The glasses have been washed; the medals put away; the poppies binned and our collective patriotism rubbed and polished for another year as under the guise of acknowledging a significant military disaster we come together as a country and a community.
Aunty Patty, who is actually not my “aunty” but the little sister of that young and long dead aircrew member, wanted me to know that he wrote to her about the little ginger man who could sit and focus on what he was doing irrespective of what was going on around him, and
Aunty Tess, who is actually not my “aunty” but one of the big sisters of that young, dead aircrew member, cries at my 70’s something father’s funeral. Even then I know she isn’t crying for him, she’s crying for her brother. She sobs as she says “he had a life…Sonny never had a life…”
I can’t imagine their fear, their deprivation, or their will to endure as without leaving the warm April comfort of my home I place my electronic poppies on their Auckland Museum War Memorial pages. How could I know; I am a member of the privileged generations of New Zealanders who have not had to face the hard choices of an encompassing war.
My perception of World War II was shaped by the songs that were sung and the stories I was told, my parent’s desire to escape the past and give me a different future, not by any reality of history. I was too young and naïve to perceive the reality beneath the “funny” stories shared.
I had great admiration for the fact that during a bombing raid my Mother, too terrified to leave her bed had peed into her hot water bottle. It was her aim and control that I focused on. I was far more impressed by this than her tales of the wire netting and sheets over the operating table to stop the dust and plaster from the ceilings falling into whomever they were operating on while they were being bombed. And, while I listened I had no real concept of the actions of the conscientious objectors whose job was to go onto the hospital roof to collect the unexploded bombs. She used to tell me how incredibly brave they were.
He can’t close one of his hands because it got cut as he held on to the gun turret frame trying not to fall out of the plane. He was “saved” by a young German soldier who wasn’t so lucky. In one of the prison camps my father was in they were teaching themselves the piano with keys drawn on a table. He tried to escape. He was “force marched in front of the Russians” and the ordinary German people threw him food and, I was to learn German at school. How at war’s end Aunty Sally found out he was alive when they showed a newsreel of released prisoners: she stood up in the cinema and yelled “he’s my brother”!
He doesn’t like going to the RSA and there are some medals and bits of blue ribbon in a shoebox in the bottom of the big oak wardrobe in their bedroom: I’m more interested in stealing some of the loose change he regularly puts in there. My Mother said he cried at night for “the women and children” he had bombed and killed. I watch aghast as he gobbles his food.
My sister and I stand and cry as we read the daily memorial page in the RAF Church St Clement Danes: an abiding OE experience. I thank him for the book he gives us but I don’t do more than flick through it – that was a long time ago now. *1
My son goes to visit his Grandpa’s grave: a little piece of metal sitting in the grass in the Services section of the cemetery. He tells me he sits and talks with him. We marvel at the significance of the serial number. He asks me if he can have his Grandpa’s book. The only thing he wants from his Grandpa’s estate is the tattered little cartoon of Grandpa as a young man in his airforce uniform, smiling and holding a glass of beer.
Much, much later I’ve learned about the “Death March” from Lamsdorf and my elderly Mother just in passing tells me if he stopped working in the salt mine the guards would hit him on his back with their rifle butts. So I’m significantly older when I decide to find out who was in that bomber. As an older woman who’s seen her children grow up I’m distressed by how young the other New Zealand men were …
When I go to the large, country-style funeral of the late airman, survivor, family man and community participant, 96 year old, Squadron Leader Les Munro, the bunch of black and Air Force blue ribbon-tied rosemary I place on top of his flower-covered coffin is not for him: it’s for the crew of the Wimpy Z1596.
Pilot: Pilot Officer Ian James Shepherd NZ/404414 RNZAF Timaru Age 26 Killed
Observer: Pilot Officer Reginald Sidney Lees NZ/404907 RNZAF Matata Age 26 Killed
Wirless Operator/Air Gunner: Pilot Officer Norman Bruce Robertson NZ/411101 RNZAF Mairoa Age 25 Killed
Wireless Operator/Air Gunner:Sergeant “Sonny” James Francis Winstanley NZ412373 RNZAF Huntly Age 20 Killed and
Air Gunner: Sergeant John Dixon 613966 RAF Age PoW No25165 Camp: Stalag Lamsdorf (1)
And I know Les won’t mind that I am remembering them.
I inadvertently gain a heart-wrenching reminder of the permanent effects of war and survival when I read another two “Charlie Berlin” detective stories by Geoffrey McGeachin. “Black Wattle Creek” and “St Kilda Blues” (I’ve read the earlier “Diggers Rest Hotel” some time ago.) It’s not just the flash backs it’s the other characters peopling the narrative: the holocaust survivor with his long sleeved shirts and the overwhelming sense of plus ca change; plus c’est la meme chose.
I wish had read McGeachin’s books much earlier in my life because of the simple and penetrating insight they would have given me into participation in bomber warfare. And now I think that my Father was not entirely crying for the “women and children” but like Berlin, suffered from survivor guilt.
“Tail End Charlies had the shortest lifespan of all the RAF aircrew. Cut off from the rest of the crew by the length of the bomber and the primary target of night fighters attacking from the stern, a tail gunner had a lonely and terrifying job. Possibly even worse than being the pilot, Berlin decided, if that was possible.”*2
He was the one who was supposed to die. The little ginger man.
I read both of McGeachin’s works together so I didn’t find “St Kilda Blues” as emotionally affecting or as well written as “Black Wattle Creek – don’t do that, leave it a while between reads.
Post WWII when you survived you were required to just get on with it. We’re only slowly beginning to understand Charlie Berlin. This year the RSA poppy appeal focused on “the wounds that do not bleed”. Charlie Berlin would approve because for some it’s never going to stop.
I’ve met bitter, damaged and disabled men who served in Vietnam and sailors traumatized by nuclear testing. Willie Apiata VC tells us he still has weekly counseling…and as I listen the radio tells me that post traumatic stress disorder affects the whole family. A year or two ago, by chance, I met a Bay of Plenty man who had been a very young English soldier sent to Northern Ireland during “the troubles”…
In his eyes
if you look in his eyes
you cannot see
he has been
what he has seen
than a lifetime
he carries it all
inside his head
his eyes don’t disclose
the bin bags
I never knew him or
saw him again that freaked out
young man on the tube station platform.
She carried his pack
I carried the sword
I met him today
and cropped close
we talked and
we laughed but
the ghost of the shovel
came out of his mouth
I looked in his eyes
but I couldn’t see
where he had been
what he had seen.
Rosemary Balu 2015
*1 “Out of the Blue, The Role of Luck in Air Warfare 1917-1966, Edited by Laddie Lucas, Illustrated by Michael Trim, Hutchinson & Co Publishers Auckland, 1985,
“Black Wattle Creek” Geoffrey McGeachin, Viking, a division of Penguin, Australia 2012
“St Kilda Blues” Geoffrey McGeachin, Viking, Australia 2014
*2 “Tail End Charlie” quotation, Page 5, “Black Wattle Creek”
The Wimpy: Wellington Bomber Z1596: 75 (NZ) Squadron RAF Shot down 26/27 July 1942 at Dose Near Wilhemshaven, Germany. On fire, the bomber crashed in a field. The tail and its shattered gun turret broke away from the main body of the plane which travelled on and blew up. The little ginger man managed to get out. He was saved from his “second death” at the hands of angry villagers and soldiers by a very young German soldier who just happened to be passing. Heinrich Dirks insisted that the little ginger man be treated as a prisoner of war. Heinrich Dirks did not return from the Russian Front. I had my first birthday on the boat bringing my Mother and I to New Zealand and to Huntly where I acquired a Granny Winstanley and a collection of “Auntys” and “Uncles” – Sonny’s brothers and sisters.
Rosemary Balu. Rosemary Balu is the founding and current Managing Editor of ARTbop. Rosemary has arts and law degrees from the University of Auckland. She has been a working lawyer and has participated in a wide variety of community activities where information gathering, submission writing, community advocacy and education have been involved. Interested in all forms of the arts since childhood Rosemary is focused on further developing and expanding multi-media ARTbop as the magazine for all the creative arts in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand.
SPOKEN WORD POETRY
Join us every second Wednesday of the month,
6.00pm to 8.30pm
Black Sheep Bar & Grill
Cnr SH2 and Plummers Point Road, Whakamarama
Read your own poems or poems by your favourite poet. Enjoy the power of the spoken word!
Phone: 07 571 8722 021 145 5810
the Bay of Plenty’s creative arts magazine!
read us online anywhere, anytime!