Fatal wrong step for war hero

MATTHEW GRAY
Last updated 05:00 21/01/2014

War hero Albert McLaren Heath was among labourers hired to build the Nihotupu dam in the Waitakere Ranges.

It was a grubby, tough job and the 29-year-old was one of many single men who lived onsite in an isolated, makeshift camp.

Supplies were generally obtained from the small settlement of Titirangi and workers frequently trekked out of the bush and crossed a stream to meet up with a coach that got them there and back.

Albert, who'd received the Meritorious Service Medal for gallantry during World War I, set out to make the journey early on the afternoon of January 31, 1920 after a period of heavy rain.

But he never came back and his workmates formed a search party late in the evening to retrace his footsteps.

They became increasingly worried after finding a footbridge used by everyone to get over the stream had been washed away by flooding.

Albert's body was found a few hours later submerged in a rock pool nearby.

An examination of the scene suggested the crossing - partially built from clay and rubble - was underwater when the former corporal tried to negotiate it.

Albert would not have seen that parts of it were missing and presumably lost his footing, fell and knocked himself unconscious.

It was a sad end for a man who'd survived more than three years serving in some of the bloodiest hot spots of the war - including Gallipoli where he was wounded.

Albert, better known to friends and family as Jock, also survived the effects of lethal mustard gas unleashed on allied troops in the trenches.

He was born in Poplar - an old residential area of East London in England - but was living in New Zealand before his enlistment with the army in 1915 and worked for the Auckland Council.

Construction of the Nihotupu dam was in its fifth year by the time he was discharged from the service and returned home in 1919.

It finished in 1923.

Albert was buried with other veterans in Waikumete Cemetery after a full military funeral in the city.

Friends, workmates and old soldiers pitched in to buy the tombstone that still marks his grave today.

- Western Leader

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