Good Bye Arch - the death of Arch Simpson

 

 

His words are soft, with a stony edge, tinted with Australian and they speak of his years as a sheep and cattle farmer in Wangaratta, Victoria. His voice speaks with the quiet strength and clear humility of a man who knows exactly who he is.

The strange thing is, I have never spoken with Arch Simpson. I have not shaken his rough and firm hand nor even heard his voice on the phone from the antipodes. Yet I hear his voice clearly and firmly as I read over the words of his letters to me over the past two years.

Arch and I exchanged e-mails no more than ten times as we put together his story about how our P-40 Kittyhawk came to ill fortune on a muddy jungle airstrip on sweltering Papua New Guinea back in 1944.  That was the sum total of our exchanges, our friendship and our time together. Though brief and stretched to the longest distance possible on this planet, we were able to find a connection and mutual understanding. When his son Robin e-mailed me to tell me he had died, I was heartbroken.

At one of the dispersal bays at Hollandia airfield on Papua New Guinea, Arch Simpson (in cockpit) poses with his ground crew and his own Kittyhawk - A29-401 HU-R.  While landing in this aircraft on January 2, 1944, Arch endured a landing gear collapse, but walked away uninjured.  The aircraft was repaired and re-entered service with 78 Squadron, but was shot down on June 3rd with her pilot, F/Sgt William “Happy” Harnden, being killed. Photo via Arch Simpson

Robin, Arch's son, re-enacts the scene from Simpson's old photo at Hollandia while visiting the Wings over Wanaka air show in New Zealand, back in 2002. It would be a rare day indeed for a Second World War pilot to come across a single old warbird he once flew. Arch found two... this one (A21-448) and ours (A21-414) Photo via Robin Simpson

Arch was a man not given to talking about himself or his adventures during those stressful years. This is something he and most of his mates share. Whether they hail from Canada or Australia, the United Kingdom or the United States, the veterans of the war have, by some unspoken and mutual agreement, decided that the terrible things that happened to them during the war, that the deaths and injury to their friends and their shared sacrifice would be dishonoured if a man were to brag or gain heroic status by self aggrandizement or self-promotion.  Almost to man, they share their stories only with each other and with those who take the time to understand the context of their suffering and open doors to their memories ever so slowly.

Arch did what all the reluctant warriors did at the end of the Second World War - he went home and got back to what he was meant to do before the Japanese up-ended his life.  He married Helen Jean Roe in 1949 and had four children - Robin, Dianne, Jeanie and Heather. Arch spent the remainder of his life as a cattle and sheep rancher in his beloved Victoria.

Most veterans of that war would take their stories to the grave, but there just a few with the gumption, the time and the reasons to tackle these memories, to sift through them, to bring out the best of the men, the friendships, the shared terrors and miseries and put them down in words. Arch saw that he was growing old and he saw that his grand children were losing a sense of history with the passage of time. He decided to tell in memoir form them exactly why he would get that far away look in his eyes from time to time.

Tadji6

A close up of the artwork on the fuselage of P-40N A29-414 Come in Suckers!  Arch Simpson flew this particular aircraft on a number of occasions and then witnessed her destruction while landing on a boggy airfield at Tadji, Papua New Guinea. This Kittyhawk survives and flies today at Vintage Wings of Canada. Photo via Pioneer Aero

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The sad end to the battle veteran Come in Suckers!. Dripping with fire fighting foam and surrounded by rescuers on April 25th, 1944, the Kittyhawk had just been be bulldozed out of the way (with Jim Harvey still inside it!) of pilots desperate to land. The entry in Harvey's logbook for that day states "Aircraft crashed and overturned after landing short of strip - pilot OK". The whole misadventure was witnessed by Simpson while orbiting overhead.   Photo via Pioneer Aero

78 Squadron pilots on a jungle airstrip on Kiriwina Island (the largest island of the Trobriand Island Group, 25 miles long and 6 miles wide. Located 360 miles south of Rabaul) -  Arch Simpson stands at right, his smile belying the stresses of operations and the deprivation of jungle war. Photo via Arch Simpson

 

Tadji5

Arch Simpson, far left, always spoke of his "mates" with much kindness, love and reverence. For him, this was the most powerful legacy of his time during the war as a fighter pilot.   Photo via Arch Simpson

 

In Arch's own words from his forthcoming memoir, we see that he was a man who took some time to think about what he was experiencing, to remember his joys and friendships and with these good thoughts, wash away the pain and sadness of a war he did not want to fight. When someone writes words on paper or in an e-mail, there is always the chance that the reader might hear a nuance or tone that was not intended, place a character trait upon the shoulders of the writer that may not be the case or make assumptions about history that might upset the author. But Arch's words rang true and unambiguous to me, felt warm and kindly and sounded from a man who had come to terms with the horrors he had endured. This I know to be true.

Arch's son has promised to send me a copy of Arch's memoir, which he wrote for the benefit of his grandchildren. He felt he owed them an explanation of why these days were important to him, why he cherished his friends from that period and why, every once in a while, he got that far away look in his eyes. This will be a book that I will cherish all my life.

Arch was gentleman. "A man of leisure" he liked to say about his retirement from ranching. “It was typical of Arch's modesty that he described himself as a "man of leisure" after retiring from farming” says son Robin. “In fact he always led a very active community life. He was an elder of the Presbyterian Church, a senior instructor at the Gliding Club of Victoria, a glider tug-pilot where he mostly flew an Auster Mark IV that he had lovingly restored, registered VH-MBA (which he always referred to as "My Bloody Aeroplane"), an avid and talented wood-worker, for many years a curator at the Benalla Regional Art Gallery where a gallery is named after him, an enthusiastic photographer - and at the age of 72 he became a Macintosh computer whiz, which eventually led to his autobiography. Everything he did he pursued with passion - and a great sense of fun. That huge grin you noted in the squadron photograph never left his face”

He was a proud father and grandfather. He was a gentle voice I never actually heard anywhere but in my heart.

Dave O'Malley

Arch was a warbird and vintage aircraft pilot. He helped restore Royal Australian Air Force Auster A11-53, seen here leading another at Canberra in 1953. Known affectionately by Arch as "My Bloody Aeroplane", A11-53 was owned by the Gliding Club of Victoria and registered then as VH-MBA.   Photo via Arch Simpson

 

The following text which has appeared in Vintage News before, comes from the forward of Arch's memoir - a book he never lived to see in print.

 

"There we were, piloting our trusty flying machines after a long patrol, weary but relaxing; unwinding, heading towards safe home territory after one of many monotonous ‘nil sightings’ but very necessary valley patrols. Watching over, and ready to protect this main supply route, the Markham /Sepik river valleys in central New Guinea.  We were returning to base at Nadzab and indulging in a bit fun flying in a line astern chase amongst a lot of cumuli/nimbus cloud tops at about twenty thousand feet.  A typical late afternoon tropical weather pattern.

We brushed over the brilliant, sharply defined white tops of these boiling clouds, climbing and bunting over build-ups, then belting up the dark ominous purple-grey cloud valleys and canyons with our wing tips leaving twisting vortexes as they brushed through the misty edges, --- enjoying the sense of freedom, speed and manoeuvrability; enjoying the quick control response of this willing little work horse, gun platform of an aeroplane, when, -- suddenly we broke out into clear air and could look down
a vertical cloud face; one continuous wall of cloud with, at the bottom, grey rain to the jungle floor.  We were given a true perspective of our actual height, and my first thought was; ‘Goodness*’!

What am I doing away up here, teasing this massive build up of cloud alone in this comparatively tiny aeroplane?  I was a little intimidated by the beauty, power and size of that awesome cloud.

Well my grandchildren, too quickly growing up. One or other of you have often asked what it was like when I was young and experiencing what you are experiencing as you grow older.

Our life was very different, but you have asked, particularly about my flying during the war – so here are some of the experiences of my early life that I faintly remember.

As you read, perhaps you might forgive me, and maybe your young friends might also forgive their grandparents when we get a bit grumpy and with a faraway look on our eyes say “ When I was your age.....!

 

Arch Simpson sits in the cockpit of another P-40 Kittyhawk in New Zealand while Pioneer Aero mechanic Martin Hedley strikes the historic pose. Talk about just 2 degrees of separation. Martin visited Vintage Wings for a month in 2009 to help up work out technical snags on our Kittyhawk, which he helped build in New Zealand. Photo via Robin Simpson

Arch sits once again in the cockpit of a Kittyhawk and recounts a few old memories. Arch was a pacifist at heart, not given to agression and fighting. Like most warriors of the Second World war, he put down his tools and went to do the job that was asked of him. When it was over and he had survived, he went homne to resume the life he dreamed of as a cattle and sheep rancher. Photo via Robin Simpson

Arch Simpson's granddaughter Penny throws a comforting arm over his shoulder as he gets up close to a P-40 Kittyhawk at Wangarratta. Arch lost mates and shared profound life experiences during his time fighting the Japanese in the Southwest Pacific. Vintage Wings of Canada wishes to express their support and condolences to the Simpson family who have lost their gentleman patriarch - a decent, honest and hard working man, who risked all for his country. Photo: Arch Simpson Family Archive

 

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