ANZAC Day 2006

Though uncomfortable, it somehow seems fitting that the one day we set aside for remembering the work of our servicemen and women falls during autumn. ANZAC Day is often wet and windy and attendance at the dawn services around the country usually means wrapping up against the weather.

Early reports are that attendances are again up this year, with an estimated 3,000 turning up at the cenotaph in Wanganui.

Although the acronym ANZAC implies a day for remembering just the time of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, that time is now long gone. No longer can we attend a dawn parade and see veterans from the Boer War or World War I – the tide of time has swept them away.

The veterans we can see nowadays are the thinning ranks of The Maori Battalion and the 2NZEF (the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force) who served during World War II and they remind us of many other acronyms that are fading from memory such as WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), WAAC (Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps) and WWSA (Women’s War Service Auxiliary).

It was a time when the men were locked up in military training camps being prepared to fight in the Pacific, Europe or “the desert” and women were “manpowered” to take on the roles formerly undertaken by men. Deborah Montgomerie in “The Women’s War” wrote in detail about the work carried out by women during the “39-45 war” as it was often called in our house when I was young, and the subtle and overt social changes that resulted.

With the passage of time, it has been possible for us amateur historians to talk to that generation of New Zealanders who lived in a very different world and record their memories. And not all are sad, either. I remember one particular recording session with my parents a few years ago when we all laughed at how the WWSA also stood for “Women Wanting Sexual Advances.” Well, you had to laugh didn’t you, otherwise you’d never get through all that munitions work!

With most of those who served during WWII now in their 80s, time is pressing to get their memories recorded. But it can also be distracting. I was given a wake-up call at a dinner in Wellington in 2004 when the RSA feted many of our servicemen and servicewomen up at the former James Cook Hotel. Looking around the room at veterans from the Korean War and the Vietnam War I suddenly realised that time’s steady march is thinning their ranks too. No longer are they the smart young marchers carefully pacing themselves at the Anzac Day parade so that they don’t overrun the aging WWI and WWII vets at the front.

But New Zealand has now “come of age” in recognising the work of our military personnel. As we’ve grown up to finally acknowledge the Vietnam veterans in particular, we’ve continued on to applaud the work of the army, navy and air force personnel who continue either peace-keeping or policing roles to this very day.

Wellington has been proud host to many military parades in recent years, including the ceremonial return of The Unknown Warrior in 2004. I took family to see his tomb at the National War Memorial the weekend before last. It was peaceful and quiet, and the tomb itself is grandly understated.

And as we stood there with the tui singing away in the trees, we thought of the poppy that my father had tossed into the tomb as he filed past before it was sealed up on that sunny day – Thursday 11th November 2004.

Yes, we will remember them.

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