The sharp eye of a machine operator at the Richmond refuse transfer station and skilled detective work from a retired service man have helped reunite a former RAF pilot with the medals he was awarded for serving in WWII and the Middle East.
Loader driver Yogi Takimoana miraculously found the medals and RAF wings among a pile of rubbish while working at the transfer station last month. They were handed into the police who then notified the RSA which immediately called on the expert services of Nelson’s Ian Martyn to find their rightful owner.
Ian has reunited 131 military medals with the recipients or their families since setting up Medals Reunited New Zealand in 2014. He is the RSA’s go-to-person when lost medals turn up, often in the most unusual circumstances, and only needed 36 hours to reunite the medals with the owner, Reg Clarke of Richmond.
Ian says he recognised the medals allowing him to narrow the search to “someone who had served as a pilot in the RAF, either an Englishman or New Zealander who had lived or retired in Nelson, or if they had passed away, belonged to one of their descendants. It also helped that one of the medals was engraved with Reg’s initials and surname although Ian says it still required extensive research because there was no first name or service number and there are hundreds of RJ Clarkes around the world.
“I started with on-line UK military archives and family trees to try and determine who RJ Clarke was, when and where he had served – nothing however was easily accessible. I then checked the obvious and went through the Nelson phonebook but there was nothing there so checked local cemetery records.
“That didn’t turn up anything either so I then looked at old electoral rolls for the Tasman and Marlborough areas. It was here I found Reginald John Clarke who was listed as a civil pilot living in Blenheim in 1969.
“That was the connection I needed – a pilot who had lived in the area. It turned out he’d been a pilot with Safe Air but on checking the phone book there was still no RJ Clarke listed although there was a J I Clarke at the same address.
“I thought that Reg had probably passed away but when I phoned, Reg’s ex-wife Janet answered and to my surprise said he was still alive and gave me his contact details in Nelson. Janet said they had emigrated from England in 1966 after Reg had retired from the RAF to pilot Bristol Freighters for Safe Air at Woodbourne”.
When Ian took the medals around to Reg to confirm their identity, he says the retired RAF pilot was astounded. Ian’s colleague Brian Ramsay offered to mount the medals for free and they were handed over in an emotional ceremony last Thursday.
Reg, who joined the RAF as an apprentice aircraft mechanic in the last six months of WWII before later retraining as a pilot and serving in the Far East Air Force in the run up to the 1956 Suez Crisis, says he was initially “baffled” when Ian informed him about his medals.
“I didn’t realise they were lost so I was quite baffled,” Reg says. “I keep them in a cupboard in my bedroom but they must have got mixed up with some other things when we cleaned up the house.
“I’m delighted the gentleman found them and took the trouble to hand them in. I didn’t get them for anything heroic or anything like that but I do value them – they represent a big part of my life.”
Reg was awarded the 1939-45 War Medal and 1918-62 General Service Medal with clasps for the Near East and Canal Zone.
Although Ian says the 36 hours he needed to reunite Reg with his medals was relatively fast work, he has taken as little as 21 minutes. In contrast, the longest Ian has taken “so far” is two years to reunite a Boer War medal found in an old house in Northland with the descendant family living in Northumberland in the UK.
Ian, who served for 37 years in the New Zealand army and air force as well as the Australian air force, says he always gets a huge amount of satisfaction when he hands over a medal.
“I’ve reunited medals to families in Australia, the UK, Canada, US and all over New Zealand,” Ian says. “Sometimes the families don’t even know that the relative even existed and they are overwhelmed when they get the medals.
“They are always so pleased and usually ask “how much” but as it’s a free, 100 per cent not-for-profit service, I just say ‘ my pleasure to be of service ’ and hand them over.”
Ian says he writes up the history of each successfully reunited medal which can be found on the website medalsreunitednz.co.nz