A century of memories for Frank
It was more than 99 years ago, and he was a baby of only eight months, but the memory is as vivid today as it ever was.
Now largely forgotten, the Raetihi Bushfire was one of New Zealand’s largest fires. It burned for two days, sweeping over many square miles of Main Trunk country, destroying 150 houses, nine sawmills, bridges and telegraph lines and claiming three members of a neighbouring family.
Frank Taylor’s family lived on a bush farm near Raetihi, but they fared better. Even so, Frank says he still remembers seeing the flames and hearing the roar of the wind. His father was holding him to protect him, while at the same time trying to stop sparks from getting under the house and setting it ablaze.
“Stuff flying through the air, pieces of timber all alight, flying. It caused a terrible wind. I remember it as plain as anything.”
That first memory has been added to over the ensuing 99 years and four months, with Frank, who turned 100 on Sunday, July 23, living a full and busy life. Born in 1917 during one world war, he served in the Pacific, Egypt and Italy in the second, endured the hardships of the Great Depression in his teens, ran his own carrying business and then switched to working in sawmills.
Along the way he and wife Grace had two children, Philip and Margaret.
After Grace’s death, Frank married Daisy.
It’s been a busy life, but not a particularly easy one. Frank’s family, along with many farming families in the Raetihi area, suffered stock losses in the bushfire. A couple of years later his parents had to walk off their farm, finding it impossible to make a living.
“At lambing, the wild pigs would come out of the bush and as soon as the sheep had had a lamb, they would come and eat it.”
Frank’s father managed a farm at Taumarunui, and later inland from Paihia in the Bay of Islands. Frank remembers those as good years. When his grandmother became unwell and the family moved to Marton to look after her, they hoped the move would only be temporary and they would return to Paihia. It was not to be. The Great Depression caused hard times. Frank’s father did farm work where he could but “everybody lived on rabbit and rareke [puha]”.
Frank left school at 14 or 15 and did his bit to help, getting a job on a farm, working every day, except for a break between milkings on Sundays. Later, when his father bought a carrying business, Frank quit to help him, eventually taking it over as F Taylor, Carrier, and running it for 30 years. It was hard physical work — there were no forklifts in those days — and eventually Frank sold it and began working in sawmills, becoming a saw doctor.
World War II brought more changes. Frank joined the Army’s tank brigade and, amid fears of a Japanese invasion, was kept in New Zealand for 18 months as part of the Home Guard.
“We were the only soldiers they had in the country so they held us back and then they started sending us away as reinforcements.”
Frank was sent to Guadalcanal and from there to the Battle of the Green Islands in early 1944. After 18 months of heat and mosquitoes, the Japanese were on the retreat in the Pacific. Frank had a month’s leave at home where he married Grace, before being posted to Egypt and then Italy.
By now, the Germans were almost defeated and Frank joined the New Zealanders engaged in pushing them north to Trieste, where they finally surrendered in May 1945.
“You looked out over a paddock and there were Germans everywhere looking all bedraggled and quite glad the war was over, I think.”
Frank was among the last of the New Zealanders to be shipped home in 1946. While he was often engaged driving loads of supplies south to be loaded onto ships home, he also enjoyed the chance for some Italian R’n R.
“I could have retired in Trieste. It was lovely up there . . . we were our own bosses. That was a good part of the war.”
When Frank and Daisy moved to Taupo, they lived first in Tamatea Rd then built their own house in Birch St, where Frank still lives.
Daisy died a fortnight before they were due to move in. The family also had a fishing bach at Tauranga-Taupo where Frank was able to indulge his love of trout fishing on the Tauranga-Taupo and Tongariro Rivers.
Although he’s now largely house-bound in a wheelchair, Frank is active and chipper, enjoys the company of family.
About 50 family, including four surviving grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren gathered in Taupo to celebrate his century with him.
Frank Taylor was born near Raetihi in 1917, fought in World War II, owned his own carrying business and retired to Taupo in 1987.