“How the hell did I manage to live to 100 years, I didn’t do anything to deserve that,” Neill Boak says with a grin.
He survived World War II while flying a Catalina over the Pacific on dangerous rescue missions and today made New Zealand history.
Boak became the first Kiwi to receive a birthday card from the new monarch, King Charles III, on the day of his 100th birthday.
“I’m delighted to send you my warm congratulations on your 100th birthday together with my best wishes for an enjoyable celebration to Mr Neill Boak 20th November 2022,” the King’s message read.
Boak hasn’t had much time to think about the communication from the new head of state but said, “I’m very fortunate and grateful that I have lived this long ... I have had a lot of fun.”
Boak, now a resident of Auckland’s North Shore, was presented with the card at Bert Sutcliffe Retirement Village, Birkdale, today. The room was full of friends and family who had travelled from all over the world to be there.
Born in Asansol in the West Bengal region of India to an Irish mother and Kiwi engineer father, Boak came to New Zealand at age 7, where he went to school first in Tauranga, then Auckland’s Kings College.
He studied surveying at the University of Auckland but on his 18th birthday in November 1940 he joined the army, signing up with the Auckland East Coast Mounted Rifles. However, Boak wasn’t too fond of horses so he transferred to driving Bren gun carriers and then tanks.
There was a shortage of pilots, however, which saw Boak transferred to the Air Force and sent to Canada for pilot training.
Although he was serving in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, Boak was later seconded to duty with the US Navy in New Caledonia during WWII and was under American orders, which led to him flying Catalina flying boats on rescue missions over the vast Pacific Ocean.
“I was bloody scared! I was scared all the time, though there was not really time to be scared. You just did what you had to do,” Boak said.
After he was discharged from military duty in 1946, Boak formed his own private surveying practice, DN Boak & Partners.
He also married the love of his life, Philippa, with whom he had enjoyed a six-year relationship by correspondence during the war. The couple went on to have two daughters, sadly one dying young at the age of 34.
Tragically, Boak was widowed after Philippa died in her 40s but he threw his energy into his surveying career, eventually retiring at 86 as the oldest practising surveyor in New Zealand. Neill Boak Place in Beachlands is named after him for his many years of surveying work.
One of his most well-known assignments was mapping out the location of the Auckland motorway system, which is still a well-recognised feature of the city’s landscape today.
One of the surveyors in his team was Bill Birch, a retired New Zealand politician who served as Minister of Finance from 1993 to 1999.
As a long-serving member of the RSA, Boak has also played an active part in the welfare of fellow veterans and always attends Anzac Day services.
Boak’s great-nephew, Andrew Baker, said in a speech today: “You’re a man who means so much to all of us, all the people in the room, a wonderful man who means so much in all our lives and as a group, we’re so happy to be here to celebrate 100 years.”
North Shore MP, Simon Watts had organised for his secretary in Wellington to collect the card from Government House in person and fly the card to Auckland so it would be in time for Boak’s birthday.
Boak’s Nephew, Ted Baker, said the family had no idea that he would be receiving the letter today.
“You have to apply for that type of recognition ahead of time but we had heard nothing ... As far as we knew, no letter had come,” Baker said.
“Neill is the last of his generation and a real inspiration to the rest of the family,” said Baker.
Boak is a positive type — his farewell “benediction” to everyone he meets is always, “have fun”.
“I’ve just tried to have fun in life and I always say to people ‘have fun’ and if you’re not having fun, decide what you’re doing wrong and fix it!” Boak said.
Boak’s Centenarian Milestone was also acknowledged with cards from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Governor General Dame Cindy Kiro, and head of Veterans’ Affairs Bernadine Mackenzie.
“This is a significant milestone, and I hope you will take some time to savour the moment ... I also want to take this opportunity to thank you for your service to New Zealand during the Second World War - we are grateful to you for the part that you played,” Mackenzie’s letter said.