Phil Lamason: Humble Bay pilot

By Christine McKay

War isn't a romantic thing, Dannevirke's Phil Lamason says.

"Often during World War 2, they were very glum days," the former RAF squadron leader and prisoner of war says.

Mr Lamason lives quietly on his Rua Roa farm but his heroism, revealed in the documentary The Lost Airmen of Buchenwald, touched the hearts of many and stimulated a flow of fan mail.

Squadron leader Lamason flew an amazing 45 missions, an even more remarkable achievement when you consider the RAF toll - 96 per cent of those who served in the bomber squadrons were killed.

His combat war ended when he was shot down over France on June 8, 1944. As the last man out of his bomber, he was hidden by the French Resistance for seven weeks before being captured by the Gestapo.

After being sold out by traitor Jacques Desaubrie for 10,000 francs, the equivalent of $120, Phil and fellow airmen were herded into cattle cars for the horrendous five-day journey to Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald, on the Ettersberg (Etter Mountain) near Weimar, Germany.

Once there, "there was no way out except as smoke through the chimney", the now 93-year-old says.

Life in Buchenwald was hell, with a starvation diet consisting of sawdust bread and thin soup with maggots.

"They tried to break our spirit too. We were told to move a pile of stones from one place to another. It was demoralising."

Thirty-five thousand lost their lives in Buchenwald, but Phil was determined he and his fellow airmen weren't going to join them.

At one stage, there were 20 guns aimed at him, but for some reason the officer didn't give the order to fire.

But unbeknown to his fellow airmen, the Gestapo had given the extermination order.

For several weeks Phil negotiated with the camp authorities to have the airmen transferred to a POW camp, but his requests were denied. Finally, at great risk he secretly got word to the underground of the Allied airmen's captivity and four days before their scheduled execution, the prisoners were suddenly transferred to Stalag Luft III. The German authorities had been informed that their captured airmen would receive similar treatment.

Phil had seen the extermination order, but didn't tell his "men" until a Buchenwald reunion in 1985. He'd saved the lives of 168 airmen - 82 Americans, 48 British, 26 Canadians, 9 Australians, 2 New Zealanders and 1 Jamaican.

Fellow prisoner, American Joe Moser, later said it was Phil's quiet, strong but aggressive leadership which was a critical factor not only in holding up prisoner morale but in facilitating their eventual release.

After the war, Phil was often a guest of King George VI at Buckingham Palace where the then Princess Elizabeth liked to hold his hand and chat.

"She'd make a beeline for me," he said.

And the King had a special request, asking him to "buzz" the palace. Three Stirlings flew over Buckingham Palace.

"I told the other boys to peel off and let me go for it," Phil said.

In 1946, he was asked to be the lead pilot to test the flight paths for a new British airport. As part of the agreement, he was offered a farm in Berkshire.

However, family said he needed to go home instead and Heathrow Airport went ahead without him.

When asked what he'd like on his return, his answer was quick. "I'd like a farm in a warm place" and in 1948 he acquired 406 acres at Rua Roa.

A private, humble and reluctant hero, Phil's story has a lot to offer young people today, his son John told Dannevirke High School pupils this week.

"He showed perseverance, honesty and integrity and while you may not have a war to fight, there may, at times, be a war inside that you have to battle and face," John said.

"I'm grateful to his generation who fought for our freedom."

- Hawkes Bay Today

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