One of the luckiest sailors in the Merchant Navy during World War II has been honoured with the French Legion of Honour medal.

John Hillier of Tauranga has been recognised by the French Government for his role in fighting for the liberation of France when he served as an anti-aircraft gunner on a ship transporting troops across the English Channel to the D-Day beaches of Normandy.

Looking back to those monumental days 72 years ago, he did not recall feeling afraid, despite the dual threat from the Luftwaffe above and submarines below.

"It never worried us. We were young and adventurous."


Mr Hillier, who marched in Normandy during the 50th anniversary celebrations of D-Day in 1994, said that when explosions came close you accepted it because that was life in the Merchant Navy.

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Born in the Kent town of Bexleyheath in 1927, he tried to join the paratroopers and then the Royal Navy in 1943 at the age of 16, but was rejected because he was too young.

The only option was the Merchant Navy which accepted boys. He started as assistant steward and quickly graduated to an anti-aircraft gunner.

His memories of the war started with bombs dropping on Bexleyheath and missing his home where they used to huddle under the stairs. Mr Hillier's luck held throughout his war service, particularly the perilous convoys across the North Atlantic.

"We were under fire from submarines right through."

Although he saw plenty of other merchant ships sunk by German torpedoes in their convoys, none hit the ships he served on. Neither was he injured by strafing German fighter planes.

Mr Hillier's son David said his father had a very lucky war but Mr Hillier senior put it down to just doing his duty.

"A few bullets came his way, but nothing major," David said.

As usual with wartime remembrances, one of his most memorable occasions was when he met a girl in New York and they went into a bar where Frank Sinatra was singing.

Mr Hillier, 88, jumped ship in New Zealand in 1947 and settled in Masterton where he married and raised a family.

He recalled the ship's captain gathering all the young crewmen together and telling them that Britain was stuffed and if any of them wanted to get off in Australia or New Zealand he would turn a blind eye.

David Hillier said the Legion of Honour medal was a fitting recognition of his father's brave and remarkable time during the war.