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Dusting off family memories during lockdown

May 28th, 2020 By Sarah Walker
One of the things we suggested people might like to do during lockdown was to ‘organise your whānau photos, sort your grandparent’s letters and diaries’. Here's a great example of just that by Sarah Walker one of our librarians.

Memorabilia from the Second World War

Those over 70 years old have been hunkering down longer than the rest of us — and may be set to stay hunkered down for a little while longer. Some have taken the opportunity to finally go through old papers which have been sitting around in dark cupboards and drawers at home.

Letters, photos and diaries of Rex Weber from the personal family collection.
Rex Weber memorabilia from the box marked 'Air Force'. Image: Private collection. All Rights Reserved.

My mum recently pulled out an old box which she had inherited 18 years ago when her mother died. It was marked 'Air Force' and was filled with memorabilia from the Second World War, mostly relating to my grandfather’s time serving in the RNZAF.

In one of his letters Rex tells his ‘dear folk’ not to worry about him, explaining that ‘once the game starts, the business in hand is the only matter which occupies your mind.’ Living ‘day to day’ is something that he mentions several times in his writings.

Side by side images showing a portrait of Rex Weber on the right and on the left is his handwritten letter in blue ink.
L to R: Portrait of Flying Officer Rex Weber. Early letters home to his family in Picton. Image: Private collection. All Rights Reserved.

Flying Officer Rex Weber

Flying Officer Rex Weber joined the RNZAF in 1940 and was subsequently posted to No. 243 Squadron in Singapore. He later joined the No. 44 squadron which served in the Pacific as a fighter squadron, flying Curtiss P40E Kittyhawks. By the end of the war, Rex had become a recorded member of the ‘caterpillar’ and ‘goldfish’ clubs for both baling out by parachute and swimming in water to save his life.

Three Kittyhawk propeller planes flying in formation beside one another and above the clouds.
Three Curtiss P-40 Kittyhawk aircraft in flight, part of the Whites Aviation collection. Ref: WA-00355-G. Alexander Turnbull Library.

Mum enjoyed having the time to take out his old diary and letters and read through them properly. Whenever she found an interesting section to share, she would ring me.

Here are some excerpts from one of his diary entries:

…we hit the clear air and very soon after I was thankful, very thankful, to be able to rejoin the escorting fighters. Altogether it was a bloody poor show on the part of one Weber. There can be no doubt that I am being looked after when I think of the impossible positions I have been saved from. My thoughts during the hectic stages were pretty mixed – sort of, “this is my last trip. I must get shot down” “very little chance of getting out of this” “strange thing but this is exactly the position I was in on my last trip to Singapore” “If my engine gets it, I am done for. I will have to crash land in the sea and they will straff the wreckage” “Hell! That cloud’s a long way away” “I wonder if they will follow me into it?” “Gee! That was some burst – why doesn’t it hit me?” “Ah! Cloud! boy it’s good” – and so downwind home, with two bullet holes and nothing more…

Now I am on my way home and I must say it is good to cease living from day to day, and to know that soon you will be seeing good old New Zealand again.

My Grandma was very methodical – building on the collection by adding published items which were thematically connected to my grandfather’s stories.

She also had my grandfather’s diary copied, so that each of his three children would have one to keep.

Published books related to Rex Weber's life.
Included among the titles above you can see 'Buffaloes over Singapore' (by Brian Cull, with Paul Sortehaug and Mark Haselden). This book can be read at the Library. It contains personal narratives of airmen, including RNZAF pilots, who fought in the WWII Pacific aerial campaign. Image: Private collection, All Rights Reserved.

Caring for your collections

Using this time under lockdown, Mum has now applied further preservation methods to ensure this box of family history will be treasured and understood by those who follow.

Below are some examples of the simple steps she’s taken to preserve these materials.

  • Removing any metal clips.
  • Checking that people in each photograph are all named (best practice suggests not writing directly on photos but adding names to plastic sleeves, etc. where possible. If you do need to write on the photo, use a 2B pencil or ‘Stabilo All’ pencil, and only write along the lower edge on the back of the photo).
  • Carefully storing photos together in a box.
  • Letters have been stored together in chronological order.
  • Everything has been kept safe in a dry cupboard.

You can see further advice from the National Preservation Office (NPO) on our website — Caring for family collections.

Living day-to-day

Some extracts from my grandfather’s diary were photographed and emailed around to the family as we approached Anzac Day last month. Anzac Day had extra poignancy this year of course.

The same ‘living from day-to-day’ seems to be navigating people — again — through uncertain times.

I enjoyed reading my grandfathers words, which arriving as they did, at the heels of a pandemic response, certainly acquired a new significance for me!

I leave you with an image of comradery — something we all came to value during lockdown. Virtual or not, it’s the togetherness which gets you through.

Stay safe everyone!

A group of men in military uniform standing and sitting in a jeep all smiling and looking at the camera.
The 14th Squadron pilots with a Dodge Weapons Carrier, grouped together after a patrol. Flying Officer Rex Weber seen second from the left on the bottom row. Guadal Canal, Jun/July 1943. Image: Private collection, All Rights Reserved.

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Dave Homewood
14 June 2020 9:41am

Hi Sarah, this is fantastic to read about your grandfather. One note regarding the text above is he later joined No. 14 (Fighter) Squadron, not No. 44 Squadron as the text states. I have been researching the fighter squadrons and have a load of info on them. I have also been gathering digital copies of the pilots' flying logbooks, because in the squadron records held in the National Archive there are some massive gaps, sadly. Particularly with No. 14 (Fighter) Squadron when Rex was a member there's a whole year missing from the records. I would love to please get a copy of his flying logbook to help fill in details from his perspective, if possible please? Digital photos from cover to cover is the way I normally do it. Anyway, please feel free to contact me, I may be able to add more details to what you have collected already to.
Cheers,
Dave Homewood
Wings Over New Zealand