How They Remembered: The New Zealand 1914-18 Airmen’s Association

Veterans of the two world wars and later conflicts have frequently grouped together to remember their service, lost comrades and shared experiences together. This is the story of those New Zealanders participated in World War One as airmen and who met to remember their service at a time when New Zealand had no Air Force of its own.

Around 850 New Zealanders served in the British Royal Flying Corps, Royal Naval Air Service, Australian Air Force and subsequent Royal Air Force during the First World War. Of these seventy lost their lives. After the war, a few remained in the RAF, but most came back to New Zealand to restart their lives, some of these later forming the backbone of New Zealand’s first Permanent Air Force in 1923.

The earliest group to be formed was called the “War Birds” in 1935. It was the idea of Keith Logan Caldwell, New Zealand’s most prolific fighter pilot and the first formal dinner was held in Auckland and a committee raised to organise future gatherings.

Portrait of Major Keith Logan ‘Grid’ Caldwell MC DFC & bar Belgian Croix de Guerre. MUS0800518
News clipping – The Hawke’s Bay Herald-Tribune, Veterans Gather / Pioneer airmen relive glories at Napier reunion, 1965. 2002/307.5d

The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 helped to cancel these sorts of events and many of the veterans saw service as either senior figures in the RNZAF (like Caldwell) of in other roles such as administration, airfield control or personnel.

But by the 1960s, there was a resurgence of interest in the First World War. Caldwell and several others though it would be a good idea to organise annual reunions of the survivors at changing locations around the country. The first meeting was held at Wairakei Hotel on 3 April 1960, with sixty-eight members attending. A Constitution as an Incorporated Society was agreed and patron president and officials elected, as well as an organising committee for both the North and South Island. The 1961 meeting was also agreed to be in Nelson.

Name Tag – N.Z. 1914-18 Airmen’s Association “Mrs. W. S. MacPherson, Wanaka”. Wives also attended the Reunions. 1987/323.22d

Over the next decade the numbers grew and a nominal roll around four hundred of those joining and those passing away was preserved as well as a lot of correspondence, minute books and other papers. These are now held in our archives. Sadly, what these veterans spoke about their experiences during the social time was not recorded. All the administration and meeting organising was done by Miss Lee of Gisborne, who was paid a small fee in return.

The annual meeting was the main event and moved around the country and both islands. The local media often took a keen interest in the gathering and the Association kept many of these clippings. Where the venue was near and RNZAF base, the veterans and their wives were wined and dined by the Officer’s Mess and very much looked after as those who had gone before. There was usually a memorial role to the meeting also, involving a wreath laying at a local memorial.

Menu – 6th reunion Airmen of First World War, H. B. Club, Napier, Feb 12-14, 1965 2002/307.5a

Inevitably, as the decade progresses, the numbers started to decline, with thirty-five at the 1967 Gisborne Reunion. Due to old age, Gerald Stedman, another fighter pilot from the Great War “suggested that future programmes be a little less strenuous”.

Programme – N.Z. 1914-18 Airman’s Association Reunion, Christchurch, 1970. 2014/076.55

By the 1970s, the question of when the Association be wound up arose and provoked lively debate. By 1973, with only twenty-one attendees it was decided to disband, with all funds going to the RNZAF Benevolent Fund. But it was not the end. The veterans continued to meet informally at a local level and a larger reunion was host by RNAF Base Wigram in 1981. The last veterans faded away during the 1980s, but with their Association archives, photographs and ephemera such as badges and menus, we have a great record of their sense of identity and comradeship.

Photograph: “New Zealand (1914 – 1918) Airmen’s Association reunion. Auckland.” March 1962 On the steps in front of the Auckland War Memorial Museum. LM Isitt (4th from left, front row), KL Caldwell (5th from left, front row). ALB862456255

Ka maumahara tonu tātou ki a rātou.

We Will Remember Them.

If you would like to know more about these extraordinary pioneers in the First World War, you can read more at NZ History here, or get hold of a copy of the official history published for the recent Centenary from your local library or our shop: