Romance Was In The Air When First NZ Women Joined Laucala Bay Station

Bee Dawson is the author of Laucala Bay -The story of the RNZAF in Fiji 1939 to 1967. Today she will make a presentation on her book at the University
23 Mar 2018 11:00
Romance Was In The Air When First NZ  Women Joined Laucala Bay Station
FLASHBACK: Susan and Alistair McLean and the bridal party after their wedding in 1960 at the Anglican Cathedral in Suva.

Bee Dawson is the author of Laucala Bay -The story of the RNZAF in Fiji 1939 to 1967. Today she will make a presentation on her book at the University of the South Pacific in conjunction with the unveiling of a RNZAF monument and USP’s 50th anniversary

The excerpts from the book reveal an interesting perspective of life at the former flying boat base.

 Romance was in the air when the first 12 members of the post-war WAAFs (Women’s Auxilliary Air Force)  arrived in 1953 at the Royal New Zealand Air Force base at Laucala Bay in Suva.

As in the war years, romantic liaisons between WAAFs and the male personnel flourished under the tropical sun. 

Within 15 months three of the first contingent of WAAFs were married to airmen.

Fiji-born Susan McLean (neé Lazarus) recalled that when she was in her late teenage years the many single expatriate men in Suva (at the banks, CSR and from Laucala Bay) greatly outnumbered young European women.

“It was wonderful for me and my friends – if we weren’t out every night there was something wrong. We particularly liked the Air Force because they had the outdoor theatre, the swimming pool and lovely balls. It was a great life.”

Susan met her husband-to-be, Alistair McLean, when he was posted to Fiji as adjutant of No. 5 Squadron at the beginning of 1960.

“When Alistair came into the Bank of New Zealand he was in his dress uniform with gloves and his hat and looked so cute that I said, ‘I’ll see to him’. But my friend said, ‘No Susan – this is my counter’. I said, ‘Okay – we’ll toss a coin’. When we tossed a two bob coin, I won the toss and attended to Alistair.

“That night I saw Alistair at the officers’ mess and we talked for hours. I had a few other friends so didn’t take him too seriously until one of the other young officers rang me and said, ‘Susan, your admirer is getting away. He’s been asked to take the Commanding Officer’s niece to a formal dinner at the mess on Saturday night’.

“I said, ‘Oh, we’ll see about that’ and rang Alistair and said, ‘Oh Alistair, Mummy would like you to come to dinner on Saturday night’. Alistair knew my family well by that stage.

“He said, ‘I’ll have to get back to you’. I said, “Please don’t take too long because she’d like to know’.

“He rang back half an hour later and said he’d love to come. So I quickly rang my mother and said that I’d asked Alistair to dinner on Saturday night. It wasn’t long after that that we got engaged.

“We were married in the Anglican Cathedral three months later. I was 19 and Alistair was 23. 

In 1958 the Sargettes marching team from Wellington flew to Fiji to take part in the annual Hibiscus Festival. June Gilroy and her friends performed with their customary gusto, and especially so when they did a night show at Albert Park.

“We had lights on our shoulders and when the lights went off you could see our movements with the white gloves …

It wasn’t just the girls’ shoulders that were sparkling when they were billeted at the airmen’s mess.

“Romances were very quickly struck up so there were a few tears when we were due to come home. When we got to Nadi, a couple of the girls rang back to the airmen’s mess, but nobody was there except for John Gilroy. They didn’t want to talk to him, but he and I ended up chatting. He said he was coming back in February and would look me up… we married the following year.”


Fijian Wives

Inevitably many of the local Fijian girls caught the eye of the single airmen who were posted to Laucala Bay and the girls were similarly impressed.

Joyce Cattermole recalled that the air force guys “always looked perfect. They wore lovely khaki uniforms pressed to a point and stiffly starched. We first became conscious of all those handsome young men when we were at school, but we didn’t meet them until we were older.

That’s when air force friends would take us to the station swimming pool, movies at the outdoor theatre and open nights when we could go dancing.”

The inevitable romances between air force boys and beautiful young Fijian women were often life-long affairs. But they weren’t always entirely straightforward. Whereas marriages to well-educated, part European girls who had been brought up in European traditions and spoke English as their first language were sanctioned by the RNZAF, it was a different matter if one of the young men wanted to marry a girl of full Fijian parentage.

Owen Cunliffe recalled that when one of his workmates asked the Air Force for permission to marry, he was put straight onto fire picket duties and then sent home.

“The RNZAF was basically saying that what looked good in Fiji wasn’t going to be a good fit back in New Zealand. They were trying to protect the young guys … In this case the guy married the girl anyway and it worked well.”

The first Saturday night after Ted Smith was posted to RNZAF Station Laucala Bay (in September 1963), he and his mates took a taxi to the Golden Dragon, an upstairs dance club.

“There was a whole team of netball girls there. I’d just learned how to rock and roll so asked one of them to dance and she was the best one! That beautiful young woman was Martha.”

Martha recalled, “Ted was my dancing partner – he had rhythm.  That’s what I loved about him. In 1964 Morris Hedstrom department store selected me to be their entrant in the Miss Hibiscus competition at the annual Hibiscus Festival. When Ted escorted me to the ball after the big parade, he said,  ‘I’ve got a surprise – whatever you do, don’t say no’. And he brought out a ring! We married in January 1965 when I was 29.”


Closing Ceremony

On 31 January 1965, the Governor-General of Fiji, Sir Derek Jakeway, addressed a parade to mark the closing of Laucala Bay: “We in Fiji have double reason to be grateful to the RNZAF and its Laucala Bay station. Not only has it been our shield against enemy attack. It has been a very true and reliable friend in trouble.

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