Anzac Day: The obscure foreign fields that are forever Kiwi

2019-05-03 20:30:35

Anzac Day is not something that springs to mind when you're in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka.

It's an Indian Ocean paradise, where coconuts fall on white sand beaches lined with antiquated and colourful fishing boats, warm clear waves lap the beach, and tropical storms light the evening sky.

A short walk north from the town's strip of beachfront hostels and restaurants lies an incongruously neat patch of manicured lawn behind a low stone wall and wrought iron gate.

Rows of military headstones line a gentle slope, bracketed by trees and interspersed with colourful shrubs.

* More than a century after he died on the Western Front a Kiwi hero will finally get his name on a memorial * Son of WW1 veteran who helped liberate Le Quesnoy recalls haunting tale and the effect it had on dad * Becoming a tetraplegic led a Palmerston North man to tell war veteran stories

The orderly and serene setting, so at odds with the unkempt surrounds and the clamour of the road it borders, is a natural draw to many who have no knowledge, or interest, in war graves.

Those who do enter the gates are bound to be greeted by Vasantharaja Kanapatipillai, who, like his father Nallu before him, cares for the 314 headstones of Commonwealth servicemen killed here in World War II.

If you tell him you're from New Zealand, he'll take you to the graves of the five Kiwis buried here.

They are 22-year-old Napier man Jasper "Mudge'' Anderson, a sub-lieutenant of the Fleet Air Arm; leading wireman Howard Harris, 23, of Masterton; ordinary seaman Arthur King, 19, of Hamilton; ordinary seaman Lloyd Williams, 22, of Christchurch; and chaplain Claude Webster, 33, who emigrated from England in the 1930s.

They died in 1944 and 1945. Anderson was killed in an aircraft accident, Harris and King died of illness, Williams' cause of death is unknown and Webster, who served on HMNZS Leander and then HMS Achilles, died of meningitis.

Vasantharaja will tell you his dad cared for the graves from 1976 until the year before he died, 2006, and he'll show you a photo of Princess Anne planting a shrub here, and a letter from Buckingham Palace in 2014 to say the princess had been informed the cemetery was in excellent order and passing on her thanks.

You don't need to be a relative of these five men to feel moved by the care and respect that Vasantharaja shows for them.

The five men buried here are among the 31,758 New Zealanders identified by the New Zealand War Graves Trust as having died while serving with New Zealand and Allied forces since the Boer War.

We're very familiar with the fields of headstones from both world wars across Europe and in the likes of Gallipoli and Crete, but not so familiar with those for the servicemen and women buried in other far-flung nations, sometimes the solitary Kiwi, in one of more than 3000 cemeteries across the globe.

One of the most remote of these is Flying Officer Harold (Jack) Haeusler. He is buried on the faraway Faroe Islands, a tiny archipelago in the North Atlantic between Iceland and Norway.

Haeusler is the only Kiwi among the 14 servicemen buried at the small Midvaag Military Cemetery.

The 24-year-old was piloting an RAF Armstrong Whitworth Whitley aircraft searching for a missing plane from another squadron when his aircraft crashed into a mountain on the islands on November 9, 1942.

Just one of the six crew, the tail-gunner, survived. He would later recount that the aircraft had taken off from its base in Wick, Scotland, and that a combination of fog and radio silence meant the crew could not establish their location and the aircraft crashed into the mountainside.

The survivor made his way down hill and met a group of shepherds. Some helped him down to the British army base in the village of Tvoroyri, while others went to the burning aircraft. Haeusler was still alive so they carried him by stretcher to the little village hospital, but he died the following day.

He and his crewmates were buried a few days later.

Remnants of the aircraft wreck remain on the mountainside, and the story of the crash has been passed on through generations of islanders.

Haeusler, known as "Jack", was one of three brothers raised in Ruatoki and educated in Opotiki.

He gained his wings in 1940 and was engaged to be married when he went to war in late 1940.

His nieces Lynn Glen and Kerry Jones visited his grave in 2008. It was the first time any family members had been to the grave. Their parents had been to the islands in the 1970s but had to leave quickly when the weather turned bad, and they never actually got to the cemetery.

Kerry and her brother Bruce say their father, Jack's brother, and grandparents would talk about Jack and it was always clear they still felt his loss keenly.

"We spent a fair bit of time at our grandparents' place when we were kids and that photograph of Jack marching down Queen St in his uniform was always on their mantelpiece. We were always very conscious of his dying in the war. Granddad used to talk about Jack's cricketing prowess at college," Bruce says.

Kerry says the sisters met a reverend on the island who performed a small service for them.

"He looked after the plot. He was a very warm and welcoming person, and it was very reassuring to know the site was being so well cared for," she says.

"The locals are very aware of the plane that crashed during the war and about the men who were lost. It was an emotional trip for us."

She says she will never forget how "incredibly rugged and isolated" the islands looked from the plane as she and Lynn flew away.

On a visit in June, Bruce plans to walk up the mountainside to see any remnants of wreckage that remain.

"We never met Jack, but he's obviously a very important part of our family and it's important we never forget him," he says.


A 31-year-old chaplain, William Lewis Ford, originally of Stewart Island, is buried here. He died on May 9, 1918, and is one of 22 servicemen listed on one headstone in the Primorsky Krai cemetery.

Probate records show that he had enlisted with the Australian forces and was serving on the HMS Suffolk in His Majesty's Navy. The heavy cruiser was based in Vladivostok as part of the Allied intervention in supporting White Russian forces against the Bolshevik Red Army during the Russian Civil War.

Ford's sister, Mrs C.E. Wells, did not know he had died until receiving a cryptic cable from the Admiralty on May 14, 1918, informing her that he had "accidentally shot himself in country outside Vladivostok". The cable had gone to various places before finally finding Mrs Wells, who duly sought further information about his death, and what had become of his belongings.

In October that year she received a letter from the New Zealand high commission in London. Having contacted the Admiralty for details, the high commissioner was able to add that Ford had accidentally shot himself through the right eye.

"It would appear that the revolver had fallen on the soft ground and that your brother was looking down the barrel to see if any dirt had got in when it went off," she was informed.


Flying officer Thomas Monson is the only Kiwi serviceman among the 47 buried on the tiny archipelago in the mid-Atlantic.

The 31-year-old Dunedin man was the navigator in a Mosquito on delivery from Canada to the UK which crashed on take-off from the island on February 20, 1945.

A motor mechanic before the war, he had joined the RNZAF and was attached to the Royal Canadian Air Force. He left a wife, Jean Monson, of Montreal.

Also killed in the crash was the pilot, Jerzy Goldhaar, of the Polish Air Force.


Sergeant Edgar Neve of Fitzroy, a pilot with the RNZAF, was flying for the Royal Air Force's Middle East aircraft delivery service when he crashed a Bristol Blenheim bomber near the town of Kano, in northern Nigeria, on October 20, 1942.

Killed at the age of 29, he is the only Kiwi among the 18 servicemen buried at the Kano Township Christian Cemetery.

Neve was a former company manager in New Plymouth, and left a wife, Margaret, and a son Geoff.

Margaret received a letter from his commanding officer expressing his deep regret.

"He but recently joined my unit on arrival from England and during his stay with us has rendered some very valuable service," the letter said. "Both my officers and myself considered him an able pilot and an asset to the life of this overseas Unit.

"He was flying a twin engined aircraft on a delivery flight and crashed some distance from his parent aerodrome. We know he was killed instantaneously. He was buried with full military honours at the European Cemetery, Kano, on 21st October, 1942."


Leading airman Brian Hamilton, of Christchurch, is the only Kiwi among the 22 servicemen buried at the St James Military Cemetery on the island of Trinidad, off the coast of Venezuela.

Hamilton, 22, died while flying on a reconnaissance exercise on August 25, 1941. A bank clerk before the war, Hamilton was posted to the UK in September 1940. He joined the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy, and was serving on HMS Goshawk.

A former student of Tauranga District High School, he is one of 41 of its students killed in the war and is remembered in the "Memorial Grove", two rows of tōtara trees.


Sub-lieutenant Arnott Meiklejohn, 25, of Auckland, is the only Kiwi among the 312 servicemen buried in the Diego Suarez war cemetery in Antsiranana, Madagascar.

Meiklejohn was in 829 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm and was serving on HMS Illustrious when he was killed in action on May 6, 1942.

He was taking part in Operation Ironclad to capture Antsiranana (formerly Diego Suarez), and died with two others when their aircraft was shot down while bombing the French batteries at the town.

They were buried with full military honours by the French before the capture of the town.

His name appears on the Roll of Honour at the College Rifles Rugby Football Club in Auckland, of which he was a member before going to war.


Corporal Roy John Leslie of Auckland died of wounds on the hospital ship Maheno when it was berthed at Papeete on September 5, 1917.

The 23-year-old member of the NZ Field Artillery is the only Kiwi among four servicemen of both world wars buried at Uranie Cemetery in Papeete. His brother James, a private, was killed in France in November 1916, and is buried there.

Leslie enlisted in August 1914 and embarked for the Dardanelles in April 2015. He fought at Gallipoli and on the Western Front and was promoted through the ranks (to temporary sergeant at one stage). He was wounded on several occasions and became gravely ill as a result of a machine-gun bullet wound that hit him in the back and entered his chest. He was shipped from England bound for home on August 8, 1917.

Tahiti has held an Anzac Day service every year since 2007 in honour of Leslie and an Australian soldier also buried there.

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