A new photo – with Wi and Johnny

Recently a comment popped up on Simon Sommerville’s fantastic 75(NZ) Sqdn website, the poster identifying himself as the son of Lancaster pilot Wi Rangiuaia.

Wi was one of the pilots in C Flight, the same Flight and at the same time as the Johnny Wood crew, but we had never seen a photo of him and had been unable to identify him in the formal C Flight and Squadron group photos. So it was exciting to make contact with his son Jim and we have had several conversations over the past few weeks.

Jim subsequently identified his Dad in those photos that we already had, then he sent me a photo of Wi in uniform and one of the Rangiuaia crew in front of one of the Lancasters they flew, JN-V.

But then he blew me away when he emailed me this next photo – his Dad at Mepal with four other officers, one of which is Johnny Wood!

L-R: Flying Officer Wi Rangiuaia, Squadron Leader Jack Bailey DFC*, unknown, Flying Officer Johnny Wood, unknown. Mepal, Feb-March 1945.
– Jim Cooper.

The three pilots we can identify are all from “C” Flight, S/L Jack Bailey being the “C” Flight Commander. The wintry conditions suggest it was taken in either February or March 1945, not long after Johnny got his commission and promotion to Flying Officer.

I have not seen any other informal photos of C Flight pilots from that period. If anyone can identify the other two, I would love to hear from you!

We do have a formal group photo of the full Flight, taken on 15 March 1945, and Wi, Jack and Johnny are all identifiable:

75 (NZ) Squadron, “C” Flight aircrew, Mepal, 15 March 1945.
C Flight Commanding Officer S/L Jack Bailey, slightly left of centre, seated front, hands together. Two to the right of him is F/O Wi Rangiuaia, two to the right again is F/O Kiwi Amohanga, next is F/O Johnny Wood (6th from the right).
F/S Gerry Newey is on the left end of the second row (standing), Sgt Doug Williamson is second from the right end of the same row (hat-less),
with F/S Jack Pauling 3rd from the end, and F/S Jim Hooper behind Doug, 2nd from the end, back row.
_ Doug Williamson collection.

Wi came from the Gisborne area and talked of seeing his first aeroplane as a boy on Kaiti Beach. Hearing the sound of the engine, he looked up and the plane was so close he could see the pilot’s face and the fabric flapping. It must have sparked something.

Before the war he married Elizabeth – they had both grown up on dairy farms at Waipiro Bay.

Wi enlisted in the RNZAF, completing his ITW at Rotorua, EFTS (Tiger Moths) at Harewood and SFTS (Airspeed Oxfords) at Wigram, graduating with his pilot’s Wings.

Then he sailed to England and completed advanced training, OTU, Heavy Conversion and Lancaster Finishing School.

Flying Officer Wi Rangiuaia
– Jim Cooper.

When he arrived at Mepal, Wi was one of several Maori pilots and air crew serving on 75(NZ) Squadron and he probably took part in one of the more unusual stories to come out of 75(NZ) Squadron.

Several 75 veteran’s accounts describe radio conversations taking place between aircraft, spoken in Maori!

Jim says Wi was fluent in Maori. Other likely participants included pilots Kiwi Amohanga, “Taffy” Zinzan, “Dickie” Urlich and Eric Meharry, as well as two Wireless Operators, Max Spooner and Tap Heperi (who had trained with Gerry).

Wi completed 19 bombing operations with 75(NZ) Squadron, two Operation Manna supply drops to Delft (including the squadron’s first on 29 April 1945), several POW and refugee repatriation flights and one “Cook’s Tour” (viewing the effects of the bombing offensive).

He ended the war with the rank of Flight Lieutenant and returned to New Zealand on the “RMS Mooltan”, arriving in Wellington on the 20th of December 1945.

One of the first things he did was to visit the parents of his good friend, F/L Jack Plummer DFC, who had been killed on the 21st of March. Wi had flown on that operation, to Munster Viaduct, in which three Lancasters were shot down in the target area, the squadron’s last losses of the war.

Like many returned servicemen, Wi had difficulties re-integrating into civilian life.

Ironically, qualifications and experience in flying four-engine bombers over Germany meant nothing in civvie street. On the 13th of February 1946 he passed his Private Pilot’s Licence, presumably with a view to a career in commercial aviation. At one point he had a job offer from BOAC, but had to turn it down as Elizabeth didn’t want to go to the UK.

Rather than work his share of the family farm he decided to go into business by himself. To make it easier to take out a returned serviceman’s business loan, he reverted to his mother’s maiden name, Cooper, and he set up and ran an agricultural contracting business, initially in Gisborne and operating up the East Coast. The business became very successful.

Wi and Elizabeth had two sons and two daughters.

Later the family moved to the Te Kuiti area, with the business operating across much of the North Island.

Later still, they moved to the Hawke’s Bay, where Wi eventually retired.

Wi Rangiuaia (William James Cooper) passed away on September 15 2000, at age 81. He is buried in Taradale Cemetery, Napier, NZ.

Ake ake kia kaha

– Special thanks to Jim Cooper for his help in putting this post together and for permission to reproduce these two photos from his father’s collection.

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