Southerners at War
It was the night of April 28, 1941, and German forces had taken control of the Greek port of Kalamata.
Thousands of Allied troops, waiting on the beach to be evacuated after Greece fell to enemy forces, were given the order to surrender, as the Germans, equipped with self-propelled guns and armoured cars, swiftly converged around them.
But Colac Bay-born Sergeant John Daniel Hinton, better known as Jack, refused to be taken without a fight.
An adventurer from a young age, he ran away from home, at the age of either 12 or 14, and tried his hand at various jobs, including whaling and gold prospecting.
When war broke out in 1939, he was one of the first Kiwis to enlist and, at the age of 30, was also one of the oldest to do so.
He left Wellington in January 1940, spending time in Egypt before being deployed to Greece, where his undeniably courageous spirit became lore.
On October 17, 1941, the London Gazette recounted his valour during the fight at Kalamata, and the words with which he led the charge – "To Hell with this. Who'll come with me?" – as he surged forward, ignoring the gunfire and mortar bombs exploding all around.
It told the tale of how, just several metres away from the first gun, Sergeant Hinton hurled two grenades, successfully destroying the weapon and forcing the retreat of the Germans into two nearby houses.
He continued to fight until a bullet struck him in the abdomen, and he was taken prisoner of war by the Germans.
It was in a POW camp, while recovering from the consequences of one of several escape attempts, where he was told he had been awarded the Victoria Cross.
The camp commandant invited him to the officers' club to toast his medal, but after two weeks in solitary confinement, Sergeant Hinton is reported to have told the commandant to put his champagne up his waistcoat.
He remained a POW for the rest of the war, but was presented with the VC by King George VI in May, 1945, at Buckingham Palace.
Back in New Zealand, the inscription on the Colac Bay memorial commemorating Jack Hinton's heroism is simple.
It reads: "Victoria Cross. John Daniel Hinton. 20 Battalion, 2nd N.Z.E.F. At Kalamata, Greece, 28.4.1941 severely wounded and P.O.W. 1st New Zealand V.C. of W.W.2 and the last Survivor. Born in Colac Bay 17.9.1909. Deceased 26.6. 1997."
It ends: "Lest We Forget".
One person who will not forget is Iris Officer-Holmes, who met Sergeant Hinton and his wife, Molly, shortly after they moved to Ashburton in the 1970s.
"He was one fantastic guy, an absolutely amazing person," she said. "He was a very gentle person, full of fun. He didn't very often talk about his experiences [of the war], unless he had a few drinks in him."
She became more like a family member than a friend to the pair, accompanying them on a visit to St James Palace in 1993, for a reunion of holders of the Victoria Cross or George Cross, and was often entrusted with looking after Sergeant Hinton's prized VC medal "for safekeeping" when the couple went away on holiday.
Her grandson, now living in Brisbane, is Sergeant Hinton's godson.
She, Sergeant and Mrs Hinton, and another friend – Mark Linton, an Australian who served as a commando in Word War II – visited Southland together once, and the trip included a stop at Colac Bay.
Her next visit to the memorial, after Sergeant Hinton's death and the plaque dedicated to him had been added, was an emotional one.
"It was very stirring. In fact, it brought a few tears to the eyes."
After his death at the age of 87, Mrs Officer-Holmes spoke at the state funeral held for Sergeant Hinton at the Cathedral in Christchurch. A year later, she officiated at the funeral of his wife.
The quiet pride in Mrs Officer-Holmes' voice is evident, as she reads the postscript at the bottom of Sergeant Hinton's citation printed in The Southland Times soon after his death.
"`Even in captivity and suffering from a painful wound, you showed that bravery is not just a thing of action on the battlefield. For yours was the spirit which preserved cheerfulness and faith, in yourself and your companions, through days of dreary discomfort and a galling loss of liberty'." – Sources: Auckland War Memorial Museum Cenotaph Database, London Gazette, Iris Officer-Holmes
COLAC BAY WAR MEMORIAL
The plinth-style memorial at Colac Bay commemorates the memory of 17 men from the area who made "the supreme sacrifice" during World War I and World War II.
It includes a plaque dedicated to the memory of one of two Southland men who have been awarded the Victoria Cross, Jack Hinton, which was unveiled in 2002.
The other is Dick Travis, who is commemorated on the war memorial at Ryal Bush. – Information: New Zealand History Online, Ministry for Culture and Heritage
- The Southland Times