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In Honour

New Zealand’s surviving WWII veterans

Leslie King and Thomas Johnstone are the last remaining World War II veterans in their small rural town of Winton, and Roy McLellan is one of a handful living in Invercargill. These are their memories, their experiences. This is living history.

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The last living World War II veteran should not slip away unnoticed.

We have cemeteries and cenotaphs around New Zealand to honour the dead, RSA president B J Clark said.

Those who are still with us deserve no less.

Respectful recognition is the aim of In Honour.

New Zealand only has about 400 World War II veterans left - but the exact number is unknown.

On Anzac Day in 2019, the Defence Force acknowledged it had no way of knowing exactly how many Kiwis who served in the war were still alive.

Former Minister for Veterans Ron Mark pronounced himself staggered and asked Veterans’ Affairs to up its game.

In 2019, Stuff launched In Honour to compile this independent national public database of living veterans.

The purpose of this project is not to highlight war or violence but to simply honour the men and women who answered the call to serve their country. This is living history, and it isn’t documented in its entirety anywhere else.

Then and now: Waikato veteran Maurice Evans somehow managed to escape the bullets, bombs and most of the shrapnel. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED AND DOMINICO ZAPATA/STUFF

In Honour project researcher Nicole Johnstone hopes the database will allow some veterans to find a familiar name, and perhaps reconnect with lost mates.

“I’ve had several families asking for help to locate their father’s old comrades.

“They lost touch after the war and wanted to reconnect, to reminisce and catch up on a lifetime of memories.”

So far, sadly, the buddies have been deceased in each case. One man missed his comrade by just a few months.

“I see it as an honours list,” said Clark.

Nobody should be surprised that not all of our veterans wanted to engage with official record keepers when they made it back, he said.

A lot of them, all they wanted was to get back home, forget what they had done, and get on with life.

Waipukurau veteran Henry Taylor spends his days cultivating a large vege plot he created at the rest home he lives in. PHOTO: JOHN COWPLAND/STUFF

Take 101-year-old Henry Taylor, who would rather share stories of the vegetable plot he is cultivating out the back of the rest home he lives in.

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 during his time in Italy.

He was just down the road when his best friend was hit and killed by shell fire.

In this database, Clark believes, is real scope for a focus on respectful recognition.

Perhaps even if it’s unspoken. If people read the list, and perhaps recognise people involved, then it’s knowledge they can bear gratefully in mind. New Zealand is forever better for veterans’ service.

Our World War II generation are now the veterans among our veterans. They matter in the present, not merely the past.

Surviving, often for reasons that confounded them, Kiwi veterans returned to our midst carrying their burdens, gratitudes, angers, aching sorrows and hard-earned insights with them to live, quietly for the most part, among us.

Some, not all, parade in thinning ranks at Anzac Day, and still duck down to RSAs.

We should know their names and their service - and not only from death notices, perhaps obituaries, once they have passed on.

Colin Cochran was the only man in his unit with a camera and upgraded to a "flash" new one in Italy. PHOTO: SIMON O’CONNOR/STUFF

One-hundred-and-two-year-old Taranaki veteran Colin Cochran still has the camera he carried through his service in Italy, and the albums full of his photos.

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.

He had a few “close shaves” - about six times there were direct hits on the house he was staying in.

The day will come when the last known veteran passes away. This itself is an event that shouldn’t come and go in obscurity

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