Secret messages, bawdy stories and skulls in the jungle: NZ’s oldest veteran remembers
Dressed smartly in a green cardigan and shiny black shoes, Ronald Hermanns is happy as he potters around his home in a quiet south Christchurch neighbourhood, chatting with his neighbour and friend Mike Beard as he heats up a meal for lunch.
Despite having never married and living alone, Ron’s days are far from empty. He wanders down to the local shops to natter with staff, enjoys the company of three carers who have become firm friends and keeps up with the world through the radio - turned up to full blast through his headphones so he can hear it.
I was all ready for it in my mind, I was ready in my heart,
His eyes and ears may be failing but Ron is still sprightly.
A few years ago, Beard caught him pruning shrubs from a precarious perch on a table while wearing a bicycle helmet, earning him a gentle rap over the knuckles.
Yet Ron Hermanns is 108, an age that earns him the title of New Zealand’s oldest man and its oldest living World War II veteran.
Born in Canada in September 1911 - before World War I, and before the Titanic sank - Hermanns and his family moved to Wellington in 1914.
After school, he became an engineering apprentice, and in the 1930s, Ron turned to his first love.
“I have always been interested in aircraft, and the way Hitler was going on there was bound to be a war,” he said.
“Then they started the Territorial Air Force, which suited me. I was going to learn about aircraft and I would be prepared for a war at the same time.”
Hermanns joined up in 1937 and when war was declared in 1939, enlisted in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, service number 437019.
“I have had that explained to me that I was the 19th person to join the Air Force,” he said.
Two weeks before war broke out he was posted to Woodbourne training base near Blenheim, where he learned the ropes as an aircraft engineer, overhauling planes, predominantly Baffins that had been sent over from Britain, and going up on test flights to make sure all was well.
Eighty years on he can still recall the exact way the 250lb bombs were attached to the planes as they went up for dawn patrols, his memories cutting through the fog of age to recall the specifics of how claws held them in place and the mechanics of a plunger setting them off after being dropped.
His time as a territorial had set him up for the reality of doing his duty to defend country and Commonwealth. “I was all ready for it in my mind, I was ready in my heart,” he said.
Those realities came to fruition when Hermanns was posted to Espiritu Santo in 1943, the largest island of the New Hebrides, now Vanuatu, as part of the war in the Pacific.
Airmen lived in tents and huts hidden among plantations of coconut palms, coffee and cotton, working from airstrips that had been laid out before the war, Hermanns’ about four miles away.
“The enemy would sometimes come over at night and they couldn’t see us,” Hermanns said.
“The aircraft that we had were out in the open of course, so they bombed those that they could see. We would go to the airstrip in the day and find the planes had been bombed and destroyed.”
With secrecy from the enemy paramount, diaries and photos were banned. But that did not stop servicemen setting up clandestine operations before they headed off to war - Hermanns included.
“We overcame it by buying a camera and taking it to pieces. Each one had a piece of camera in his kit bag and the idea was that when we arrived at our destination we would put all those bits together.”
Film was sneaked out to them from friends in Wellington who would hide it in pre-arranged locations aboard planes that flew out from New Zealand.
Family could not know where they were serving either, so Hermanns bought maps and developed a code to tell them.
“I would say, ‘If I were you, that window you’re having put in at home, I would have it 16 inches high and about 14in long’. They could tell from that where I was overseas.”
Then there were his weekly letters home to his mother, often bland and dealing with the day-to-day, deliberately leaving out what would be censored.
Then, when he came home, he filled in the juicy parts, eventually creating a diary that is now held by the Alexander Turnbull Library.
While six days a week on Espiritu Santo were spent building and maintaining aircraft, predominantly Kittyhawks, the seventh was down-time.
Hermanns turned his hand to art, making intricate jewellery and souvenirs from shells, bamboo and items he scavenged to sell to the American troops on the island, he and his fellow Kiwis making good money from the more relaxed and free-spending “Yanks”.
Among the pieces he made in the Pacific were snakes, fashioned from acrylic pinched from aeroplane windows - the joke being that when a plane came down the men would look for the acrylic before hunting for the pilots.
While other men were married and had businesses being run by wives at home, Hermanns felt he was fortunate to have few responsibilities.
He was also spared the worries some of his comrades had about the easygoing charisma the Americans exuded back in New Zealand.
“One of [our men] said, ‘There’s Yanks everywhere you go at home. The girls are wearing a new kind of knickers - one yank and they’re off!’.”
Hermanns returned to Wellington in February 1944 before being sent overseas around a year later, this time to Henderson Field air base on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, where previously the Allied efforts to repel Japanese forces had turned the tide of the war in the Pacific.
While working on a runway between rows of coconut trees, a plane carrying bombs crash-landed.
Hearing the bombs rolling around inside and unsure if the safety caps were still on, Hermanns and the other men fled to hide in the jungle - only for the bombs not to detonate.
There was never any thought of us not being on the winning side.
While he again turned his hand to creating art, some of his fellow airmen had other more macabre hobbies.
“Sometimes on their day off our men would go back into the jungle and come out with skulls,” Hermanns said.
“They didn’t know whether they were American or Japanese. It seemed sacrilegious, somehow, but I know it was wartime.”
By then the war was drawing to a close, the result, for Ron, a foregone conclusion.
“There was never any thought of us not being on the winning side.”
He eventually left the Air Force in 1947 but followed his passion into civilian life, working as an aircraft engineer and then instructor to apprentices for the National Airways Corporation and later Air New Zealand in Christchurch, before retiring in 1976.
Despite his years of service, Hermanns only received his medals - among them the 1939-45 Star, the Pacific Star, the Defence Medal, the War Medal 1939-45, and the New Zealand War Service Medal - in 2010, having refused them, along with other servicemen, for 65 years as they did not bear their names.
Last year he celebrated his 108th birthday at the Air Force Museum in Wigram, Christchurch alongside fellow veteran Bill Mitchell, 106, and surrounded by the planes he worked on so long ago.
Today, Hermanns still has his medals, along with some of the artworks he created almost 80 years ago; the rest are on display at the Wigram museum.
And what does New Zealand’s oldest veteran make of war itself?
“Aliens from outer space would think we were mad. It just doesn’t make sense.”
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