Topic: Te Pirita, secret World War 2 airfield

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Te Pirita airfield, funded by the American airforce, was built in total secrecy in 1942 when a Japanese invasion of New Zealand looked imminent. Three runways, the biggest two miles long, were built to cater for the large American Flying Fortress bombers.

A south New Brighton man is believed to be the last remaining member of the team that built a secret airfield near Dunsandel died last week.

Kevin Radford, who was 80, had a long career in engineering and was believed to be the last surviving member of a 50-strong team that built the Te Pirita airfield. The airstrip, funded by the American airforce, was built in total secrecy in 1942 when a Japanese invasion of New Zealand looked imminent. Three runways, the biggest two miles long, were built to cater for the large American Flying Fortress bombers.

Radford had spoken to the Christchurch Star recently about his work on the airfield. "The working party were all elderly because the young people were away at war," he said. "I was 17 but the average age was 55." Because the Japanese invasion never eventuated, the airfield was never officially used, although some American Airspeed Oxford bombers made an unexpected landing while the engineers were still working on the strip, one narrowly missing Radford. "I was just about to walk across the runway when one came in," Radford said."One of the pilots told me it was the best strip he had landed on."

The engineers also worked on underground hangars to hide the planes, but Radford said this was a big mistake. "We dug into an area that was full of wattle seed which got mixed with the metal. Years later a wattle plantation grew down the runways," Radford said. The outlines of the three runways are still visible from the air.

Radford went on to join the airforce, before enlisting with the army as an engineer at the end of World War 2. He went on to help construct 17 airfields around the world, including one in Thailand immediately prior to the Vietnam War. Son Shayne Radford said his father worked in dry, dusty conditions in Thailand, which eventually contributed to his father's death. The dust built up in his father's lungs causing scarring and reducing their capacity, he said. A recent viral infection in his lungs prevented Kevin Radford from being able to breathe properly and he died in his wife's arms a few days later.

All told, Radford spent 32 years in the army and airforce, reaching the rank of Warrant Officer 1st class. Shayne Radford said his father's life was built around engineering and machinery. He also worked for the Christchurch City Council for 15 years as head of roading and played a prominent part in building retainer walls around Sumner and erosion prevention walls around New Brighton Beach. Shayne Radford said his father was immensely proud of his work as an engineer.

Kevin Radford is survived by Zola, his wife of 56 years, son Shayne and daughters Karen, Cheresse and Tracy.

Source: Canterbury Times, 22 February 2005

Chopper traces History - Te Pirita Airfield can once again claim its rightful place in history.

This week a New Zealand Airforce Irquois helicopter landed at the World War 2 secret airfield, a first for the airforce in about 60 years. The airfield is now a dry land sheep farm located inland from Dunsandel. Owner Bob Jarman contacted the airforce to see if they wanted to take some aerial shots of the field as it was today because he had concerns the farm could be used for more extensive irrigation purposes in the future. This would mean the runways would be dug up and the area cultivated. "The significance of the area could be lost," Jarman said. "I got a minor thrill because I'm a military enthusiast and I was quite pleased when the helicopter was able to land," he said.

Airforce Museum keeper of photographs Matthew O'Sullivan said he felt "quite chuffed" to be part of the occasion. "Part of it was about recording history as it is today as we have some aerial photos of the field during the war. The north/south runway from the air is very obvious and when we did a ground recce it was as smooth as a tarmac," O'Sullivan said.

In 1942, when a Japanese invasion of the South Pacific looked likely, the Crown confiscated a large area of the farmland owned by the Early brothers and three large runways were built. The runways measured 2133m long and 76m wide and were built in complete secrecy. Even some of the neighbours were unaware of the significance of the work being carried out around the clock by the 50 plus engineers and local contractors.

Work started on the airfield on March 10, 1942, and by the time the threat of invasion was over and the order given to stop work on August 30, 1943, the top runway was finished and the other two close to finished, seven aircraft revetment pits had been built to protect the planes from enemy bombs, three 50,000 litre underground fuel tanks had been put in place and a 3,400,000 litre reserve fuel depot was nearly completed at Bankside.

The airfield was to host Boeing B17 Flying Fortresses from the United States Army Air Force, although the only known military planes to land there were two Airspeed Oxfords from the Beam Approach Unit at Wigram. O'Sullivan said the runways were bigger than those at Wellington Airport today, and in 1943 Te Pirita had the biggest runways in New Zealand. The top runway is still useable for smaller aircraft, while the other two are overgrown with trees. Five revetment pits are still intact, hidden amongst the trees.

Source: Canterbury Times, 28th June 2005

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Te Pirita, secret World War 2 airfield by Selwyn Library is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License