Stories of New Zealand’s Vietnam War: part one – Vietnam War Oral History Project

Claire with a Vietnam veteran, Father John Carde, at the Wellington launch of her book 'No front line'

Claire with a Vietnam veteran, Father John Carde, at the Wellington launch of her book 'No front line'

Over the last seven years historian Claire Hall has been working on the Vietnam War Oral History Project, run by Manatū Taonga, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, to collect the stories of New Zealand’s Vietnam War veterans and their families. Using these oral histories, Claire then wrote the book No front line: inside stories of New Zealand’s Vietnam War, which has been recently published. In part one of this two-part series, Claire writes about being part of this important oral history project. In part two she reflects on her book and the importance of sharing the veterans’ stories.

Manatū Taonga, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage has dedicated six years to gathering and telling Vietnam War history, prompted by a public history project born from a memorandum of understanding between veteran representative groups and the Crown.

The cornerstone of this programme was the oral history and digital archiving project – the largest ever undertaken. It did much to inform and develop oral history practice, and it bridged the digital divide – we started out in 2007 recording interviews on cassette and within two years had transitioned to a fully digital environment. The expertise behind the project’s success is phenomenal. Here, I need to acknowledge the formative influence of former ministry chief historian Bronwyn Dalley and of my predecessor, historian Paul Diamond. Their mana lent impetus and credibility to the fledgling project, and won the initial approval of veterans and their families.

All the interviewers and staff involved in this project – a team of a dozen around the country – shared a sense of the gravity of what we were doing. You don’t hear the stories we’ve heard or experience the memories we’ve been party to without being shaped by them. We realised early in the piece that in order to do justice to those taking part we had to choose to be there entirely. That meant balancing professionalism with the need for emotional honesty to play a part in the storytelling that was taking place.

Being there also meant adopting the strategy of kanohi kitea – being a face that was seen within communities. As Paul Diamond wrote in No front line’s foreword, we followed the lead of Father John Carde:

Father John Carde … had a reputation as a ‘hard case’ soldiers’ padre, who put on a pack and went on patrol like the rest of the troops. As he put it, ‘My motto when I became a priest was “Wherever His people gather, I would like to join in praising the name of the Lord”, so wherever there were people, I thought, Can I, may I, be part of their lives too? I never wanted to be anything above them, or below them … I just wanted to be part of the mix.’

To achieve this we went where the men were. We turned out to RSAs, reunions, memorial services and formal dinners. In the latter stages of the project we staged exhibitions here and in Australia. That investment in being seen and gaining trust from our core communities was essential to the success of the project.

Over five years we collected 150 long-form life history interviews, boxes of slides and photographs, Super 8 film, recordings, diaries and memorabilia, which are now in the care of the Alexander Turnbull Library. These were the artefacts we used in five exhibitions, which started small and culminated in a permanent display at the National Vietnam Veterans Museum outside of Melbourne. (This also gave me a chance to do a handful of interviews with some of the 16% of New Zealand veterans now living in Australia.)

Entrance to the Home Fires Burning exhibition at Papakura Museum, 2012

Entrance to the Home Fires Burning exhibition at Papakura Museum, 2012

It’s been a highly productive project, but it wasn’t all plain sailing. Some veterans flatly refused to be interviewed for a government-run project. On the road garnering support, I’ve been let down by microphones and hearing aids, and I’ve been put on the bill as speaker well after the refreshments have started to flow. As a result, I’ve dealt with my fair share of heckling from the floor – not all of it about the government’s intentions for veterans’ interviews. One group of hearing impaired gunners I addressed in Papakura – without a working microphone – grew bored and suggested that removing my clothes might help them hear better. (I didn’t test that theory.) I’ve taken it all in good heart, and consider such trials to be part of the selection process that allowed me to eventually write these veterans’ stories.

This is a difficult project for me to hand over. The seven years I’ve spent recording and writing about Vietnam War history for the ministry has shaped me professionally and personally. While my role has finished, the digital archiving project continues under the guidance of audio engineer Anaru Dalziel and vietnamwar.govt.nz web officer Gareth Phipps. They will continue to gather memories, memorabilia and stories and add them to the online archive. Our Vietnam War history is in safe hands.

Huntly mine disaster, 12 September 1914

Headline for a report on the disaster (click to view on Papers Past)

Headline for a report on the disaster (click to view on Papers Past)

Today marks the centenary of the Huntly mining disaster, an explosion that killed 43 miners.

On Saturday morning, 12 September 1914, 62 men went underground to start their shift at Ralph’s mine. This was a pay Saturday, with only a smaller maintenance crew working. On a normal working day 160 men would have been working underground.

The mine, operated by the Taupiri Coal Company, had a series of old workings. In these sections coal pillars were left standing to prevent the ceiling collapsing, which would cause the Waikato River to flood the mine. A team removing old rail lines took a short cut through one of the old workings. The first worker to enter, John Martin, accidentally ignited a large trapped pocket of ‘fire damp’ – methane gas – with the naked flame on his acetylene cap torch. The large quantities of coal dust in the mine were ignited by the resulting explosion. The explosive wave of fire swept through the mine and killed 41 underground workers. Joe O’Brien, a survivor, described seeing a 1 ton (0.9 tonne) transporting cage blown vertically 200 feet (60 metres) up an entrance shaft.

Rescuers dashed to the mine as soon as they heard the explosion. Twenty-one miners escaped or were rescued from the mine. Two of these men died of burns, bringing the death toll to 43. Had the blast occurred on a normal working day, with the full workforce underground, many more people would have died. It remains the second worst mining disaster in New Zealand history; the worst being the Brunner explosion of 1896, in which 65 miners were killed.

A royal commission of inquiry was convened within days. The commission of three was made up of the chairman Frederick Burgess, a magistrate; John Brown, a mine manager at Denniston; and John Dowgray, a miner and ‘Red Fed’ (Federation of Labour) union leader from Granity. The government appointed Dowgray to ensure that workers would have faith that the commission would really investigate, and not be a rubber-stamp body. The commission’s report found that mine management had a ‘lax and unsatisfactory’ approach to safety.

Before the disaster Ralph’s mine had a reputation as ‘safe’, but it was a gassy mine. A number of miners had been burned in earlier incidents. The local inspector of mines, Boyd Bennie, was judged to have done his inspection job effectively but had been unable to get the mine management to follow his recommendations. The mine management, under manager James Fletcher, had failed to adequately ventilate the old workings, failed to properly inspect those areas and had not provided miners with safety lamps.

Miners, through their union, were supposed to appoint their own check inspectors to ensure mine safety. Up to 1912 the Huntly coal miners had a strong union, with efficient check inspectors. In November 1912 the miners held a one day stoppage to support striking miners in Waihī. The Taupiri Coal Company, led by strongly anti-union chairman Ewen Alison, responded by dismissing the union leaders and recognising a new ‘company’ union. Union militants eventually took over the new union, only to have it destroyed in the Great Strike of 1913 and replaced by another company union. The company unions failed to appoint competent check inspectors. The destruction of effective unionism at Huntly contributed to poor safety inspection at Ralph’s mine.

The royal commission was unable to follow this up, as the alleged victimisation of unionists was beyond the scope of the commission of inquiry. In contrast, the Huntly Miners Union responded immediately, voting in October 1914 to dump their pro-company executive. In its place they elected a militant, pro-Red Fed leadership. The new union secretary was Joe O’Brien, survivor of the Huntly explosion.

Leading into the election campaign of 1914, politicians and labour activists used the issue of the Huntly disaster to attack the pro-business Reform Party government. William Massey, prime minister and minister of labour, was accused of helping to break the Huntly union and with failing to advance new mining safety legislation. Labour MPs John Payne and Paddy Webb were evicted from the parliamentary debating chamber for accusing Massey of manslaughter. Massey in turn declared his opponents were exploiting the tragedy for political gain.

In a courtroom sequel to the disaster, mine manager James Fletcher was taken to court for manslaughter in March 1915. The Supreme Court jury decided Fletcher had no case to answer, a verdict that appalled mining unionists and their supporters.

The Huntly disaster occurred just after the outbreak of the First World War, in a vital war industry. It reminds us that the casualties of wartime are not all on the battlefield. Industrial accidents continue to destroy lives and health in times of war as in peace.

Seddon of Seddonville

Cartoonists always enjoyed exaggerating Seddon’s girth. The statue outside the government building in Hokitika is probably closer to what he looked like, and emphasises his commanding presence.

Cartoonists always enjoyed exaggerating Seddon’s girth. The statue outside the government building in Hokitika is probably closer to what he looked like, and emphasises his commanding presence

Over the last fortnight I have had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Tom Brooking’s new biography, Richard Seddon, King of God’s Own, which has just been launched. Because you can read my review on Scoop Books, I won’t say much about the book itself except to highly recommend it to anyone interested in New Zealand history and politics. It fills a big gap in our knowledge of Seddon, and paints a more sympathetic picture than given by some historians and writers. Although Seddon died over a hundred years ago, recent opinion polls continue to rate him as our most popular prime minister, and this book helps to explain his appeal to New Zealanders across the whole spectrum of politics.

Two settlements have been named after Seddon. In Marlborough the township of Seddon has recently been in the news because of a series of damaging earthquakes in 2013. But I want to devote this blog to the other place, the remote coal-mining settlement of Seddonville, north of Westport on the opposite side of the South Island. In the 1980s I spent several months mapping the geology and trying to work out whether any coal was left in the area around Seddonville, and this led me to research the history of the town that was to become the site of New Zealand’s first state coal mine – you can read more about that on NZ History.

Seddonville is at the northernmost end of the Buller coalfield – the end of the railway line where a coal seam was found in the Mōkihinui River. Seddon visited the settlement in 1893, soon after mining started, and the canny locals asked if they could name the town after him. As soon as he agreed, they presented him with a list of requests.

Coal mining did not prosper in Seddonville. The area was remote from markets, and the coal seams were faulted. By 1900 mining had ceased, and there was concern that there was no freight to carry on the railway line. In 1901 the State Coal Mines Act was passed by the government, with the hope of providing competition to privately owned mines, and thus lower coal prices. The abandoned mine workings at Seddonville were purchased by the government, to become the first state coal mine. Seddonville State Mine was proudly opened by Seddon in November 1903.

Photograph taken at the opening at the Seddonville State Mine in November 1903. Richard Seddon is seated in the middle front row (with top hat)

Photograph taken at the opening at the Seddonville State Mine in November 1903. Richard Seddon is seated in the middle front row (with top hat)

Once mining was underway again, problems soon became obvious. Much of the coal was crushed, with a high proportion of fine material that could not be sold. To make matters worse, it became clear that the coal was not a continuous thick seam – in some places it could be many metres thick, but in others only millimetres. The mine struggled on, losing money every year, until it closed down in May 1914. The miners moved away, some volunteering for the First World War, and only a few people remained at Seddonville. New Zealand’s first state coal mine was not a success, and was quietly forgotten.

A local engineer, Tom Moynihan, became interested in using water to mine coal, sluicing it from the coal face to storage bins outside the mine. It was technology that was strongly opposed by mining unions as it led to the loss of jobs in the mines. But Seddonville was remote, and Moynihan was able to use the old mine workings to test out his hydraulic mining technology. In 1936 he re-opened the old state mine as the Hydro Mine, and successfully produced coal from there for 20 years, later introducing hydraulic mining to other nearby mines.

Moynihan always took delight in saying that he had been able to successfully work a mine where the state had failed and, not surprisingly, he was detested by unionised miners. But it was a further reason why memory of the Seddonville State Mine, as a failed experiment, has been conveniently erased.

The public library at Seddonville – now an isolated shed surrounded by paddocks. It is a curious irony that it is dedicated to Harry Holland, a local MP and sometime leader of the Labour Party, who was much more radical than Seddon

The public library at Seddonville – now an isolated shed surrounded by paddocks. It is a curious irony that it is dedicated to Harry Holland, a local MP and sometime leader of the Labour Party, who was much more radical than Seddon

In 2014 few people live at Seddonville. The land that was once closely settled is mainly open paddocks, and there are only a few houses, a hotel and a tiny public library. There is no memorial to Richard Seddon apart from the name. I hope that Tom Brooking’s book will help rekindle interest in Seddon, especially in the more remote parts of the West Coast that was his adopted home, and of which he spoke of so affectionately.

Tennis’s first matinee idol

'Anyone for tennis?' Anthony Wilding around 1910 (click for image credit)

'Anyone for tennis?' Anthony Wilding around 1910 (click for image credit)

On Tuesday 9 September two albums containing black and white photographs of New Zealand’s greatest tennis player, Anthony Wilding, will go under the hammer at Cordy’s auction house in Auckland. There aren’t a lot of photos of Wilding – in New Zealand-based public collections at least – so this auction will be of interest to libraries and collectors alike.

Wilding was renowned for his physical fitness and his so-called ‘manly brand of tennis’. His first biographer, A. W. Myers, described him as tennis’s first ‘matinee idol’. The photographs in these albums show the idol in action at Wimbledon in 1910.

Anthony Wilding was born in Christchurch in 1883. His family were a sporting lot and the house was full of sports equipment, trophies and visiting sportspeople. At 17 he won his first tennis tournament, and he also excelled at football and cricket.

Like his father, Frederick Wilding, Anthony qualified as a lawyer and, after studying at Cambridge University in England, intended to join his father’s Christchurch practice. However, he had played competitive tennis throughout his studies and the lure of life on the international tennis circuit won out over law in sedate Christchurch.

Wilding was undoubtedly the top male player of his era and remains New Zealand’s most successful international tennis player. He won the Wimbledon singles title from 1910 to 1913, the doubles title in 1907, 1908, 1910 and 1914, and the Davis Cup as part of the Australasian team from 1907 to 1909, and again in 1914. He won a bronze medal at the Stockholm Olympic Games in 1912 and collected various English and European tennis titles.

Wilding was killed during a First World War battle near Neuve-Chappelle in France in 1915, when he was at the peak of his sporting career. At age 31 he would have had a few years more competitive tennis left. He is commemorated in the Anthony Wilding Memorial Challenge Shield, a men’s inter-association team competition instituted between 1921 and 1922, and his name also adorns a retirement village in Christchurch.

The mighty pen

Poet and academic Bill Manhire (click for image credit)

Poet and academic Bill Manhire (click for image credit)

At a moment when we seem to be remembering the contribution that the sword of war made to our nation’s history, it is salutary to recall that the pen is even mightier. Today we highlight the release of five fascinating and beautifully written stories which tell the history of writing in this country and the contribution it has made to the sense of ourselves. They are Fiction, Non-fiction, Criticism and the arts, Intellectuals and Publishing.

Lydia Wevers, in a nicely measured survey of novels and short stories, suggests something of the range of approaches in our fiction writing. I was struck by the contrast in the styles and interests of the female authors from the male in early New Zealand fiction – women’s tended towards romance, while men wrote rollicking pioneering accounts. However, things are never that straightforward – several women confused the issue, such as Edith Lyttleton, who published about back-country men under the name G. B. Lancaster, and Iris Wilkinson, who wrote, among many other works, a novel about men at war, Passport to hell, under her pen name Robin Hyde. There is much to explore and recall in the fiction story, but I particularly invite you to look at two great film clips that focus on the literary beginnings of Katherine Mansfield and Ngaio Marsh, and a sound recording of Frank Sargeson talking about his realisation that he needed to write with a New Zealand voice.

Alex Calder begins his excellent study of New Zealand’s non-fiction with the problem that the genre has always had a negative identity – it is, as Calder writes, ‘everything published that happens not to be fiction, poetry or drama’. He prefers to use the term ‘creative non-fiction’ to emphasise that just because the subject is the empirical world, the act of writing about it is no less a creative exercise. The subject matter he canvasses ranges from studies of exploration, Māori life and pioneering, through to biographies, history and feminist critiques.

Some of Anne Salmond's history books

Some of Anne Salmond's history books

‘Creative’ writing, whether fictional or documentary, is greatly assisted by three factors – a community of writers, a culture of debate and criticism, and a publishing industry to print and distribute writing. The three remaining stories treat each of these in turn.

Chris Hilliard tackles the community issue in an original discussion of the existence, or non-existence, of ‘intellectuals‘ in New Zealand. He suggests that, by comparison with 19th-century Britain or Europe, colonial New Zealand lacked the supporting structures to allow intellectuals to flourish. But from the 1930s, as university colleges became established and the depression invited searching questions, communities of writers and artists emerged. Christchurch’s artistic and intellectual community, including the Caxton Press, The Group and Tomorrow magazine, looms large in the story.

The Christchurch intellectuals, and especially Allen Curnow, also have an important place in Rebecca Rice and Mark Williams’s elegant exploration of criticism of literature and the arts. They suggest that until the 20th century, apart from newspaper reviews, there was little sustained arts criticism in New Zealand. Crucial to its emergence was the appearance of serious magazines and journals – Phoenix, Tomorrow, Landfall and, from the 1970s on, And, Antic and Art New Zealand. Good writing feeds off dialogue and debate.

Lead type thought to have been used by William Colenso in the 1830s for printing some of the earliest New Zealand publications

Lead type thought to have been used by William Colenso in the 1830s for printing some of the earliest New Zealand publications (click for image credit)

Finally, New Zealand writing could never have flourished in the way that it has without the huge contribution of the publishing industry. In a fine, comprehensive overview Elizabeth Caffin shows how long it took before New Zealand-based publishers provided a welcome to local ‘creative’ authors. There was early publishing, but it tended to be missionary works for Māori, government gazettes or almanacs for settlers. Fiction writers and historians had to look overseas for an outlet. Local publishers Whitcombe and Tombs concentrated on educational works and A. H. & A. W. Reed on populist topics. It was not really until the later 20th century that Reeds took on more serious work, overseas presses set up local houses, and a host of smaller local publishers emerged to encourage creative writing in different genres. Not that the story of publishing in New Zealand is one of ‘onwards and upwards’ – Caffin ends this valuable survey with comments about the impact of e-publishing and the increasing concentration of multinational publishers, as they have merged with each other in recent years.

But, at a time when over 2,000 titles are published in New Zealand each year, when people flock to literary festivals such as last weekend’s WORD Christchurch Writers & Readers Festival, when last year one of our novelists won the Man Booker prize and two years ago the government invested much time and money promoting New Zealand at the Frankfurt Book Fair, surely we can claim that creative writing has become central to the country. Long live the New Zealand pen! Or, at least, the Kiwi keyboard.