Jack Blyth enjoyed the honour of laying a wreath as part of the Anzac Day service at Diana Isaac Retirement Village yesterday.
The commemoration and memories of different times was important for many in the village.
Jack remains passionate about the time he served with the Royal NZ Engineers both in New Zealand and during a stint in the Pacific. He remembers flying on a Bristol Freighter to Fiji, where he and other Kiwi servicemen helped the locals set up better schooling facilities in a jungle-bound town within the island of Vitu Levu.
Travelling both to Fiji, to help the local Catholic girls’ school, and later to various Pacific destinations and to North America with his wife Athlyn, have been highlights of a long life.
Jack, who lives in the Diana Isaac resthome, is keen to point out he didn’t spend a lot of time serving overseas, but when he did jump on board a plane to the Pacific it was a highlight.
In Fiji he and other New Zealand service men had to bring clothing shop machinery, powered by a foot-tread system, to allow the young women to learn how to make clothes. The dozen manual machines, which did not require electricity, was brought up by boat on a river that formed a transport corridor into the central part of the island.
That trip was just one of many parts of his service that led to life-long friendships. He later was a member and secretary of the Canterbury chapter of ‘Sappers of New Zealand’. He explains the name ‘sapper’ associated with the corp as the most junior enlisted rank (as opposed to private) is derived from the trench or spade work the engineers did in earlier conflicts.
Until relatively recently, the group would meet each month at the Papanui RSA to maintain their comradeship and talk about shared experiences.
Jack was born in the tiny West Coast coal mining town of Millerton, near Granity. “I was born in my grandmother’s house because the doctor didn’t get there in time,” he says.
He started his tertiary education at the University of Otago, training as a coal mine engineer. He got through the first year but unhappy with his own academic progress having spent a couple of nights a week at the pub and played a lot of football with a group of rowdy students.
He was called up for 14 weeks of Compulsory Military Training (CMT), at Burham Camp, accepting the judgement and advice of his sergeant major that he was a good soldier and should sign up for the army at the end of CMT.
Being part of the army fraternity suited him. It was a life of adventure, with a lot of his career based in the North Island. He graduated through the early ranks, lance corporal, corporal, sergeant, and staff sergeant by the start of the 1960s.
He was based as a senior instructor mainly in Linton, though for three years he taught other engineers in a RNZE-base in Petone, where he and his wife and his new family shared a ‘government house’. His daughter Trish then son Dave were new arrivals to a transient army life.
Sometimes he was called away to make urgent repairs including the construction of temporary Bailey bridges. These came into play after flood damage. For example, part of the bridge over the Rangitikei River, near Bulls, needed to be repaired in June 1973. He also helped build bridges up to Tūroa skifield, and helped train those in the Ministry of Works. By the late 50s, then mid-60s he had risen in rank to Warrant Officer Class II then Class I, giving up the chance of promotion to be an officer because he did not want to move from the relative comfort of Linton. He remained training others including engineers from the Pacific islands.
He specialised in explosives as part of his engineering work, which included demolishing the Waverley Water Tower, in south Taranaki, and part of the Christchurch Brick Works, located near Cashmere. Demolition, with explosives and detonation cord, was not dangerous, given the care taken laying the successive explosive modules around a tower or other building to be demolished, he says.
After reaching the engineers retirement age of 42 the family moved south to Christchurch, settling in Harewood. Jack was only a short time retired, taking up an offer to become the trainer of young Air New Zealand apprentice engineers starting out their careers at the Christchurch engineering shop, staying with the airline for 15 years.
“Safety was a big thing on the shop floor,” he says.
Jack was one of the early Diana Isaac residents, initially moving into a ground unit amongst the double-storey independent apartments, being the first to move into that ‘McLeans‘ block in January 2013. His wife Athlyn had passed away in 1998 six years after a bad stroke.
Jack’s best friends at Ryman included former servicemen ‘Captain’ Jack Brunton and ‘Captain’ Roly Manning. Jack played many sports, he was selected to play under 16 soccer for New Zealand but the tour was cancelled. He played for Otago University, Canterbury University, New Zealand Army and Army Combined Services against police, navy and air force teams each year.
Both Jack and village resident Shirley McDonald jointly laid the wreath on April 25. Jack's family including daughter Trish and son Dave were at the service.