Promise cut down
War has cut short the lives of many exemplary Kiwis, and one of the promising Southlanders it stole during World War II was Riversdale man Michael Cameron Tither.
Seconded to the Canadian forces and killed in action on January 7, 1944, by a shrapnel blast in southern Italy near the Apennines Mountains, Lieutenant Tither was – as historian Dr Don Mackay puts it – "a terrific character".
In the introduction to his 2007 book, The Fallen, Dr Mackay says that, top of the class at absolutely everything he did, Michael Tither would almost certainly have gone on to lead a prominent role in post-war New Zealand – if he had made it home.
"Lloyd Elder, a friend and fellow servicemen (sic), remarked without exaggerating that `if there was ever anyone from Riversdale who was going to be Prime Minister, Mick Tither was it'. Mick's death tragically reminds us what New Zealand lost thousands of times over during the wars of the Twentieth Century," it says.
Michael Tither was born in 1913 to Irish-immigrant parents Pat and Christine, the second youngest of six brothers and two sisters.
He grew up excelling at both academics and sports – he acted as Riversdale correspondent for the Mataura Ensign while still at school, captained the Gore High First XV, was head boy and also served as sergeant-major in the school cadet company.
After a stint in the Forestry Department and time spent shearing, he then headed to the University of Otago, where he earned a master of arts in history and a diploma of education.
Before he enlisted, he was teaching at Makarora School, but left New Zealand with the 5th Reinforcements in April 1941, just months after marrying his wife Joy the previous September.
During the war Palmerston North man Bill Tither exchanged several letters with his uncle Michael, who began his service in Egypt before moving with the rest of the Allied forces across northern Africa and into Italy.
"They were mostly pretty light-hearted things ... mostly it was `how are you getting on at school' and that type of thing."
Overseas Mick Tither proved to be as admirable a man on the battlefield as he was off it, winning the Military Medal for bravery.
One night in July, 1942, fighting broke out during a patrol at Ruweisat Ridge.
Despite a gunshot wound to the abdomen, Michael Tither continued to fight the enemy, later staying behind to cover his platoon's escape after he was unable to keep up with their retreat. He single-handedly took out a German machinegun, Bill Tither said.
After being recommended for officer training, which he completed in Palestine in 1943, Michael Tither took out the Allenby Prize for being top of his class.
The following year, he was holed up in an Italian farmhouse with other Allied troops when some shrapnel hit the building, killing him.
Bill was 11 and visiting his grandparents' farm when the family learned of Lieutenant Tither's death.
"I can remember them being very upset ... I can actually remember it quite vividly, that day, and all the people visiting the house, that sort of thing."
Lieutenant Tither is buried in Moro River Canadian War Cemetery in the Italian province of Chieti, one of 1615 Allied troops who fell during World War II to be buried there.
His nephew Bill has visited the grave twice.
"It was very moving, actually. It's a beautiful location, right on the Adriatic coast." Back in Riversdale, too, the loss of the undoubtedly promising man is remembered.
After his death, Michael Tither's name was among those added to the lead engraving on the memorial at Riversdale, which had been unveiled in 1924 by Mary McLennan, one of four women from the town to lose two sons each in World War I – the others, Mary Hodge, Mary Sutherland, and Isabella Clutterbuck, were unable to attend.
Made of marble in Milan, Italy, it was one of many "mail-order memorials" across the country sculpted from photographs supplied by the New Zealand army, and reportedly cost 350, which was raised by the Riversdale community.
Michael Tither's brother Jim also earned the Military Medal during World War II, after going back for a wounded comrade in the face of enemy fire. – Sources: Bill Tither, Dr Don Mackay (author of The Fallen: A commemorative book honouring the men from Riversdale, Wendon, Wendonside, and Waikaia who lost their lives during the wars of the Twentieth Century), Commonwealth War Games Commission
RIVERSDALE WAR MEMORIAL
On June, 18, 1924, the war memorial at Riversdale in Northern Southland was unveiled.
The memorial, which depicts a soldier at ease, commemorates Riversdale men in both World War I and World War II "who gave their lives in the Empire's cause". – Information: New Zealand History Online, Ministry for Culture and Heritage
The Southland Times