig-zag around them," the 93-year-old said.
"We were heavily attacked on that big convoy.
"That was hard and very scary but we lost only six ships," King said.