As he looks at old photos of radar equipment used during World War II, Ian Sexton is the first to admit how basic it looks compared to the hi-tech computers we are familiar with now.
The Possum Bourne resident, who will turn 100 in July, was in the RNZAF working as a radar mechanic at coastal radar stations and says the technology was cutting edge at the time.
“We had to try and get an understanding of what was fairly complicated equipment. Radar work was all secret at the time but I seemed to be fairly good at it,” he says.
A former Manurewa Primary and Auckland Grammar boy, Ian had shown an aptitude for communications technology from a young age and decided to become a ‘ham’, but two days after hearing he’d passed his amateur operator exam, war broke out and ham radio was immediately banned.
In early 1941 the Post Office did a recruiting campaign for people with radio qualifications who were required for RNZAF technical work.
Ian applied and was accepted as a wireless mechanic but after training he switched to radar work, with the new technology able to detect planes at 6000 metres (20,000 feet) and from 70km (45 miles) away.
The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 and with the threat now much closer to home, the RNZAF set up a network of radar stations around the North Island and upper South Island. Ian worked out of Piha and Maunganui Bluff, north of Dargaville.
When he was at Maunganui Bluff, a Japanese plane was picked up on the radar but the people at Auckland HQ didn’t believe it, says Ian.
“There was another occasion there we plotted a submarine, I’m sure to this day.
“It just suddenly appeared and travelled at 9 knots. But again Auckland didn’t believe it.
“It was about three hours before they sent out a Hudson to search the area but they searched where it had been three hours earlier so nothing was found.”
Ian says they were up against a contingent who were anti-technology.
“There was a lot of suspicion of radar, they’d say ‘you fellows with your fancy gadgets’ and regarded us as a lot of idiots, whereas in England they were quite positive about it.”
Ian’s expertise came to good use in early 1943 when he was sent as part of a unit of 50 to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.
“I was the chief technical man as I knew more about it than anyone else.
“The Japs were coming in at night between 8pm and 4am on nuisance raids, disturbing everybody’s sleep.
“Once we got the equipment going we put a complete stop to that night bombing.”
Ian says as soon as the bombers were picked up a fighter would be scrambled and would be instructed by radio where to go to tail the bomber.
When the bomber crew picked up the radio channel and heard a transmission on it they knew that an instruction had been given to the fighter and they would alter course to dodge it.
“The range of their planes was such that they could only stay in the area for 25 minutes so we would keep them dodging until they had to head home.”
As far as preventing them from bombing Henderson Field, the large American base on Guadalcanal, Ian says: “It was outstandingly effective!”
Ian was sent back to New Zealand to form a nucleus for the next unit to go to the Solomon Islands but unfortunately he was struck down with malaria and had to spend some time recovering.
By then the Japanese were being pushed back and the radar units were being closed down and Ian transferred to pilot training.
By the time he was trained up the war was virtually over and Ian was posted to an Air Force reserve and returned to farming. He ran a dairy farm at Pukekawa for 30 years with his wife Daphne and the pair raised a daughter.
He built a state-of-the-art transmitter from scratch on his farm which could transmit around the world and is a radio enthusiast to this day.
He still holds the ham radio call sign ZLIPZ which was allocated to him when he started transmitting in 1946.
In 1993 Ian also produced a book, Radar Stories from the RNZAF 1939-45, which includes accounts from more than 50 contributors and can be found in most libraries.
Ian is a firm believer in remembering those who sacrificed their lives on Anzac Day but has strong opinions on the topic of war.
“What a colossal lunacy! We were faced with one gang of lunatics in Berlin, and another gang of lunatics in Tokyo. But would you let them walk all over you?”
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