Imagine being stuck in a ‘foxhole’ in the ground as a raging battle in the air took place and bombs were exploding all around you. This is what my father Eugene Warwood endured during his Second World War service with the Royal New Zealand Air Force in Vanuatu’s Green Islands.
Eugene was a Staff Sergeant, a cook with the RNZAF Radar Group supporting the New Zealand 3rd Division in the Battle of the Green Islands (Operation Squarepeg) that was fought from February 15 to 20, 1944, between Imperial Japan and the United States of America with Allied forces that included New Zealand.
The invasion of the islands was carried out under the command of William Halsey Jr., the Fleet Admiral of the United States Navy and was staged out of Vella Lavella and the Treasury Islands. The islands invaded included Nissan Island and were recaptured from heavily outnumbered Japanese forces (estimated at around 120 to 150 strong).
Even though his experiences in the islands were “pretty hairy”, Eugene remembered how the Americans’ love of whisky, or anything “alcohol” was paramount in their lives in the Pacific arena of war.
The “culinary skills” of the Kiwi servicemen made them quite a bit of money on the side, producing home brew for the “Yanks” from potato peelings.
“The Americans could not get enough and our home brew business became quite lucrative, as did our whisky trade. We always returned from our leave in New Zealand with a good stock of whisky for the boys from the U.S. They couldn’t get enough of the stuff.”
Eugene Warwood was one of the early enlisters in the New Zealand Division of the Royal Air Force. His service number explains his position – 37229. The 37 depicted 1937, the year he enlisted and he was the 229th person to join the division.
Originally, Eugene wanted to be a tail gunner in a fighter plane but after it was explained to him that the life of a tail gunner in air combat averaged about three minutes he quickly changed his mind and settled for a life in the kitchen.
During his initial years Eugene was based at Hobsonville, the air force base on the upper reaches of Auckland’s Waitemata Harbour which serviced the flying boats that came in from overseas.
We lived at Beach Haven and dad, when he was home, would travel daily by air force barge across the harbour to his workplace in Hobsonville. Even though I was a youngster at the time, I still have memories of those days and three events still linger in my mind as if it was only yesterday. The first occasion was when Dad took us to a Royal New Zealand Airforce Open Day held at the adjacent airfield in Whenuapai.
I remember standing inside a giant U.S. Air Force troop plane. The aluminum fuselage seemed to be as big as a three-storey building it was so huge, and it was empty. There were only straps along the walls on each side to hold the soldiers in flight I would have thought.
On the second occasion, we visited Devonport Naval Base in Auckland and were given a guided tour through a U.S. aircraft carrier. That was another incredible experience as I remember being lowered down into the hold of that massive ship and staring at hundreds of small aircraft with their wings tilted upwards.
The third happening was a tragic event which took place at Herald Island which is in close proximity to Hobsonville and Whenuapai. It also involved the United States: an American transport plane, supposedly carrying Japanese diplomatic staff, crashed in 1943.
From my memory, we were in bed. It was the middle of the night and the house shook so badly we all thought it would collapse. My mother shrieked: “Oh my God, the Japanese are here.”
The Auckland Star wrote about the crash after the war had ended stating there was “official secrecy during the war, despite the wide knowledge of the crash which arose partly because the noise of the explosion following the crash woke up half Auckland”.
The plane, it appears, was a Consolidated C-87 Liberator Express which was leaving for Melbourne, Australia, and carrying Japanese internees, Thai nationals and two bombs. The plane crashed shortly after take-off and all eleven people on board were killed.
Eugene Warwood was discharged from the RNZAF in October, 1949, after serving his country for twelve years but he kept in touch with his wartime buddies and attended a number of reunions. During a reunion of the RNZAF Radar Group at Hobsonville in the early 1960’s, my sister Jennifer transported Dad for the occasion.
She remembers some of the former servicemen talking about the quality of the food that was served for them during their time in the Green Islands, Vanuatu.
“One of them said he could not stand what had been dished up to them and if he could have found out who the cook was, “that cook would not have lasted till the end of the war”.
When they were driving home from the reunion, Dad turned to Jennifer with a sly grin and said: “You know, I think that guy was referring to me.”
Our father was a heavy smoker – he had been smoking since he was thirteen years old – and despite that, he experienced very good health up until he died suddenly at the Otahuhu Returned Services Club on ANZAC Day, 2000.
He had attended the parade and was the first to arrive at the RSA clubrooms. He lined up a few jugs to celebrate yet another wartime commemoration but when his friends came in, Eugene was lying on the floor. He had passed, aged eighty four.
Resuscitation was applied for a while but my brother Paul who was President of the Otahuhu RSA at the time told them to stop. He accepted Dad had gone.
One of brother Paul’s better memories of that sad day was when the Maori members of the club lined up and provided a challenge for a “fallen warrior” as a mark of respect to an old friend.
“That was a day I will treasure for the rest of my life,” said Paul.
Although the lines of those amazing veterans have dwindled greatly in recent years, we still attend ANZAC parades in respect for their service to our country so that we could live a life of freedom – we look forward to it again this year.