THROUGH one of those accidents of the internet, I recently stumbled across a photograph of my uncle Ian in training for the Royal New Zealand Air Force, taken a year before he went missing in action. I recognised him immediately. The Watson men all have that same dreamy, impractical, effete manner, ill suited to ordinary life, let alone war.
I found the photo disconcerting. He is my uncle, born almost 40 years before I was, but is young enough to be my nephew now. It's hard not to feel protective of him.
Ian and his brother Hugh shared a birth day and a death day. Hugh died on June 29, 1942, aged 32. Ian died exactly a year later, aged 24. I knew almost nothing about them. The Anzac Day juggernaut, and the interest in war and soldiering, is a recent phenomenon. My father, the youngest of the family, never talked about his dead brothers and as children we were never interested enough to ask.
Finding Ian’s photo prompted me to write to the New Zealand Defence Force archives for my uncles’ records. I expected a couple of sheets of paper but received two folders of files recording their last few months on earth. While they were in Europe, North America and North Africa, every move they made – every little accident, every time they went AWOL, every new pair of socks – was meticulously noted across the world in Wellington, their home town. You can almost see the coffee cup rings and cigarette burns of the army clerks entering the details.
The coloured photocopy files are curiously intimate. I can trace Ian’s and Hugh’s handwriting from the application forms. I learn that Hugh had only one year at high school, that he was a postman when he enlisted, his sports were tennis and golf, his smoking habit was “moderate” and he did not drink alcohol.
There are copious files relating to his initial training in New Zealand, then he is posted to Canada in May 1941 for further training. In 1943, his file is marked “Missing Presumed Dead”. In 1947, two years after the war ended, the Air Force wrote to his mother to say the aircraft he was navigating had crashed into the North Sea off Borkum, an island off north-western Germany, on June 29 1942. Three crew were saved and captured by the Germans. One body was washed up at Borkum and buried there. The other three bodies – including Hugh’s – were not found.
Ian was called up for duty in April 1942. He was 23 years and 170 days, five feet 10 and a half inches tall, weighed 148 pounds and had dark brown hair, hazel eyes and a dark complexion. “Growing pains” is listed under previous ailments. He had had four years of secondary schooling and worked as a clerk in the army, his religion was Presbyterian and he listed his sports as golf, tennis and swimming.
In training, he scored 16 out of 32 on a night blindness test, which doesn’t augur well for a future air bomber, and was listed as “an average type”. He, too, went to Canada for further training before being posted to No. 70 Squadron in the Western Desert of North Africa in May, 1943.
Late on June 28, he set off for his second
mission, an attack on Messina, Italy. His file notes: “In due course, as no further news was heard of the aircraft or crew, it was assumed that Flight Sergeant Watson lost his life at sea without trace, on the 29th of June, 1943.” His presumed “burial place” is the Mediterranean.
That’s what we know. Then there are all the things we don’t know. As he left for his second mission, did he remember that Hugh had died a year earlier? Did he feel a premonition? Did the crew die before their plane hit the water or was there time for terror as they went down in the darkness? Did they die in the crash or did they escape the wreckage and drown?
They are things that don’t bear thinking about and yet not to think about them is to abandon my young uncle to his fate once again.
And the other painful questions – how did my grandmother cope with the weeks of waiting for news of her missing sons, the hope against hope that they had survived? The first death was hard but how did she survive the second one, a year later? As a child, I was terrified of this tall, stately woman and her solitary clifftop house, filled with photographs of people who had died. Now I realise it was the shadow of her grief that frightened me.
She was to lose a third son to war but fortunately was not alive to see it. My father, Don, spent 1946-47 in Japan the occupation forces, stationed not far from Hiroshima, where the first nuclear bomb had been dropped. He survived the war but – like many members of the occupation forces – did not make old bones. He died at 55 of a mysterious cancer.
It would be difficult to find a family unmarked by the sorrow of war. To this day, old men send young men into battle. Of course we blame the politicians and industrialists who manufacture wars for their own purposes, but perhaps even my grandmother was not wholly innocent. My mother recalls her once reflecting on her sons’ deaths. “It’s just as well Hugh died,” she said. “He was engaged to a Catholic girl.”
Once Catholics hated Protestants, and vice versa. We hated Germans or English or Italians or Koreans, then we hated the Russians and Chinese, and then the Vietnamese. Now we hate Muslims. We hate so easily, or can be persuaded to do so.
Last week I spoke to a man called Steven, who in 1969 was called up for National Service and sent to Vietnam. He was proud to serve, to do his bit for Australia, “to stop the Communists". He believed all the propaganda back then.
He returned from the war with a head full of horrors, not least about what he had done himself. “We hear about the things the Americans soldiers do to Afghans,” Steven said, "and people say that can’t be true, but soldiers do strange things in war. As far as I know, Australian soldiers are no different. In Vietnam, the enemy were nothing. They were non-people. That’s how we were brainwashed.”
Over the next few years at least eight of his army mates killed themselves. By working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, Steven managed to keep the demons at bay. In 1995 the whole thing fell apart and he was admitted to the psychiatric ward of the Repatriation Hospital suffering from severe psychosis. It took the doctors and psychiatrists two years to put him back together again, and he is still under medical care for his trauma.
One of Steven’s psychological breakthroughs was accidental. A few years ago a man rang him to say he’d found Stephen's mobile phone. He gave a Vietnamese name and a Clayton address. Steven had spent 40 years avoiding Asians and did some deep breathing as he drove to Clayton. He knocked on the door and the man gave him his phone.
“I shook his hand,” Steven said. “In fact I clasped his hand. He didn’t know what was going on. But for me it was a bridge. He was just a person. He was normal.”
During World War Two, Vilya’s German mother was imprisoned in Bergenbelsen for anti-Nazi activities. Martin’s English father was in the Irish Guards. He was captured in North Africa by the Italians and spent much of the war in a German prison of war camp. Frank’s Italian father was conscripted by the Mussolini government to work for the German army. One of my uncles died on a bombing raid to Germany; another uncle on a bombing raid to Italy.
Seventy years after our fathers and uncles did their best to kill one another, here we all are, our lives woven together by friendship and many shared beliefs, not least that we are blessed to live in a beautiful, bountiful place far from the horrors of war and poverty.