RNZAF, Waipapakauri and the pub that went to the war

1942. Dark days for New Zealand. The Japanese had entered into the war after bombing the US Base at Pearl Harbour. The Army, Navy and Air Force had captured Singapore and were moving south. The Solomon Islands had fallen and the Army were on Guadalcanal, the most southern island in the group.  Was New Zealand to be a tential target?  And, if so, how soon?  To be prepared for possible attack the Royal New Zealand Air Force moved aircraft and personnel as far north in New Zealand as possible, and established an airfield at Waipapakauri.  The Army also moved personnel into the area.

Late in 1941 I had been posted from RNZAF Station Harewood in Christchurch to RNZAF Station Hobsonville in Auckland, and as a medic was attached to the medical sick quarters.  One morning, early in 1942, a young airman from the sick quarters roused me from my sleep, and told me,  "You have been posted.  I don't like to tell you where.  You are to report to the Flight Sergeant pronto." I dressed and reported to the Flight Sergeant.

"Get packed," he said.  "You're posted to Waipapakauri, and are to fly up in a Vilderbeest aircraft at 1230 hours today."

"Where," I asked, "is Waipapakauri?"

"Way to hell up north, past Kaitaia, near the Ninety Mile Beach. I believe it is a bloody awful sort of dump," said Flight Sergeant Ralph.

I packed and, as required, reported to the pilot of the aircraft, the late Sergeant Vic Cairns.  At that period everyone flying in Air Force aircraft was required to wear a parachute, but I had been informed by the parachute section there were no spares to go on a one way trip to Waipapakauri.  "Don't worry Sport," said sergeant Cairns, "We'll be flying well under 1000 feet, so a brolly will be of no use: in any case 'you'll be in the tunnel, so get in.' The vilderbeest was a large bi-plane with three cockpits. Pilot front, navigator middle, and gunner in the rear.

Between the gunner's cockpit and the navigator was a covered space about one and a half metres long and about the same wide, and approximately the same or rather less amount of head room.  Into this I squeezed, together with my kitbag, and lay down. Not a lot of space. The gunner's cockpit was of course occupied. What a way to fly!  I can't remember the duration of the flight  I think about one and a half to ' two hours, but was delighted to get out and stretch my legs on landing at Waipapakauri.

Oh, the surprise in store for me.  Having signed in, I was directed to my accommodation - a small two man hut just off the edge of the airfield, some distance I found from the ablutions and toilet block, some distance from the mess hall, and isolated I later found from my place of work, the station hospital. A big change from the comfortable accommodation I had been used to at both Hobsonville and Harewood.

Next morning my hut mate showed me the way to the station hospital.  Imagine my surprise when after a long walk he turned into the only building past the airfield - the local pub. Waipapakauri hotel, no less. 'Won't be open yet," I remarked".

"This, Alf, is the station hospital. We go around the side door."  Sure enough, the pub had been taken over by the Military to serve as a base hospital for the Air Force and Army personnel in the area.  But yet another surprise.  The dining room had been converted to a ten bed ward. While the room adjacent to the bar had been converted into the Medical Officer's consulting room, the guest rooms as smaller wards, the corridors fitted with sterilisers, and the kitchen taken over by an Air Force cook, the public bar was still operating but strictly out of bounds to RNZAF and Army personnel on duty.

The situation with the bar operating went on for some weeks until after a statutory period the liquor licence was held in abeyance until the pub was no longer required for war service.  Following the closure of the bar for the last time, the bar area became a casualty treating area, but each time the bar floor was mopped with hot water a delightful aroma of stale beer wafted up out of the floorboards.

Not many weeks after arriving at Waipapakauri, which I enjoyed, the Medical Officer and I were posted together to join No 3 GR Squadron and proceed overseas.  It was some years before I saw Waipapa Pub again, now back in full use as the local hotel, and I was surprised to find that very few people in the area seemed to know of the pub's wartime role.  So, a little later, I started writing letters.  First to New Zealand Breweries, the owners of the hotel, and to the RNZAF Publicity Department, telling of the pub's wartime history.  Neither the Brewery Public Relations Officer, nor the Air Force Public Relations Department, was aware that the hotel had been used as an RNZAF Hospital, and later an officers' mess.  But when my facts were verified, they agreed to my suggestion that a suitable plaque should be installed.  This was done in about 1978 or 1979, but I did not see it until February 1996 when I made a special trip with an ex Air Force friend to the far north to do so.  The plaque  the Air Force crest mounted on New Zealand native timber  is in the main bar, and has attached a brass plate which reads:

THIS RNZAF BADGE RECOGNISES THE UNIQUE FUNCTION OF THE HOTEL DURING RNZAF OPERATIONS FROM WAIPAPKAURI IN THE 2ND WORLD WAR, WHEN PART OF THE HOTEL WAS USED AS AN AIR FORCE HOSPITAL WHILE THE BAR CONTINUED A SERVICE TO THE PUBLIC.  LATER THE HOTEL BECAME AN OFFICERS' MESS.

Externally, the hotel looks much the same as when I first saw it in 1942, but the bar area is far more swept up.  The owner of the hotel, Mr Adrian Clark, an ex All Black, informed me that the crest is an item of considerable interest to patrons and visitors, and I am delighted that my efforts to have recognition paid to the hotel have been carried out in such a worthy manner by cooperation between New Zealand Breweries and the RNZAF.

A.T. Sindlen, J.P.
Ex Flight Sergeant/Medical Technician
RNZAF