War hero had a 'core of steel'

TRACEY CHATTERTON TRACEY CHATTERTON
HAWKE'S BAY REPORTER
Last updated 14:04 26/05/2012

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To the World War II airmen he saved from certain death, Phil Lamason was the hero of Buchenwald. As the leader of a group of 168 Allied air force personnel taken to the notorious slave labour camp in 1944, Mr Lamason took charge and stood up to the SS guards. After learning that the Gestapo had ordered the execution of the men, he managed to get word of their fate to the Luftwaffe, which sent officers to demand their release.

Squadron Leader Lamason, a bomber pilot, had been shot down over occupied France after D-Day. In common with the other prisoners, he had been captured in civilian clothes. Treated as spies, they were held and interrogated in the grim Fresnes prison near Paris. As the Allied forces approached, they were herded on to overcrowded railway cars and taken to Buchenwald.

It was not an extermination camp, but the Nazis incarcerated almost a quarter of a million people there, many of them Jews, forcing them to work in arms factories. An estimated 56,000 died of exhaustion, starvation or disease or at the hands of the brutal guards.

Mr Lamason was a reluctant hero and rarely spoke of the war, but his daring and courageous behaviour was revealed in the documentary The Lost Airman of Buchenwald.

As the senior officer, he took command of the group and protested at their treatment. His outburst earned him a smack in the face. The men were ordered to strip and were shaved of all the hair on their bodies.

Later, Mr Lamason stood up to an SS officer and refused to allow his men to be forced to work. The officer put his hand on his revolver while another looked set to unleash a dog on him. Mr Lamason repeated that the men would not work. The officers took him back to the barracks and the airmen never worked.

When Mr Lamason saw the Gestapo's order to execute the group, he felt compelled to get word out that they were being held illegally, and worked tirelessly building contacts with the inmates who ran the camp administration.

"Actually, our main source was two or three people they had grabbed to work as slaves," he said last year. "They said they couldn't speak German, but of course they could, so I had a fair idea what they were doing before they did it."

On October 19, 1944, Luftwaffe officers arrived at the camp gates and demanded the release of the airmen. They were then transferred to a regular prisoner of war camp. Three months later they marched for much of the way to Luchenwald, south of Berlin. They were liberated by the Russians not long before VE Day.

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Mr Lamason had earlier been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for outflying German fighters during a mission. He was later awarded a second "for courage and devotion to duty of a high order".

King George VI presented the awards at Buckingham Palace, where Mr Lamason met and befriended a young Princess Elizabeth, later to be queen.

There were plenty of job offers to tempt the young pilot to stay in England, but he returned to his job with the Department of Agriculture in Dannevirke, and to his wife, Joan. The hero who had stood up to Nazi thuggery became a family man fond of sharing a joke on the picnic rug.

The couple started a family and the war was forgotten. They had five children, Trish, John, Robert, Cherry and Billy. Daughters Cherry Taylor and Trish Simmonds believe their father's mental toughness and physicality helped him through the war.

"He had a core of steel," Mrs Taylor said.

He was already an independent headstrong young lad when, aged 21, he joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1940 and sailed to England. At just 15, he had to cope with his father's death in a car accident in Napier. He sought solace in the land and completed a farming cadetship at Smedley Station in Hawke's Bay.

He took a slasher and cleared 100 acres of shrub to pay his way through Massey University, where he studied agriculture. This work ethic stayed with him throughout his life. If a job was to be done, it was to be done well. He was still working the farm at the age of 80.

Once he saved enough money, the couple bought a small sheep and beef farm. Mr Lamason balanced working the farm with his work as a stock agent, while Mrs Lamason raised the family.

They spent many nights entertaining friends around the piano. Mrs Lamason would play, while her husband kept the conversation lively with his quick retorts.

The astute businessman later bought neighbouring properties, increasing the farm to 406 acres (42ha), which son John still farms.

Mr Lamason was a man's man. He was content working the land but life still had its ups and downs. The family lost their home in 1958 when an electric blanket caught fire. They shifted into a nearby property until they could afford to build another home. Then in 1976, youngest son Billy was killed in a car accident. It was a huge loss for the family and for a man so proud of his children.

Each night he would come in off the farm, sit his young children on his knee and tell them stories. He passed on his passion for the outdoors to his children. The family spent many weekends fishing and water skiing at Taupo and relaxing with a picnic.

Sometimes the children would simply sit with their father and listen to the skylarks sing.

While the children are proud of their father's wartime heroics, they will remember him as a storyteller who took them floundering and taught them to appreciate the world around them.

Philip Lamason, war hero: b Napier, September 15, 1918, m Joan Hopkins (dec) 3s, 2d; d May 19, 2012, aged 93.

Contact Tracey Chatterton
Hawke's Bay reporter
Email: tracey.chatterton@dompost.co.nz
Twitter: @trackchatt

- © Fairfax NZ News

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