Henry Taylor, 99, would rather discuss his vege garden than his part in WWII
After returning from the war, Henry Taylor never left New Zealand’s shores again.
Despite this, there’s still something of the soldier he was more than 70 years ago in the Kiwi veteran.
It’s evident in the way the 99-year-old holds himself, the way he walks the halls of his Waipukurau rest home, and the humility with which he recounts his part in World War II.
He’s been living at Woburn Rest Home for three years.
The other residents refer to him as ‘the Mayor’, probably partly due to a natural air of authority — but most likely due to his single-handed creation and devotion to a large vegetable plot he created at the back of the building.
Henry is not one for afternoon naps or sitting about in the rest home lounge or dining room. He spends long hours tending to his plethora of vegetables.
If he’s not there, he’ll be reading the newspaper or watching horse races on the TV in his room.
It’s a small room, with views towards his vege plot. He doesn’t have many possessions.
There are photos of smiling great-grandkids and a few family photos, but dominating the space are mementos of his time at war: the two carved wooden deer he bought in the Dolomite mountains, his medals, and a photo of him and his best mate Peter Redstone, who’s buried at Monte Cassino.
All mean a great deal to him, but that doesn’t mean he’s terribly enthusiastic about talking to others about them.
It’s only after a bit of soft coercion that he rustles around in one of his drawers to bring out the album of photos he took during the war.
It’s been a while since he has looked at the photos. He turns the pages slowly as he recounts that time, his memory still very sharp.
Taylor spent his childhood in Levin. He attended Seddon Memorial Technical College in Palmerston North, then found work in a hardware store.
He joined the army as a driver in 1942, when he was 21, and in May 1943 was shipped to Egypt as part of the 4th Reserve Mechanical Transport Company in the Ninth Reinforcements.
It was a unit I very much enjoyed being in. We travelled all over the country.
“I was lucky enough to travel up to Haifa [in what was then Palestine] and back, and I spent a lot of time near Alexandra,” he recalls.
Taylor was in the advanced party shipped to Italy, as the NZ Division began its part in the Italian campaign in late 1943.
For the next two years he made his way “from one end of Italy to the other”, beginning with the battle at the Sangro River.
There are photos of his mates working in hot rocky landscapes, huddled around fires in snow, on beaches and city streets. There’s the leaning tower of Pisa, and a few of his company driving past the ruins of Monte Cassino.
He drove Dodge trucks, mainly carrying troops to and from the lines, but also freight, ammunition, petrol, refugees, and anything that needed transporting, “even donkeys”.
He “came under the odd bit of shell fire” but that’s about as much as he’ll say about the danger he was in.
“In [Monte] Cassino we were camped out for a while, doing odd jobs taking ammunition to the heavy guns at night time before the second attack. I remember going in with a load in the middle of the night to the 25 pounders. That was a bit creepy, but we got there and back,” he said.
Henry’s best friend Peter (Oswald Bernard) Redstone is buried at Monte Cassino. A member of an anti-tank regiment, he was killed at a village called Sora.
“We were just camped there resting. Peter was down the road a bit from me. There was a bit of shelling. The Germans had withdrawn but there was a hidden gun up in the mountain.
Peter evidently was making a cup of tea in the back of his truck. One of the shells hit it and he was killed.
“His body was taken to Cassino and put in the military cemetery there,” he said.
The pair had been firm mates since meeting at military training camp in New Zealand.
Henry’s company continued chasing the retreating Germans north.
“They were slowly retreating and we were slowly getting on top, then all of a sudden it was like a bubble burst and there was a big chase on into northern Italy.
“We bypassed Venice and rushed toward Trieste. We ended up with the 26th battalion north of Trieste near the border with Yugoslavia”.
They spent about a month there, and were there when the Germans surrendered. Henry had a period of leave in which he drove to Calais and visited England and Scotland.
He also ventured into the Dolomite mountains and made his way to other Italian cities.
I enjoyed my time in Italy ... It introduced me to a new life.
“I enjoyed my time in Italy. It’s much like this country when you think about it. It’s stretched out like New Zealand, and the people are lovely. It introduced me to a new life.
“We came from New Zealand, where you’d never see an opera. I was lucky enough to see three of them in Italy. I was in Naples for a while, where I saw Tosca and La Gioconda. In Rome I saw Rigoletto. It’s that culture we don’t really have here,” he said.
Henry returned home in January 1946, and hasn’t left New Zealand since.
“I’m not the travelling type,” he said.
After coming home he met a young Canadian woman, Molly, in Auckland. They married and had a daughter, Susan, but Molly became very homesick, and when Susan was just four years old she took her to Canada.
Henry hasn’t seen her since.
They communicate via letters, but because Susan has a fear of flying she has never been back.
After leaving the army he started to think about what he would do.
“I didn’t know much. I thought I’d join the police force, so I did. But I didn’t like it. It wasn’t my thing. I was stationed in Auckland. So I left the police force and joined the Transport Department. I stayed with them for 38 years. It was driving again, you see,” he said.
He started as a traffic officer in Palmerston North, then spent three years in Warkworth, and five years in Paeroa.
The rest of the time he spent in Napier and Hastings, where he became the senior traffic officer of the area.
That was where he met his second wife, Tina, a district nurse. They had two sons.
“There was Raymond. He died when he was 14. He had a bad heart. He had a heart operation in Wellington but didn’t come through it. And there was Alastair, the older one. He was 55 when he died five years ago”.
Henry’s only grandchildren live in Canada.
He retired at 65 in the 1980s.
He would totter along to the RSA “for a meal and a bit of a dance” and he’s attended numerous Anzac Day parades.
There is another WWII veteran in the rest home. He served in the Pacific Islands. The pair don’t really talk about the war or their memories of it.
Asked what he thinks about when he remembers the war, he said “I try not to think about it. That was a long time ago. You have to keep up with the modern times.”
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