Vets urged to retell stories

By Catherine Field

Governor-General, Sir Jerry Mateparae.
Governor-General, Sir Jerry Mateparae.

Seventy years after allied troops landed in Normandy to deliver a crushing blow against Adolf Hitler and his doctrine, New Zealand Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae urged the veterans of World War II to hand on their memories to the young to explain why their now-fading generation had to take up arms.

Speaking to the Weekend Herald before D-Day ceremonies which include the Queen, United States President Barack Obama, French President Francois Hollande and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mateparae said New Zealand's dwindling band of servicemen from the 1939-45 conflict were precious witnesses to history, and their tale had to be preserved.

"I think it is incumbent on our veterans of the second war to tell their stories," he said. "It is one thing to have history rolled out in a series of facts but, as terrible as they are, they don't reach into people's consciousness as much as stories."

The conflict held lessons for generations who have known nothing but peace yet may be unaware of the price that came with it, he said.

By telling their stories, veterans could "fill in the gaps between the historical records, to ensure that they do communicate with the younger generation. It's about the values that we share".

Mateparae is at the head of the New Zealand delegation to the annual commemoration, which has taken on a poignant tone this year amid expectations it will be the last great gathering of surviving combatants.

The 48-strong team includes nine veterans aged 89 to 97, four of whom took part in the Navy's vital supporting role for the infantry which stormed the Normandy beaches. As with delegations from the other World War II Allies, it includes young people.

Neil Harton, who commanded motor boats in the English Channel during the landings and the subsequent Battle of Normandy, said the trip was freighted with symbolism and responsibility.

"We're here to remember the boys, the young boys who died here. We have a responsibility to represent these people," Harton said. "After all these years, it is so vivid."

A day before the New Zealand delegation was due to attend the official commemorations at Sword Beach, the group paid tribute at the graves of eight Kiwis buried at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery in Bayeux, where more than 4100 Allied soldiers are buried.

Some in the group said they would be haunted by thoughts of a New Zealand seaman, Dennis Nunn, who died aged just 19 after Allied forces broke out from the beachheads and the campaign became the Battle of Normandy.

"It was the grave of this boy that brought it all into focus for me, buried on his own, a long way from home," said Harton.

Bringing together troops from the US, Britain and its colonial-era allies, the June 6, 1944 landing was the greatest amphibious operation in military history.

Tens of thousands of men stormed ashore on five beaches, sometimes encountering brutal fire from German fortifications, at the start of a long-awaited second front from the west that complemented the offensive by Soviet forces from the east.

Within a year, the war in Europe was over but at the cost of tens of millions of lives and amid revelations of the Nazis' mass murder of Jews, gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals and other "undesirables" in their doctrine of racial purity.

Today, waves wash up placidly on the beaches that 70 years ago were blasted by shells, torn by tank tracks and stained with blood. The lush fields and hedgerows show no sign of the scars from the high explosive duels between Sherman and Tiger tanks. The villages and towns where around 20,000 Norman civilians were killed, many of them in Allied bombing, have long been rebuilt.

What remains are the hundreds of monuments and the memories. Ensuring those messages resonate for the internet generation is one of the big hopes of this year's commemoration. "It's not until you go to the cemeteries that the scale of the war hits you," said one of the two Cadet Force youths in the delegation, Joseph Helu-Makasini.

Aged just 17 and on his first visit to Europe, Helu-Makasini said he was struck by the fact that some of those who fought joined up before they were his age. "I only visited one cemetery, and I know there are hundreds of others. It's quite sobering, really."

- NZ Herald

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