Buchenwald hero, family man

CORE OF STEEL: Philip Lamason saved 168 men from a German slave labour camp during World War II.
CORE OF STEEL: Philip Lamason saved 168 men from a German slave labour camp during World War II.

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, forcing them to work in arms factories. An estimated 56,000 inmates 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 courageous behaviour was revealed in the documentary The Lost Airmen of Buchenwald.

As the senior officer, he took command of the group and protested against the men's 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 was compelled to get word out that they were being held illegally, and he worked tirelessly building contacts with the inmates who ran the camp administration.

On October 19, 1944, Luftwaffe officers arrived at the camp gates and demanded the release of the men. 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 not long before VE Day.

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

King George VI presented him with the awards at Buckingham Palace, where Mr Lamason met and befriended Princess Elizabeth. 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 head-strong young man 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 in his hand and cleared 100 acres [40 hectares] of shrub to pay his way through Massey University, where he studied agriculture. This work ethic stayed with him throughout his life. 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.

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

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.

In 1976, youngest son Billy was killed in a car accident.

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.

The Southland Times