An historian who slowly became blind has managed to write a book about a World War II warplane and the Kiwis that flew them.
Robert Montgomery has drawn on his lifelong fascination with aviation to put together Pacific Corsair: The Vought Corsair in New Zealand Service.
The book tells vivid tales of Kiwi pilots battling the Japanese in the South Pacific during World War II, including two Corsair pilots from Montgomery’s hometown of Blenheim who died in action.
The work has been hampered by Montgomery’s reducing vision. Having measles as an infant, doctors expected he would be blind by adulthood, but glaucoma surgery by Wellington-based Dr Hope-Robertson meant he could ride his bike until about the age of 18.
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Further surgeries delayed vision loss, “every so often, I found I was looking through lace curtains and I’d have to go back”. However Montgomery became completely blind in 2019.
The book was finished with support from his wife Lynda, who rapidly improved her computer skills to help, and research from David J Duxbury at the Air Force Museum in Wigram, Christchurch.
Montgomery also used an EyePal during his research, a machine that scans and reads books aloud, which he got with support from the Blind Foundation, Blind and Low Vision NZ.
Blind historian Robert Montgomery shows how his EyePal helped him research his new book.
“In deciding what to write, I just wrote the story I would have wanted to read,” Montgomery said.
“I remember as a child, going to air shows … and when I got to stand inside one of the Mosquitos, my life was never to be the same again.”
The Corsair was first flown in 1940. The United States provided 424 of the aeroplanes to New Zealand for control of the South Pacific – the highest amount of a particular aircraft the RNZAF ever had in service.
They were a formidable new aircraft, built for speed with the largest engine available at the time, and superior aerodynamics while carrying heavy anti-aircraft bombs under the wings.
They were assembled in Espiritu Santo, the largest island in Vanuatu, where RNZAF servicing units would pick them up and use them from fixed locations across the South Pacific, such as Bougainville Island and Guadalcanal.
Sergeant John “Jack” Doggett, 19, was a Blenheim man killed in action in 1944 as he flew out from Guadalcanal. He was seen “spinning out” and crashed into the sea near the Russell Islands, Montgomery said.
The other Corsair casualty from Marlborough was Flight Sergeant John Seddon McArthur, 24, who died near the Green Islands trying to rescue fellow pilot Frank Keefe on “Black Monday” in 1945.
Keefe was shot down and had been treading water all day when McArthur and 14 other Corsair pilots returned to ward off the Japanese and retrieve him, but a tropical storm approaching forced them to turn around.
“But with the storm front affecting visibility, some pilots crashed into the hill, and some into the sea, including McArthur. Eight pilots died that day,” Montgomery said.
After the war, most of the Corsairs were smelted down at Rukuhia Station, which later became Hamilton Airport. “The smell of burning metal lingered over Hamilton for quite a few years.”
Montgomery said his book included the first factual story of RNZAF Station Ardmore, from its opening in December 1943, an accommodation site that later became a teachers’ college, closing in 1974 having trained some 6000 teachers.
Having grown up around air force personnel, including influential teachers at Marlborough College, and his time working in the telephone exchange at RNZAF Base Woodbourne, affording him access to the base library, Montgomery said it was a pleasure to record an exciting chunk of aviation history, though there was so much more to share.
Montgomery had gifted a copy to the Marlborough District Library in Blenheim, as well as the Omaka Aviation Heritage Centre, “a wondrous place” he frequented.
Pacific Corsair: The Vought Corsair in New Zealand Service can be bought online through the Ventura Publications website. Montgomery is also in discussions to have it sold at Marlborough bookstores.