Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

103-year-old RNZAF engineer last survivor of his wartime comrades

Bill Mitchell was deemed "too old" to be a World War II fighter pilot, but at today's Anzac Day commemorations the 103-year-old veteran was the last survivor of his wartime comrades.

The former Royal New Zealand Air Force engineer led the Christchurch dawn service parade in a US Army jeep - the first time he'd sat in one in more than 70 years.

Surrounded by five generations of his family, including great-great-granddaughter baby Layla Henderson, Mr Mitchell was touched by the turnout for the 100th Anzac Day service.

"It's amazing to see all these people. I don't know them from a bar of soap, but they all want to speak to me for some reason," said the war veteran who served across the Pacific theatre during the 1939-1945 war, including stints at Fiji, Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and Emirau Island.

"None of my mates are left - they're all dead."

Thousands turned out in Cranmer Square for the dawn service -- one of dozens of similar services held across New Zealand and Australia today.

Mayor Lianne Dalziel welcomed the crowd and urged them to remember those who gathered a century ago and to share in their sense of loss.

More than 1600 white crosses had been placed in the square, representing some of the number of Cantabrians killed in the war a century ago. There will be hundreds more at next year's service, in memory of those killed on the Western Front in 1916, especially at the infamous Battle of the Somme, until the final tally is reached.

The New Zealand Army Band performed Dave Dobbyn's Welcome Home which was sung at Chunuk Bair at last year's centenary commemorations at Gallipoli.

Jimmy Murchison, 55, laid a poppy after the service in memory of his grandfather who fought in World War I.

"I came today to pay my respects to him, and the others, in my small way," he said.

"It's very uplifting to see so many others doing the same."

After the service, Mr Mitchell retired to the Christchurch RSA with his family for breakfast.

He was glad he could today pay his respects to those who served during World War I, including three of his own uncles.

"What those chaps did was bloody amazing," he said.

Mr Mitchell signed up alongside his brother for the army at the outbreak of World War II.

However, he was posted to the RNZAF.

"I wanted to fly but at 26 I was too old. They just wanted 18-year-olds," he said.

He spent six years as an engineer, repairing parts on aircrafts, mainly bombers flown by New Zealand pilots.

Reflecting over a cup of tea today, Mr Mitchell believed that Anzac Day should now help promote a message of peace.

"We shouldn't be having wars, but that's the nature of the world today. It's very sad," he said.

- NZ Herald

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