Nothing will make Colin Cochran say he is a hero
Colin Cochran is happy to reminisce about the war and look at photos, but don’t call him a hero — he doesn’t like it.
I was just doing my job.
On the table in his New Plymouth flat Cochran has albums of photos he took during his time in Italy, manning big guns on the front line, during World War II.
Aged 101, Cochran’s memory is remarkable. And while he sometimes wonders what it was all about, he is happy to look at his old photos and chat about the war.
He says he had a few “close shaves” and that he was a “bit lucky”.
With a little cajoling he says he “supposes” he is proud of his service. After some coaxing he eventually admits it was a bit hard there for a while.
But nothing will make him say he is a hero.
Cochran’s journey to the front line was a bit unusual. At first he wasn’t allowed to go, which he wasn’t happy about. It made him wild.
The problem was he worked in the Newall Rd Dairy Factory, at Warea, Taranaki, making cheese - which had been designated a protected industry.
So, to get around the problem he joined the regular army, not the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force that went overseas.
On February 20, 1940 — his 21st birthday — Cochran boarded a train for Trentham to begin training.
He found out later his boss had rushed to the New Plymouth railway station to stop him leaving, he says.
“But they said, ‘you can’t stop this man. He has joined the regular army’.”
Cochran was posted all around Auckland including Whangaparaoa, was sent to do officer training, and got a temporary commission.
His aim was still to go overseas, he says.
“But you weren’t allowed to because the invasion scare was very real in those days.”
It was lucky the Japanese went after oil and rubber, he says. Due to Japan having few natural resources, the Japanese were more interested in countries such as Indonesia, Malaya and Borneo.
“If they came here, we would have been a goner. When the invasion scare was over they dumped us, mothballed all the guns.”
In 1943 he went back to Trentham and trained to go overseas.
Finally in 1944 he was sent to Italy and joined the 7th Anti Tank Regiment.
There was a battery of 16 4.2 mortars, and he was on one of the guns. There were many mortars right along the front, he says.
“We called it a gun, but it was a mortar. It fires a 20-pound bomb 4000 yards. The first time you are under fire you think it’s going to hit me, then after a while you get used to it. They [the mortars] take so long to get there. They’re whistling and heaving. It has to go up in the stratosphere. You can hear them coming.”
His unit always stayed in houses in whatever Italian town they were in.
“We used to arrive in an area and put the bed rolls in the safe room in the house - the furthest one from the enemy. So the shell had to go through the wall, roof and a ceiling before they could hurt you. We were saved quite a few times like that. Then they’d start shelling us back and we’d have to move to another site.”
He had a few “close shaves”. About six times there was a direct hit on the house he was staying in.
One of the worst hits was after they had arrived at a house to find a platoon of infantry in the safest room, so they had to put all their gear in the stable, he says.
“We did some shooting and then we went to sleep. Next thing there was a hellava crash and an 88mm came through and hit the wall where the infantry were sleeping. Luckily for them there was a double wall going from our barn to the other end of the house, where there were pig pens. Lucky for us too as had the shell burst on our end we would have been wiped out.”
Another time Cochran was on watch by an upstairs window. The sergeant major was asleep on the bed. The shells kept getting closer and closer until two hit the pig pen below. Cochran ducked down, the sergeant major jumped up and said “let’s get out of here, boy.” Next day they shifted to another house.
The constant shelling made even going to the toilet dangerous, he says.
When you went to the toilet you took a shovel and a roll of toilet paper. The safest time was when our spotter planes were up. On a dull day where there were no spotter planes it was a bit risky.
But the Kiwis also had some fun.
On a trip through the Brenner Pass from Italy to Austria, they saw hundreds of German vehicles that had been abandoned, he says.
“The battery mechanic said ‘why don’t we go up, with no officers, and get a few tyres?’ So, we filled the truck up with German tyres and [the mechanic] sold them on the black market in Trieste and divided up the money. Naughty boys.”
Cochran was the only man in his unit with a camera and upgraded to a “flash” new one with his share of the tyre money.
Everyone thought having a camera was illegal. It probably was, but I kept it quiet.
It wasn’t difficult getting his photos developed as all the Italian villages had camera shops. Then he’d share them with his mates. He still has albums full of his war pictures. And he still has the camera.
When Cochran was told the war was over he didn’t think much about it, he says.
“We were going to Trieste, still rounding up prisoners. We stayed in Trieste for four months and tried to get rid of [Yugoslavia President Marshal] Tito. He tried to take it over but we beat him off.”
When New Zealand formed an occupation army, called J Force, Cochran went to Japan.
And while he was waiting to ship out, Cochran – a loosehead prop – played rugby all over Italy. All the units had teams. Cochran’s team won all but their last game, which was played in Naples.
In Japan he was based in Yamaguchi for nearly six months, before returning to New Zealand in August 1946.
Back home in Taranaki, Cochran got a job as a car painter, which was shortlived because he was colour blind. So he went back to farming, first as a labourer, followed by stints sharemilking and eventually owning his own farm. He retired to New Plymouth.
At the end of last year his war memoirs were published by a friend in Pakistan.
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