The Flying Nicholas Brothers of Ruatonga: Pt 2

Saturday 21 November 2020 | Written by Rod Dixon | Published in Features, Memory Lane


The Flying Nicholas Brothers of Ruatonga: Pt 2
Marama Nicholas in his enlistment photograph, 1942. (PHOTO: SUPPLIED) 20112012

This second of two articles, concludes the story of two courageous brothers from Ruatonga, Tatio and Marama Nicholas, who flew with Bomber Command and the Royal New Zealand Air Force in the Second World War. By Rod Dixon.

Part 2 – Flight Sergeant Marama Nicholas

During the Pacific War, Marama Nicholas was an air navigator on Catalina Flying Boats protecting shipping escorts, undertaking surveillance for Japanese submarines and performing sea rescues out of Halavo Bay in the Solomon Islands. In 1953, he was invited to attend the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London as a representative of Cook Islands veterans.

In 1942, Marama Te Pou Te Po Ave Te Ika Moe Ava Nicholas (born June 16, 1914) was working as a draughtsman in the Department of Lands and Survey in New Zealand.

He had left Rarotonga for education at the Otaki Maori Boys Primary School, then Te Aute College as a boarder, becoming Head Boy in his last year. Marama had also spent a year training with the New Zealand Territorial Army as a second world war loomed.

On December 19, 1942, encouraged by his brother Tatio, he enlisted in the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) at Omaka, near Blenheim. His familiarity with survey works immediately identified him for the role of flight navigator.

After induction in New Zealand, Marama was sent to Canada under the Empire Air Training Scheme, studying initially as a wireless operator at RCAF, 2 Wireless School, Calgary, Alberta, graduating on March 9, 1944. This was followed by air gunner training at RCAF, 5 Bombing and Gunnery School, Dafoe, Saskatchewan.

From there, he went on to No 5 Aerial Observer School in Winnipeg for training as an air navigator, studying aerial photography, reconnaissance, observation, mapping, and target description. At the end of 1944 he spent additional time at No.1 Air Observers School, Malton, near Toronto studying dead reckoning and visual pilotage, using navigator’s tools such as aeronautical charts, magnetic compass, Douglas protractor, and Dalton Navigational Computer, etc.

At the completion of his training Marama was promoted to the rank of Flight Sergeant.

RNZAF No. 6 Squadron Catalina NZ4016 XX-S on patrol over the New Hebrides [Vanuatu] (RNZAF official photo colourised by Daniel Rarity)/ 20112015

Returning to New Zealand in February 1945, Flight Sergeant Nicholas was sent to RNZAF Swanson, West Auckland for weapons training and bush warfare prior to posting to the Pacific. He was then assigned to 6 (Flying Boat) Squadron at Laucala Bay, Fiji for training on Supermarine Walrus amphibious biplanes and Catalina Flying Boats.

Part of the Allied strategy in the Pacific War was to deny Japan access to Fiji’s harbour facilities, fuel supplies and communications infrastructure. To defend the main island of Viti Levu, air bases were built at Nadi, Nausori, and Laucala Bay, with 6 Squadron tasked to carry out reconnaissance against Japanese forces along a line stretching from Tonga, to Fiji to Vanuatu. 

By the time Marama joined 6 Squadron, most of its operations had been relocated from Fiji to a forward area at Halavo Bay on Florida Island, north of Guadalcanal.

In July 1945, Marama was relocated to Halavo Bay where, coincidentally, Percy Henderson was also stationed. After the war they would become neighbours in Rarotonga.

From Halavo Bay, 6 Squadron flew Catalina Flying Boats in long range surveillance and reconnaissance missions, specifically shipping protection escorts, Japanese submarine surveillance and sea rescue.

The bulky Catalinas used in sea rescue came to be known as ‘Dumbos’ - the American code for search and rescue missions, derived from the flying elephant of the 1941 Disney film. It became standard procedure for ‘Dumbos’ in forward areas to circle close to an active air raid to rescue ditched aircrews.

In his official history of the RNZAF, Squadron Leader J.M.S. Ross writes that “The regular patrols flown by No. 6 Squadron from Halavo Bay were in the main uneventful. They involved flying continuously for eleven or twelve hours … over hundreds of miles of empty sea, and not once did the crews sight any enemy ships or submarines. Special searches for submarines which were reported on various occasions by Allied shipping or aircraft were equally unproductive.”

“On the other hand, in its air-sea rescue operations the squadron achieved considerable success” and during its deployment in the Pacific War, 6 Squadron, was responsible for the recovery of seventy-nine downed aircrew.

However, as David Bruhn notes in his book Salvation from the Sky, Catalinas were not well designed for landing in rough seas or for taxiing off with a heavy load. The flying boat was both awkward in flight and vulnerable to enemy attack.

 “Air-sea rescue on the open ocean, particularly in the Central Pacific, was challenging. Catalinas were employed extensively to search for survivors, to drop emergency gear, and to circle overhead until a ship could arrive. They also made rescues in passable conditions and in protected lagoons. Only the most skillful pilots could land and take off again in enormous swells.”

Part of the problem was the Catalina’s tendency to ‘pop’ rivets during a heavy sea landing. In Bruhn’s book, Dwight Messimer recalls that Catalina navigators like Marama, would have kept “a hefty supply of wooden pencils on hand for the crew to plug the rivet holes. Crewmen shoved the pencil in the hole, broke it off, and used the remaining piece to plug another hole. This worked well enough to withstand a takeoff but probably not the next landing.”

Pilot Officer Percy F. Henderson second from right - Crew on PBY-5 Catalina XX-R, NZ4015 from RNZAF 6 Squadron, Halavo Bay, Solomon Islands, 1945. Note the 7 ''Dumbo's'' painted on the nose, indicating 7 sea rescues. (RNZAF official photo, colourised by Daniel Rarity). 20112014

With the end of the Pacific War in August, 1945, 6 Squadron was disbanded and Marama transferred to 5 (Flying Boat) Squadron prior to repatriation to the Personnel Assembly Point in Remuera, New Zealand. The last flight of the squadron was to drop surrender leaflets over Nauru and Ocean Island, still under Japanese occupation.

Marama’s rank on discharge was Flight Sergeant, and his certificate of discharge records his character as V.G. noting “V.G. is the highest character which can be awarded in the RNZAF.”

After the war, Marama transferred to the RNZAF Reserve. Remaining in New Zealand, he completed his draughtsman training with the New Zealand Lands and Survey Department.

In 1947, he returned to Rarotonga to join the Cook Islands Administration as a draughtsman and later surveyor, working both on Rarotonga and in the outer islands on the citrus replanting scheme, housing developments, water works, etc.

On July 14, 1949, at the age of 35, he married Tutai Eliaba, the daughter of Eliaba Orometua and Naomi Teuru.

In 1953 Marama was invited to represent Cook Islands’ war veterans in the New Zealand Contingent to the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in London. His son Philip, born in the Coronation year, was named after the Queen’s consort, the Duke of Edinburgh.

At home, he was a prominent figure in local sports, and as a team-mate of Albert Henry in athletics and rugby for Avatiu. He was also a keen golfer.

Marama retired as a surveyor in 1969 and passed away in Auckland in January 1981 aged 67.