Dick Frew has only one, occasional, regret from his three-year army career - that it wasn't longer.

"Had I known Borneo and Vietnam were going to blow up I would have signed on to the regular forces," he says.

"But I was not a peace time soldier. Yes sir, no sir, please sir - it's not me."

It's a windy Wednesday morning when I interview Frew, 82, at the location of his choice - the Tauranga Returned and Servicemen's Association on Cameron Rd.

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Amiably posing for a photograph, Frew wonders aloud why on earth the Bay of Plenty Times wants to interview him again.

"I checked, I've been in the paper four times already."

The former Tauranga RSA president with the easy laugh has been a bit of a staple of Anzac Day coverage in recent years.

He's been pictured selling poppies and laying wreaths and has told his tale of tangling with a tiger during the Malayan Emergency more than once.

I'm at least the third reporter he has told about the "young, silly and absolutely bullet-proof" attitude that led him to volunteer to fight a war he knew little about, far from home.

There's no doubt his nearly two years fighting "communist terrorists" in Malaya shaped Frew's life - but I'm here because I'm willing to bet it wasn't the only thing that did.

Born rebel

Frew was born and bred in the King Country.

His builder father, Jim, and mother, Margaret, met and married in Otorohanga, raising five boys there: Bob first then 10 years later Eric, Dick, Cliff and finally Phillip.

Boys ran in the family. His father was one of 10 brothers (plus two sisters), and Frew went on to have two boys of his own, Peter and Mark, with his wife Vera, who died in 2004.

Curiously, all but one of his seven grandchildren have been girls.

Frew says his parents were quiet, unassuming people, though his dad tended to see the world in black and white.

"If we asked 'why', he would say 'because I said so'."

Frew grew up headstrong, a trait that has never left him.

"I'm a rebel."

He hated school, apart from sports, and his stubborn streak clearly gave the teachers a bit of grief.

He got the strap for refusing to memorise a soliloquy "because I didn't like William Shakespeare" and remembers loudly writing off algebra as "a load of rubbish".

At 15 he walked out the same gate he had walked in a decade earlier.

"I would have left at 14 if I had my way."

Tauranga veteran Dick Frew talks about his life before, during and after war. Photo/John Borren
Tauranga veteran Dick Frew talks about his life before, during and after war. Photo/John Borren

Oh no you're not

After school Frew left home and went to work on a dairy farm in Te Awamutu. At 18 he returned to Otorohanga and got a job driving trucks for a couple of years, then bulldozers.

In his spare time he played rugby and cricket.

"There were only two sports clubs I wasn't a member of - the hockey club and the tennis club - because they didn't have bars."

The whole King Country was dry then, he said, so the bars were "very illegal" but the police turned a blind eye as long no one got too silly.

Although Frew's family had a history of military service – seven relatives in World War I, three in World War II, cousins to Japan and Korea – he never felt compelled by tradition to follow in their footsteps.

"I think we've done our share."

So when his compulsory military service (CMT) at Papakura Military Camp came along in 1954, he was surprised to find it a good fit.

"I didn't want to go but I enjoyed it."

After joining the army a few years later he didn't tell his mother, who lost a brother in World War II, until a family dinner the night before he left for camp at Papakura.

"I said 'this is going to be the last time I sit around this table for a while'."

He told her he had joined the army and was going to Malaya.

"She said, 'oh no you're not' and I said 'oh yes I am'."

He sailed on November 6, 1959 - the day before his 25th birthday.

I'll tell you something that will make you laugh

Frew has the art of telling funny army stories down pat.

"I'll tell you about the wisdom of the army," Frew says, leaning in.

"I was a truck driver in civvy street. I did my CMT as a truck driver. So when I joined the army, I thought I was gonna be a truck driver.

"They made me a rifleman," he says, leaning back and hooting with laughter.

He also has a good laugh about some big wig's decision to train soldiers for the tropical Malayan jungle in Waiouru ... in the middle of winter.

The tale of the time he came across a tiger came with actions.

He mimed holding a rifle, arms shaking violently with fear as he spotted the tiger standing on a log not 3 metres from him and the men he was the lead scout for.

The tiger ran away, leaving Frew to "reach for the toilet paper". Cue more hearty laughter.

A year before Frew arrived in Malaya a Kiwi soldier named Frank Burdet was dragged out of his hammock by a tiger.

In Frew's battalion, there was an Australian with the same name.

"You have no idea how much free beer he got telling 'his' story - he refused to show his scars, of course, too embarrassing."

Frew is still in touch with many in his battalion, and about half of the 10 men in his section. Four have died and he has lost track of a couple - a fact that pains him.

"Those 10 guys were closer to me than my brothers.

"When I show people the photos, I say 'there are the greatest guys in New Zealand'."

Welcome home

So how did rebellious Frew survive in the rigidly rule-based army environment?

"I was sitting in the barracks on the second or third day and we'd just been issued all our gear and our clothing.

"A sergeant walked in and stood alongside me and said: 'get a haircut lad'.

"I just looked at him and said: 'and who says so'.

"I soon found out who said so. I got a haircut."

It turned out he liked the discipline - but that did not mean he was always well behaved.

In Malaya, he was hauled in for a telling off on small infractions so often the company commander joked, shortly before Frew was due to sail home, that the soldier should pay for a new carpet in the orderly room because he had "worn a track in this one".

Returning to New Zealand aged 26 in 1961, Frew served out the rest of his three-year voluntary service at Burnham Military Camp in Christchurch.

When he returned to Otorohanga, he experienced a cold welcome at the local RSA.

"I was still in the army and I was in uniform wearing a campaign ribbon. I came face-to-face with a guy I had known since I was a little boy in short pants.

"He eyed me up and down and said, 'are they letting the bloody Boy Scouts in here now'.

"I just looked at him and I thought 'welcome home'.

"It hurt, but we were all being treated the same way."

It was an attitude many returning serviceman had faced from older veterans.

Over the years, as the importance of the RSA in his life increased, Frew has tried to shake off that tradition.

"I hope it's different now. I mean, I always try to make them welcome. Even if they're not returned guys, even if they've just been in the services."

Frew does not think he would recognise army life today. Privacy laws and health and safety regulations had changed things, he thought, though he expects the values are still the same.

New recruits should still expect to be sent to war, he says.

"That's what we join up for. It's no use joining the army and then saying, 'Oh, I don't want to go to war'. Well, don't join the army then.

"What I can never understand, though, is we join the army or the navy or the air force, whatever, and then people jump up in arms and say we shouldn't be sent to war - that's what we're there for!"


Life after war

Frew found work driving earthworks machinery and, after meeting Vera at a dance, married in 1965, aged 30.

His eldest was born in 1969, the couple bought their first house in 1970, then his second son came along in 1972.

Tired of moving round the country for work, he bought a truck in Hamilton and spent six or so years running his own business before selling up and going into managing transport companies around the North Island.

He retired in Auckland in 2000 ("and that's all the thanks I got," he said, pointing to his gold watch) but hated living in the city so he and Vera moved to Tauranga in 2003.

After she died, he was looking for something to do so he stepped up his volunteer work with the RSA.

He served on the executive for years before a two-year term as president.

He is also a Freemason, and this September will mark 50 years since he first joined.

The 82-year-old is determined to reach at least 90.

He acknowledges he had some serious health problems – for which he wanted no pity, please - but says he has beaten bowel cancer and prostate cancer and would send this lot packing too.

In April 2015, he travelled to Gallipoli to mark the centenary of the bloody battle in which 2779 New Zealanders lost their lives.

Frew saw the beautiful beach at Anzac Cove and the steep cliff that faced it.

"It was heartbreaking."

He hunted through the graves to find one bearing the name of his great-uncle, who was killed in the landing.

"Anzac Day is very important," he says.

"They paid the supreme sacrifice. Without them, we wouldn't be sitting here today."

An inscription he saw on a memorial at Gallipoli has stayed with him:

"Greater love hath no man that he should offer up his life for others."


The Malayan Emergency

- Malayan Communist Party attempt to overthrown the British colonial administration
- Conflict lasted from 1948 to 1960
- New Zealand helped provide border security until 1964
- 15 New Zealand soldiers died, three from enemy action

- Source: nzhistory.govt.nz