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‘It was a day like no other’

Hapeta ‘Hoppy’ Hodges was on the beach dragging life boats ashore during the Wahine disaster. PHOTO/ CAL ROBERTS

CAL ROBERTS
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It may have happened 50 years ago, but former police officer Hapeta ‘Hoppy’ Hodges remembers the day of the Wahine disaster very clearly.
He spent it on the beach at Pencarrow, dragging people to safety as they washed ashore.
Now retired in Masterton, 82-year-old Mr Hodges is travelling to Wellington today to take part in the 50th anniversary commemoration services.
The former Naenae constable was due to start his shift in horrendous weather conditions as tropical cyclone Giselle lashed the country.
“I thought, ‘Crikey, those so-and-sos want me to get out there and work in this weather’.”
He was tending to storm-damaged Stokes Valley when he began to realise the day would be very different.
“There was all this excitement over the radio about a ship tipping over down at the entrance of the harbour.”
Around 6am on April 10, 1968, the Wahine entered Wellington Harbour. “I thought, they’ll be calling for me soon . . . calling for everyone – even the poor buggers on their day off.”
Not long after, he was called to the Lower Hutt station.
He had a long shift ahead and had not eaten any breakfast. By the time he’d had a bite to eat and been briefed on the situation, people had begun jumping from the vessel into violent waters.
“I was put in a patrol car with about four other guys and we shot out to Eastbourne.”
They took the car as far as they could, stopping at Burdan’s Gate, just shy of the beach.
He described the scene as chaotic.
When the policemen arrived, lifeboats from the Wahine were approaching the shore. They rushed to meet them.

Hoppy Hodges in 1998 PHOTO/SUPPLIED

Mr Hodges and the other officers got about 400m down the beach, looking towards Pencarrow Head.
There, he saw the sinking ferry.
“There was this bloody thing — tipped over.”
He got stuck in, helping anyone he could on the beach.
“When the boats started pulling up, we were busy as hell.”
“One poor bugger, he’d jumped off and took such a gutsful of water. We got him to the senior sergeant where the doctor was.”
The constable waded into the water to help drag lifeboats ashore — “You had to. Some of the people had babies. We were frozen stiff.”
He describes seeing a man climb out of the sea by himself, only to collapse on the shore.
The people straggling in were distraught, cold, and weak from fighting the waves. Some died on the beach
from sheer exhaustion.
“That carried on till all the boats had come in.”
Mr Hodges came across a woman carrying a child, struggling to get up the beach to safety.
His uniform, while warm, was holding him back in his rescue efforts.
He took off his jacket and wrapped it around the woman.
“The baby was screaming, and she was weak, so I took the baby off her.”
Mr Hodges made sure the baby was placed safely under covers.
“Was I bloody cold.”
He said the day on the beach when the Wahine sank was like no other. The toll it took on the constable was still apparent as he recalled his actions 50 years later.
“It was tough. That lady with the baby . . . I nearly cried, you know.
“I didn’t cry, but I felt like it.”

5 COMMENTS

  1. I met Hoppy in Naenae when working at my father’s service station. Hoppy &Stan Gee were credited with ‘cleaning up’ Naenae. Hoppy taught me how to dive and spear fish. Inspired by Hoppy I joined the Police and after a short stint in Wellington city I got to be near what turned out to be my Kaitiaki and my best mate. He was best man at my wedding.
    As my bride to be came to meet us at the front of the church he whispered in my ear “has the bridesmaid got any Maori in her”.Hoppy I replied NO ( she white as with blond hair and blue eyes). He then asked “do you think she would a little bit!”.
    Hoppy I lost track of you once you were moved to Masterton. My 3 boys remember you offering them a beer in your man shed. Rest in peace..I remember many stories.
    I will find your resting place but thank you for continuing to be my Kaitiaki from ….

  2. I first met Hoppy as a young fellow in Naenae in the mid 60s. He was one of the reasons I later joined the Police. He was highly respected and liked by the good people of Naenae and feared by the bad. I had the pleasure of working with Hoppy in Lower Hutt for many years as a young cop and I still count him as a close friend. Keep well old mate. We think of you often in Whanganui. Rob and Jenny

  3. I knew Hoppy well. He was a friend of my dad and a regular at our home.As a boy I would try to race him in our pool but he was such a strong swimmer I never had a chance. One day, telling him I’d been practising, I challenged him to a race and as He dived in I ran down the side and jumped in near the end and was waiting for him as he finished. I last saw Hoppy nearly 40 years ago when I got him to visit Dad in hospital just before he passed away. Now I know he is still with us I shall make contact with him. Thanks for this article.

  4. Remembering those days has given me a lovely feeling , about my Mum and Dad as well, plus Hoppy was always there if any thing had to be done, we lived at 31 Bush street The Naenae police station was at 35 Bush St, you and Jan will always be remembered for just being you, lots of love and and good thoughts
    From The Hughes Family

  5. I met Hoppy in Dec 1970 being a freshly arrived pasty Pommie “cop” in Lower Hutt. To say that he was a behemoth was an understatement. My feeling was that he was revered and respected by fellow officers and public alike. Sometimes you saw a twinkle in his eye that showed a softer side but woe betide if you tried to take advantage of it. He is one of two cops I had the pleasure to work with in 30 years that I could call real gentlemen and whom I respected. Good on yer Hoppy and take care.

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