Former WWII fighter pilot joins centenarians club

In the year Derek Morten was born, people were still recovering from the ravages of the Spanish flu.

Adolf Hitler had become the leader of the Nazi Party and Mahatma Gandhi was launching a movement of mass civil disobedience in India. In San Francisco, the last fiery horses have been withdrawn.

In New Zealand, William Massey was Prime Minister and the first regular air mail service departed Christchurch for Ashburton and Timaru. The first radio program was broadcast from a small transmitter at the University of Otago and the All Blacks performed their very first test against the Springboks.

Morten, who turned 100 on December 21, 2021, has been through a lot of history. Reaching the Century is no longer considered particularly special in New Zealand although the Queen still sends her telegrams. The country is believed to have around 500 centenarians.

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But few would arrive to the great number in as good a condition as Morten. His faculties are largely intact and he is still mobile, although he admits his hearing is “horribly bloody.” He still remembers names and dates with amazing accuracy, although he admits to having trouble with what he did last week.

Derek Morten turned 100 on December 21, 1921. He flew with the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy during World War II.

STACY SQUIRES / Tricks

Derek Morten turned 100 on December 21, 1921. He flew with the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy during World War II.

Longevity does not run in his family. He had polio as a child, survived a few heart attacks but outlived his 20-year-old siblings.

“I never expected to get here,” Morten says. “I do not know [the secret].

He and his wife Pam had four children, three of whom are still alive. The oldest is 75 years old.

Morten was born in Nurse Overton’s retirement home in Sumner, the last of four children to Father Richard, a farmer from Yaldhurst, and mother Violet (formerly Bassett).

Derek Morten would eventually become a big cheese in the meat processing industry, spending a decade as managing director of Canterbury Frozen Meat, but his war service remains the main talking point of his life.

His first job after school was uninspiring, so when the war broke out he wanted to go abroad. His father refused to sign his candidacy for the Air Force, but relented to obtain papers for direct entry into the British Navy.

“I didn’t tell him I was interested in the Fleet Air Arm,” he said.

After testing, he was accepted for Fleet Air Arm training which began in February 1942 in Auckland.

“This was my first time going north of Wellington so it was all the excitement.”

Derek Morten in his Royal Navy officer's uniform in 1942.

STACY SQUIRES / Tricks

Derek Morten in his Royal Navy officer’s uniform in 1942.

He and his draft 20 would-be pilots sailed for Britain on the Capetown Castle troop transport ship. His brother Dick was already in the Navy and his brother Tom, who fought in Greece, Crete, North Africa and Italy, was in the military. Tom would be promoted to brigadier and be awarded the Distinguished Service Order and Commander of the Most Excellent Order in the British Empire for his five years of military service.

After a course at St Vincent Air Force Base in Gosport in southern England, Morten’s draft embarked on the Queen Mary for further training in the United States at Naval Air Station Grosse Ile, Michigan, arriving in December 1942 to celebrate his 21st birthday.

Derek Morten, fourth from top left, was rescued by a submarine off the coast of Japan in 1945. The submarine's officers insisted that he pose with them for a photo.  He said the officers were all very tall.

STACY SQUIRES / Tricks

Derek Morten, fourth from top left, was rescued by a submarine off the coast of Japan in 1945. The submarine’s officers insisted that he pose with them for a photo. He said the officers were all very tall.

“After this training, the training was constant, a week of flying in the morning and studying in the afternoon. “

Training continued in Miami and Maine, where he made his first flight aboard the US-built Corsair fighter, designed to land on aircraft carriers. He joined the newly formed 1841 Corsair Squadron, made up of British, Canadian and New Zealand pilots. Two of the seven Kiwis would be killed in action, two seriously injured and three, including Morten, would return home physically unharmed. Two squadron pilots were killed during training.

The squadron of 18 Corsairs was finally assigned to active service on the Royal Navy’s HMS Formidable in June 1944. Morten’s first combat flight took place in July, accompanying bombers targeting the German battleship Tirpitz, hidden in the fjords. from northern Norway. He was a flight supervisor during his first operation. The well-armed battleship that the British were determined to neutralize to eliminate the threat it posed to Allied Arctic convoys, survived, and Morten’s squadron flew past protection for further bombing raids in August.

“During one of those raids I was flying my flight at low altitude and thought we were really low when a Dutch Hellcat squadron came out below us. It gave me the greatest fear of war.

The Tirpitz was the second of two Bismarck-class battleships built for Nazi Germany's Kriegsmarine during World War II.

PROVIDED / Contents

The Tirpitz was the second of two Bismarck-class battleships built for Nazi Germany’s Kriegsmarine during World War II.

During a raid, his close friend Clive Woodward was shot down in flames and killed. Morten was awarded a Distinguished Service Order for his bravery and dedication to duty for his part in the operation.

His squadron’s planes were kept aloft over the British fleet at Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands, on anti-submarine patrols.

The Formidable then headed for Australia to join the Pacific Fleet. While on shore leave in Sydney, he met Pam who was to become his wife.

On May 4, 1945, as the Formidable approached Manus Island, northern Papua New Guinea, a suicide bomber struck the ship as Morten was in the air in pursuit of a “mythical” Japanese intruder. . Repairs were made quickly and he landed on the ship approximately four hours later. The suicide bombing killed eight and injured 47.

The ship was hit by another suicide bomber five days later with one fatality but little damage. The Formidable then joined the Americans for operations against the Japanese continent.

“These operations consisted mainly of escorting Avengers (bombers), land and rail machine guns and attacks on small ships in the interior area. In fact, I have never fought a plane in the air, but have had a few shots on the ground. “

A Corsair follows a Mustang at the Wanaka Air Show.

Dave Hallett / Stuff

A Corsair follows a Mustang at the Wanaka Air Show.

During a routine operation on August 10 north of Tokyo, his Corsair was hit by anti-aircraft fire.

“I had gasoline leaking in the bottom of the cockpit and it was obvious that I couldn’t stay in the air for long. I went to sea and dropped the plane. It only occurred to me later that if the engine had turned on it, there could easily have been an explosion.

An American submarine, the USS Peto, surfaced next to its rubber dinghy about five hours later and took it aboard.

“I was there for 12 days and was treated royally,” he says.

Derek Morten's logbook records his role in a bombing operation of the Tirpitz, a German battleship, in August 1944.

STACY SQUIRES / Tricks

Derek Morten’s logbook records his role in a bombing operation of the Tirpitz, a German battleship, in August 1944.

Japanese operations were dangerous and a number of Corsair pilots were killed in crashes or shot down.

“It just happened. You accepted it, it was never going to be me. You got used to having breakfast with someone who wasn’t there at lunchtime. a little tense but that wasn’t much of a problem, not with our lot.

Landings on aircraft carriers were the most dangerous part of the war every day for pilots, he said. He recorded 99 landings during his service.

After the war Morten married Pam in Sydney and returned to work for CFM. Reserved for management, he spent four years as a worker in various factories learning the trade.

He became manager of the Belfast Freezer Factories in 1950 and spent the next 10 years at the helm.

“These were the happiest years of my professional life.”

After a period abroad, he was appointed Managing Director of CFM with a salary of $ 15,000 in 1972.

He survived a tumultuous time in the meat processing industry which saw mergers, takeovers and numerous export challenges. He retired from CFM around 1982 at the age of 60 and served in private counseling and charitable work.

He lives in the Park Lane Retirement Village in Addington.

Edward K. Thompson