At your service


By John Bishop
Photography by James O’Neill

Featured in Capital #30
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ANZAC Day marks the anniversary of the first key military action fought by Australian and New Zealand forces during the First World War.

This year ANZAC services will be held across the region on Sunday 25 April, from Tinui in the Wairarapa, where the first ever formal commemoration was observed in 1916, to the Wellington Cenotaph and Pukeahu National War Memorial park.

In 2016, ANZAC Day happened to coincide with Capital’s 30th issue. To mark both John Bishop chatted to three returned service men, who, by the age of 30, had already fought their biggest battles.

This story, first printed in April 2016, has always stood out to us as one where the subjects have been particularly generous and brave. We thank them for their time, their willingness to talk about their experiences, and their service.

Ground control

Ken Gordon enjoyed his time as a professional soldier. He retired as a major general, collected a CBE and was deputy chief of defence staff. He was in the defence bureaucracy in the early 1980s, far from the troops during the difficulties caused by the then Labour Government’s anti-nuclear policy.

He’d decided to join the army in 1953 and was selected for officer training, which is those days meant four years full-time in the Royal Military College at Duntroon near Canberra.

He graduated as a full lieutenant in 1956 and was posted to Linton (near Palmerston North) where he took intakes of young men doing their compulsory military training (CMT). “About half of them didn’t want to be there, but we turned them out spick and span after 14 weeks.”

He was a fan of CMT. “It was possible after World War II – because we had huge amounts of army war surplus – and didn’t cost us much. There were plenty of rifles, uniforms, barracks, kit and other materials. “By the 1960s that was all gone and we had to start building and buying stuff, which made it more expensive and the government backed away. The whole strategic climate was different, and that changed a lot again in the 1980s.”

In 1958 CMT was replaced by national service, where 18-year-olds were randomly selected by ballot, and when that was abandoned in 1972, the army became wholly professional soldiers.

Ken was posted to Waiouru and then sent to Malaya in 1958 and caught the tail end of the Malayan Emergency where communist insurgents led by Chin Peng were seeking to overthrow the government. “They were still active but in far fewer numbers than earlier. We tracked them day after day, some of the Māori boys were very good trackers, almost as good as the native guides from Sarawak who were working with us.”

Platoons spent a month at a time in the bush on patrol, but encounters with the enemy were few. Ken regards his two years in Malaya as a formative time in his military career. “This was the foundation. The troops were real scallywags. In the jungle I was ‘Skip’, but in barracks I was addressed as ‘Sir’.” They never took advantage of the close relationships that are forged where men pursue a common purpose in arduous circumstances.

New Zealand war historian Chris Pugsley quotes Ken talking about men “bursting for action… shepherds, freezing workers, deer cullers… as hard as nails… but it made for a wonderful battalion.” One of those wonderful men was a certain young Lieutenant Jerry Mateparae, later to become a major general himself and then governor-general.

In Malaya Ken met his great love, Eleanor, a British nursing officer. She joined him in New Zealand in 1961 and began married life at Waiouru, then the major army establishment where Ken was now an instructor at the various military schools.

He went to Vietnam as a liaison officer. The New Zealand presence was small – some engineers, and a medical group, later artillery and finally a single company of infantry, which later expanded to two companies. They operated with the Australians. Two days after Ken’s arrival, the base was shelled by mortars, but it was just “friendly fire” from their own side.

The domino theory was the prevailing orthodoxy; China had fallen and Vietnam was under attack. if it fell into communist hands, then the rest of Indochina would be threatened. Malaya and Indonesia (and there had already been significant communist guerrilla activity in both countries) were next, which meant a direct threat to Australia and New Zealand.

In 1966 Ken was sent to the British Army Staff College at Camberley, Surrey, a positive sign of favour. Promotion came regularly if slowly as he moved into general staff roles ending at Defence HQ in Buckle St – “A great job but away from soldiering.”

Only then, in the mid-1980s, did he discover “how dependent we were on the Americans for intelligence. In this period we found it very difficult because the relationship was restricted in the aftermath of the dispute over ship visits. The upside was that we had to scramble for ourselves.”

Ken says, “To be a senior officer in the higher echelons of the army services was professionally very satisfying, but it was not soldiering.” He cherishes his experiences with his men. “My best moments were as a platoon commander, living with, on patrol with, and in charge of about 32 men, all depending on each other. Likewise as a battalion commander.”

Ken retired in 1988, and was awarded a CBE for his service. When John Bishop interviewed him in 2016 Ken was 81 and a widower living quietly in Karori and meeting his mates once a month for lunch.

Bully beef and biscuits

Captain Ian Stewart easily recalls his war service in Egypt, Italy and Japan during and immediately after World War II.

He enrolled as a private soldier in 1940, aged just 17, was later commissioned a lieutenant in the field, and promoted to captain before being demobbed, although he continued to serve in the Territorials for several years after the end of the Second World War.

Back in New Zealand, he took an MA in economics and in 1949 was invited to join the Department of External Affairs under Alexander McIntosh.

He had a remarkable career as a diplomat a representative of New Zealand, serving as our ambassador in Brussels, Rome and Bangkok and at the United Nations, before ending up as the number two man in the Department of Foreign Affairs. He retired in 1983 but all the memories are still vivid.

“I joined the army in June 1940. I was only 17, but I told them I was 18, and no-one checked.” He was assigned to the artillery but requested a transfer to the infantry.

In January 1944, he and others were sent to Egypt, and quickly onto Italy to reinforce the New Zealand Division, which was taking heavy casualties in the battle of Monte Cassino, which raged on from January to May 1944. “Cassino was a hell of a place. We lived on cold bully beef and biscuits. It was only safe to move about at night. By day, one finger above the parapet got you a good spray from a Spandau machine gun.”

Later, working as spotters up in the mountains, his group was shelled by their own side. “We were suffering casualties from every salvo, but headquarters refused to believe us, until we took a nose cone of a shell from a 25-pounder back, and that convinced them.”

By early 1945 “whole regiments were throwing away their arms and surrendering.” The war in Italy ended in April that year.

In May 1945 he and other New Zealand troops were in the port city of Trieste, then under the partial control of the Yogoslav leader Josef Tito and his largely communist partisans. “A whole brigade of New Zealand tanks was sent into the central square and trained their guns on Tito’s headquarters.” Tito’s forces withdrew, and according to the Italians, Trieste was saved for Italy.

Later in 1972, he was involved when the UK was negotiating to enter the common market. Italy stuck up for New Zealand and got this country a much better deal for continued access to butter, cheese and lamb exports than the French had wanted to offer. Ian says the chief Italian negotiator told him later it was because of what New Zealand had done during the war to keep Trieste in Italian control.

Ian is sceptical about learning from history and prefers not to offer advice. Both the certainties and uncertainties of his times, the rise of fascism, the Second World War, the Cold War, the clashes of communist and capitalist cultures, New Zealand’s shift in focus from the UK, then to Europe and onto the US, and now to Asia, have taught him that flux is normal.

One memory he carried clearly is drafting the 1965 cabinet paper which recommends a modest and limited involvement by New Zealand’s armed forces in the Vietnam War.

Then Prime Minister Keith Holyoake, although personally reluctant according to come accounts, headed a cabinet of war veterans, and New Zealand was under pressure from the United States to join Australia and Korea in committing troops.

There were also trade considerations – the US was imposing quotas on New Zealand beef and other exports. Ian’s carefully worded paper trod a fine line between the support requested and the commitment made – an artillery battery (and later infantry) was added to a team of engineers and medics already serving there. The military commitment was modest but important in diplomatic terms.

Ian retired from foreign affairs in 1963 aged 60 (the compulsory retirement age at the time) and was awarded a CMG, a high honour only a step below a knighthood.

He joined Frank Renouf’s investment company, with Bruce Judge and Mike Cashin as fellow directors. Frank Renouf was trying to build New Zealand’s biggest stockbroking firm and the country’s biggest industrial conglomerate.

Renouf failed, Ian says. The company went down in a blaze of losses in the 1987 stock market crash, although a small remnant – Hellaby Holdings – is still operating.

When John Bishop interviewed him in 2016 Captain Stewart was 93 and living with his wife in Oriental Bay. At the time of writing Ian was making annual trips to Paris to spend time with his sister. He died in 2019 at the age of 96.

War offensive

For David Lackey, his year as a lieutenant in New Zealand’s artillery battery in Vietnam was the “thrilling” highlight of his brief military career.

David signed up for a three-year commission in the regular forces in the 1965 after leaving Christ’s College, having a period in his father’s insurance brokerage and a spell overseas with Lloyd’s of London.

“Back in New Zealand I was totally bored with the insurance industry – it was so low-scale compared to London. Then I was called up for national service.” David says he was “ideally suited” to army life. “The discipline was easy after the bullying I had experienced at school. After the futility of school cadets, this was substantive soldiering.”

He trained at Waiouru (under then Captain Ken Gordon) in the gunnery school and went to Vietnam in 1967 as part of the 161 Battery, which operated 105 mm howitzers.

He very nearly didn’t go. Due to depart by RNZAF Hercules on a Sunday morning, David returned to the mess late on Saturday afternoon to the news he had been pulled off the flight, apparently because the NZ battery in Vietnam had made a mistake and had shelled Australian infantry, killing three.

Rather than accept this, David took himself to Army HQ in Wellington, demanding an explanation. In a make-or-break career moment, he found himself facing a stern brigadier general who rescinded the order and told him to get the next flight out.

Vietnam was transformative. On a roadside while he and his men were filling sandbags, he watched a parade of young Vietnamese in luxury cars, streaming past to a local beach resort. he started to ask why foreign soldiers were fighting the communists when the local people were not.

He started to question the political rationale for New Zealand’s presence there. (At the time, there had been much controversy about New Zealand’s committing troops and the anti-war movement was growing in strength.)

“At Waiouru I came to believe what I was told by my superiors and by the government. In Wellington I had been mixing in a high social circle of defence and security personnel where the consensus was that we were doing the right thing by being involved with the Americans in Vietnam.”

In 1968 the North Vietnamese and their allies, the Viet Cong, launched the Tet offensive, which shifted the strategy from guerrilla campaigns to conventional warfare. The attack at Tet (the Vietnamese New year) was unexpected, large, and initially successful, although ultimately a failure. But more importantly, it disproved US claims that the war was being won by the Americans and their allies.

In 1968 David returned home – his group ordered to wear civilian clothes, not their uniforms, so as “not to upset anyone.” The battery paraded up Auckland’s Queen St and were jeered and mocked by some. A protestor made a citizen’s arrest of their commander Major John Martin. He appeared in the Papakura Magistrate’s Court where the charge was dismissed.

It took David many years to overcome symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder.

In 1973 he married Kate Elliot, who was beginning a career in foreign affairs. She turned down a posting to Washington because David was now happily making money with sharebrokers Daysh Renouf. David resigned and told Kate to accept the next offer of a post. In 1974 they went to Singapore and, contrary to the rules about spouses of diplomats working on posts, David set up a yacht-brokerage business, which he carried on when the pair went to Fiji.

A career highlight for Kate came in 2002, when she became high commissioner to Canberra, the first woman to do so. While there, David devoted himself to helping veterans.

He helped produce evidence for New Zealand Parliament’s inquiry into the exposure of New Zealand soldiers to Agent Orange, a defoliant widely used in Vietnam, but which subsequently was shown to cause birth defects and cancers.

David has a clear view of what he would have liked to have known at 30. “I’d like to have known more of the bigger picture about Vietnam and New Zealand’s involvement – much more than I was told at the time.”

David was 72 in 2016, when this story was first published, and his scepticism of politicians was strong. “Don’t trust politicians – ever” is his simple advice to today’s generation.


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