Keen to preserve the stories of those who went to war, RSA historian Patricia Stroud teamed up with filmmaker David Blyth (Our Oldest Soldier). The result is Memories of Service, a series of interviews with veterans from World War II, Vietnam and Korea. They recall comradeship, high risk bombing runs over Europe, blackmailing guards at prisoner of war camps (Ernest Davenport), and 16-hour days working the infamous Burma Railway (James Easton). In-between arranging further interviews, Blyth also put together three compilation reels, culled from the conversations.
Memories of Service captures the war experiences of Kiwi veterans who served in campaigns from World War II to Korea, Vietnam and beyond. Director David Blyth (Our Oldest Soldier) and Silverdale RSA museum curator Patricia Stroud wanted to make the series of interviews as an “archival/educational treasure for all New Zealanders.” In this selection of stories compiled from the first nine interviews, the returned servicemen recall training, survival, imprisonment, parachuting from crashing planes, lighter moments, and bonds of brotherhood.
This compilation episode culls stories from nine new Memories of Service interviews. From Crete to Monte Cassino, the war in the Pacific to the Korean War, former servicemen and women tell their tales in fascinating detail. Divided into broad sections ('Enlisting', 'Battles', 'Occupation of Japan'), there are stories of training, narrow escapes, attack from the air, and sad goodbyes. Director David Blyth and Silverdale RSA museum curator Patricia Stroud’s series of interviews are a valuable archive of a period rapidly fading from memory.
After her brother joined the army early in World War ll, Doris Coppell decided she’d also sign up when she could. And as she says, “the thought of all those lovely sailors was tempting, so I thought I’d opt for the navy.” And indeed she met her future husband while serving at the HMS Philomel training base in Devonport. Just six weeks later she married the British sailor in a borrowed wedding dress. A spritely 92 when interviewed, Coppell recalls the ups and downs of service life, and the course of her post-war years in the UK with affection. Coppell passed away in July 2016.
World War II veteran Everard Otto joined the territorials at 18, helping supply Americans troops based in New Zealand. But his real war story began when he turned 21 and was sent overseas. He eventually arrived in Italy as a staff car driver. Mostly behind the lines, Otto’s memory of service is based around the brutal battles for Monte Cassino, watching the cruel fighting and bombing that razed the famous hilltop monastery. Returning decades later he found the countryside largely unchanged. He even found the dugout where he spent four eventful months.
Howard Monk was just 15 when he joined the army, turning 16 during basic training. When the Air Force came looking for recruits he was reluctant to join, despite the extra one shilling and sixpence per day. But he was recruited anyway, and discovered he was a natural pilot. Clearly a natural storyteller as well, Monk enjoyed his service, flying fighters in the Pacific theatre late in the war. But by then the Japanese had few serviceable aircraft to fly, and to his regret he never engaged in aerial combat.
In his matter-of-fact way, James Murray reflects on some of the horrors of the War in the Pacific. Joining the New Zealand Navy at 17, Murray found himself aboard an American destroyer, watching the first atomic bomb explode above Hiroshima. “We thought they’d blown up Japan,” he says. Earlier, aboard HMNZS Gambia, he’d watched Japanese kamikaze planes attempting to sink the aircraft carriers his ship was trying to protect. Later he was among the first to land on the Japanese mainland, helping take control of the Yokosuka Naval Base.
John Barry Fenton was just 15 when he joined the New Zealand Navy in 1949. When the Korean War broke out the next year, Fenton was part of the crew aboard the frigate HMNZS Pukaki, as it headed north for patrol duties. He describes the monotony of shipboard life in a war mostly fought on land. Returning to New Zealand, Fenton undertook further training before returning to Korea for a second tour of duty, this time aboard HMNZS Hawea. The ship mainly patrolled the area around the mouth of the Han River to stop enemy ships entering or leaving.
From North Atlantic convoy protection to the invasions of Sicily and the Italian mainland, Joseph Pedersen was there. His entire naval career was spent as a sonar operator on two destroyers, HMS Walker and HMS Lookout. The latter was the only destroyer of eight in its class to survive WWll. Harrowing stories of sinkings, dive bombings and helping in the recovery of bodies from a bombed London school are balanced by the strange coincidences and humour of war. Aged 90 when interviewed, his recall of long ago events is outstanding. Pedersen passed away on 29 March 2017.
It’s sometimes called the forgotten war, but Korea lives bright in the mind of Maurice Gasson. Volunteering at 21, Gasson found himself on the freezing battlefields of Korea as part of an artillery battery. Poorly equipped, the Kiwi soldiers swapped bottles of whisky with their American counterparts for sleeping bags and blankets. Conditions improved, but the fighting intensified. Gasson took part in the three-day Battle of Kapyong, a key episode of the conflict. His stories are chilling and some of his experiences are reflected through his poetry.
Roye Hammond was 96 when this one-hour interview was taped, and his recall is incredible. In his matter-of-fact way he describes his experiences as a driver in Greece, Crete and Libya. With almost detached amusement he tells of close calls and the horrors of war, including being enlisted into a bayonet charge against a machine gun position. Evacuation from Greece leads to a further retreat from Crete before he and his comrades become involved in the relief of Tobruk in the desert war.
Like many others who signed up at the beginning of World War II, Tom Beale was looking for excitement, travel and the glamour of the uniform. Where he ended up was Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. A Leading Aircraftman (a junior rank in the air force), Beale served alongside Americans and Australians as they fought to push the last remaining Japanese soldiers off the island. Daily Japanese bombing raids added to the discomfort of fighting in the tropics. Returning home, Beale found it difficult to settle and re-enlisted, ending up in Japan as part of the occupation force.
Colin Ramsey was rejected on medical grounds when he volunteered for World War ll, but not long after, he was called up and soon found himself training at Papakura Military Camp. An ambulance driver in the 3rd New Zealand Division, the first part of Colin’s war was in the Pacific. The realities of the conflict hit home while serving in the Solomons. He and his comrades were sent to collect the American casualties of a Japanese bombing raid, a grizzly experience. At 93, Colin’s memory is sharp as he vividly recalls his experiences.
On land, sea and air during World War II, and from Korea to Vietnam, this group of old soldiers remember their years of service. Close calls are common place but often laughed off, but the horror of war is often close to the surface. The third series of interviews from director David Blyth (Our Oldest Soldier) and RSA museum curator Patricia Stroud provide a valuable archive of a time now almost beyond living memory — particularly World War II, as the veterans enter their 90s and beyond.
Daniel Herlihy’s naval career spanned 44 years, making him the longest continuous serving member of the New Zealand Navy. He joined in 1949, at the age of 14. Even before seeing active service in Korea he’d been involved in keeping New Zealand ports running, during the infamous 1951 waterfront dispute. Following significant action off Korea’s coasts, Daniel was later involved in the Suez Crisis and the Malayan Emergency. Later, while commanding a coastal patrol vessel, he took part in action against illegal Taiwanese fishing boats. At 82, Daniel recalls many details.
With the phrase “we were lucky to get away with it” and a ready laugh, 97-year-old Douglas Smith describes some of the close calls he had as a trainee and later bomber pilot during World War ll. Luck yes, but skill too, as he survived a 30 mission tour of duty. Douglas first tasted action flying a small, twin engine Dakota Boston over France and the Netherlands. Graduating to four engine Lancasters, he took part in huge raids over some of Germany’s biggest cities. Never afraid himself, he laments the vast loss of life among friends and enemies.
Called up at the start of World War II, George Shadbolt spent six years in the British army. As a member of the Royal Corps of Signals he spent much of that time behind the lines, installing and maintaining vital communications networks. In the course of that work George, now 99, covered 1000s of kilometres through North Africa and the Middle East. It wasn’t until late in the war that he saw action in Italy, bringing communications lines to tanks at the front. The task offered little protection; Shadbolt deemed it the most dangerous job in the army.
The subject of this interview is Greg Rodgers, a Flight Sergeant in the RNZAF in Vietnam and Malaya. Rodgers joined the air force after college, and trained as a mechanic. He talks about the bond between ground crew and pilots, and the responsibility of having a pilot’s life in his hands at age 18. Rodgers also mentions off-duty good times (including jumping from choppers into the sea, before being wet-winched up again) and reflects on bad times after returning to civilian life: official neglect ("there was no support"), and the shock of leaving his Air Force "family".
Starting his World War II military service in the Army, Jack Harold was soon transferred to the Navy. He saw active service at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, and was aboard the minesweeper HMNZS Moa when it and sister ship HMNZS Kiwi engaged a Japanese submarine, eventually sinking it after the Kiwi dropped depth charges. But the Moa’s luck didn’t hold; it was sunk in a Japanese raid, taking five of its crew with it. Jack survived, although wounded, and would return to action in the Pacific aboard submarine hunting ships. Jack was discharged from the Navy in 1945.
John Wilkinson didn’t realise until after the end of World War ll that he’d broken his back when the plane he was piloting in North Africa was shot down. Captured and beaten up by Italian soldiers, interrogated by the Gestapo, John eventually ended up in the notorious Stalag Luft III prison camp in what is now Poland. He was involved in the Wooden Horse Escape, one of the most famous of the war. Later he would meet his future wife at the camp, a displaced person from Lithuania. Now 95, John’s memory of his wartime experiences remains undimmed.
Aged 101 when interviewed for this series, Auckland-born Laurence Reynolds was a Major in the British Army during World War II. Reynolds was studying medicine in the UK when war broke out. Here he recounts his wartime service, from running a hospital in Iraq and dealing with malaria (almost dying of it himself), to romance on home leave, and facing polio and ambushes while working as a doctor in Quetta and Bannu (in what is now Pakistan). Post-war, Reynolds went on to pioneer coronary rehabilitation, including helping establish the first coronary care unit at Greenlane Hospital.
When Vince Pierson’s old comrades tried to track him down, years after the Korean War, they couldn’t find him. Pierson had taken another surname when he joined up, to disguise the fact that at 19, he was underage. As a gunner attached to HQ, he was with the New Zealand artillery supporting Australian and Canadian infantry at the Battle of Kapyong. Pierson belies his 85 years with sharp recall and vivid stories of people and places. He shows as much empathy for the Koreans as for his comrades, while describing battling intense cold and stifling heat — and the other side.
Like many young New Zealand males during the late 1960s, Wayne Chester joined the army and headed overseas to fight in Vietnam. As a machine gunner he patrolled the jungles outside of Saigon and saw combat, facing the Viet Cong on several occasions. He recounts his experiences in the jungle, along with some close encounters with wildlife, and the altercations and laughs shared with the American contingent. He also discusses his admiration for the Vietnamese people and the Viet Cong, and the long-term physical and political effects of agent orange.
Early in World War ll Barbara Rowarth was desperate to join the Navy. But what became WRENS (Women’s Royal New Zealand Naval Service) was yet to be formed, and Barbara had to wait until 1942. Initially the WRENS were only taking cooks and stewards, but she joined up anyway and ended up in signals with the rank of 4th Officer. Barbara loved the WRENS and aged 93, looks back at that time with affection. That’s despite a bout of rheumatic fever which almost certainly would have killed her if not for a dose of the first penicillin to be made in Auckland.
From those who joined up in World War ll to the relative youngsters who saw action in Vietnam, this selection of clips is collected from the fourth series of interviews with ex-servicemen sharing their memories of service. The stories of these men and women range from the comical to the horrific. Age has taken its toll on their bodies but the memories remain sharp. Made by director David Blyth (Our Oldest Soldier) and Silverdale RSA museum curator Patricia Stroud, the interviews are a valuable record of WWll and conflict in South East Asia. The full interviews are being added to NZ On Screen over coming weeks.
After a long flight in a C-130 Hercules, Dez Harrison arrived in Vietnam on the fifth of May 1967. As he puts it, when you’re young and green it’s all an adventure. Serving in 161 Field battery, Harrison says he was blessed with good leadership from non-commissioned officers who were mainly veterans of Korea and Malaya. As the memories rattle off, he has plenty of praise for the Americans in Vietnam, but less so for his Australian comrades. Stories of leave in Saigon and Singapore provide fond memories, but the reception back in New Zealand at the end of his service is less happy.
When Frank Sanft’s older brother was killed early in World War ll, it only intensified Frank’s determination to serve. Joining the Royal Navy, he was eventually assigned to Operation PLUTO, which involved laying an undersea fuel pipeline between the UK and Cherbourg (vital in keeping Allied vehicles moving, directly after the invasion of France). Frank laughs now at a close call with a sniper ashore in France. Serving in the Pacific, he was there after Singapore’s notorious Changi PoW camp was liberated. In 2017 Sanft was awarded a prestigious French Legion of Honour.
Harold Bevan reckons he’s the luckiest man to serve in the Second World War. Born in a village east of London, he saw plenty of action in the (UK) Royal Navy, but by his own admission, never got his feet wet. Joining up as soon as possible after the outbreak of war, Bevan served in almost all the naval theatres. As a Chief Petty Officer, he was involved in the evacuations of Greece and Crete — and later the allied invasions of Sicily and Italy — as well as the D-Day invasion of France. At the age of 96, Bevan remembers entire conversations as if it was yesterday.
“Ask your mother!” That’s what John Fallow’s father told him, when he said he’d like to join the navy at the outbreak of World War II. She relented and John embarked on his wartime career aboard minesweepers. A six month course in Australia followed and, after exemplary work, an accelerated promotion; just one of three granted by the Royal NZ Navy during the war. Clearing mines from major ports following the sinking of the RMS Niagara outside the Hauraki Gulf led to working alongside US allies in the Pacific. John had a lucky war. His ship never fired a shot in anger.
Keith Boles was certain he wanted to join the air force when the Second World War broke out, and it wasn’t long before he was a flying instructor. Evacuated from Singapore when the Japanese invaded, Boles eventually found himself in the United Kingdom, with an Advanced Flying Unit. A transfer to operations with Bomber Command saw him piloting de Havilland Mosquito bombers and being trained in the use of the top secret Oboe targeting system. Being part of a pathfinder unit was, he says, the safest job in Bomber Command and he came through his service unscathed.
Ken Bliss’s brief description of his father’s service in the Boer War is just one of the stories that make this interview essential viewing. Ken’s own military career began when he was called up at 18, in 1941. Too tall to be a pilot in the RNZAF, he became a radio mechanic and served in the war against the Japanese in the Pacific. Forming a surf lifesaving team on Bougainville to rescue American servicemen who couldn’t swim was an unexpected wartime duty. And having survived the war, a missed train in 1953 meant Ken also survived the Tangiwai disaster.
“You forget about the rough times” says old soldier Steve Danes. Instead, the veteran of the Italian Campaign during World War ll focuses on the funny side. There are plenty of tales of the laughter and hijinks to be had when resting behind the lines, or on leave. Conscripted at age 18 and sent to Europe just short of his 21st birthday, Danes spent most of his war in Italy and there wasn’t much of the country he didn’t see. Along the way he encountered fanatical young Nazis, and older German soldiers who were sick of war and wanted it to end.
Stoney Burke reckons aviation fuel just about runs in his veins; fascinated by aircraft since childhood, joining the Royal New Zealand Air Force felt like a logical choice. Burke's long career as an engineer both on the ground and in the air included helping get supplies to Nepal for Sir Edmund Hillary’s school building projects, plus service in the Vietnam War. Flying into Saigon and some of the forward air bases in Vietnam could prove tricky, with planes taking small arms fire on their approach. Post Air Force, Stoney continued his career at Air New Zealand.
In this Memories of Service interview, World War II veteran Ernest Davenport talks about his time in the Royal Air Force. After joining the RAF in 1940 at the age of 18, he served as a warrant officer in the pathfinder force before being shot down over Germany in 1943. He shares stories of his time as a prisoner of war — attempting escape, being charged with sabotage and blackmailing German guards to aid in his eventual rescue. He also shares his various medals from service and artifacts of the war such as his pilot’s log book and the jacket he was wearing when he was shot down.
Serving as a navigator in the air force during World War II, Harold 'Bunny' Burrows experienced his share of excitement. After enlisting as a 20-year-old, he quickly began navigating on bombing runs in Sterling, Lancaster and Mosquito class bombers. In this half-hour interview he reflects on his lost compatriots, and dealing with one's mortality on high risk bombing runs over Germany and Italy. Yet Burrows remains matter of fact about his experience —after learning that the interview crew know the German city of Leverkusen, he replies “we gave it a rough time. Sorry about that.”
At the age of 97, former Australian soldier James Easton recounts his experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II in this episode of Memories of Service. Captured at the fall of Singapore, Jim spent more than three years in captivity, including 12 months working on the infamous Burma Railway. He unflinchingly recalls illness, brutality and 16-hour working days. Suffering from dysentery and dengue fever, Easton lost about 30 kilograms in his time as a prisoner of war. More than 8000 Australians died in Japanese prison camps.
Shot down on just his second bombing raid over Germany, the late James McQueen described life as a prisoner of war in this Memories of Service episode. Then 93 years old, Invercargill-born McQueen recalled bailing out from his burning Wellington bomber and eventually falling into German hands. After interrogation by the Gestapo he was sent to a pow camp, where he stayed for the next two and a half years. McQueen describes life there, his eventual release and the psychological impact of his experiences, including the feeling of failure prompted by his brief time in combat.
John Wills joined the New Zealand Army as soon as he could when war broke out in 1939. He ended up serving in North Africa and Italy until war’s end in 1945. Now 96, Wills looks back at his time as a driver for an artillery battery. Taken prisoner and held by the Italians in Libya, he was liberated by Indian troops in time to see action at the battle of El Alamein. He was also present, behind the lines, at the brutal Battle of Cassino, north of Naples. Tales of fighting, hardship and bravery are balanced with humour.
In this Memories of Service interview, veteran Kenneth Johnstone shares his stories of being in the Navy during the Korean War. He talks briefly about his time spent chasing Russian submarines around the Mediterranean before heading to the war. There he was shot at by North Korean forces and knew numerous casualties. In total he spent eight years in the Navy, working as a stoker in the engine room. He shares his medals from the war and talks about life after it ended, particularly about being hailed as a hero by South Korean visitors.
The late Les Hughes recalls serving in the Korean War in this Memories of Service episode. Hughes served as an artillery gunner in 161 Battery of the Royal New Zealand Artillery. He was involved in the Battle of Kapyong, where UN troops withstood a massive Chinese attack, helping to prevent the capture of Seoul, the South Korean capital. Aged 86 at the time of the interview, Hughes reminisces about that battle and his training back in New Zealand, the Kiwi troop’s lack of equipment, and the journey home at war's end. Some 31 Kiwi soldiers were killed in action in Korea, and 78 wounded.
The excitement of training and the thrill of travelling overseas form the start of Ron Mayhill’s reminiscences in this episode of Memories of Service. But serving with 75 Squadron, Bomber Command, brings home the reality of World War II. Mayhill gives unflinching and vivid descriptions of flying as a bomb aimer on raids over France and Germany. He survived 27 missions before being wounded; many of his comrades weren’t so lucky. Yet looking back at the age of 90, Mayhill also recalls the sheer beauty of the night sky as he flew into battle.
Vietnam veteran Thomas Brosnahan shares his time spent in the military in this Memories of Service Interview. He moved from the territorial forces to the army at 23 to join his two brothers, before heading off to the war in Southeast Asia. He would spend 20 years in military service across Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, including active duty in the capital, Saigon. As well as the Vietnam War itself, Brosnahan reflects on life after the war, particularly on the hostility vets faced from the public upon returning home, and the effects of agent orange on his former colleagues.