Since 1949, members of the Wairarapa branch of the Ex-Prisoners of War Association and their wives have reconnected over an annual luncheon. Their group is only getting smaller and the branch officially wound up in March 2003. But the bond between those remaining is still strong. HAYLEY GASTMEIER spoke with three of the few widows associated with the group.
Ngaire Paterson didn’t even know her husband had been a prisoner of war, let along the fact he had seen the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki.
Her husband, George, was a prisoner of war at Fukuoka #2, a camp on the island of Koyagi Shima, five miles out in Nagasaki Bay.
Her husband’s account of the day the Japanese city was destroyed is pencilled inside a notebook made of Japanese paper which is kept together with a piece of tin.
“He says ‘We felt the heat and blast of the bomb on the ninth of the eight, 1945’.”
She says George was one of just two Kiwis interned at Fukuoka #2.
Reciting from a printed interview featuring the other New Zealand prisoner Mrs Paterson said: “We saw four parachutes come down . . . then there was a terrible flash like the flash of a photography camera magnified 100 times. Two seconds later there was a blast . . . it brought terrible heat and 100mph gales.”
Mrs Paterson met her husband in 1960.
It was a significant time later that she discovered his past life as a POW.
“He never said anything about it,” she says, “not even his family told me.”
Learning the truth was “a big surprise”.
“We were at a party, and there were a couple of Irish guys there and they said ‘if you saw the atom bomb that would be the last thing you saw’.
“My husband calmly said, ‘Well, not quite’.”
Even after this occasion George seldom brought up the war, Mrs Paterson says.
“He told me he had appendicitis while he was there. He was terrified because they carted him off to the hospital and he thought they would operate on him without anaesthetic, but they didn’t of course.”
He husband was able to send messages while imprisoned.
“The prisoners were allowed to send postcards through the Imperial Japanese Army, just four or five sentences.
“They always had to say they were well and keeping their chin up.”
George died in 1968, age 44.
Even though he was never a member of the Ex-Prisoners of War Association Wairarapa branch, Mrs Paterson was the reason the group has remained in touch.
Now 86, Mrs Paterson joined the association in 1974.
She was secretary-treasurer when it disbanded, and ever since then she has taken charge of arranging the yearly catch-ups.
She remembers “there used to be over 100 members” when the branch was at its peak.
Mrs Paterson says the association was a comfort for the returned soldiers.
“You went on all sorts of outings. The main reason for it was to keep all the men together.”
Dorothy Daysh, 96, met her future husband, Onslow, during a dance at Parkvale Hall, in 1942, four months before he went to war.
“We left things open in case we changed our minds,” she says.
One year after he returned from the war, and after she had completed her nursing training, the couple married.
During his time overseas she sent him parcels.
“There were Christmas cake, shortbread . . . you’d pack a biscuit tin up with socks and mittens.
“You’d solder the tin around the lid and you’d put it in a linen flour bag and stitch it all around and write the address on it.”
She says the prisoners would sometimes barter their newly-delivered goods.
“My husband used to swap his cigarettes because he thought it was better to have something to eat than smoke.”
During World War II, Mrs Daysh was training to be a nurse at Taumarunui Hospital.
There, the staff would follow the progress of the New Zealand troops.
“We listened to the news and had a map on the wall. We put colourful pins in to point where our army was.”
Onslow was captured in Benghazi, Libya, Mrs Daysh says.
“Then they put them on boats and took them over to Greece.
“Lots of times those boats were bombed by the British, because they didn’t know there were prisoners of war in them.”
During this time, Onslow, who was 6.4ft, weighed just over 41kg.
From Greece, the men were sent to the German camp, Stalag VIIIB, marching for most of the way.
Mrs Daysh said the men had slept in barns during their journey.
“When they took their boots off at night, they cuddled them up next to their bodies.
“If they hadn’t done that and went to put them on in the morning it would be that cold, the boots would be too stiff to get on — they’d be frozen.”
She recalls her husband’s tale of helping a fellow soldier. “Arthur got terrible dysentery. [Onslow] gave him charcoal in water. If it hadn’t been for that, his friend would have died.”
As a rule, the returned soldiers avoided talking about their time at war, Mrs Daysh says.
Occasionally her husband referenced it, but “never the gory parts”.
“They had to work while they were over there. My husband was in the coal mines for a long time.”
Onslow was the last president of the Wairarapa branch of the Ex-Prisoners of War Association, before it disbanded. He died in 2002.
Mildred Turley’s husband, Trevor, had been a member of the Ex-POW Association Wairarapa branch since its inception.
He served in Greece and Crete and, along with Mrs Daysh’s husband, Onslow, he was imprisoned at Stalag VIIIB in Germany.
Mrs Turley, 91, remembers the day in 1940 when her husband-to-be set off overseas.
At age “16 or 17”, while attending the Centennial Exhibition in Wellington, she was taken by her father to see the “huge ship” docked in the harbour.
“It was the biggest ship, at that time, to have docked in Wellington.”
Mrs Turley recalls the route the ship took.
“He sailed on May 1. First, they went to South Africa, then England, and then to Cairo before heading to Greece and Crete, where he was captured,” she says.
The prisoners were then taken back to Greece by boat, and from there the men were sent to Stalag VIIIB.
“A lot of them died on the way, of course.
“They were standing in a cattle truck the whole way. A lot of them were ill and a lot of them had been shot,” Mrs Turley said.
The British Red Cross had been “remarkable”, sending parcels at Christmas time especially, to the POWs.
Reading off the parcel items, still legible, listed by Trevor on the British Red Cross greeting card, Mrs Turley said: “A tin of Nestles milk, two packets of biscuits, two slabs of chocolate, half a carton margarine, 2oz tea”.
Trevor was repatriated from Germany, due to “a very bad throat infection”.
“They thought it might have been caused by drinking infected water.
“He was operated on twice, but they ran out of anaesthetic and he felt every blessed movement of it.”
Trevor was then taken to Portugal, which was neutral.
Mrs Turley first met her future husband when he was a patient at Masterton Hospital, where she was completing her nurses training.
“That would be in 1944,” she said.
“Then it was just a strange thing that I met him again, going from Featherston to Masterton on the old railcar.
“He offered me a ride back to the nurses’ home and from that moment we started going out.”
Trevor never held any ill feelings towards the Germans.
“My husband said: ‘We were doing it out of duty for our country, and they were doing their duty for their country’.”
He died at Masterton Hospital in 1993 when he was 74.
Mrs Turley says the association was amazing. “They helped look after former prisoners of war who were needy, especially those with health issues.”
PHOTO CREDIT FOR FEATURE IMAGE/WAIRARAPA ARCHIVE
A June 2003 photo taken at a luncheon, after the Wairarapa Branch of the Ex-Prisoners of War Association had disbanded. From left, Frank Brasell, John Peck, Colin Dean, who served in the RNZAF and wasn’t a POW but was the association’s long-serving auditor, Jim Simmonds, of Featherston, the last remaining member, David Bowie, Art Steffert, Roy Morris, Ian Blackman and Bob Faulknor.