Unearthing pieces of New Zealand's WWII history


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Unearthing pieces of New Zealand's WWII history

JOHN SELKIRK/The Dominion Post
Fossicker Tony Stevenson with some of of the WW2 aircraft parts at his Mystery Creek property near Hamilton.

In the far corner of a Hamilton lifestyle block, an 18-year-old amateur archaeologist is digging up parts of New Zealand's abandoned World War II history piece by rusting piece.
Tony Stevenson is unearthing what remains of 474 Corsairs, Kittyhawks, Avengers, Venturas and Hudson bombers planes destroyed by the New Zealand Air Force at the end of World War II.
The planes were given to New Zealand on a lend-lease deal with the United States to provide support in the Pacific. At the end of the war they could not be sold, so the air force dismantled them for reuse or scrap.
Whatever was salvageable was taken off the planes aluminium was turned into kitchenware, magnetic compasses were scooped up by mariners, and farmers took the wheels and tyres for farm trailers.
What was left was dumped down a gully at the edge of the Rukahia airfield at Mystery Creek and lost to history, until the amateur archaeologist and his family found them half a century later.
Mr Stevenson said he had been fossicking and unearthing parts of the old planes since he was six.
Although he sometimes takes friends and family along to help, more often he works alone, surrounded by native bush and wrapped round by a sense of history. The whump, whump of air force Iroquois helicopters which still fly overhead from the air strip added to the atmosphere.
"I don't really keep track of the time. When you start digging you just get stuck into it and time just flies."
He has lovingly polished parts dug from the ground to display in a glass case his "pride and joy" - dominates his bedroom.
Other parts he has given to collectors, visitors or people who restore planes.
Mr Stevenson, a Te Wananga computer student, researched every part he found on the internet or sought help from fellow historic aircraft enthusiasts.
Among his most prized trophies are the air intake for a Ventura bomber, Corsair machine gun tubes and Kittyhawk engine tags. A switch ominously marked "Destruction" is one piece he has failed to identify.
His dream is to find an intact aircraft local rumour has it that one still lies in the gully.
His salvage operation hit a "heartbreaking" setback in March this year when several truckloads of sand were dumped by a local business over the bank, in the exact place where Mr Stevenson had been digging.
"The heart sort of sank. It wasn't a very good day when that happened," he said.
But undeterred, he is now scraping away through the sand.
His mother, Ivy, is proud of his hobby. "For his age, most people are out there drugging and drinking and I think it's wonderful.
"Every second or third day he'll be over there pottering or digging, bringing it over here and polishing it up."
She said his passion was not about glorifying war but honouring those who had fought. "Those were our grandfathers and great-grandfathers who fought the war for us and it should never be forgotten," she said.

John Kelly of the Warbirds Association said the site of the dumped planes was "a very important part of New Zealand's aviation and wartime history" and said it was fantastic to see a young man taking such an interest.
"A number of New Zealand's 'few' who flew these aircraft in battle have told members of the association that it was a very emotional time when they were ordered to fly the aircraft that had served them so well, back [to] Rukahia for scrapping," he said.
Only a handful of these aircraft survive today and are still fit to be flown. They have all been painstakingly put together piece by piece with parts salvaged by enthusiasts such as Mr Stevenson, Mr Kelly said.
Aviation enthusiast Kevin Jones, who used to own an adjoining property to that of Mr Stevenson, remembered how, as a child, he wandered among the planes as they lay abandoned in the field standing as if just landed by pilots returning from the Pacific.
He said he wished he had paid more attention to the planes at the time and applauded Mr Stevenson's commitment.
The teenager just shrugs away such praise, shoulders his metal detector and heads back to his field of fallen dreams.

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After the War farmers bought gliders being sold so cheap that they would dump the gliders & use the shipping crates for lumber, it cost less than just buying the same amount of boards at a lumberyard.