Our Secret War


During most of World War II we lived on a small bush farm a mile out of Maclennan in the Catlins district of South Otago. Dad’s job at the local sawmill paid for the mortgage and luxuries (for that time) like marmite, and leather shoes which were passed down from child to child and mended by Dad on his iron last.

When the war began there were two of us children – me, just turned five, and Gwytha, three-and-a-half. By its end there were also Beth, born 1941, and Ken, born 1943.

I started school in term III 1939, a few days before 3rd September, the date the war started. I knew a war was imminent, but had no idea what that meant. All I remember about that time is hearing a boy say a very rude word, and being introduced to my very own shiny coat-hook, slate and chalk.

Dad must have been hanging tensely over the battery-powered radio listening to the BBC news, but that was nothing new. When Neville Chamberlain died a year later, I’m reputed to have asked, ‘Who shot him Daddy?’ It seems I still remembered Dad’s exclamation, ‘That man should be shot!’ when he heard the news of the 1938 Munich Agreement.

For almost three years the war stayed off-stage in our lives, announcing itself only by ration books and the deaths of soldiers we didn’t know, although our parents did. Then, some time after the bombing of Darwin in February 1942, Dad was called up for military service. (They had started by calling up young single men, and had by then worked up to family men in their 30s). He was medically examined and classified D, ‘unfit for active service’, because he had varicose veins.

‘Spend the rest of the war at Linton [military camp] peeling spuds?’ said Dad. ‘Blow that for a joke!’ He then obtained exemption on the grounds of his young family and essential job.

One day in 1942 Dad biked home from work at noon with a big grin splitting his face.
‘What brings you home at this hour?’ asked Mum, who’d packed his lunch tin as usual that morning.
‘Norman tried to sack me,’ said Dad. ‘But don’t worry. He can’t. Under the Manpower Regulations he’s got to keep me on if I do the job properly. So I told him what I thought of him.’ Next day he resumed his stormy relationship with his boss with an ace up his sleeve.

By then he was our area’s Light Warden, and biked round our Clutha gravel roads at night looking for light leaking round blackout curtains or shining from flounder spearers’ lanterns. He was on the Maclennan hall committee, which ran frequent send-offs for young men going off to war. Our kitchen became an assembly line for hall suppers, with Dad slicing bread, while Mum and we kids spread it with butter, then ham, tomato or egg spread.

Butter and eggs were rationed, but Mum kept chooks and Dad milked the house cow and made cream, singing ‘The Road to the Isles’ in time to his swings of the separator handle. We kids took turns with churning, then Mum rinsed the butter, salted it and slapped it into shape with wooden butter pats. There were no bored children in our house. When we weren’t turning the churn handle, helping draft sheep, or spreading sandwiches, we were getting in firewood for the Shacklock range or knitting peggy squares to be sewn into blankets for soldiers.

Dad was in the Home Guard, which he thought a waste of time. He said, ‘Old J.G. is more of a danger to us than the Japs. He throws his grenades straight up in the air and we have to dodge them when they come down. Just as well there’s no explosive in them.’
One day, on a visit to nearby Papatowai Beach, we saw a grey battleship on the horizon and wondered whether it might be Japanese, and the war came much closer.

In school holidays we sometimes stayed in Dunedin with Mum’s friends the Millers. Once the Miller kids took us to see the air raid shelters at their school. They were huge concrete culvert pipes lying on their sides, with concrete slabs at each end to block shrapnel. We stood inside them and made echoes. When we got home, we worried because our school had none, but Dad said the Japanese wouldn’t waste bombs on a bush settlement too small to even be called a township.

One day Mum said, ‘Would you girls like to have overalls like land girls?’ We said we would, so she made us two pairs each from grey drill material on her treadle sewing machine. They were such fun we wanted to wear them to school, but Mum told us to save them for climbing trees and making dams in our creek.

Trousers were worn by grown-up women then but were unheard of on small girls.
Soon afterwards Mum and Dad had a solemn talk with Gwytha and me after Beth was asleep. They swore us to secrecy then told us that Dad and Mr Stephen Wilson, a nearby farmer with several children, had made plans for our two families to go and live up the bush if the Japanese invaded Otago. They thought it highly likely the Japanese would choose to come ashore on remote beaches like Papatowai, in preference to defended urban areas.

We would be rowed as far up the Tahakopa river as our flatboat could go (about five miles). Then Dad and Mr Wilson would hitch their draught horses to sleds and take us, our bedding and our sacks of provisions, first over farmland, then through bush. Our Dads had slashed a wide enough track through the bush, with a well-camouflaged entrance. The horses and sleds were kept with a Tahakopa Valley farmer. (We’d been wondering where old Bob and our sled had got to).

We would spend the first night in tents, then walk another day until we reached the bunghy (punga) huts they had built. They had cleared two small paddocks and planted potatoes and vegetables, and planned to drive in a cow in milk. They would kill wild cattle, pigs and possums for meat. No wonder Dad was tired and irritable these days, what with his job, the farm, his civic duties and all that slashing, digging, building and planting.
Gwytha and I were bursting with excitement, but we knew God (who kept a close eye on everyone who made solemn promises) would punish us if we blurted out the news. It was very hard, but we managed to keep mum at school.

Dad said he and Mr Wilson would not neglect their duty of fighting off the Japanese. They would take their pig-shooting guns (as no ammunition was supplied for Home Guard weapons), slip out at night and harass the Japanese, then slip back into the bush. This would be less suicidal and more effective than defending the beaches as the Home Guard had been ordered to. The Japanese excelled at bush fighting, but Dad and Mr Wilson knew our bush intimately from their pig hunting and possum trapping.

The rest of the war went by quickly while we enjoyed our secret knowledge. We knew now what our overalls were for. Our school dresses would quickly have been torn to shreds by bush lawyers, and gave no protection from lethal bush nettle stings. We toughened up with frequent bush walks, and practiced camping out in our orchard. Mum and Dad ate charred damper and unsweetened stewed apples without complaint, but toddler Beth spat them out.

During the next two years I caught polio and spent four months in hospital, Mum gave birth to our brother, the threat of invasion receded, and old Bob came home and dragged the long-drop toilet to its next deep hole in the ground.

In 1945 we celebrated VE Day at Papatowai Beach in red, white and blue costumes that Mum had sewn in readiness. Next came VJ Day. We started making sandwiches for welcome home functions for demobilised soldiers. Aged eleven by then, I was old enough to realise that bush life would have been no game: but the dream of it had brightened our austere wartime lives for a while

(originial publication in tauranga.kete.net.nz)