24 hours: Frank Howe
Tomorrow is Anzac Day. Among the hundreds who turn out to Anzac Day services around South Canterbury are the returned servicemen and women for whom the day brings back memories of wartime and those who did not come back. Former platoon commander Frank Howe talks to Claire Allison about his Anzac Day.
Before the war, the territorials were short of members and I volunteered at 17 1/2 (the legal age was 18), and they took me. When war broke out I had just turned 18, so they knew my age, and I couldn't go overseas until I was 21. The following year, I chose to take a course for officer's commission, and on my 19th birthday I became 2nd lieutenant, and for the next two years I was an officer in the local forces. That gave me a taste for army life. I enjoyed the band. I used to say, if I had to walk into the jaws of hell, as long as the band kept playing, I'd go.
Once the Japanese came into the war, the army established a camp in the Ashburton area, Westerfield, and I served there for 18 months. Once I was 21, I was sent overseas. I went away on a large vessel called the Nieuw Amsterdam. There were 6000 troops on that ship; nine of us in a two-berth cabin.
We went to Egypt. The division was just preparing to invade Italy, so I was able to join in that. I served after that for two-and-a-quarter years in Italy as commander of a platoon in the 27th Machine Gun Battalion. Because Timaru was the centre for machine-gun training for the South Island, anyone from here was almost sure to finish up in that sort of unit.
So I went to Italy in 1943, and was there until the end. We left there in January 1946. I came back to Timaru and married my fiancee within a month.
I lost men. I used to take it personally because I felt that if I hadn't led them into a certain situation they'd still be alive today. That worried me, and it took me years to get over that. Because I'd decided to go on that ridge, or that valley, that's where we got stomped. I was responsible. But people pointed out to me that those things are going to happen.
That's why Anzac Day means so much to ex-servicemen. I can still see those men, as they were then. They have never aged because they're in your mind. Because, goodness me, what is it? Sixty years ago?
I went to see one or two of the families when I got back. I was well received. Sometimes it was just the mother and father. I'd let them know how their son had perished. They got just a bald statement from the army "we regret to inform you..."
My parents got a telegram. I'd been hit through the arm. It was my brother's birthday, February 6. I was wounded about January 31, but it took about six days for the advice to reach here. When my mother saw the cable person coming around the house, they said, "Good old Frank, he's remembered his brother's birthday". Meanwhile, Frank was cosying up to the nurses in hospital! I think it quite spoiled their day. It's not the only day I'll think of those men. From time to time I tend to pick up my memoirs, and I re-read some of the actions that we were involved in, and that reminds me of things that have happened.
The memories never really die. I find that as the years go by, the public are showing a bit more interest now in remembering things. Although there's a lot of publicity about wanting a whole day back, I don't think the public will ever expect that. The morning one, it's more concentrated now. The public are turning up in bigger numbers so it could well be that the present system is working.
Some of them have got no soldiering people in the family. You can't expect them to walk around all day remembering something that's 60 years ago. If they're willing to concentrate on a service of remembrance in the morning, it has quite an effect.
I've never been one to go very often to the dawn services, although I did when I was younger. As I've gotten older, I tend to go to the memorial service at 10am. I used to march with the band, and enjoyed the marching in Wai-iti Rd, but now I'm a bit on the lame side. I've had a stroke. So now, Philip (my son) takes me down and I sit on a chair and wait.
I'll get up, make my breakfast. I've been alone now for nine years, so I've got used to being in the house by myself. I'll bring out my tidy clothes and make sure the night before that I`ve cleaned my medals up. The only other time I wear them is if I go to an ex-serviceman's funeral, and we're asked to wear them then, so they do come out for that. They go from the most important to the least, from left to right. So I'll put them on and turn up at the assembly point at 10am.
I do get a lot out of it. Probably seeing a lot of those fellows that I knew when I was young. It's almost a feeling of justification that at least we are doing something to remember the sacrifice that those boys have made.
There's a sadness there that they didn't come back again. As the years have gone by it's more a memorial thing. Are there fewer at the services nowadays? Yes, I thought of it just the other week. I have a photograph here of a Timaru reunion, a few years ago. Eight or so of us in the Timaru Herald sitting around a machine gun. I'm sitting at the gun, the others are grouped around me as the organising committee. When I looked at it, I realised, they're all dead, except me.
It's a strange feeling, you'd expect them to be able to walk in that door. But it's just a reality of life. I'll be ready when the knock comes.
A few years ago when we went to an assembly of ex-soldiers, you gravitated to those who had served at the same time as yourself. But now they're getting fewer in numbers, it's a little harder to find them. Now it's the younger generation who keep the march going. Fellows who were in Korea, Vietnam, they are happy to march and they'll keep the military side going.
I'm always surprised at who emerges out of the woodwork when we meet. But they are getting fewer. That's another struggle. If you take 1945 as being the end of that era, and then you add all the years on in between, their age must be getting up really. There are some that I'll only see at the Anzac Day service.
Emotional? I have found as I get older, my eyes will fill with tears very easily. So yes, the emotions do get swept up in it.
There are some retired servicemen who go to nothing else except the dawn service. They like the fact that the dawn is just coming up, the bugler's playing, shots are fired ... it's just the feeling that it's much more than bands playing and marching. It's a true memorial that one.
But when I got into my 70s and 80s, I began to take life a bit easier.
After the 10am service, there's always an invitation to go into the (RSA) rooms and have refreshments. I've never been a great drinker, so quite often now I'll join family members and we might get together for morning tea.
I came from a teetotal family. I didn't drink anything in Italy. My platoon used to say they had the only officer in the army that doesn't drink. Until one day I found I had offended an Italian family. They wanted to thank us for freeing their village by giving us some wine, but they were told Mr Howe wouldn't want any. I could see I'd hurt them. I quite enjoyed the home-made wine, and so I did become a wine drinker, but nothing more.
I'll come home later that morning. I might have had lunch with a family member, or I will already have got something ready to heat up in the oven.
I'm not a great TV addict, but if I see a programme that might be anything to do with where I was involved (during the war), I like to watch that. Or I might just go for a walk instead.
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