Putting fear on hold to get the job done sums up what it was like for Bert Sutcliffe resident Neill Boak flying Catalina boats over the Pacific during WW2.
“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.”
Although he was in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, he was seconded to duty with the US Navy based in New Caledonia and was under their orders.
“My job was to pick up the pilots who had been shot down by our friends the Japanese.
“If they were lucky enough to get down into the water we had to go and pick them up and that was why I was flying the flying boats.”
It was skilful work. If the water was rough it was tough to land, but if the water was calm, it was tough to take off.
“You had to go backwards and forwards, rocking the plane, to make enough waves to get airborne.
“Because of the peculiar function of flying boats you have got to break the suction caused by the surface tension that’s holding them down onto the water.”
It was rewarding work however, with Neill describing the rescuees as ‘very grateful!’
Joining the Air Force was not Neill’s original plan.
Born in Asansol in the West Bengal region of India to an Irish mother and Kiwi engineer father, Neill came back to New Zealand aged seven where he went to school first in Tauranga then 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 (ECMR).
However, he did not really like horses so he transferred first of all to driving Bren gun carriers and then tanks.
Based at Ngāruawāhia, he rose to the rank of Regimental Transport Sergeant, enjoying quick promotion due to his ability to march properly thanks to military drill at Kings.
There was a shortage of pilots so Neill transferred to the Air Force and was sent to Canada for pilot training.
However, as a result of flying with a cold, he suffered terrible sinus pain and spent six months in hospital in Calgary ‘without putting my feet on the floor’.
He was invalided by ship back to New Zealand and it was from there that he was sent to the Pacific.
Neill continued on with the NZRAF for a while after the war in a training role before resuming his studies for surveying.
He also married the ‘love of his life’ Philippa, with whom he had enjoyed a six year relationship by correspondence during the war and the couple went on to have two daughters.
Tragically, Neill was widowed after Philippa died in her 40s but he threw his energy into his surveying career, setting up his own private practice DN Boak & Partners and retired at the impressive age of 86.
There is even a street called Neill Boak Place in Beachlands in honour of his many years of surveying work.
One of his most well-known assignments was mapping out the location for the Auckland motorway system, which is still a well-recognised feature of the city’s landscape today.
As a long-serving member of the RSA, Neill has played an active part in the welfare of fellow veterans and always attends ANZAC Day services.
Despite tragedy striking again, with the death of his daughter at the age of 34, Neill maintains a positive outlook on life, and considers himself lucky.
“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!”
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