CENTENARIAN: Ohope resident James Willoughby celebrates his 100th birthday with a letter from the Queen. Photo Troy Baker D9031-03

JAMES Willoughby marked a milestone yesterday when he celebrated his 100th birthday with friends and family at his Ohope home.

One hundred years has “crept up” on the World War II veteran but attaining centenarian status hasn’t fazed him too much.

“It doesn’t feel any different,” Mr Willoughby said. “The only thing is you’re not as energetic as you should be. That’s the main thing.”

Although his days are slower now – with time spent reading, taking walks, and having visitors over – he feels lucky to have lived a very interesting and fulfilling life.

Born in Paeroa on October 7, 1919, Mr Willoughby recalled a simpler time when he was growing up.

“We went to school in Mount Albert, and my old man was a builder,” Mr Willoughby said.

“He built the first railway houses for the railway.”

They moved to Ngakuru where they walked or rode horses to school, which at one point was six miles away.

Mr Willoughby went to school until about 12 or 13 so he could work on the farm. He did return to school later, however, to get his certificate.

“Because as the teacher said, I was a clever little bastard!”
Around age 17, he decided to leave home and venture out on his own.

“I had a bust up with the old man,” he recounted. “I packed up my clothes in a suitcase and buggered off. A few of those nights I slept a bit rough.”

He found work for a few years, but by the age of 21 he and one of his mates had joined up to serve in the war.

“At that time, we thought the war was only going to last a little while,” he said. “But it lasted a little bit longer than we expected.”

While serving his country, Mr Willoughby was held prisoner by Italians in Egypt, stole a German flag which he smuggled inside his jacket, and helped deliver a woman’s baby in Syria.

These and many other stories were discussed earlier this year during his interview with Rishi Sharma of the North American non-profit Heroes of the Second World War. Sharma had been recording interviews with World War II veterans all over the world to document their history and tales of heroism.

Discharged, injured, from the army in late 1944, Mr Willoughby returned to New Zealand and shortly afterwards married Nola and they had a son, Gary, the following year. Nola died in late 1949.

He later married Kay. “We had over 30 years happy years together before she passed.”

Over the years Mr Willoughby has witnessed the landscape and culture change rapidly. Roads and houses have popped up where before there were only dirt roads and paddocks.

Air travel has become faster. Technology has become more complicated.

To stay connected to the past, and to keep his memories alive, Mr Willoughby has created his own books that have photos and journal entries about important people and events from his life.

When asked what lessons he would share with the younger generations, Mr Willoughby said people need to stop making excuses and just live.

“I think a lot of people wait too long to do anything,” he said. “Do it while you’re younger.

There are too many people who say that they’ll save up to do this and do that, but once you get bloody old you can’t do it!”