On Armistice Day in 2018 a plaque bearing Lieutenant Russell Walford's name was unveiled on the town clock that stands in his honour at Memorial Square in Katikati.
Russell Freeland Walford was 29 when he was killed during the Battle of Sangro River in Italy in 1943. The lieutenant is buried at Sangro River War Cemetery.
His family in Katikati wanted to do something to remember their son, so they gave the county council 100 pounds to put up a clock. In 2018 members of the Walford family came from all over for the unveiling including Graham Walford from Waihi, who wore his uncle's medals.
During that special occasion, Graham donated Russell's WWII 1940 diary to Western Bay Museum. Graham's father, Geoff Walford (Russell's twin) had given the diary to him as a Christmas present.
This was an important diary as it was from a Katikati man — very few came back from the war. Museum volunteer/researcher Pauline McCowan got to work to find out more. She spent 200 hours researching and walking in Russell's shoes, transcribing his diary.
Twelve Walford family members travelled to Katikati from Auckland, Fielding, Whakatane and the wider Bay of Plenty to see the result - a presentation of A Soldier's Story - Russell Walford. Other attendees were Peter Mackay, Glenn Burt and Ray Taylor (Katikati RSA), Sandra Haigh (Western Bay Community Archives) and Museum trustees.
Western Bay Museum manager Paula Gaelic told the gathering, "Russell is a very important man in our community - a war hero and up until recently the unknown connection to our War Memorial clock."
She said Pauline's interest in things military has developed over a long time and draws together several threads.
Pauline's interest in her own family history led to finding many of her ancestors involved in the war. As a child, she spent hours poring over her father's photo albums when he was in the war in the Middle East and Italy.
"Pauline has travelled to battlefields and memorials and cemeteries overseas to honour her ancestors. She likes to ask questions and fully understand what has happened and why. Her professional life has taught her a great deal about how to deal with the digital world.
"Best of all, Pauline says, doing this work makes her feel close to her father."
Russell's diary covers 1940.
Entry Saturday, January 6 while on board MV Rangitata: Left Wellington harbour 0700 hours on Saturday, January 6. Two battleships & 1 cruiser and 6 troop ships in the convoy. Did rifle exercises & squad drill on deck. Relay races. Life is absolutely marvellous on this boat. Played cards. Sea a bit rough.
Two weeks later January 15: A new life started in the army in Egypt. Sand to be seen for miles around camp. Plane flying through searchlight at night & plane circling camp in morning. The rations for NZers are small! Plenty of beer for soldiers.
Pauline discovered prior to him leaving NZ, Russell had been kicked by a horse at his father's farm at Aongatete and was taken to Tauranga Hospital.
He was a prominent footballer, being a member of the Katikati Club and was a Waihi Rugby Union rep. He was also chairman of the Katikati Young Farmers Club.
Russell wrote and recorded every day. From his diary, Pauline discovered he had his appendix removed in Cairo. This was confirmed by a telegram from the NZ Military Forces. He liked singalongs, dances and had a girlfriend named Jessie, often named in the diary.
He also wrote to his mother Winnifred Walford and sister Isabel, often sending photos. He numbered how many letters he had written and received.
Russell learned to play hockey in the desert and loved swimming. In a Powerpoint Pauline shared photos of her father's journey which would have been similar, and of the ship, camps, desert kitchen where the troops used hot boxes.
"Russell never complained about food. The NZ Patriotic Board sent parcels over, which they welcomed.
"They travelled by car, train or camel and vaccinations often upset him."
In early September Russell left Bagush for El Daba.
September 9: My troop took up lookout post on the coast. 8 of us altogether. Rigged up covers over the dugouts & settled down comfortably. Cooking our own meals in the open. Bren gun mounted for AA in the lookout at all times.
September 17: The Ities dropped many unexploded bombs during the night around the area. Some of the boys have been out in the tanks exploding them. Explosions could be heard all day.
December 25: We all received our Christmas parcel from the Patriotic Fund on Christmas Day. Mine had 1 1/2lbs Cadbury chocolates, tin of shortbread, tin of Christmas pudding, tin of Christmas cake, Tasman tobacco & papers. In the evening we made a fruit salad with our tins of fruit from the parcels plus the tins received from Issy and Mother. I used the cream I received from home & we had lovely fruit salad and cream for tea. At our Christmas table there was Harry Capamagian, Peter Fullerton Smith, Murray Loughman, Tony Abraham, Jim Magan, Harry Gilbert, Lloyd Cowie, Harry McMahon, Mic Gupwell, Bob Burnett, Josh Rutland, Len Campbell and Paddy Kearns. The dinner was cooked at the Squadron cookhouse and brought out in a hot box. Most of us went to bed early after a heavy day. Christmas Day in the Western Desert was pretty good.
Three years later on December 16, 1943, the young lieutenant was killed in the line of duty.
The Walford family members were each given a copy of the transcript of the war diary in a book of Pauline's findings. They were impressed and appreciated the work that had been done. Most felt they had learnt so much more.
Graham Walford's son, Don said, "The book hit me. It's deep and heartfelt.
"I am grateful to the people who have done the research and the effort that has gone into it.
"I didn't know anything, and to find out this information ... he's come alive again .."
Katikati RSA president Glenn Burt said Katikati lost 12 men in WWII - what do we know about them?
"To have something like this presentation is neat."
Paula said - he was our man.
"I hope other families will come forward so we can find out about some of our other people."
Russell Walford's war medals and his mother's NZ Memorial Cross have now been donated to the museum to be kept with his diary.
"In future when walking past the clock, please think about Russell and the men from the district who didn't return from war."