Big Read: An incredible untold story of WWII

By Lord Ashcroft

Chook and his young wife, Pat. Courtesy of Lord Ashcroft.
Chook and his young wife, Pat. Courtesy of Lord Ashcroft.

On the gently sloping hillside at Taradale Services Cemetery on New Zealand's North Island is a simple grave belonging to a Hurricane pilot who flew with the RAF during the Second World War.

Beside a line of jacaranda trees in spectacular purple bloom, in section J plot 56, a memorial plaque lying flat on the ground marks the final resting place of Flight Lieutenant Charles Fergusson.

When this former officer died, more than 100 mourners gathered at All Saints Anglican Church in Taradale, near Napier, for a low-key funeral service. For, as was his nature in death as in life, "Chook", as he was affectionately known, never wanted any sort of unnecessary fuss.

Yet today, 70 years after his military service ended and more than a decade after his death, I have been able - thanks to his family, friends and former comrades - to piece together one of the most incredible untold stories of the 1939-45 global conflict.

My inquiries stretching across three continents have revealed a wartime narrative that involves a miraculous escape from a plane crash, brutal treatment at the hands of Japanese torturers, allegations of cannibalism and an enduring love story with more twists and turns than a Jane Austen novel.

Young Pat prior to meeting Chook. Courtesy of Lord Ashcroft.
Young Pat prior to meeting Chook. Courtesy of Lord Ashcroft.

Charles Douglas Fergusson was born on May 14 1921 in Hastings, part of the fertile Hawke's Bay coastal region of North Island that is renowned for its fruit growing and wines. One of five children born to Francis Fergusson, a plumber, and his wife Rose, young Chook was educated locally, attending Hastings Boys' High School, where he excelled at swimming and rugby.

He left school aged 16 and worked for two years as a carpet fitter, before enlisting into the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) in November 1940, with the Second World War just over a year old.

After basic flying training in New Zealand, Chook went to Canada and trained in 1941 as a pilot in Harvard aircraft at Moose Jaw base, Saskatchewan. Next, Chook was shipped to the UK, where he flew with 3 Squadron and, later, 607 Squadron, RAF.

Here he also met and fell in love with Doris Ackerman, a pretty north London girl who was more widely known to her friends as "Pat" (apparently a slight variation of "pet" which she was called as a youngster). Keen to support the war effort, she had enrolled as a private in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the women's branch of the British Army.

After a whirlwind romance, the couple became engaged and they married at St Andrews Church, Stanstead Abbots, Hertfordshire, on January 13, 1942 when he was 20 and she was 19. Chook, who was stocky, handsome and 5 ft 9 ins tall, called her his "blonde, blue-eyed English rose", while Pat vowed that their wartime marriage would last forever.

However, within months of their union, Chook was sent to India to serve with 607 Squadron and to take on the Japanese in the air over Burma. Before the young officer left, he made his wife promise that if was killed in action, she would travel to New Zealand so his parents could meet her - their son's widow - for the first time.

Flying his single-seat Hurricane fighter plane, Chook was soon in action in the skies above Burma. He filed a combat report detailing an attack he and his fellow fighter pilots had made on Japanese bombers on December 16 1942, recording that he had damaged an enemy plane.

However, on Christmas Eve 1942, numerous British and Japanese fighters met in a series of dogfights during which Chook's Hurricane was one of two British aircraft shot down.

Chook was reported as "KOAD" (Killed On Active Duty). His family back in New Zealand and his fiancée in London were among those who mourned his "death". His squadron leader later visited his "widow" saying there was no hope that Chook had survived: he and others had seen his Hurricane spiral into the ground and burst into flames, and the pilot had been unable to take to his parachute.

Yet, miraculously and against all the odds, Chook had survived. His fellow airmen were right: his parachute had not opened but as his aircraft hurtled downwards it had, in fact, exploded only yards before it hit the ground at around 300 mph.

He appears to have been thrown upwards before landing in the shallow Irawaji River: this cushioned his fall and the water put out the flames of his burning flying suit. Such a miraculous escape makes him a rare member of the unofficial "Gannet Club", named after the bird that plunges vertically for fish. It is understood than fewer than 20 servicemen survived full-blooded plane crashes during the Second World War because something, including snow and trees, cushioned their fall.

For the next half century, Chook refused to speak in any detail about his wartime ordeal because it brought back such painful memories and because he wanted to protect his family from the appalling details of his suffering.

However, in the final decade or so of his life, Chook confided in a close friend, Bryan Church, 65, who owns a garage and antique shop in Taradale. He only made Chook's family aware of most of the pilot's revelations at his funeral service.

Capture

Chook had told him how he had cheated death: "We were flying over a forest when we got pounced on by some Japanese Zeros [fighter planes]. My wingman said 'Watch out, Chook, you have two on your tail.' There were tracers [bullets] flying past my cockpit and so I did the only thing I could think of to escape: I went into a vertical dive.

"The airspeed indicator was virtually off the dial and the ground came rushing up. I pulled hard back on the stick but I realised I wasn't going to make it and I blacked out."

The next thing Chook remembered was standing, dazed and confused, in a shallow river with a terrible pain in his shoulders. He could see and smell a crashed plane and he thought to himself: "Some poor bugger has copped it."

Then he realised the burning aircraft was his Hurricane and he had been thrown out of it: in the explosion his parachute had been ripped of his back and it was never found.

Chook recalled to his friend: "There were two Jap soldiers coming into the stream, bayonets fixed. I went to draw my service pistol but I couldn't because my hands were a hell of a mess [from burns]. I felt weak and I was captured."

Long after Chook's death it emerged that, without telling his family, he had given an interview to Patrick Bronte, who was paralysed from the shoulders down aged in a diving accident aged 16. Inspired by the courage of former servicemen, the young tetra-plegic set up the Nga Toa ("Maori for "Many Warriors") project which is dedicated to recording the oral histories of former New Zealand servicemen.

In this interview shortly before his death, Chook recounted some of the stories he told to Bryan Church. He described how he was brutally treated immediately after his plane crash, when he had a broken left wrist and terrible burns to his face, hands and groin. He was initially treated kindly by an English-speaking Japanese doctor who had trained in America but the next day he faced brutal interrogation from the military.

In his recorded interview, Chook said of his questioning. "They said 'what squadron?' and I said 'you know I can't tell you that.' And they just went berserk. And they got stuck in, and they grabbed all the bandages around my head and they yanked them off...And they dragged me up a big hill....This officer came up there and he got hold of a sword. They had me sitting up and pushed my head forward and [one officer] pulled his sword out, and I knew what was coming." However suddenly a car came around the corner and a more senior Japanese officer screamed at the more junior soldier to halt the execution.

Yet Chook's two and a half year ordeal was only just beginning, and at one point, he remembered rats nibbling on his dead skin. He was singled out for interrogation from the Kempeitai, the feared Japanese secret police force, who believed he was a spy not an airman because they did not believe he could have survived his plane crash.

In general, the Japanese treated their PoWs far more inhumanely than any other country involved in the war: prisoners were subject to torture, beatings and near starvation diets of rice and, occasionally, vegetables. Thousands died from illness and malnutrition, while many other PoWs were beheaded or hanged.

One day Chook told Bryan Church how, towards the end of the war, a Canadian pilot had been shot down and brought to the camp where other Allied prisoners were being held.

Upon arrival, the pilot was, of course, far healthier than the other malnourished PoWs and he was popular because he brought the other prisoners encouraging news of the war's progression. Chook told his friend: "Then one day the Canadian pilot disappeared - shortly afterwards, we heard a single shot. That night a strong smell of cooking came from the kitchen. We could smell meat at a time when meat was scarce."

The Canadian was never seen again and shortly afterwards some PoWs, out on a working party, dug up the pilot's remains and discovered he had been "opened up" and several organs, including his liver and heart had been removed. Bryan Church said: "Chook said all hell broke lose because the PoWs realised the Japanese had murdered the pilot and ate some or his organs - cannibalism." There were, in fact, several instances during the war when the Japanese were guilty of cannibalism.

During his time in captivity, Chook was singled out for particularly savage treatment because, ever defiant, he refused to bow to guards and visiting military officers, and because he stood up for other prisoners who were being brutalised.

Gradually, however, the Allies gained the upper hand in the Far East. The Allies eventually swept into Burma, freeing PoWs as they gained ground. Chook was released from Rangoon camp on May 5 1945 and, typically defiant, he immediately raised a British Union Flag on a flagpole above the prison.

I have obtained the two-page form that Chook completed long after the war ended when he and some comrades were seeking reparations for their treatment as PoWs. He revealed that after weeks of brutal interrogation he was released into a compound with other PoWs, by which point he was emaciated and bent over with pain. Chook wrote: "Captain Brian Weston said: 'Terrible, an old man like that coming in here.' He told me later he thought I was well over 70. I was 21."

During his time in captivity, Chook suffered from beri beri, scabies, ulcers and dysentery. When his plane crashed he had been 80 kilos (just over 12 and a half stone), yet when he was released from jail he weighed just 35 kilos (five and half stone).

Reunion

Yet, he had survived against all the odds - but what of his wife? Chook had long feared that he would have been reported as killed-in-action and, too afraid to contact Pat directly, he sent a telegram to his father-in-law: "Pop, If Doris hasn't married again, can I come home? Love Chook." Frank Ackerman was tearful when he received the news and his daughter, who still lived at home, was even more emotional. In fact, Pat was engaged to an American airman but she had told him she would not marry until after the war ended just in case Chook had survived and was a PoW.

Pat remained faithful to Chook even though he was assumed dead in the war. Courtesy of Lord Ashcroft.
Pat remained faithful to Chook even though he was assumed dead in the war. Courtesy of Lord Ashcroft.

She immediately broke off her engagement and re-declared her love for the man who had come back from the dead. They were united after he returned on a hospital ship, arriving in Britain in November 1945, two months after the war ended.

Chook discovered that his wife had kept her promise to him - and made the long and arduous trip after his "death" by ship to New Zealand, where she met his parents and stayed for several months before coming home.

Early in 1946, the couple set sail for New Zealand together for a belated honeymoon and a new life, stopping off in Italy on the way. Chook always joked that memories of his mother's "jam roly-poly" pudding - rather than his wife - had kept him going during his imprisonment.

Once back in New Zealand, Chook was demobbed from the RNZAF in August 1946 in the rank of flight lieutenant and he returned to carpet fitting before switching career to become a dairy farmer.

Life after war

Eventually he saved enough money to buy his own 150-acre dairy farm near Tokoroa on the North Island. This was the family home and where he and Pat's four sons were raised. However, after retiring, he returned to his home town of Havelock North, near Hastings, and the couple lived their final years in a retirement home in Napier.

Throughout his adult life, Chook suffered from nightmares as a result of his time in captivity, when he had witnessed beheadings and terrible human suffering. Several years after his youngest son was born, he had a nervous breakdown.

As Lindsay Fergusson, 64, his British daughter-in-law who is married to the pilot's eldest son, put it: "The man Pat had married in 1942 was not the same man after he returned from the war. Events had taken their toll on him. But they had an incredible bond because they had gone through so much together."

Unsurprisingly perhaps, Chook retained a dislike of the Japanese and refused to buy any Japanese goods all his adult life. In fact, when a Japanese wool delegation visited New Zealand shortly after the war, he physically attacked a visiting businessman who had made a disparaging remark, unaware that Chook understood some Japanese as a result of being a PoW. Chook was charged with assault but the charge was dropped after the magistrate learnt of his wartime ordeal and had been shown his scars.

Less than a decade before Chook's death, records emerged from Japan that identified who had shot him down more than half a century earlier. It was Master Sergeant Satoshi Anabuki, the top Japanese fighter pilot of the whole war who was credited with 39 victories, or "kills".

Chook's eldest son, Wade, hesitantly showed his father the details of the Japanese pilot who had nearly killed him. "In fact, they had similar backgrounds: they were both country boys doing their job. Dad identified with him," said Wade Fergusson, 69, a retired estate agent from Hamilton, North Island.

Chook eventually died on December 12 2004, aged 83, at which point he had four sons, 11 grandchildren and four great grandchildren. His wife Pat, the love of his life, had died two years earlier, aged 79. They share the same grave at Taradale Services Cemetery.

Chook's family remain frustrated that his bravery was never formally recognised with a gallantry medal. Wade Fergusson said: "I am full of admiration for my father: he was a quiet hero. I think his inner strength and resilience enabled him to survive all his ordeals."
Martin Fergusson, 58, Chook's youngest son and a retired car salesman, broke down in tears at his home in Hastings as he recalled his father's suffering. "I think my father deserves the VC [Victoria Cross] for all he went through," he said.

My involvement in this astonishing story stems from the fact that I was approached late last year by a Briton who had been told of Chook Fergusson's wartime experience by Bryan Church, after a chance encounter while travelling in New Zealand.

The former serviceman, who has asked not to be named and whose mother's brother died in a Japanese PoW camp, knew I championed bravery: I have established the largest collection of VCs in the world and written five books on gallantry. He said Chook's friends lacked the resources and know-how needed to piece together the various strands of Chook's life - and could I help?

I feel privileged and humbled to have been able to investigate his extraordinary life and to be in a position now to detail his remarkable achievements publicly for the first time.

Until today, Chook Fergusson was a modest, unsung hero yet, without him and those like him, Britain, New Zealand and their allies would have been on the losing side in the Second World War. Their courage and self-sacrifice must never be forgotten.

* Lord Ashcroft KCMG PC is a businessman, philanthropist, author and pollster.

For more information on Lord Ashcroft's work, including his books, visit www.lordashcroft.com. Follow him on Twitter: @LordAshcroft. He has asked for his fee for this article to be donated to the RAF Benevolent Fund.

- NZ Herald

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