From Hamilton Tech to Hiroshima: The amazing tales of a World War II flyer
Alone at night, no idea where he was and flying his Corsair fighter in the pitch black of the South Pacific, his fuel rapidly running out.
I wasn't scared, [well] I was, but just carrying on.
It was November 1944, and a flash of lightning was about to save Bryan Cox's life.
Stuff caught up with the 96-year-old World War II veteran at his Tauranga home where, over more than three hours, he described a journey that took him from Hamilton Tech across the Pacific and eventually, to the atom bomb-ravaged city of Hiroshima.
Cox is riveting company, and you know you’re in the presence of an airman the moment you step into his house. The walls are adorned with pictures of him as a younger man, with the planes he flew and the squadron comrades he fought with.
There’s the Certificate of Appreciation “for service given to New Zealand”, signed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and then-Defence Minister Ron Mark.
There are also pictures of the Corsair Fighter, a plane he credits, along with that flash of lightning, for saving his life.
It’s a story that starts in 1940, when Cox was in his final year at the Tech, and involves his English teacher, “a chap called Gummy Martin”.
“It was the year of the Battle of Britain. [Martin] had the whole wall of the English classroom papered with London Illustrated News, in colour. Mostly shot down German aircraft, Spitfires and Hurricanes,” Cox said.
“His whole wall was decorated and that’s where we all decided, the whole class possibly. A very high percentage went to the aircraft rather than the army.”
While Cox walks slowly as he takes us through his home to his office set up in the corner, voicing displeasure at the latest Windows update, his mind works fast.
All through the afternoon his recall of events that took place as far as 80 years ago is incredible.
The first Air Training Corp parade he saw, November 13, 1941, when he joined the air force, March 1943, and when he first arrived on the island of Guadalcanal, site of some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific War, November 1944.
Cox, 19-years-old, at the time, arrived after the Allies had succeeded in pushing the Japanese forces off the island.
He was then sent to Green Island in the Solomons.
His role, and the role of 16 Squadron, was to keep a lid on the Japanese forces 150 miles away on the island of New Britain, clustered mainly around the main base at Rabaul.
“There were 100,000 Japanese, and we patrolled over Rabaul to stop them flying off their five airfields.”
I turned the battery switch off accidently. All of a sudden I was flying in complete darkness, I couldn’t see anything.
Cox said the heaviest fighting had by that time “gone much further North”, not that Rabaul didn’t present the odd target,
“If we saw a vehicle on the road, it wasn’t worth losing a Corsair fighter to get a vehicle at Rabaul itself, it was full of tunnels, but away from that area there were plantations and things, if we saw a truck we would dive on it and shoot at it,” he said.
“In fact I think in my logbook I’ve got an entry, ‘strafed truck with two cabbages on it’.”
The Japanese anti-aircraft guns were “fairly primitive”, but you still had to be careful, he said.
“To hit you they had to aim in front of you. They’d wind madly on these handles then pull the trigger, it automatically aimed the correct distance ahead of you,” he said.
“It took then 20 seconds of that before they pulled the trigger, so we’d spend two-and-a-half hours over Rabaul, and we never flew straight for more than 20 seconds. After every 20 seconds you'd dive, climb or manoeuvre, and then the gunners wouldn’t fire.”
On some occasions he said he’d strafe a truck, which would immediately catch fire.
“Actually, it was quite exciting.”
Cox didn’t rate the Japanese Zero fighter planes much, saying that apart from their ability for tight turns “a couple of bullets, and they’d fall apart”.
Not that he saw any anyway, as the growing Allied supremacy meant “Zero's had finished by that time, in that area”.
They weren’t unaware of the danger of falling into Japanese hands however.
He said tales reached them from Australian soldiers of airmen found, strung up by their thumbs and mutilated.
It was a fear Cox said helped keep them sharp and manoeuvring, or as he put it, “flying along as if we were drunk”.
It was also when trying to save a downed airman from capture by the Japanese forces on Rabual that Cox later found himself alone, in the dark and lost.
A pilot called Frank Keith had been shot down, the start of what Cox calls “Black Monday”, when a further eight pilots were lost.
Cox was part of a flight that had dropped a raft into the water for Keith – who despite their efforts was captured, dying two weeks later from his injuries.
It was on their return to Green Island that the tropical storm hit, then darkness fell, and he became separated from his fellow Squadron members.
Then, when he was reaching for a light switch in his cockpit, things got even worse.
“I turned the battery switch off accidently. All of a sudden I was flying in complete darkness, I couldn’t see anything,” he said.
“And then I was on my own.”
Thankfully, due to their florescent markings, he could just about make out two instruments.
One was his artificial horizon, the other his altimeter which showed his height above the water.
Before he adjusted, he’d had it set at zero, “and that's only 40 feet above the water”.
"I wasn't scared, [well] I was, but just carrying on.”
Talking about this moment is the only time over the whole conversation when Cox’s eyes moisten, just slightly.
It wasn’t from concern about himself at that time that prompted the emotion though, his concern then was for his parents, more than 3000km away in New Zealand.
They, and he, had only recently learnt of the death of his brother Grant, killed when his Lancaster bomber was shot down over Berlin.
“I was thinking about my parents. I wasn’t worried about myself. I was thinking what will my parents do now, because Grant's been killed and there was only two of us in the family.”
While he couldn’t see his fuel gauge, he’d been flying for four hours now and knew it was running out, and fast.
Bailing out into the water wasn’t an option either, “entangled underneath a parachute, heavy boots. The sharks would eat me as well. I had no options.”
“I got to the stage where I thought I might as well just close my eyes.”
Luckily, he didn’t.
“Completely out of the blue, well the black, there’s a flash of lighting and I saw trees directly under me. Now that Corsair, because it held its heading ... I had no reason to change direction and the Corsair held that heading. I thank the Corsair.”
In the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, Cox knew the trees had to be Green Island.
“I knew the airfield would be round the corner.”
The Japanese public didn’t appear to be aware of what happened in the war, they had no idea of the atrocities committed by their armies and the civilians treated us like friends.
He’s in no doubt that without that lightning, he wouldn’t be here today.
“Another ten minutes I'd have run out of fuel. It was only a flash, but I saw Green Island.”
Cox also saw action in Bougainville, part of the Papua New Guinea islands, dropping 1000 pound bombs in support of Australian soldiers on the ground.
He said they would use smoke bombs, two either side of the Japanese troops.
That’s when Cox would fly in, something he did 31 times in total.
”I could have killed a thousand Japanese. No doubt I was responsible for many deaths of Japanese soldiers.”
The damage his 1000 pound bombs, all 31 of them, paled into insignificance compared to what Cox saw in March 1946 however.
That was when he was posted to a Japanese town called Iwakuni, barely 40km from Hiroshima, the site of the first atomic bomb attack the world had ever seen on August 6, 1945.
He flew over the city every day.
”For about five miles by three miles, was black. Nothing there, just black.”
Cox described the site of the ruined city as “grotesque”.
Remarkably however, he found nothing but kindness in the land of his former enemies.
“The Japanese public didn’t appear to be aware of what happened in the war, they had no idea of the atrocities committed by their armies and the civilians treated us like friends,” he said.
“When you walked down the street, any Japanese civilian, they treated you as if there hadn’t been a war. There was no repercussions from the public.”
Cox finally returned to New Zealand in March 1947.
How did it feel to be back?
“Milking cows? Everyone else was doing the same,” he said.
Cox didn’t stay in the milking shed for too long, going on to become a flight instructor and eventually racking up more than 20,000 hours in the air.
Amazingly, his last flight was just three years ago.
“I started flying in 43 and didn’t fully give up until 93.”
As Stuff prepares to leave Cox’s home, a small case is spotted on his hall table by the front door, possibly a medal?
Cox opens it to reveal a pen and an inscription.
It was handed to him in 1988 by Minoru✓ Fujita, the Japanese officer who all those years ago, pulled Frank Keith out of the Pacific.
He visited New Zealand, staying with Keith’s family.
The inscription reads: “The pen is mightier than the sword”.
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