Anzac Day 2013: Lest we forget

By James Fuller


Tauranga Civic Memorial Service


Thousands of people stood in pride as they watched veterans, service people and cadets march past the cenotaph in Memorial Park.


The service kicked off with a rendition of God Save the Queen and a welcoming message from Tauranga deputy mayor David Stewart.


Reverend Wendy Showan was next on the podium with a scripture reading and prayer, followed by a address by Otumoetai College head prefects.


Tauranga RSA president Bob McLintock was next, reciting the Ode to the Fallen  before the crowd stood for the lowering and raising of the flag.


A wreath laying ceremony was next, starting with the various councils, Mr McLintock, iwi representatives and veterans' association, followed by cadets, services, voluntary organisations and local schools.


A firing of volleys concluded the ceremony and the parade marched once more around the cenotaph.


 


Tauranga and Mount Maunganui dawn services


As the sun broke over the horizon, more than 1000 people gathered at the Tauranga RSA to remember the soldiers lost in war.


At 5.45am, Tauranga RSA president Bob McLintock led in a parade of veterans, currently serving personnel, cadets and family members for the 98th anniversary of the Anzac soldiers landing in Gallipoli.


Lest We Forget was sung by Mike Savage and prayers were said by Reverend John Hebenton before Mr McLintock read the Anzac dedication and laid a wreath at the base of the cenotaph.


All was silent except the sound of the trumpeter playing The Last Post during the lowering of the flag.


After being welcomed by RSA vice president Dick Frew, words from Lt Col Dr Cliff Simons, Tauranga Mayor Stuart Crosby and Tauranga Girls' College deputy head girl Michelle Prendiville were heard.


The national anthems of Australia and New Zealand were sung at the end of the service, where everyone headed inside the RSA for tea and coffee.


Meanwhile every vantage point was packed for the dawn service at the Mount Maunganui Cenotaph on Marine Parade.


An estimated 2000 people shrugged off the rain to watch as Mount RSA president Paul Franks led the service, with the prayers and benediction taken by the Reverend Marie Gilpin.


The RSA's wreath was laid by executive committee members Barry Kellas and Tony Dodunski.


The flypast by World War II Harvards took place at the conclusion of the service as the parade was marching off.


Everyone then dispersed and headed to the RSA for a well deserved breakfast and refreshments.

 


 


(Inside story below photo gallery)


 


Inside Story: NZ airmen's Black Monday


A group of 84 veterans will be returning to the scene of what many regard as a forgotten conflict, the Pacific War. One of those, Tauranga veteran Bryan Cox, relives his remarkable survival of the incident which resulted in the RNZAF's worst single-day loss of life.


The moment Bryan Cox accepted the seeming inevitability of his imminent death still haunts him nearly 70 years later. "I still think about it a lot," says the 88-year-old, who was a World War II fighter pilot at the time.

"It was simply a sense of acceptance that I wasn't going to get home. Yet I was as calm as I am now, knowing the end was going to come.

"I was just thinking what the hell are my parents going to do, because my only brother had been killed not long before."

At the time, Mr Cox was a 20-year-old Royal New Zealand Air Force F4U Corsair fighter-bomber pilot embroiled in the Pacific War. It was a war which began with the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, and ended with their surrender on September 2, 1945. In between, nearly 25,000 New Zealanders served in the Pacific arena - across all three services - and more than 900 became casualties.


One of those casualties was Flight Lieutenant Frank Keefe and Flight Sergeant Bryan Cox was so nearly another. It was January 1945 and the pilots were engaged in operations against the Japanese at Rabaul, East New Britain, in Papua New Guinea.

"Frank Keefe was flying a Corsair when he was shot down in the middle of a harbour surrounded by 100,000 Japs," says Mr Cox, whose memory of the day's events is vivid. "He couldn't use his dinghy because it was a bright colour and he would've been found. He was only about a kilometre offshore."

An American Catalina flying boat circled the stricken pilot but it was too dangerous to attempt a landing and rescue.

"We had to change to Plan B and send a Ventura bomber. We got natives on Green Island to quickly assemble some bamboo rafts which would float low in the water. We loaded them in the Ventura's bomb bay and late afternoon dropped them."

Mr Cox, who had only been flying operationally for nine days, was one of three Corsair pilots sent to escort the Ventura bomber. They were soon joined by 12 other Corsairs, which strafed (flew low to attack ground targets) the shoreline and Japanese emplacements to keep the enemy at bay. It was a scene depicted many years later in the painting Kiwi Strike by Nicolas Trudgian.

Following the rescue attempt, the aircraft set course for their Green Island squadron base 150 miles away.

What should have been the simplest part of the operation turned into a tragedy. As the pilots neared Green Island a tropical front closed in as dusk also descended.

"All we could see ahead of us was a black sheet which was the tropical front. It was like flying into a blackboard but we had no option, we didn't have enough fuel to go anywhere else. So we hit the front in three different formations. On doing that it suddenly began to get very dark and I'd never flown a Corsair at night," says Mr Cox. The inexperienced pilot then made a mistake which almost cost him his life. In searching for a light to read the instruments, on a panel of 24 switches in the bottom right corner of his cockpit, he inadvertently disconnected his electrics.

"I switched everything on and off and I switched the battery off, so I had no electrics from there on.

"No lights, no radio, couldn't hear anyone, couldn't talk to anyone, didn't know where I was."

Mr Cox remained in formation but, with no visible horizon, soon became disoriented.

"All I could see of my CO Paul Green was his wingtip light. I kept falling away and flying back up to him. All of a sudden the light disappeared so I knew I was within feet of him. So I broke away quickly."

At this point Mr Cox briefly made out his altimeter which, with him engaged in a banking turn, registered at zero feet. He swiftly pulled up again. Mr Cox's state of bewilderment can only be imagined as he flew on in a blanket of darkness.

"I was due to run out of gas, I couldn't see how I could survive bailing out and I couldn't see the water to do a belly landing either. I thought nobody knows where I am; I don't know where I am."

Then the storm which had enveloped Mr Cox's plane threw him a lifeline.

"There was a flash of lightning and I spotted the curvature of Green Island underneath me," he recalls.

He throttled back and put his landing gear down but the drama was far from over. He required another two or three flashes of lightning to guide him to the approximate location of the landing strip.

"There was no lighting but for a few dim flare lights and kerosene lamps but in one flash of lightning I knew the strip was just around the corner."

As he approached to land, though, Mr Cox had a disquieting moment of realisation.

"It occurred to me that 15 Corsairs, plus a Ventura and a Catalina were coming in at the same time and we had taken off from the other way."

If Mr Cox continued his approach he would potentially be flying straight into planes landing in the opposite direction.

"So I overshot, banked round, lost it [the strip] again for a short time and through pure guesswork managed to find it a second time."

He bumped down hard on landing, an utterly relieved man. It was January 15, 1945, Mr Cox's 20th birthday.

"I was taken into a tent where the intelligence officer gave me half a mug of neat rum and the doctor gave me an injection of morphia (morphine). That's how I celebrated my 20th birthday.

"I wrote a letter home to my parents. You weren't allowed to say anything operational, of course, so I said I'd been playing cricket so they'd know I was safe."


(Story continues below map)


 


Many of his 14 and 16 Squadron comrades had not been so fortunate.

"They either collided or ran out of fuel. Most had flown into the water or crashed coming in. It was the biggest single day loss of aircraft and crew for our airforce." In all eight pilots and planes had been lost. It is an incident which illustrates graphically the sacrifices made in the Pacific War.

Those sacrifices will be remembered by Mr Cox and 83 other New Zealand veterans in Noumea, New Caledonia, this week. The veterans, aged between 86 and 96, are being flown by Veterans' Affairs New Zealand to attend an Anzac Day service in Noumea on April 25.


 


A ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of New Zealand's Pacific War involvement - at the Bourail Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery - will take place the following day.

It is the first time Mr Cox has returned to the region which could have become his final resting place.

Other veterans attending from Tauranga include Ross Adam, James Bennett, Robert (Bob) Buckland and Malcolm (Mal) Gunton.

Mr Cox says New Zealand's involvement in the Pacific War is largely forgotten today.

"It's the same thing for the Aussies. On Bougainville Island the Australian Army lost over 500 and that's more than they lost in Vietnam but hardly anyone knows about it."

It was certainly at the forefront of New Zealand minds at the time. In December 1941, Japan attacked and rapidly conquered much of the Pacific island chain north of New Zealand.

"It only took three or four months from the commencement of war following Pearl Harbour to them being down as far as Guadalcanal (in the Solomon Islands). They just over-ran everything. They came down so fast. In Singapore, for example, about 200,000 troops surrendered to a much smaller force. It appeared they were unstoppable."

Mr Cox says a real fear of invasion pervaded New Zealand.

"We couldn't see how we could stop the Japs. They were mechanised, they were trained, they were tough, well-seasoned troops. I was a signaller in the Home Guard in 1942. We had guys with pitch-forks, .22s and the odd shotgun."

 


 


Mr Cox was a member of the ATC (Air Training Corps) for 20 months before joining the air force in March 1943 where he flew Tiger Moths and Harvards. He received his wings, was made a flight sergeant, and posted into No.16 Squadron RNZAF where he trained on Kittyhawks before progressing to Corsairs.

With Britain heavily engaged in Europe and unable to help, the aircraft used by the RNZAF were supplied largely through a lend-lease agreement with the United States.

"A lot of people criticise the British, I don't at all. They had their hands full with the Germans. There were 56,000 men killed in Bomber Command alone and my older brother Grant was one of them."

Mr Cox knows more than most about the cost of war, having lost his brother and three cousins during WWII, yet he is unsentimental about it.

"In war you just have to accept these things. You have to believe in fate. When someone dies in war you don't cry, you say he was a bloody good bloke and have a beer. You don't make a big palava over it because you know you could be next."

Mr Cox's only brother Grant, three years his senior, was a Lancaster pilot. He was 23 and on just his third raid when he was shot down and killed over Berlin in 1944. Two cousins from Hamilton, Kevin and Bernard, also perished. Spitfire pilot Kevin was shot down and Bernard was killed attempting to diffuse a mine.

A third cousin, Tony from Christchurch, died during the defence of Singapore.

"Just before Pearl Harbour my cousin from Christchurch, Tony, arrived to visit the family on his way to Singapore. He had a tennis racket hanging out of his kit bag because that's all he thought he was going to be doing, playing tennis. That was November and Tony was killed in January during the Japanese invasion. He was a Brewster Buffalo pilot and got shot down by a Zero [fighter plane]."

As the tide of war began to turn, the allies moved off the defensive in the Pacific and the role of the RNZAF changed. The Americans planned to bypass major Japanese strongholds in the region, instead capturing a handful of island bases to provide a supply chain for an eventual attack on Japan itself.

The RNZAF was part of the force tasked with incapacitating those bypassed strongholds - such as Rabaul, in New Britain - thereby securing the line of advance from the South Pacific.

"People talk about the Battle of Britain but we were involved in the Battle of New Britain around the main Jap base at Rabaul. There were 100,000 of them there."

Mr Cox undertook three three-month tours of duty in the Pacific. The first at Green Island, then Bougainville (in the Solomon Islands), and finally at Jacquinot Bay (on the island of New Britain, Papua New Guinea). Duties included close support, low-level bombing at 3000ft (bombing specific targets such as ammunition dumps marked by the army with smoke); escorting larger aircraft such as the Catalinas and preventing the Japanese from utilising airfields in the area.

"There were two RNZAF squadrons at Green Island during my first tour, No.16 and No.14," says Mr Cox, who lives in Pyes Pa, Tauranga. "You have 27 pilots in a squadron but you fly as a 12. All day every day there would be four planes from each squadron, so eight Corsairs, in the air. We went out in four-hour patrols."

During his second tour, on Bougainville, Mr Cox said twice a day there would be anything up to 40 Corsairs flying out to bomb targets. The RNZAF would destroy 103 Japanese aircraft confirmed in the Pacific War plus 24 others labelled as 'probably destroyed'.

After the war, Mr Cox was based in Japan before finally coming home in 1947. He has written three books on his wartime experiences: Too Young To Die, Pacific Scrapbook and Cats Have Only Nine Lives. They were written so those who lost their lives would not be forgotten.

On his return to New Zealand, Mr Cox married his older brother's widow Winnifred, on August 13, 1949, in Hamilton. They were married for 62 years before Winnifred died 18 months ago.

Most of Mr Cox's post-war working career was spent as a flight instructor at Auckland's Ardmore airfield. Today, he is engaged in gentler pastimes.

"I'm playing indoor bowls now. It's a lot harder than flying Corsairs."


 

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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