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Kiwi man's mystery WWII heroics finally revealed

A new book brings together the families of Kiwi and British wartime heroes.

Mahia resident Yvonne Wairau knew very little about her father’s exploits as a wireless operator in a Lancaster bomber flying missions over Germany.
Until recently that is.
Yvonne’s dad Frank Symes flew with the Mallon crew, made up of four Kiwis – Frank, Bill Mallon, Jim Haworth and Ken Philp, and three Englishmen, Bob Jay, Don Cook and Denis Eynstone – at the tail end of World War II in No 75 (New Zealand) Squadron.
All Yvonne (59) had heard about Frank’s time overseas were small snippets he would only reveal when pushed. But thanks to flight engineer Bob’s son Vic Jay, Yvonne has a renewed admiration for what her dad and his fellow airmen went through.
Vic (69) has brought the crew’s extraordinary tale, which may well have been assigned to the dustbin of history if not for his determination, to light in a new book, The Mallon Crew. Ironically, it was the Woman’s Weekly that brought Vic and Yvonne together when a friend of Frank’s wife, Winnie, saw an appeal from Vic for information in the Weekly’s noticeboard.
Yvonne says, “I emailed to say I was Frank’s daughter. I was a bit wary at first, I didn’t know what he wanted, but Mum was quite excited,” she laughs. “Dad never really spoke about the war. He was always quite distant. We had his medals and that was about it.”
Yvonne holding a picture of her father Frank in his uniform. She knew little about his time with the Mallon crew as he didn’t speak about the war.
Frank was born in Nuhaka. He lost his mother when he was just five years old and his father at 16. He left Hastings Boys’ High to work on his uncle’s farm in Waverley, later admitting to the rest of the crew he only joined the air force at 18 because he thought it would be more exciting than being on the farm.
He trained as an air gunner and wireless operator in the RNZAF before leaving New Zealand in 1943 to continue training in Canada, where he was promoted to Flight Sergeant. He was then transferred to the United Kingdom.
“He had quite a sad life, losing his mother at a very early age, and quite a tough life, but then I think it was the same for a lot of families back then,” says Yvonne. “You read these war stories and it makes you think about what people actually went through and how families suffered. We’re just lucky Dad came home.”
(Clockwise from left): Stuart, Yvonne, Graeme, dad Frank, John, mum Winnie and baby Anthony.
Frank and Bill met up in Gisborne after the war and would have a few drinks, she says, adding that she and her husband Tom had hoped to meet up with Vic when they were in the UK for the Rugby World Cup in 2015, but never did. There’s a suggestion it may happen this year.
“What Vic’s done is wonderful bringing the families together. We just feel sad to think we could have found out so much, but we know so little.”
Frank died in 1979 at the age of 55, coincidentally the same age at which Bob died.
Vic, a retired teacher, says he had talked to his dad years ago about his time in the Lancaster, but only as a child. Bob died in 1974, leaving nothing tangible from his time at war other than some photographs, his log book and the name of his Kiwi pilot.
In 2012, wanting to know more so he could share his father’s experiences with his own kids, Vic obtained Bob’s service record.
“All I knew was that my dad flew with a New Zealand pilot, William ‘Bill’ Mallon. I remember asking my dad once if he thought he’d ever talk to Bill again and he just said it was highly unlikely because New Zealand was on the other side of the world. And in the 1950s it really was, in fact it could have been another planet it was that far away.”
Pilot William “Bill” Mallon. Left: Frank’s medals from WWII.
Technology, of course, has changed all that. Vic credits the internet with bringing, if not Bob, then his wartime story to New Zealand.
“It’s staggering to think that when I started this five years ago with the sole intention of finding out a little more about what my dad did, I had no idea I’d end up making friends with four families in New Zealand and another two in the UK, and hearing so many amazing tales.”
Vic, author of The Mallon Crew. Right: His father Bob Jay in 1944.
Vic is clearly delighted his delving into history also led to a reunion of surviving Mallon family members from Australia and New Zealand in New Plymouth recently. And while he is yet to hear back from family of bomb aimer Ken, Jim’s daughter, Ruth Ryan, also got in touch.
“New Zealanders had a real fascination for flying,” he says. “There was never conscription for the air force, they were all volunteers and they travelled on ships to the other side of the world. These chaps were heroes. You have to remember they were all young men. I just cannot imagine 19-year-olds these days sitting in an aircraft for eight hours knowing that any second they could be blown to pieces.”
Half-jokingly, Vic has sent a copy of his book to film director and vintage warbird collector Sir Peter Jackson, pointing out the Mallon crew’s efforts and sacrifices would be fantastic movie fodder, and were every bit as remarkable as those of No 617 Squadron, which Sir Peter is honouring with his remake of the 1955 classic The Dam Busters.
“I’ve yet to hear back from him,” he laughs.
The Mallon Crew is available from Amazon, RRP $23, the Airforce Museum, MOTAT, the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre and Hedleys bookstore, Masterton.
Words: Julie Jacobsen
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