One of the lucky ones

Last updated 05:00 24/04/2009
JILL McKEE/140192
GLAD TO HAVE GOOD MEMORIES: Gerry Suddaby looks through the hundreds of letters he sent home during World War 2.
ENJOYING THE BIG OE: Gerry Suddaby.
TRAINING: Former Orepuki resident Gerry Suddaby in a training plane during World War 2.

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Southerners at War

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He considers himself one of the lucky ones. While his tour of duty had all the elements of drama and adventure you expect of a war story, he didn't see any frontline action. JARED MORGAN looks at Gerry Suddaby's war.

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It was the greatest adventure of my life. That's how Gerry Suddaby describes his service in World War 2.

On the face of it, his story reads more like an OE.

His war took him to Canada, down the east of the United States, to the Bahamas, Egypt and the Middle East, India, Ceylon and Australia before returning home without ever coming under fire or returning a shot.

His photo albums record his experiences.

They are filled with pictures of Canadian resorts, cities like New York and Chicago, beaches in the Bahamas and the sights of the Middle East, India and Ceylon.

From Orepuki, Suddaby enlisted for the Air Force as a 22-year-old in 1942.

After initial training in Rotorua, he was sent to the No 2 Wireless School in Alberta, Canada.

A British Commonwealth Air Training Plan school, it was designed to train men in radio communications, both in the air and on the ground.

Stationed there for about six months, he was then sent for more training at Mossbank in Saskatchewan on the Canadian prairie, where winter came as a shock.

"It could reach 40 degrees below zero."

He had little choice but to get used to the cold in the three months he was stationed there learning morse code, semaphore and the workings of radio inside out.

His next posting, an operational training unit, had a full quota of trainees so he was sent to an air operational school in Regina, Saskatchewan.

After three months there, he boarded a train bound for his final training at an operational training unit in the Bahamas. The journey took in much of the eastern coast of the United States, where he was billeted with American families along the way.

In New York, he toured the Empire State building, then the world's tallest, visited Radio City Music Hall and took in the iconic sights of the city.

He entered Chicago as the city was still living in the shadow of its most famous resident, Al Capone the Italian-American gangster who led a crime syndicate in the city dedicated to smuggling and bootlegging liquor and other illegal activities during the Prohibition Era of the 1920s and 1930s.

"I remember asking about him. Most people just pointed across the (Chicago) river and said `It all happened there'."

He finally arrived in the Bahamas, which was then under the control of the Duke of Windsor, the former Edward VIII. Already controversial, he had been sent there as governor and commander-in-chief after accusations in Britain that he held pro-Nazi sympathies.

"The Bermuda Triangle wasn't called that then, but one or two planes went missing without a trace," Suddaby said.

The men were formed into crews and he trained to be part of the crew of an American-made Liberator bomber. Their task was to drop depth charges should they spot German U-boats or Japanese submarines, allowing ships safe passage across the Atlantic.

From there he took the train back to Montreal in Canada and in January 1944 he was given notice his crew would be stationed in North Africa as part of the RAF coastal command squadron.

"By the time we got there they had decided the Atlantic war had been won."

Instead, they were stationed around the Indian ocean.

By March 1944, Warrant Officer Suddaby was in Cairo, Egypt, as part of an eight-man air crew, three of whom were Kiwi.

"Jack Sorenson and Tom Cavanagh, from the North Island, and me from Orepuki. We were wireless operators and air gunners. The first and second pilots, navigation, flight engineer and radio mechanic were all English."

The crew was flying its four-engine, five-rotor bomber from Gambia, West Africa, across to Madras (now Chennai) in India, he says.

"The tub wasn't very fast so it was decided the trip would entail six one-night stopovers at various airfields along the route."

Everything went to plan until Cairo, where Suddaby again became an accidental tourist.

"Owing to some unforseen circumstances what should have been a one-night stopover turned into about five or six days. About a couple of hours after we landed we knew we would be there for at least two days, so we decided to have a good look around."

The crew spent a day at Giza Zoo in Cairo, followed the next day by a visit to Giza to see the Great Pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and the pyramids of Menkure (Mycerinus) and Khafre (Chepren) and the Great Sphinx.

On the third, the New Zealand contingent visited the Kiwi forces base camp at Maadi.

Dropped off by taxi outside the camp guardhouse, the three entered.

"There were three soldiers on duty and they were all from my home town of Orepuki."

Was it fate? Suddaby tends to think so.

"My mind boggles when I think of all the events that had to take place days before, weeks before, months before, even years before to get me to that spot at that particular time."

He could be right.

His fellow Orepukians had on that day been selected from hundreds of other troops to be on guard duty.

A stint in Iraq followed before the posts in India and Ceylon, where he kept a pet monkey. "They make amazing pets you know."

Patrols of the Indian Ocean also proved fruitless while submarines were often detected, his crew never saw any, he says. When war ended, he made his way back to New Zealand, via Australia, having never seen any military action.

He considers himself lucky and said his role came about by chance. "I could have been sent to bomber command there the fatalities were one in 10."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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