Veteran shares memory of war that never ended
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
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.’’
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.
Looking sharp: John Christophers in his New Zealand army uniform.