Alec Fraser Johnston, known to all as Johnny, turned 100 last week. The centenarian has lived in Richmond 35 years, choosing to shift here for retirement. He is one of the few people who served in World War 2 still living in the area.
Born on 9 June 1921, he grew up in the depression and left school at 13 to help support his family. A life-defining moment was when his mother found him a job as a telegraph boy. Finding it interesting, he went back to work in the evening to learn morse code. When war broke out, this enabled him to train as a wireless operator in the airforce.
In May 1941 he boarded the RMS Aorangi for Canada and then a troopship bound for England, travelling six days in convoy escorted by warships and aircraft from the United Kingdom, before being posted to Ireland followed by Ghana and Nigeria.
“Flying boats were based in Ireland and carried out anti-submarine patrols and convoy escort duties. Our duties involved maintaining radio watches, listening for morse code signals from the various coastal command aircraft out on patrol,” says Johnny.
He says, for security reasons, aircraft maintained radio silence so as not to disclose their position, but when they went into action on sighting and attacking submarine, they would send coded signals with detailed specifics of the action. At that point, after long periods of silence, the wireless operators were suddenly very busy.
He returned home to marry Isabel in 1945 and was honeymooning on Stewart Island on VJ Day. They had two sons, Doug and Ross.
“After the war I tried civilian life but didn’t settle into my new life well, so rejoined the airforce,” says Johnny.
“I was in Fiji for a hurricane and later posted to the RAF for an exchange and worked on Tempest. At the time the security was very high, but that was 50 years ago and now you can google Tempest,” he says.
“I travelled to Berlin in cold war days, through East Germany. A troop of armed soldiers were responsible for guarding the train while in transit to defend in the event of an attack. The doors were locked and chained and there were all sorts of rules to ensure there was no opportunity for the Russians to cause stoppages or delays,” says Johnny.
In 1971 he was posted to San Francisco as Vice Consul where he enjoyed a busy social life. and later spent two years at the New Zealand Embassy in Moscow.
His love of learning has continued all his life, having learned to speak and write Russian, spending time silversmithing as well as bone and greenstone carving, and always enjoying research. He still has a room dedicated to art and particularly enjoys painting.
“When I showed him how a computer worked he said he was past all that, but a week later he rang and said, “I better give you my email address,”” says son Doug.
Doug says his dad has always approached things with gusto, has fantastic ideas, is very supportive and loves a joke and playing tricks on people.
Johnny has kept busy following retirement and now has a room set up for painting and drawing. The room also holds treasures from his travels.