Helmet for a Pillow

The soldier, above all others, prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.

– Douglas MacArthur, 1962

Every once in a while there are certain individuals who cross our path and provide insight into areas of life that we would not normally venture. Anyone younger than 65 has more than likely never seen the direct effects of, or fought in a war. While our families can recall grandparents and great-grandparents that fought in either of the world wars, conflict in our recent history has been confined for the most part to our television screens. That is why it is important to keep the memories of those who served alive and undistorted; so that we may never forget that war really is hell.

Bernard 1Bernard Madden, photograph courtesy of Barbara Madden.

One of our latest donations, a large collection of letters between a serviceman and his family during the Second World War, has shone unique views onto military service and the home front in this tumultuous time. In April 1941, Bernard Madden, a 26 year-old driver for Amalgamated Couriers of Napier, left his parents and enlisted in the New Zealand armed forces. After undertaking three months basic training at Trentham, Bernard was quickly sent off to the Middle East as a gunner in the 7th Anti-Tank Regiment, 2 New Zealand Expeditionary Force where he served as a gunner and later a driver.

While overseas Bernard sent many letters to his parents in Napier.  They were read and then passed on to his extended family who lived throughout the Hawke’s Bay region as mail restrictions disallowed excessive postage. It becomes apparent reading through these letters that the first priority for Bernard was of the need to reassure the family at every possible opportunity that he was doing well. Surface-sent letters, which were bulkier and took longer to travel, were sent every week, but he did not hesitate to send faster-arriving, smaller airgraphs (at considerable personal expense) in between these weekly letters to reassure the family.

2013.65.10a (1) Letter from Bernard Madden, 20 September 1941, gifted by Barbara Madden, collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi, 2013/65/10

Bernard appears deeply involved with both his close and extended family. He at times questions if his father’s health is holding up and asks his mother, Louisa, if she is surviving the rationing period, frequently offering to send items home. When his brother Patrick was listed as missing in action as Axis forces advanced on Egypt in 1942, Bernard took it upon himself to question every soldier from Patrick’s unit about his brother’s fate. After Bernard learnt that he was taken prisoner, first to Italy and then to Germany, he made sure the family was kept up-to-date on his location and on the best way to send him his favourite tobacco. Sister Noeline and Cousin Lola were frequently reprimanded for ‘flirting’ with American soldiers based in New Zealand, while his young niece Moira appeared to be his favourite as he constantly asked about her schooling and after-school activities. The agony of being away from those he cared about shows through in Bernard’s writing, particularly as children in the family, some which he had never met,  grew up in the years he was away.

While Bernard did not see much front line action, he did see his fair share of hospital wards. The infection of a scratch on the leg early in the war was the start of a long list of maladies including influenza, intestinal problems and a significant hernia which, due to lifting heavy objects constantly, kept him in hospital and off the front lines for significant amounts of time. This had the unintended effect of allowing for long periods of recuperation time which, since permanent hospitals and respite camps were well behind the front lines, meant Bernard took the time to travel throughout the Middle East and Italy. Bernard’s letters tell of the large orchards scattered throughout Palestine, visiting Jewish communities and learning about their culture, visiting seaside resorts and tours of the countryside with other servicemen. Bernard was also in the right place at the right time during his Italian tour of duty; he writes of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in March 1944 and of arriving back at base minutes before a grand tour of Rome left for the capital.

By the time he had finished his service, Bernard Madden had served with 2 NZEF throughout its major operations in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Italy. In addition, he had managed to see the sites of Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Bernard left the armed forces after returning to Napier in August 1945 with six campaign medals, later settling in the suburb of Otahuhu, Auckland. His medical conditions, however, lingered, as the effects of war always do, and he was in and out of hospital until late the next year when he was officially discharged from the armed forces. Bernard passed away in Auckland aged 54 years and is survived by his wife Betty, seven children, 12 grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren. He is interred in the soldiers’ section of the Manukau Memorial Gardens.

All 150 of Bernard’s letters are now available on the MTG Hawke’s Bay online collection.

Evan Greensides
Archivist
April 2014

8 thoughts on “Helmet for a Pillow

  1. Great article. Seeeing the war from a personal perspective makes it interesting. I shall look at some other letters now.

    • Thank you for reading the article and replying. I hope you enjoy reading the rest of Bernard’s letters home, they paint a very in-depth view of both home and military life when read in full.

  2. Great article, I am on an oil rig between the Shetland Islands and Norway at the moment, looking forward to reading the other letters

  3. Nicely written Evan, and the letters are beautifully presented. I’ll come back often and work my way to the end. He was a great bloke, and even after more than 40 years I still get a deep ache from his absence.

    • Thank you very much for the feedback John, I did my utmost to do present them as well as possible. Reading so much into another persons life is very moving and connects you strongly with that person, even if they are no longer with us.

      Cheers,

      Evan

  4. I never met Barney but I read his letters a few years ago. He was a real character.
    It’s amazing how there were literally millions of young men like him sent away from home during that time. A different time….

    Nice article.
    From a proud grandson.

    • Thank you for the feedback Martin. Bernard was definitely a character and it was very interesting to read into the family history through his letters. Hopefully we will see many more family letters appear over the coming years as the centenary of WWI is nearly upon us. My hope is that we never forget what these brave men did for us future generations.

      Cheers,

      Evan

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