Veteran shares me­mory of war that never ended

Matamata Chronicle - - News -

More than 6000 New Zealand sol­diers served in the Korean War in the early 1950s.

John Christo­phers of Mata­mata was one of them. He is one of 12 veter­ans to fea­ture in a book pub­lished by the Min­istry for Cul­ture and Her­itage – The War That Never Ended: New Zealand Veter­ans Re­mem­ber Korea.

met him last

Ni­cola Ste­wart

week. John Christo­phers wanted to fly.

He was 15 when World War II broke out and, as soon as he was old enough, signed up to be a pi­lot in the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

He be­gan train­ing and it was with much dis­ap­point­ment that he found he was un­able to make it into the air with­out get­ting sick.

As a re­sult, he spent the re­main­der of the war on the ground, paying troop wages in Fiji and Tonga and study­ing to­wards a Bach­e­lor of Com­merce.

So when the chance came to serve again, this time in Korea, the young Mr Christo­phers de­cided it was his turn to see some ac­tion.

He spent al­most two years in the army and was posted to the 162 Bat­tery, first in the bat­tery com­mand post, then Dog Troop.

A tech­ni­cal as­sis­tant, of­ten short­ened to ‘‘tech ack’’, he was re­spon­si­ble for send­ing fir­ing or­ders to four guns.

‘‘In­fantry would be ad­van-

al­ways cing and we’d have front ob­servers telling us where to fire and it was my job – I had a lit­tle ar­tillery board with a map – to con­vert what they said to an or­der to the guns,’’ he said.

‘‘I had to do it very quickly and ac­cu­rately of course.

‘‘It just seemed like an­other job and we got very good at it.

‘‘Ev­ery now and then the for­ward ob­servers would say, ‘good shoot­ing,’ or some­thing and you would think, oh well that’s pretty good.’’

Mr Christo­phers was born in Dunedin in 1924 and grew up in the small Otago town of Lawrence.

He left school at 15 and fol­lowed his fa­ther and grand- fa­ther into bank­ing where he dis­cov­ered a tal­ent for num­bers.

Af­ter serv­ing in World War II, he started an ac­coun­tancy prac­tice in Waihi and was 26 when he de­cided to vol­un­teer for Korea.

‘‘ I had to drive across to Paeroa to sign up and I think I al­most turned back two or three times,’’ he said.

‘‘I knew once I had taken the oath and got my shilling that was it, I couldn’t go back.

‘‘ I don’t think when we joined up we had the fog­gi­est idea where [Korea] was you know.

‘‘But no, I’ve never re­gret­ted it. Those two years in the army com­pleted my ed­u­ca­tion.

‘‘It was good fun, I met peo­ple I wouldn’t have nor­mally met, pre­dom­i­nantly good guys I would go with any­where, trust any­where.’’

He set sail from Welling­ton in late 1950, stop­ping over in Bris­bane and Manila, be­fore land­ing at Pu­san, South Korea, on New Year’s Eve.

‘‘We left New Zealand in the mid­dle of sum­mer, then through the trop­ics, and ar­rived at this God-for­saken place, you know, freez­ing,’’ he said.

‘‘That’s what I re­mem­ber most – the cold.

‘‘ For ex­am­ple, must have been Jan­uary or Fe­bru­ary, win­ter up there, we were up at the top of South Korea and we had to cross the Han River, no bridges, but it was frozen, so we just drove across, gun trac­tors, am­mu­ni­tion trail­ers, ev­ery­thing.

‘‘I was sur­prised how some guys did suf­fer from the cold. I had nine lay­ers of cloth­ing on but there was no good com­plain­ing about it, we vol­un­teered to go, so we put up with it.’’

For the first two or three weeks the 162 Bat­tery were based in an old Ja­panese bar­racks near the coast be­fore head­ing north.

‘‘We were mainly con­fined to the mid­dle of the penin­sula and some­times we were only in one place for two or three hours, or two or three days,’’ he said.

‘‘Later on it be­came a bit more static and the liv­ing con­di­tions were a lit­tle bet­ter.’’

For sev­eral months they were at­tached to the 1 Bat­tal­ion of the Ar­gyll and Suther­land High­landers.

‘‘ They were prob­a­bly the best pro­fes­sional sol­diers in the world,’’ he said.

‘‘We used to joke that we were safer there than we would have been back in New Zealand.’’

Start­ing in the early hours of April 24, the bat­tery fought for three days along­side Bri­tish, Cana­dian and Aus­tralian troops in the Bat­tle of Kap’yong.

They man­aged to stop the in­vad­ing Chi­nese and North Kore­ans and were later awarded pres­i­den­tial ci­ta­tions by the South Korean pres­i­dent Syn­g­man Rhee.

Af­ter four months in Korea, sol­diers qual­i­fied for five days leave in Tokyo, Ja­pan.

‘‘My word, did we look for­ward to that,’’ Mr Christo­phers said.

‘‘You had to go through a sort of de­con­tam­i­na­tion area and leave your ri­fle and march out the other end to a clean uni­form and all the money you had ac­cu­mu­lated over the last three or four months.

‘‘Then we were in­structed to be back in five days, or you were a de­serter, and we were off. I was able to go to a race meet­ing, go to the beach to swim and do some shop­ping.

‘‘I got back at night to have a lovely sleep be­tween sheets – I had for­got­ten what sheets were like. Frankly, to use a toi­let was a treat, those sort of things are very crude in the field.’’

Back in Korea, the sol­diers had a lot of down time in be­tween fight­ing and Mr Christo­phers would spend a lot of time read­ing.

Around Christ­mas in 1951, it was de­cided 20 or 30 of the troops would be sent back to New Zealand to train re­in­force­ments.

Al­most one year af­ter ar­riv­ing in Korea, Mr Christo­phers was cho­sen to re­turn home.

‘‘I stayed at Waiouru Camp in­struct­ing on gun­nery for about six months and then I was out,’’ he said.

His friend Bill Rose of­fered him an ac­count­ing job in Ti­rau and it was through Mr Rose that he be­came in­volved with the Mata­mata Rac­ing Club.

He ap­plied for the po­si­tion of sec­re­tary in 1953 and held onto the job for 33 years.

He also set up his own ac­coun­tancy prac­tice in Arawa St and in 1953 mar­ried Nancy Thom­lin­son.

They had six chil­dren, and Mr Christo­phers was in­volved in es­tab­lish­ing Mill Cres­cent Kinder­garten and was on the Mata­mata Pri­mary com­mit­tee for 10 years.

He is still an ac­tive mem­ber of the RSA and Korean Veter­ans As­so­ci­a­tion and it was through the lat­ter he be­came in­volved in the book The War That Never Ended.

‘‘A form came round a cou­ple of years ago for peo­ple who had served in the Korean War so I filled it in, I think about 100 or so did, and I for­got about it,’’ he said.

Writer Pip Des­mond con­tacted him sev­eral months later ask­ing if he was in­ter­ested in telling his story and he agreed.

On March 5, Mr Christo­phers, now 89, was in­vited to the launch of the book at the Grand Hall in Par­lia­ment. ‘‘It was very im­pres­sive the whole thing.’’ He was fas­ci­nated to read about the other 11 sol­diers in the book – only one of whom he had vaguely known be­fore.

‘‘Ev­ery now and then some­one asks me what it was like over there and I sup­pose in one word, it was dif­fer­ent, very dif­fer­ent.’’

Photo: NI­COLA STE­WART

Full story: Mata­mata war veteran John Christo­phers shares his ex­pe­ri­ence of the Korean War in The War That Never Ended: New Zealand Veter­ans Re­mem­ber Korea.

Photo: JOHN CHRISTO­PHERS’ COL­LEC­TION.

Look­ing sharp: John Christo­phers in his New Zealand army uni­form.

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