94-year-old remembers his fallen crewmates

25 May 2018

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John Ireland, Hawkes Bay Today

 

Norman Streeter’s war experience ended in a flash. Now 94 and a resident at Atawhai RestHome & Village, he greets visitors as he talks of securing a poppy from the front desk.


Born in England, where members of the armed forces who died in the line of duty are honoured each year on November 11, Norman appreciates the significance of Anzac Day to the country he has called home since 1963.

 

Norman was 16 when war broke out in 1939. He applied to the Royal Air Force and was accepted as a reserve. Asked if he may have lied about his age in order to join up, he smiles and says “mostly”. His early days in service saw him driving air force vehicles and it was in that capacity that he was assigned to the 36 RAF Squadron in Tanjore, India in 1942.

 

He may have been serving his country but what Norman truly longed for was to experience the ‘air’ part of the air force.

 

“I always wanted to be part of an aircrew,” he says. 

 

“I put my name down when an air gunner’s position came up.”

 

After taking a gunnery course, Norman was posted to the 37 RAF Squadron at its base in Foggia, Italy, where he joined the crew of a Liberator bomber as the tail gunner. He doesn’t remember shooting down any marauding enemy fighters but, having the best view of any unwelcome visitors creeping up from behind, Norman says his duty was mostly to tell the pilot “to get the hell out of there. So he’d take a quick dive”.

 

He was involved in more than 30 missions, mostly bombing sorties over Germany, Italy and Hungary, but also supply drops to partisans in Yugoslavia.

 

His airborne career ended in late 1945, with the end of the war less than a month away. Struggling to control a plane weighed down by a full load of bombs, the Liberator’s pilot underestimated the runway and ran out of room. The ensuing crash killed four of Norman’s crewmates. He survived because the impact threw him out of the plane’s burning fuselage, but not before a camera, used to record bombing results, broke free of its casing, causing its powerful flash to go off in Norman’s face.

 

Temporarily blinded by the light and suffering from burns, he spent six weeks in the hospital. After his release, he finished his service the same way it started—as a driver, this time for the base padre. 

 

Norman’s son, Barry, says, while the war had been over for nearly 20 years by the time he was born, his father never stopped thinking about his fallen mates.

 

As a child, Barry recalls accompanying his father on visits to the family of the crew members who perished in the crash.

 

“He lost his best mates,” says Barry. 

 

“You’re pretty tight-knit when you’re on a crew together. When you’re together through so much, it’s pretty tough on the survivors.”

 

Trained as a carpenter, Norman says he moved his family to the South Pacific because he “wanted to see more of the world”. Norman went ahead to establish a home, with Australia as his first destination choice. He quickly changed his mind.

 

“Too many Australians,” he says.

 

The family initially settled in Wellington before eventually moving to Hawke’s Bay. Norman did some carpentry but worked mostly as a whiteware salesman.

 

He’s lived at Atawhai for 18 months, where, amidst his belongings, are scrapbooks filled with photos from the places he was stationed. Barry says his father doesn’t look at them much anymore.

 

“He never really talked about the war,” he says. “I didn’t ask and he didn’t tell me.”

 

Norman confirms his silence.

 

“I never discussed the war,” he says.

 

“It was just something that happened. You just accepted it. I did my part and that was it.”

 

 

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