Three of the last Southland veterans reflect on their times on the frontline
In Winton, veterans Leslie King and Thomas Johnstone don’t really know what to make of the fact that they are the last World War II soldiers in the central Southland town.
When Stuff first launched In Honour in 2020 it was thought there were about 600 soldiers living, which has dwindled down to about 400, but exact numbers are not known.
While the Winton RSA now only has two living members from that war, the reality is that many towns nationwide no longer have soldiers.
In Southland, there’s believed to only be eight soldiers remaining, and that counts King (100 years old) and Johnstone (who is 103 years old).
King says he’s somewhat amazed at getting to his age and though other people notice changes in him, he still feels like the same man he was when he was younger.
Neither man seems to have thought too much about being the last World War II veterans in Winton and they consider losing so many of the mates they fought alongside as a simple fact of life.
“It’s something you can’t do anything about,” Johnstone says.
While both men still live independently, visits to the RSA club are becoming fewer.
And although they have carried on with their lives, 77 years later, memories of the war are never too far from their minds.
King, who was a rifleman, served nearly four years at the war, initially in the Pacific and then in Italy.
Johnstone had the role of gunner in an ammunition truck and was at The Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy. He was away for three years.
King says not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about his time at war.
He was just 18 when he signed up to the New Zealand Army and before he knew it, he found himself in the Solomon Islands fighting the Japanese.
It was hot as Hades and there was always a smell.
That “the smell” was the smell of death, because there was little time to bury bodies properly.
After 18 months in the Pacific, King was off to Northern Italy as the war was drawing to a close.
It was a spring morning in 1945 when he was handed a rifle “which I knew nothing about” and told to head into no man’s land “in broad daylight” to scout the area.
“They said: ‘take a man with you’,” so King grabbed a chap he remembers as Jack, from Napier, and they headed to a small village nearby.
The pair found a stable where they could climb up for a good vantage point.
About 30 minutes after settling into their hiding place, they spotted seven or eight German soldiers creeping along a ditch beside the road.
King told his compatriot: “I’m going to take them on,” and took out two of the soldiers.
He was taking aim at the third when Jack, armed with a “Tommy gun” (a Thompson submachine gun) “all of a sudden stood up and gave them a volley.”
As the rest of the German soldiers clambered out of the ditch and dispersed, King noticed a body lying further down the track.
“I saw his uniform and realised he was one of ours,” he recalled. “He was doing the same job I was but he got killed.”
While sharing his stories, King pauses from time to time: “I can remember all of these things. I’m not making this up.”
In the middle of his service, during a 40-day leave from the Pacific, King met his wife Florence (Flossie) at a dance in Makarewa.
His memories of the meeting make him smile. He’d bought an old car for 30 pounds and after sharing the last dance with her, he asked: “How are you traveling?”
King drove his sweetheart home and the two would go on to enjoy almost 70 years of married life together before Flossie died in 2015.
The pair had six children and more grandchildren than King can count, his townhouse filled with photos of loved ones.
Tom Johnstone's memories are equally vivid, but he says he struggles to put them into words.
The Battle of Monte Cassino, in which he fought in early 1944, was considered one of the most brutal and costly involving New Zealand soldiers as they fought alongside Allied forces to reclaim the Monte Cassino Monastery and surrounding town from German soldiers in a series of assaults.
However, the stoic Southland farmer would far rather reminisce about “the fun stuff” like the food he ate, the places he saw, and rugby opportunities.
“I wasn’t a great talker,” he says.
Johnstone was 22 years and 283 days old when he joined the New Zealand Army, stationed first in Egypt where he helped cart German prisoners, and then in Italy from 1944.
The weather was extreme, with thunderstorms suddenly followed by steam rising from the hot ground, he recalls.
When they first arrived in North Africa, soldiers were given one blanket each.
“I think that was the coldest night of my life.”
In Italy, remembers people pointing out the architecture in Florence and Rome, but as a man of the land, he wasn’t really interested.
I paid my six pence to see the pope, but the heat was too much, so I didn’t wait for him.
He missed his mum’s good meals, but there were plenty of grapes to nick in Egypt, plenty of pasta to eat in Italy, and on one occasion, he even tried a sparrow for tea.
“There wasn’t much on it,” he says of the small bird.
Johnstone enjoyed the comradeship and rugby of World War II, which for him included a visit to the Swiss border.
Though he did not make the NZ rugby team when he trialed himself, fighting alongside All Black Ron Stewart was encouraging, he says.
Johnstone’s employer held his job when he left to serve, and he ended up working on the same farm for the rest of his working life.
In 2021, the Winton RSA honoured Johnstone and King as its oldest ex-servicemen.
Winton RSA president John Reynolds considers the club privileged to have King and Johnstone.
“We owe these men [and women] a lot. They went to fight for the freedom and democracy we enjoy today,” Reynolds said.
And most did so voluntarily because Johnstone says: “You guard your country and your people. Someone has to.”
As time marches on, it’s now up to the sons of returned servicemen to keep the ANZAC spirit going, Reynold says.
As the son of a World War II veteran himself, he counts himself lucky that his dad spoke about his experiences, but not many did, and there were still things his father did not say, he says.
What they saw was horrific,” Reynold says.
The other veterans scattered around Southland include 100-year-old Roy McLellan, from Invercargill.
He signed up to the army at the age of 17, because as he says, it was the easiest way to get overseas.
But they only took him on his second attempt because he was too young the first time he applied: “I had to wait a few months.”
McLellan is somewhat shocked to hear the small number of World War II veterans alive in the south.
“Is that all?,” he says, incredulously when he hears he is one of eight left living.
McLellan served as a mechanic and truck driver – first in Egypt and then Italy.
With several cameras in tow, he photographed his time abroad, but sadly lost many of the photos later in a house fire.
McLellan returned to Invercargill at the age of 24, but was quickly off to Japan to serve six months in the occupation force with the promise of a fortnight in England as reward.
“My friend and myself were both single and unattached,” so they jumped at the offer. “We did get to England.”
After more than six years of army life, McLellan was ready to settle, so he took a job at an Invercargill garage, married Gladys and started a family.
“It was time to do that. The army life was over,” he said.
Daughter Julie Brown says it’s only in the past few years that he’s opened up about his experiences.
“He’s quite an old gentleman.”
McLellan downplays his combat participation, but Brown points out he was transporting people and supplies to the front line.
Just because he wasn’t firing bullets doesn’t mean he was any less of a hero,” Brown says.
Historian and Gore RSA committee member Bruce Cavanagh encourages all Kiwis to learn about their relatives who served.
But for those who are still living, he says: “The key is to talk about it.”
He is often contacted by families after a loved one has passed to help them track down information about their time at war.
Often he’ll use public records to track down a service number, but that’s just a starting point, he says, because the process of accessing personnel records can take more than six months.
And then, they may only contain two or three events.
Cavanagh has been documenting the lives of Southland servicemen, both living and dead, but says knowing living veterans is a privilege “because they’re our only direct links” to the war.
“Some people don’t want to talk and that’s understandable. In some cases they’re alive, but their mates are dead. They are the ones who are holding those memories and some don’t want to relive them,” Cavanagh says.
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