Keith Park Retirement

With Hobsonville being a former air force base, it is no surprise that a fair number of residents moving into Keith Park Retirement Village have an air force background.

Take Gisborne native John Schollum, who signed up to the force aged 16 to train as a radio operator.

However, with a debilitating stutter, it was a challenging role to pick – that is until the boys from his flight, or dormitory, stepped in.

“They decided to thump me on the arm every time I stuttered.

“Some weeks I could hardly lift my arms as they were black and blue, however I gradually started to stutter less and less, and my confidence increased.”

He later worked as an airborne communicator (AEop), spending several years on the Orion before moving to the Bristol Freighter with work throughout the Pacific and South East Asia.

A later role back in New Zealand was Ops Officer at Whenuapai Base Operations which involved liaising between squadrons, bases, air traffic control and the Met offices to arrange flights through local and international air spaces.

“The skills I learnt in the Air Force as well as gaining the confidence to get on and do stuff enabled me to go on and work at Air New Zealand and later in an Area School in Northland assisting senior students to seek employment.”

Fellow resident Jenny Hodges was returning home to Edgecumbe after just finishing her air force training when she found herself in a life or death situation aboard the Wahine ferry when it sank in Wellington Harbour during a horrific storm.

She says the training proved ‘really helpful’ when assisting the ferry stewards in getting a number of older people over the side.

“They needed help and our training really stood us in good stead. We learnt to work together and help out when needed.”

Her mother, a Māori warden in Edgecumbe, contacted Wellington Māori wardens to try and track her daughter down.

“All of a sudden these three ladies arrived and said ‘Are you alright? Good, we’ll tell your mum!’”

Jenny puts her survival down to ‘luck and intuition’ and says she never suffered any after-effects.

Her air force career ended when her new air force husband was posted to Singapore.

“Back then there had never been any serving airwomen on overseas postings.

“But it wasn’t a problem. My son Nathan was born over there a year later so it was the start of something new anyway,” she says.

Not all the ex-military at Keith Park Village are air force of course. John Santos enjoyed eight years in the Royal New Zealand Navy and was told he was the first Tongan to join.

He says he never felt there was anything special about that however.

“There was a Samoan and Niuean matelot who joined before me. I was just another sailor trying to fit in,” he says.

In fact he was included with the Māori sailors, even wearing piupiu and performing in Māori concert parties.

Memorable experiences included taking the Governor General Bernard Ferguson on an island cruise aboard HMNZS Royalist and a special last minute leave was granted so he could spend an emotional few hours with aunties, uncles, cousins and even his beloved old horse Tough Guy.

Another was taking a Hercules to England to pick up HMNZS Blackpool and bringing it back via the Suez Canal and a heartbreaking mission to recover the crew of a cargo ship MV Maranui whilst serving on HMNZS Lachlan.

John is incredibly proud of his eight years serving in the Navy: “I loved the camaraderie, and the friends I made are still some of my closest friends today.”