Remembering the past

World War II returned serviceman Fred Cooper joined the RSA in 1946 after fighting in Italy.
World War II returned serviceman Fred Cooper joined the RSA in 1946 after fighting in Italy.

The original members have all fought their last battles, but as the Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association, or RSA, marches towards its centenary, the organisation is fighting on. Neil Ratley discovers the past of southern RSAs is vastly different from the future they face.

Smoke-filled rooms with blokes standing shoulder-to-shoulder sharing a drink and a yarn, a boys' club that would also host dances to include the fairer sex - that is how some returned servicemen from World War II remember the Returned and Services' Associations they joined when they got home.

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Nearly 70 years later on a Thursday night at the Gore RSA, still keen for a chat with mates, World War II veteran and RSA life member Fred Cooper sips a glass of tall red wine.

Tonight, waiting for the raffles to start, he doesn't have to rush his drink and his clothes won't smell like cigarettes, he says.

"Gore was a dry town when I got back from the war in 1946, but the RSA, set up by the World War I returned soldiers, was a place you could go and get a beer," Cooper recalls with a grin.

However, while the older veterans from World War I had a section to themselves where they could sip on their illicit cups, the young boys just back from the second war were rushed through their drink.

"We had to finish up our beer and move on so the next lot of blokes could have their turn," Cooper says.

The RSA is one of the oldest ex-service organisations in the world and was founded by wounded soldiers returning from the Gallipoli Campaign.

By the end of World War I, Invercargill, Gore, Tuatapere, Milton and Dunedin had RSAs. In the years after the war, RSAs were established in Balclutha, Mosgiel, Otautau and Queenstown. During the early 1930s, Alexandra, Bluff and Cromwell also set up branches.

By 1920, national membership reached 57,000 out of a returned soldier population of 80,000, providing a welfare service for the families of the fallen and for those who came home.

In faded photographs in RSA rooms and clubs across Southland and Otago, proud, uniformed young men from World War I gaze out from behind framed glass. The photographs are a lasting reminders of the brave men whose experiences led to the formation of the RSA, a place to provide care for returning soldiers and to honour the memory of those who would never return.

It was a hub in the community to congregate, share a laugh and a drink.

Two decades after the RSA was established, the outbreak of World War II meant the organisation would once more be needed by a new generation of returning servicemen and women.

By 1947, 92,000 World War II veterans had swollen the RSA's membership to 136,000.

Wattie Thomas, 96, remembers joining the Invercargill RSA in 1944 when he returned from fighting German and Italian forces in the Middle East, Greece and Crete.

"I still have my original membership card," he said.

"When World War II was over, a lot of the chaps were very keen to get into an RSA, because they were giving us a helping hand financially."

Thomas said he received [PndStlg]5 towards a pram for his wife and their baby and, with a further [PndStlg]15 grant, he became one of the few people in Invercargill to own a washing machine.

However, he said it took a little bit of time for this wave of veterans to win over their World War I counterparts.

"I think they saw the RSA as their club," he reflected.

This sentiment is also expressed by Cooper.

"They would sit in their area and we would gather with our own cobbers," he remembers.

History appeared to repeat itself when men returning from service in following campaigns also found it hard to rub shoulders and share a drink with the men who had gone to war before them.

In 2008, then RSA national president Robin Klitscher, a Vietnam War veteran, apologised on behalf of the RSA for not treating returning Vietnam War veterans "wholly in accord with the association's founding principles".

RSA Otago and Southland district president John Longman said he was asked to leave the Invercargill RSA when he returned from Vietnam.

"They told me I wasn't welcome," he says, now proudly wearing his medals pinned to his RSA jacket.

Former Otago-Southland district president and Bluff RSA stalwart Bruce Henderson, who served in Malaya between 1957 and 1966, remembers being snubbed by the association on his return.

"I was told I didn't qualify and so I walked out," he says.

"It was years until I had anything to do with the RSA."

Today, both men agree, the RSA has changed and is entrenched in a philosophy of acknowledging and welcoming everyone into the fold, be they returned veterans, service personal or people without any direct military connection.

Malay and Vietnam veterans are coming forward to take up roles at regional and national levels, Henderson says.

At a time when World War II members are less able to take an active part, those returning from subsequent wars and those who have not seen service will have to lead the RSA into the future.

The Southland Times