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Famed WWII pilot’s medals come home

It’s been a century in the making, but decorated pilot Thomas Horton’s story has finally come full circle.

In an emotional ceremony in Masterton on Saturday, the famed Wing Commander’s children gifted his WWII medals to the Wairarapa Aero Club.

Aero Club president Kevin Ormond and captain Karen Williams said the atmosphere at the club was buzzing.

“It was emotional. There were a few tears and we were just blown away by the whole response to it.”

Horton, born in Masterton in 1919, flew in his first plane at Hood Aerodrome when he was 10 years old, a famed Southern Cross. It was a flight that set him on course to become one of New Zealand’s most distinguished pilots.

At 18, shortly after gaining his licence at Hood Aerodrome, he was drawn into the war and shipped to Europe where he flew Fairey Battles, Bristol Blenheims, and Douglas Bostom bombers.

After 31 missions, he was awarded his first Distinguished Flying Cross [DFC], presented personally by King George VI.

Later in WWII, he piloted his favourite aircraft, a de Havilland Mosquito in another 80 missions.

Designed for speed, Horton would fly into enemy territory under cover of darkness to mark targets for heavy bombers and flying anti-ship patrols.

For his bravery, he was awarded a second DFC and Bar and Distinguished Service Order, again by the king.

After the war, Horton joined the Royal Air Force and later moved to the United States with his wife, Beris, and two children, Gail and Peter.

A chance encounter with another Masterton local, Sam Rollason, in Washington DC set in motion the series of events that brought Horton’s medals to Wairarapa Aero Club

“I worked at the New Zealand embassy there, and the first function I was responsible for was arranging the Anzac Day commemorations in April 2016.

“Tom was a Kiwi living in Alexandria just across the river, so I invited him and his family.” Rollason said Horton, who died just shy of his 102nd birthday in 2021, expressed a desire to have his war medals returned to the place he learned to fly – Hood Aerodrome.

Ormond said a variety of Horton’s documents would be on display alongside his medals at the club.

“He kept so much stuff, like his membership application for the Wairarapa Aero Club in 1937.

“They are just as precious as the medals.”

Ormond said there was one telegram in particular that stood out because it was so understated.

“He sent one to his parents when he was in the war: ‘Hope all is well, received a DFC.’

“I would have loved to have met him.

“He went up in the Southern Cross for a joyride when he was 10, and when he was 17 and a half, he joined the aero club, and then shortly after went to war. This whole thing is a circle.”

Mary Argue
Mary Argue
Mary Argue is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with an interest in justice and the region’s emergency services, regularly covering Masterton District Court, Fire and Emergency and Police.

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