On Nov. 28, 1979, New Zealand experienced its deadliest peacetime disaster when Air New Zealand Flight 901 crashed into Mount Erebus on Ross Island, Antarctica, killing all of the 237 passengers and 20 crew members who were on board.
Following the disaster, New Zealanders and citizens from several other countries including the United States, particularly U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard personnel, banded together to help recover and identify victims, and investigate the crash in what became known as Operation Overdue. To recognize the efforts of those men and women, New Zealand instituted the New Zealand Special Service Medal (Erebus). Since its creation, several of the medals have been awarded.
Wayne Rush, Directorate of Public Works construction representative, was the most recent U.S. citizen recognized with the medal in a ceremony Nov. 7 in the Hearth Room of the Frontier Conference Center.
“Recognition is an important thing for a nation to say thanks to those people who have supported us,” said New Zealand Navy Commodore David Gibbs, New Zealand Defence Force defense attaché to the United States. “It is at times, for some valuable missions, part of closure, and those things tie countries together.”
The medal includes several vertical stripes in various colors including dark blue, astral blue, black and white. Dark blue references the sea surrounding Antarctica and the New Zealand police who were involved in the identification of the bodies; astral blue references the ice and snow of Antarctica; black references the aircraft disaster, which left a black streak across the polar ice; and black and white also references the national colors of New Zealand.
At the time of the recovery efforts, Rush was a Navy petty officer second class with Antarctic Development Squadron 6 (VXE-6).
“Rush flew tough recovery missions and directly assisted in the loading and unloading of underslung human remains and personal possessions in a very tough environment,” said the award citation, which was read by New Zealand Army Maj. Rod Master, liaison officer to the Combined Arms Center. “His actions directly contributed to New Zealand families getting their loved ones home to grieve over. Those families will never forget the actions of the Erebus recovery team members.”
Rush said it took every person there to make the operation a success.
“It was everybody from the person making the sandwiches to sending the food out to the people working the side of the slope,” Rush said. “It was everybody coming together to make it a success out of something bad.”
Other New Zealand Special Service Medals include the New Zealand Special Service Medal (Nuclear Testing), which recognizes personnel who were part of atmospheric nuclear tests in the 1950s; and the New Zealand Special Service Medal (Asian Tsunami), which recognizes those who helped with relief, recovery and reconstruction efforts following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.