Twelve Questions: George Ward

George Ward was a tank gunner in Italy in World War II. The Anzac veteran, who still lives in the house he built in Henderson after the war, raised three daughters alone after his wife died of cancer. He turned 99 last Saturday.

George Ward says his family just accepted his call up to fight because in  those days, 'you had to go and that's all there was to it'. Photo / Sarah Ivey
George Ward says his family just accepted his call up to fight because in those days, 'you had to go and that's all there was to it'. Photo / Sarah Ivey

1. Where were you when war broke out?

I was here, in Auckland, working on the family orchard. I was born in Reefton but grew up in New Plymouth, on a dairy farm. I left school at 14. High school? I didn't have the bloody brains for that. I was one of seven children but the other boys all left me working the farm with Dad. I never drew a wage there. It was hard. Thirty-six cows and we milked them all by hand. Dad never made any money so we came to Auckland. I had an older sister, then Jack, Reg, Harold, George, Harry and Daisy my sister still lives down the road. She's 92. I was about 24 when I was conscripted. I'd expected it. A policeman came up to our house and said "I've got a thing for you to sign". It didn't worry me. You had to go and that's all there was to it.

2. Was it tough on your mother?

A couple of my brothers went too I think. Oh my mother was hard enough to take all that. She was strong. And everyone just accepted in those days that that's what you had to do.

3. Where did you join the battle?

I did my training in Waiouru. I was in the tanks. A gunner. We were here when the Japs came into the war and I had two years here. After the Battle of the Coral Sea, they said right fellas, off you go. We went to Italy — right from the bottom to the top of the country, through Cassino, Florence, Rome and that place with all the canals, Venice. We were in Egypt before that and it was summer then we went to Italy mid-winter, snow and everything. God it was cold.

4. How did the locals treat you?

They were good. After we'd finished a day's work sometimes we'd go over to their houses and see what they were having for tea. One of the worst things I've ever eaten in my bloody life was cheese from sheep's milk. That was horrible. I put it in my mouth then took it out and put it in my pocket and when I got outside I threw it away. We slept in houses or shops. I suppose there were girls. I never had time to look at them.

5. Was it better to be in the tank than in the trenches?

No. If [the Germans] dropped a high explosive into the tank that was the end of it. It happened a bit. Four or five men in a tank would be killed. I knew them all. They would send us in sometimes to drop some short ones and [the Germans] were shooting over the top. They'd drop a few short ones too and they were fairly close. We were lucky I suppose. I was lucky to get home. We had a few close ones but never mind, we're still here.

6. Did those years change you as a person?

Yes and no. Not really. We just came back, landed at Wellington, came up to Auckland and got straight back into the orchard. No rest at all. None of my brothers were killed overseas but I had three brothers killed with shooting, but not in the war. Harold was killed when out duck-shooting with a young mate. I've had a fair bit of tragedy in life but the war just was what it was. It was just "let's get it over and get out". I didn't talk about it much back home. No one seemed very interested.

7. Were you religious at all?

I've got no objection to religion. I used to like a bit of it. Sunday School and that. But once I got into the orchard there was too much else to be done.

8. How did life change?

I was 31 when I came back. I'd got engaged before I left to Daphne, whom I knew from Taranaki. Oh I wasn't much of a letter writer. The odd one. She waited, I don't know why. We had three children and built this house, worked the orchard. Ward Brothers was the name. We had glass houses. Packing sheds. Daphne died nearly 50 years ago when she was just 39. Cancer.

9. So you raised your family alone?

Yes, three girls — 13, 15 and 17. I just carried on and I got a fair bit of help. I had to be both mum and dad. I'd be up at 6am getting breakfast and the girls ready for school. Then in bed at 9pm. Still am up at 6. I'd come up from work at lunchtime and get the vegetables for dinner, ready for the girls when they got home from school. No, I never remarried. Do you think it would have been easier? Three girls and a stepmother? Never. You know what females are like, especially a stepmother.

10. You still live alone at 99: what's kept you in such good health?

Oh, there's a few of us around. The one next door is 88. I've always eaten a lot of home grown vegetables and a bit of meat. Not a big drinker no, though there was lots of wine in Italy. No wild women. I have had at least five operations — they took nine inches of my bowel away.

I've had an outdoor life. Pruning. Mowing lawns. Never smoked. We used to get free cigarettes in the army. I sold them to the Itai's. Six pence each and I'd send the money home.

11. What do you think of modern life?

It's too easy. Everything is just there — cars, machinery. Everything's laid on for you. It's not a bad thing. You can't say an easy life is bad, can you? I wouldn't mind being young again. Computers? I wouldn't have the bloody brains for them. I wouldn't have read four books in my life.

12. What do you think now about war?

It's a waste of bloody time. Absolutely. It's just a waste. Keep the young ones away from it.

- NZ Herald

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