Walter ‘Keith’ Dodge was just 16 ½ years old when he enlisted in the New Zealand Airforce back in 1951, on a scheme called Boys Entrants. He was immediately sent to Wigram in Christchurch for three months of basic recruit training with 60 others – his first time away from home. And although not everyone made it through the training, Keith flourished in the disciplined environment and upon completion was able to pursue his chosen trade of aircraft engine mechanic. He moved to the Hobsonville airbase, where the aircraft engine training school was located, and later relocated back to Wigram, working predominantly on Airspeed Oxfords and Avro Anson aircrafts. “I think I spent four months just cleaning spark plugs!” he laughs. By late 1952 he had completed the necessary training and tests to advance from aircraft engine mechanic to a newly qualified Leading Aircraftsman. “My hanger serviced all of the aircrafts at the base: Oxfords, Ansons, Harvards, Dakotas, Vampires,” he recalls.
After being seconded to the Wigram Territorial Air Force base, Keith was attending their annual camp and was stunned to hear he was on the list of military people published in the national newspaper to attend the Queen’s coronation. “I was woken up by one the guys saying: ‘Oi, Dodgey (as they used to call me), your name’s in the paper – you’re going to the coronation!’ Turns out I’d been put forwarded based on references from my flight commanders and the NCOs in charge,” he says.
Around three months of ‘coronation training’ followed, consisting of an intense programme of route marching carrying rifles with fixed bayonets, peppered with gym workouts. “We were fit young fellas! But we were there to protect the Queen – that was the whole point of it,” explains Keith. The contingent travelled to the UK at the beginning of May 1953 for a few weeks of sightseeing and continued training and preparation, and even had the opportunity to visit family members living in England. They were also paid a visit from the New Zealand Prime Minister Sidney Holland when he popped into their base camp.
Just before the coronation, all those taking part were moved into the Earl’s Court Camp, which was crammed with three-tier bunk beds. “There were 9,000 of us there in total from all over the world,” says Keith. On the day of the coronation, Keith says they did not get ‘even a glimpse’ of the Queen as she was far behind them. “We were guarding her, so we had to be ahead of her,” he explains. However, the following day was the medal parade and the contingent all received medals on the palace grounds to commemorate them being part of the coronation. “All of the royal guests attended and I could see the Queen quite clearly as I was in the second row,” Keith recalls. “And the young Prince Charles and Princess Anne were standing up on the parapet.” For a young Kiwi at the start of his airforce career, the entire experience was undeniably a defining moment.
Now 89 years’ old, Keith is under the care of Hospice West Auckland for terminal cancer. “I’ve been very lucky,” he says. “I’ve got cancer but it’s a very slow growing one.” Heartbreakingly, he lost his beloved wife of 66 years to cancer last year, and life has been very tough since then. He moved in with his daughter and son-in-law, who have been ‘marvellous’. “They take good care of me, I’m very grateful for everything they do,” he says. Hospice is supporting him with medications to help manage his pain, and organised a week of respite care to give his daughter and son-in-law a break.
Keith loves retelling his stories and experiences from the past, which he shares with extraordinary recall and a mischievous sense of humour. “They take me out of myself for a while,” he says.