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The two Vaeas: Tongan Prime Minister and RNZAF pilot

Pilot Officer George Alipate Tupou. Photo courtesy of Lord Vaea and Vaea family, Tonga.
Pilot Officer George Alipate Tupou (Photo courtesy of Lord Vaea and Vaea family).

by Sarah Chandler

George Alipate Tupou, or ‘Baron Vaea’ as he became better known, was the 12th Prime Minister of Tonga, presiding over the Pacific nation from 1991 until 2000. 

What’s less widely known about the former Prime Minister, who died a year ago on 7 June, is that he was the first Tongan (and probably the first Pacific Islander) to enlist with the Royal New Zealand Air Force, operating No 6 (Flying Boat) Squadron Catalina planes in the Pacific during the Second World War.

Born in 1921, George Alipate Tupou spent five years at Tupou College before being sent to New Zealand to complete his education at Wesley College, near Auckland. He said it was with reluctance that he climbed aboard “the old banana boat, the Matula” for the passage to New Zealand in 1938.  Being the first ever Tongan to attend school in New Zealand, he was hesitant to leave Tonga at first: “I didn’t want to go, but they said ‘you must go … if you stay here you won’t know anything about the world, so you better go.”

After graduating from Wesley College he volunteered for service in the Royal New Zealand Air Force – having forged his parents’ permission!  Explaining his attraction to the RNZAF over Army or Navy, Baron Vaea said the exoticism of flying appealed to him. “Coming from the islands, flying was something new, and it just settled in my mind. One New Zealand Ace I remember was a chap named Cobber Kain, and we’d read all about him and his record.” 

Due to an administrative mix up, however, he ended up being mobilised for service in the Army (4th Battalion of the Auckland Regiment) and did not manage to transfer to the RNZAF until 1943.

In New Zealand Baron Vaea trained to fly in Tiger Moths and Harvards, but he dreamed of flying Spitfires in Europe during the war. Instead he was called to serve in the Pacific theatre, at Laucala Bay in Fiji, where he patrolled for submarines and carried out search and rescue missions in a reconnaissance flying boat, the Catalina. Vaea enjoyed flying Catalina sea planes but found them more difficult than those he had trained in “…you have to manoeuvre it like a ship because you are thinking about the wind…” 

Despite being the only Pacific Islander among many Pakeha air men, Baron Vaea said he experienced neither racism nor special treatment during his three years in the RNZAF: “I was accepted just the same as anybody else ... I was very proud to be in the Air Force and my people here [in Tonga] were also very proud of me. The highlight was the comradeship … it was marvellous.”

Baron Vaea did not want to quit the Air Force but was persuaded by his relatives that as a member of the nobility he had a commitment to the government and people of Tonga. After leaving the RNZAF, he worked for the Tongan government then served his Aunt, Queen Salote, as Aide-de-Camp until 1958. He went on to be Tonga's first High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, and was appointed Prime Minister in 1991.

Baron Vaea commented that even in later life, his sense of attachment to the RNZAF often came to the fore at official engagements: “When I attend Armistice Day service with a wreath, I take the wreath up to the cenotaph as the Prime Minister, but I am also wearing the medals of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, so there are two of us: one is the Prime Minister of Tonga, but I am still the airman from the RNZAF.” 

Baron Vaea died at his residence in Houma, Tonga, on 7 June 2009. Commander of the Defence Force’s Joint Services and Logistics Organisation, Air Commodore Stewart Baillie travelled to Tonga to represent the Royal New Zealand Air Force at Baron Vaea’s funeral.

Credit: In 1992 the New Zealand Defence Force and the New Zealand High Commission in Tonga arranged for broadcaster Ian Johnstone to interview Baron Vaea in Nuku’alofa. The quotes used in this story were taken directly from Johnstone’s interview, which was first broadcast on Radio New Zealand International in December 1992.

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