Wanaka's last WWII pilot remembered
Believed to be Wanaka’s last remaining World War Two fighter pilot, Clarrie Berryman, has passed away. Clarrie died at Wanaka’s Elmslie House last week, a few days short of his 93rd birthday.
Clarrie, and fellow Wanaka WWII fighter pilot, Alex Sime were both keen supporters of the Warbirds Over Wanaka International Airshow and Sir Tim Wallis’ Fighter Pilot’s Museum. Alex died a few years ago. Clarrie and Alex were featured in an article in the 2004 Warbirds Over Wanaka programme. Here is their story:
War in the Paciifc by Jill Herron
Sixty years ago a Japanese invasion of New Zealand’s peaceful shores was a very real possibility. Kiwi families asked themselves what they would do if faced with the aggressors – take to the bush and hide, or fight it out?
Among the young men who helped foil Japan’s plans in the Pacific during the latter part of the conflict were Wanaka’s Clarrie Berryman and Alex Sime. Both men first flew fighter aircraft at the ripe old age of 19 years.
They remembered a nervous New Zealand in the early 1940s. Japanese submarines patrolled offshore, propaganda was broadcast, and a reconnaissance plane was spotted cruising Auckland’s skies one night. “There was every thought that the country was going to be invaded,” Clarrie recalled.
These were the dark days after the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, and when the war in Europe was at its most bloody. The RNZAF, primarily a training outfit equipped with Hawker Hinds and Harvards, had to swiftly transform into a fighting force to protect its shores and those of its Pacific neighbours. A vast area, mostly ocean, needed controlling amid tropical weather and difficult ground conditions.
From January 1942 the Japanese had entered Manila and Rabaul (which became a stronghold), then established, with frightening ease, a line of invasion from the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean to the Central Solomon Islands. Japanese aircraft attacked Northern Australia, and New Guinea was threatened.
Desperate for more operational aircraft, New Zealand appealed to Britain for help. The response typified the lack of seriousness with which the Pacific situation was regarded – Europe’s needs came first.
After repeated calls for help, 80 Kittyhawks and 36 Hudson bombers were promised to the RNZAF, although only 44 of the Kittyhawks ever arrived. Fiji became a vital link in the chain of island bases established by the US-led Allied Forces. Subsidiary bases sprang up in New Caledonia, the New Hebrides, Tonga and Samoa.
The Allies forestalled much Japanese progress, although for a time the enemy retained control of the sea and some air space. Marines’ positions ashore and American and Australian cruisers were ruthlessly bombarded. Thirteen Kiwi fighter squadrons fought in the Pacific around this time, some completing several tours. 14 Squadron alone shot down 22 Japanese craft, losing four of its aircraft and three pilots. In total the RNZAF, as part of the Allied force, destroyed 99 Japanese aircraft.
Japanese attempts to land reinforcements with naval support led to the battle of Guadalcanal in mid-1942 which effectively halted Japan’s advance in the South Pacific. They had similarly been stopped in the West Pacific in the battle of the Coral Sea, and in the Central Pacific in the battle of Midway Island.
The Japanese still occupied islands and maintained naval power, but their air forces were beaten. From 1943 to 1945 the RNZAF experienced most of its military action in the Pacific, the task in hand being to keep this determined foe subdued.
The P40 Kittyhawks had been the first real air defence New Zealand had secured. These were the fighters that prepared Clarrie for his first tour with 19 Squadron to Guadalcanal in 1944.
Clarrie’s 19 Squadron, moving on to FG-1D Corsairs, flew bombing and strafing missions on bridges, artillery bases and aggressive encampments. At times they dived down through a carpet of exploding artillery fire, then encountered more fire nearer ground as they released their explosives. “Ground fire poked a hole through my tail one time, right where the roundel is. It was big enough on one side to stick your head in it.” Clarrie was particularly glad of the Corsair’s sturdiness heading back to base that afternoon!
The enemy occasionally threatened ground invasion which kept the young pilots on edge many an evening. Late one night telephones ringing and people moving about heralded a fresh threat from the Japanese…they were “coming through to do the lot of us”. “We all thought this was very poor so we moved our beds to the centre of the tents to avoid any bayonets that might be stuck through. We were frightened as hell really.”
The thought of falling into Japanese hands as a prisoner was not a pleasant one and Clarrie recalled seeing air force personnel in ‘pretty poor shape’ after release from camps in the Solomon Islands. Clarrie’s third and final tour in the Pacific was as section leader with 26 Squadron. He has remained philosophical about the experience. “I was very young and I think young people benefit from a few frights but we did lose a few people.”
Alex too acknowledged that his experiences taught him a lot. His flying career began with training in Tiger Moths on the Tairei (near Dunedin), going on to complete four very active tours in the Pacific. Much of his time was spent in Bougainville in a camp surrounded by aggressive Japanese. “Our part of the island was only five miles long and three miles wide. They shelled us at night and quite a few nights we’d have to leap out of bed to go and shoot back from the trenches.”
Alex flew numerous missions as escort to Dauntless bombers, he and his four section weaving back and forth in tight formation about the bombers. Later the young fighter pilots became bombers themselves, dropping 1000 pound bombs on ships, long boats and camps.
He recalled the only time the pilots apparently out-ranked their superiors. A Japanese threat was uncovered – they were massing forces to take the whole Kiwi camp, to destroy firstly the planes, then the pilots and last of all the high-ranking officers!
Many fellow pilots were lost in Alex’s time in the Pacific, the worst day claiming seven men. Despite having part of a wing blown off on one occasion, Alex saw the war out, losing only his hearing in one ear. He believed this was caused by strafing with the canopy open to allow better vision. It was common practice because coral dust off the islands would often coat the Corsair’s windscreen obscuring targets.
When the end of the war was announced Alex was among the jubilant young men who flew low over Japanese camps with a special message painted under their wings – “your Emperor is telling you to surrender”. Suddenly the Kiwis in their Corsairs no longer had to spread fear and destruction, only the news the whole world wanted to hear. Alex will never forget the smiling, waving Japanese who ran out onto the beaches to greet these messengers of the sky that day.