Old soldiers stand to attention

CHARLES ANDERSON
Last updated 05:00 19/05/2014
Gunner Edward Francis Gould
IAIN McGREGOR/ Fairfax NZ
SHOWING A GOOD SMILE: Gunner Edward Francis Gould aka ‘Jim’ has a laugh while being photographed for a national history project.

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Staff Sergeant Robert Sanders, 92, sat and took his orders.

"You should practise your smile, Dad," Caroyln Alsop said. "Back up straight."

He was born in a pa in Ngaruawahia and went to war after lying about his age because, among other things, he liked the idea of a free rifle.

He was taken prisoner by the Germans and was marched between three camps. In secret, he wrote a diary. He only recently started talking about the war. But the ink in his diaries has faded. His memories are fading too.

On Saturday, Sanders stood to attention, up off his walker, and made his way into the lights of a photo booth.

"Hello Robert," said photographer Kate Christie. "It is Rob? Robert?"

"Bob," he replied.

"Come on, Bob, show a good smile," Christie said.

He was one of 3000 around the country taking part in a New Zealand Institute of Professional Photography (NZIPP) project to immortalise the faces of World War II veterans.

On Anzac Day thousands turned up to Returned Service Associations around the country. But in Christchurch the Papanui RSA attracted only 13. There has been no central RSA since the earthquakes. So the volunteer photographers tried again to attract veterans - advertising an open day where any could come in and sit for a portrait.

On the day they were fearful that no-one would arrive. The doors to Richard Linton's studio were meant to open at 10am. By 9.30am a legion had arrived. They walked through the door, dressed in medals and berets and tweed, and signed off their name before taking a seat. Then they waited patiently for their turn. The first photograph was taken at 9.45am.

Stoker First Class Walter Ahlfeld, 93, brought photographs - him during the war where he was stationed on convoy vessels in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans for the Navy. He was initially with the army but when he saw his brother, a navy man, was being posted overseas he went to sea. "I thought bugger this, I don't want to be stuck at home with my own brother over there. We ended up on the same ship for a time."

Another photograph showed him with family when he arrived back home.

"How are you," asked Christie.

"Bearing up," he replied.

"Do I call you Walter? Walt?"

"Wally," he replied.

Then he stood to attention - hands at the front.

"It's for our own country's history," said Maria Buhrkuhl, of the NZIPP. "It's to recognise and give them some respect and show we still care and recognise what they have done."

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Every week they heard of veterans who had died just before coming in for their photograph.

"That is what we are dealing with," Buhrkuhl said. "Time is of the essence."

Private George Rawlings, 95, initially did not want to come.

"My wife forced me into it," he said. "I was keen enough, I suppose, but I got egged on a bit."

He was doing it for his children and his grandchildren. They were getting more interested in his past.

"They thought that I should but I'm not one to advertise myself. I'm probably a bit backward in a way. But I'm glad I'm here now."

Rawlings was a West Coaster who moved to Christchurch as a 19-year-old and then got called up. He was posted in Fiji before the constant firing of rifles destroyed his hearing. "There were no ear muffs those days and when you got a crowd of people firing at the same time it blew your ears out."

Corporal Alice Clayton, 91, was up next.

"One of the only females we have seen," Christie said.

Clayton smiled politely and took her place in front of the camera. She was one of the first members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) established during 1941. It was formed to overcome a shortage of men for duties on the home front.

"We felt like we were a part of it," Clayton said. "There was a lovely camaraderie."

Robert Sanders was following orders. He smiled at the camera, his medals displayed proudly on his left jacket pocket.

He would not let his daughter Carolyn transcribe the faded ink from his diaries. He did not want her to see it. But slowly the stories were being relayed and a history was being laid down.

"Was it all right?" Sanders asked the photographer.

"Come and have a look."

So he peered at the back of the camera and saw himself, immortalised.

"Did you smile properly, Dad?" Carolyn asked him as they made their way back to the car. "You know I'm just telling him what to do, army style."

- The Press

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