Friendly force advances RSA welfare
Despite more than 30 years as a member of the armed services, a primary focus of Tom Palmer's career in the air forces of Britain and New Zealand was always, in one form or another, the welfare of others.
So it's appropriate that after retirement he's playing a key role in that area for the South Canterbury Returned and Services Association in Timaru. Grant Shimmin spoke to him about his present role and the journey that ultimately brought him our way.
"So you're the support officer for the RSA here?" I ask, trying to make sure I have the present version of a title that has seen some changes over the years right.
"Support adviser," Tom Palmer corrects me, adding with a chuckle: "Corsets, brassieres and jockstraps a speciality."
That sort of mischievous humour peppers his conversation, despite his admission when I arrived that he had picked up a touch of the "man flu" at the weekend.
"It'll be gone tomorrow," he says, showing the upbeat approach that must have served him well in roles that have required keeping others' spirits up.
Not that he has the time to let a sniffle slow him down. "I'm retired and I've never been so busy," he'd observed when I called to schedule the interview.
The RSA support team, which he emphasises he's "just one member" of, has plenty on its plate, visiting members in rest homes and hospitals, networking, picking up members in the association's welfare truck to take them to the RSA and dropping them back home. And that's by no means a comprehensive list.
The support adviser post is one Palmer has occupied since he and wife Ann – a Timaruvian he met in Auckland where she worked as an air force nurse – left "Jafaland" 10 years ago to retire here.
He had been a welfare officer in the RSA since 1986.
"I got the job here because they knew I was doing welfare," he says. "I reckon it's the best job in the whole RSA. You meet that many people; it keeps you young."
It's not difficult to imagine he's had the same effect on many of those he's met over the years. There's always a joke or a story – indeed often both – waiting for an opportunity to be shared by the engaging 76-year-old.
Palmer spent 12 years in the Royal Air Force, before transferring to its New Zealand counterpart in 1965 – although ironically much of his RAF time was spent on the water, as a coxswain on air sea rescue launches. The 14-metre launches, which contained a coxswain and two crew, were used for rescue missions at sea at a time when helicopters had not yet come into their own in that role. But most of their rescues were not of air crews but civilians.
"By that time, very few planes were falling out of the air. We only had one successful air-crew pickup," he explains. "Most of our work was as a result of people buying boats, doing no training, and going out in summertime."
In one posting with the RAF, he performed patrols between Singapore and Penang Island during the Malayan Emergency.
As the use of helicopters in rescues increased, and boats were phased out, the crews were "encouraged to look at another job in the air force".
Palmer was "remustered to the medical branch", going to medical school and parachute school to equip him for a role in parachute rescue teams. He served as a member of the Far East air force jungle and parachute rescue team during a second posting to Singapore from 1962 to 1964.
While helicopters were in increasing use, the finer points of their rescue capability were still being developed. At that stage they were limited to "a winch and a 60-foot wire", he says, so in some combat situations rescue teams had to be parachuted in and walk out with all their gear.
Those with Palmer's medical expertise were critical to such operations. Doctors were scarce on teams "because you couldn't deparachute out", he jokes.
The role of the helicopter continued to develop, however. "Bit by bit they were developing tree-lowering devices," Palmer says. That allowed team members to be lowered from a chopper hovering above the tree canopy, before using a harness to make their way down the trees to the ground.
"That was quite stimulating for the bowels," he says, laughing. "It was just like rapelling. You'd stand on your rucksack and push down through the trees."
After a chopper crash in Borneo in 1964, during the Indonesian Confrontation, his rescue team used this technique to reach the ground from some 75 metres up. "That was the highest one that had been done at that time."
The other part of Palmer's role in Singapore then was as non-commissioned officer in charge of the RAF casualty evacuation unit, co-ordinating medical evacuations by air. And that brought him into contact "with the Kiwis".
The RAF was using increasingly modern aircraft which "couldn't land on jungle strips". By contrast, 41 Squadron of the Royal New Zealand Air Force was flying Bristol freighters – "40 million rivets flying in close formation" – which were up to the job.
Palmer also spent time in the then Ceylon, during which he and others answered the call for extras for David Lean's 1957 movie The Bridge on the River Kwai.
"They needed, for the crowd scenes, as many white faces as possible," he explains. "I got 160 rupees a day – about a fiver, good dough – and took two weeks' leave. It was brilliant."
His application to transfer to the RNZAF came at a time, he says, when "everybody had heard about New Zealand, but it was hard to get here". But being single, nothing prevented him giving it a crack and he soon found himself based in Auckland, as a member of the aviation medicine unit.
It wasn't the end of his postings to the Far East, however.
Palmer volunteered to go to Vietnam as a member of the New Zealand combined services medical team in 1967, having done further training in various medical fields, such as anaesthetics, in New Zealand.
"We ran a village hospital for civilians, and opened a maternity ward," he says. Then it was on to a bigger hospital in which the wards were marquees and there were "two to four to a bed on average".
"That was the first time I ever saw plague – we had 300 cases, although there was only one death, because we had a drug that cured it."
Palmer says he loved his time in Vietnam and volunteered to return, but wasn't allowed to.
Fortunate not to be squeamish, he says that his experiences, particularly the deaths of children, nevertheless affected him "after I'd finished", when he was father to a young daughter.
"I was having bad dreams and it was always my daughter's face that I saw. But that's gone now."
Having been commissioned in the RNZAF in 1974, Palmer had another posting in Singapore ahead of him, serving from 1980-82 as executive officer of the New Zealand Force Hospital.
It was after he returned from that posting that he became involved with the Hobsonville RSA. "I was asked to come on to the committee. That's where it started." And he hasn't looked back, accepting the welfare officer post, now called support adviser, when he and Ann retired here a decade ago.
It's a role that's central to the organisation's existence, in his view. "The reason the RSA's there, if anyone wants to ask, is welfare."
He's become something of "an expert in war disablement pensions", although those are administered by Veterans Affairs in Wellington.
The RSA here does have its own pension fund, which receives donations given during the Poppy Day appeal preceding Anzac Day. It enables the RSA to help out when former service personnel die, with the consent of their families.
"We will buy a commemorative bronze plaque, which are used to mark the graves of ex-servicemen. That is our tangible gesture, but only in Timaru," he says.
Those donations also give the RSA a small annual funding pool which can be distributed in the form of other grants, which necessarily are means-tested.
He's aware that many RSA clubs, including nearby Temuka, are struggling to stay afloat and suggests that eventually the South Canterbury club will have to alter its name slightly, probably to become a memorial club. But there's no indication he has the time or the inclination to worry too much about the future.
He's too busy supporting members and their families now.
- © Fairfax NZ News