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Second World War veterans valuable to history

Second World War veterans valuable to history

An author who interviewed about 100 First World War veterans says New Zealanders should value the memories of living veterans before it’s too late.

“There are only about 12,000 Second World War veterans still alive, and they are about 90,” says Jane Tolerton, author of the new World War One Oral History Archive book An Awfully Big Adventure.

“New Zealand will put a big emphasis on the centenary of the First World War in the coming four years, and when the commemorations are over in 2018, most of them may be gone.

“It is 25 years since the World War One Oral History Archive’s work and about 25 years between the wars. So we’re at the same point now with the Second World War veterans.”

Jane Tolerton says the emphasis on remembering those who died in the First World War, rather than those who survived it, may have got in the way of veterans speaking out about their experiences and attitudes. “They were renowned for not talking about the war – but they said people didn’t ask them about it.
“When the bones of the Unknown Warrior were brought back from the Western Front in 2004, Wellingtonians stood in the street in their thousands, some moved to tears. Many of those people had fathers, grandfathers or great grandfathers who were veterans they had never asked about the war. The last veteran had died only the previous year.

“As an oral historian who met a lot of veterans and the daughter of a living Second World War veteran, I know it is harder to talk to family members than to a professional, but if there are significant stories veterans want to tell, now might be the right time to ask. The First World War veterans who did finally speak, got a kick out of putting their experiences on record. They came forward and they said their piece, and they told us they enjoyed doing it. They often apologised for not being better interviewees, even when we thought they were great.

“Second World War veterans can still tell historians the answers to the questions they’ll be trying to answer during the centenary commemorations in 25 years’ time,” says Jane Tolerton. “I’ve recently heard from a man whose mother told him about an incident during her war service when she was on her deathbed. He was so shocked by her revelation he could not find words to ask her what had happened.”

Jane Tolerton also interviewed veterans who responded to her appeals for information on wartime safe sex campaigner Ettie Rout for her award-winning biography published in 1992.


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