Spare seats, but not for RAF vet
Public rallies to fund bomber pilot's flight
The Royal New Zealand Air Force is fitting out its Boeing 757 especially to fly New Zealand war veterans to a dedication and unveiling of the Bomber Command Memorial in London, but even though there are empty seats, there won't be room for veterans from other countries.
In the meantime the Nelson community has rallied to raise funds towards around $20,000 needed to send Nelson pensioner and former RAF bomber pilot John Beeching and his wife Wendy to the June ceremony, after it was revealed he was among several RAF pilots ruled out of the official New Zealand veteran delegation.
Nelson firm GJ Gardner Homes has pledged up to $10,000 towards the fund and Nelson's Cawthron Institute, where Mr Beeching works as a handyman, has offered to help by way of a $1000 gift from the institute's board. Cawthron management has offered to underwrite further travel costs.
At the moment there is $4756 sitting in the travel kitty, raised by the public who have flocked to help, and includes $1000 from an anonymous donor, project co-ordinator Kat Bailey said.
New Zealand Bomber Command Association administrator Peter Wheeler said the military aircraft taking the Kiwi delegation was being fitted out to accommodate the veterans comfortably, but several had since pulled out of the trip.
Mr Wheeler said they initially had 68 applicants but it was now likely that up to 40 veterans would be going from New Zealand.
He said they were not able to offer the available spaces to British veterans, for fear it would set a precedent for those from other countries now resident in New Zealand.
General manager of Veterans' Affairs Rick Ottaway said recently that veterans who did not serve with the Royal New Zealand Air Force did not meet the criteria to attend the London event as part of the official New Zealand delegation.
Mr Wheeler said there were many Australian and Canadian war veterans living in New Zealand who also wanted to attend, and whose countries were doing far less than New Zealand to mark the event.
The logistics and insurance costs of getting the New Zealand war veterans, plus partners and caregivers to London were "huge", and it was too much to consider adding more to the equation.
"It's just beyond us, but the upside of all the recent publicity is that we're getting more veterans coming out of the woodwork. Another 12 New Zealand Bomber Command veterans have joined the association in the last few days," Mr Wheeler said.
Mr Beeching, 88, flew with an RAF night-fighter squadron on pathfinder and bombing missions during World War II. He has lived in New Zealand for 60 years, becoming a citizen 30 years ago.
His plight was raised by Nelson drama production company Dramatix Theatre, which is using his story in the current annual war remembrance production, Lest We Forget and an associated documentary.
Ms Bailey, who works for Cawthron and who is a member of the Dramatix Theatre Development Trust, has taken charge of helping to co-ordinate Mr Beeching's trip to London. She said the cost of travel, insurance and accommodation would be around $20,000 for him and his wife, even at discounted rates through the help of Nelson travel broker Sue Ketel, who is providing booking and travel insurance services at cost price.
While the Beechings can stay with relatives in Essex, they will need to stay in London for the three days of events surrounding the memorial and unveiling ceremonies, Ms Bailey said.
She said Mr Beeching was indicative of the many veterans who had settled in New Zealand after the war, and who deserved to go to London.
"He helped rebuild New Zealand after the war. He's trained apprentices and engineers, and has every right to go."
Mr Beeching's personalised account of his time serving the RAF in the bomber command has been serialised by the Nelson Mail. Part One appears today on page 13 of the Weekend section.