The party is over but the memories will linger for the rest of John Beeching's life.
The former Royal Air Force pilot, who flew with a night fighter squadron on pathfinder and bombing missions during World War II, is back in Nelson from last month's unveiling of the Bomber Command Memorial in London.
The large multimillion-dollar bronze memorial commemorates the loss of 55,573 young Bomber Command airmen. It was unveiled before the Queen and other members of the royal family in London's Green Park.
Mr Beeching said it was the first formal acknowledgement of Bomber Command efforts since the end of the war.
"There was awful stigma attached to bombers, and a lot of it was related to the bombing of Dresden – a bad raid, but there were more civilians killed in Tokyo during the war by conventional bombing methods.
"People act poorly in war, and they're always going to," Mr Beeching said.
He was grateful to the Nelson public for their support in helping him and his wife Wendy get to the event.
Local businesses GJ Gardner Homes and the Cawthron Institute contributed $15,000 towards the $20,000 raised for the trip, arranged free of charge by Nelson travel broker Sue Ketel. The remainder was raised by donations from the Nelson public and from further afield.
The flight to Auckland on the flightdeck of an Air Nelson Q300, courtesy of captain Tim Gillingham and first officer Brent Exley, was the first time since the end of the war Mr Beeching had flown in the cockpit of an aircraft.
"Without the public's help I never would have gone, and it would have been one of the darker moments of my life if I had read about it, and not been there.
"The memorial was absolutely magnificent," Mr Beeching said.
Other formal events associated with the unveiling presented more surprises.
"People I had never met in my life came up and shook my hand. I was famous for a while, thanks to the Nelson Mail."
He was also interviewed by BBC Radio 4, and Fairfax Media while in London.
He said the memorial event was far more emotional than he had expected.
He and his wife returned to the memorial a few days after the unveiling and were overwhelmed to find the plinth covered in crosses, poppies, wreaths, tributes, photographs and flowers in vases.
"This will provide closure for a lot of people. It was quite phenomenal. I couldn't believe what I saw," Mr Beeching said.
British-born Mr Beeching, 88, who has lived in New Zealand for 60 years and became a citizen 30 years ago, was not eligible to travel with the contingent of Kiwi veterans, which included fellow Nelsonian Buzz Spilman.
However, the New Zealand Defence Force gave Mr Beeching an available VIP spot in front of the memorial for the unveiling. He was close enough to the Queen to have "thrown peanuts at her", but as a royalist decided against it.
In deference to the Queen he wore his Bomber Command blazer, but sweltered in the 28 degree Celsius heat, and had to take it off.
He took time while in England to catch up with one of the two other surviving members of his former 169 Special Duties Night Fighter squadron, and members of his family.
Mr Beeching, who turns 89 in October, will be heading back to his job as handyman at the Cawthron on Monday.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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