» War Heroes
Tony Goodwin’s series on NZ Baptist chaplains who served in time of war.
Roland was born at Feilding on September 2, 1915. He entered Baptist College in 1938 and in 1941 began his first pastorate at Opawa, Christchurch. He also married Lenore Mitchell at Morrisonville that year, so it was a busy time for him.
The couple stayed at Opawa until Roland was commissioned into the RNZAF on February 1, 1944. On the 21st of that month he reported to Wigram Air Base where he served as Chaplain until October, then flew out to Guadalcanal.
He was stationed at Field Headquarters Green Island until July 1945. He completed his overseas service at Jacquinot Bay on October 6, 1945 and returned to New Zealand. Roland was placed on the Reserve B list and eventually resigned his commission December 15, 1954.
Late in 1944, the American forces in the Solomon Islands had moved onto the Philippines, bypassing the huge Japanese base at Rabaul, much to the consternation of the Japanese High Command. On September 1, 1944 the New Zealand Air Task Force was formed and took over operational control of all air operations in the Northern Solomons. Four Field Headquarters were established, one being at Green Island under the command of Group Captain Roberts.
Roland was stationed at this headquarters for nearly a year. A number of squadrons rotated through Green Island.
Nos. 14 and 16 Squadrons had a disastrous day on January 15, 1945. Twelve aircraft from Green Island and 20 from Piva made a combined bombing attack on Toboi, a few miles south-west of Rabaul. Immediately after the attack, Flight Lieutenant Keefe‘s aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire. He baled out and landed in Simpson Harbour.
Keefe was an exceptionally fine swimmer and struck out for the harbour entrance. He reached a point midway between Matupi Island and Vulcan Crater. Then, after swimming for six hours, the tide and wind changed and he began to drift back up the harbour. All day he was covered by aircraft of Nos. 14 and 16 Squadrons. A Catalina stood by, but anti aircraft fire prevented it from going in to rescue him. Two rafts were dropped, one falling within 100 yards of him, but he was not seen to attempt to use them.
At evening, with their petrol running low, the patrolling aircraft had to return to Green Island. On the way they ran into a tropical storm that had developed suddenly. Flying in darkness through torrential rain, five of the Corsairs crashed into the sea on the way home, and one crashed at Green Island when about to land. A seventh simply disappeared. An intensive search the next morning failed to find any trace of the missing pilots or their aircraft. (WWII History RNZAF Solomons)
An extract from Roland’s diary January 15, 1945 reads:
“Black Monday. Lost 8 Corsair and 8 pilots. 16 aircraft returning at dusk ran into an electrical storm. 2 collided and 3rd to avoid them went into the drink. 2 others flew straight into the drink. (Thought they were at 700 feet. Instruments all awry due to electricity and low barometric pressure). One baled out over the beach, but too low for his parachute to open. 7th flew over the strip, turned right into a cloud and disappeared forever. Lyons and 2 others collapsed in hysteria on landing. Went to bed at 2am after getting fighter boys calmed down, two were married.”
The following are extracts from Roland’s diaries 1944-45. All his diaries are held by Baptist Archives, Carey College.
• Wigram, Friday August 11, 1944: Called out at 8.30 pm to break news of death of Deryk Trolove to his wife, a devoted couple with 5 month old baby boy. She thought I was a friend of his just passing through. I brought her mother and sister to spend the night with her.
Why war? Why suffering? Why tragedy? Wheeler Robinson still the only one to give a satisfactory answer. “There is no intellectual answer to the problem. The only one who has an answer is the one who has suffered and has found God’s strength sufficient in that suffering.”
• Saturday October 7: Left Whenuapai for the Islands and landed at Norfolk, lovely Island
Would like to spend a holiday there. Then onto Santos. Met Ken [Malcolm] Eade from Mt Eden.
• Thursday May 3, 1945: News of Mussolini’s death, Hitler’s death. Unconditional surrender of German armies in Italy and Austria. Hardly raised a flicker of interest. Our focal point is a land already at peace and news of that which is outside our centre of interest is of small moment. Quite a psychological study there.
• Saturday July 7: Weighed anchor at 11.15 am and said goodbye to Green Island. Sorry to leave as it is an island of happy memories and much blessing. I feel I have developed considerably during the 9 months there. [New Zealand squadrons were maintained on Green Island until June 1945 when operations from there ceased. Air operations were moved to Jacquinot Bay from whence patrols continued to harass Japanese facilities and shipping around Rabaul. Roland was on the last transport to depart from Green Island.]
• Wednesday August 15: Peace in the world at last. 3.30 pm Thanksgiving Service in the theatre area about 700 attended. I spoke directly of the claims of Christ upon the individual life and of him as the only hope for our race. Some adverse criticism aroused but most Christians solidly behind me.
• Friday October 5: Final clearance from Air Force. Good to feel free from the military and free to order one’s own life again. Told the Pt Chev. Church secretary that I would prefer my name not to be considered by them.
Following war service, Roland took up the pastorate at Valley Road Baptist and went on to fill prominent positions within the Baptist denomination until his death in 1982 while pastor at the Baptist Tabernacle. He is survived by his wife Lenore and three children.
Dr Bob Thompson, in a tribute at Roland Hart’s funeral held at the Tabernacle on October, said that pre-eminent in Roland right throughout his life was the gift of encouragement. “His was truly the pastors’ heart. Many ministers had the benefit of his encouragement in team ministries. He treated them as equals, not as assistants, and did not announce ahead of time whether he or they would preach.”
Roland Charles Hart
Flight Lieutenant RNZAF
Attestation February 21, 1944