The John Masters Story

Veteran Fighter

A Bridge Over Launch

A Bridge Over the story of John Masters, veteran fighter by Allan Marriott was officially launched, 19 November 2009, at Papanui RSA.  Vietnam veteran and author Bill Barnes was MC for the occassion, intoducing addresses from Robin Klitscher, National President, Royal NZRSA, Hon Jim Anderton, MP, and Allan Marriott.

Media coverage of launch; The Press, Fri Nov 20th 2009

Address; Air Vice Marshal (Rtd) Robin Klitscher CBE, DFC, AFC, BSc, RNZAF, National President, Royal New Zealand Returned and Services Association

I stand here before you this evening feeling hugely inadequate for the occasion.

Many possible opening gambits occur – for example the quote “we stand on the shoulders of giants”, in this case the shoulders of a single giant called John Masters.  But I'm cautious about that particular one because, as his book so amply points out, things are not always what they seem.

And so it might be for this saying.  It has a long history.  More than 300 years ago in 1676, the great scientist Isaac Newton admitted he had borrowed from others when he wrote “if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”  At the time he was having a particularly bitter feud with Robert Hooke over credit for new scientific work.  And so his letter to Hooke admitting he'd relied upon the work of others might appear to be an olive branch of apology.  But it could take on a less generous character when we take into account that Robert Hooke was in fact very stunted in stature; dwarfishly short, with crooked shoulders.  And so, in his reference to high-standing shoulders the waspish Newton might actually have been dishing out something less than a warm compliment, and quite possibly a deliberate insult.

Not so here.  The duty I now have is a much more pleasant matter, straightforward and without room for hidden or back-handed meanings of any sort.  It's a matter purely of compliments and nothing else.  I mentioned the Newton tale only because one of the things that came out of the book most strongly to me is that John Masters has found throughout his life that things are frequently not as they seem.  From his childhood, and even through the ordered life in the Army this was so.  It was even more so in the times since he left the Army, and particularly in the aftermath of service in Viet Nam.  But what also comes through is that his strength, that quality that sets him apart from other men, has been that he has not been taken in by the charm of the false.  Indeed he has resisted its appeal steadfastly and always, in the Army and out of it, and sometimes at great cost to himself and to those closest to him.

Our career paths did not intersect until we both served in combat in Viet Nam at the same time.  Even then, however, our experiences and their consequences were different.  As indeed they had been before that, before our careers finally crossed in Phuoc Tuy Province.  But there were parallels, although somewhat distant, and you might have to squint a bit to see them.  For example, as well as serving in Viet Nam at the same time we also served in the UK at the same time – and both of us are, or were, air pilots.  Both of us also saw aspects of Confrontation; but it is here that I can most sharply draw out the differences between what we experienced.

I and family had been posted to England for two years in 1965, and the first half of the journey was by Air Force DC-6 to Singapore.  Sukarno's Konfrontasi meant we could not overfly Indonesia.  And so began a leisurely progression by DC-6 day-by-day from Whenuapai, to Melbourne, to Perth, to Cocos Island halfway across the Indian Ocean, and then a long and inconvenient swing around the northern tip of Sumatra to come into Singapore from the north.  And from there it was on to England by chartered Britannia aircraft.

Now, I read with interest of John's experience that when he deployed to Borneo while I was deploying to England, the wily Brits appointed the naïve and unprepared Colonial to be Senior Military Officer aboard the ship crossing the China Sea.  He was thrown in the deep end, as it were.  In my case I knew in advance that there was going to be an Officer i/c Passengers aboard the Brit aircraft, and I had ready for him a considerable dossier of questions to which I needed answers.  As we stepped aboard at Changi, however, an Air Movements Officer shoved a whole suitcase of files in my hand and said ”Flight Lieutenant, you are the senior officer aboard, you are the Officer i/c Passengers, and here are your duties, responsibilities  and powers over the crew and 140 passengers.”  My protests about jurisdiction across borders fell on deaf ears in much the same way as John's did in his ship.

Thus John went to Borneo while we went to England.  He went to jungle, sweat, swamps, and enemy fire; I went to the Cotswolds under no greater hazard than winter snow and ice, and the Cold War (but no, John Campbell, neither of us had silk sheets …..)

The differences were even more stark than that.  The story of John Masters and the Gurkha Hariparsad is graphically told in the book.  There is absolutely no way of matching that story; nor even of standing on its shoulders.  To attempt to do either would be as false as Newton's apology to Hooke.  It stands on its own as a beacon to courage, endurance and determination, as nothing else could possibly do.

And indeed, with that as the centrepiece the first few chapters of the book give point more generally but very clearly to a conclusion recently reached by the Law Commission that those who have been put into harm's way by the Crown in uniform deserve consideration over and above other citizens who are not veterans.  Borneo  wasn't a movie.  This was real.  It is a very timely, and in the way Allan Marriot and John Masters tell it in the book, a most compelling reminder of the truth of what Denis McLean wrote in his recent book on Kippenberger:  “The very demands of combat, the vividness of experience of life lived on the edge, the stuff of nightmares, sets veterans apart.  Those who have been in the front line of battle have had an insight into the savagery of the human condition beyond anything in normal life”.

A little over ten years later, our paths did converge on Phuoc Tuy Province, whence the book gets its title from the Simon and Garfunkel piece Bridge Over Troubled Waters.  There's an intersection in that, too – or at least one that is visible to me.

Last year there was in Wellington an exhibition associated with the Armistice when the guns finally fell silent on the Western Front in 1918.  It was called “An Impressive Silence”, following the words of the time by Marshal Foch.  At the exhibition's opening I recounted that in Viet Nam at idle moments when one worried acutely about what the day would next bring, another song by Simon and Garfunkel helped fill the void.  It was the paradoxical “Sound of Silence”; and it had so strong an impression on me that whenever I hear it today I am still catapulted back 40 years to that place, and those events, as “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls ...... and whispered in the sounds of silence.”   I suspect it's the same for John and “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”.

Last year and as reported on Page 210 of the book, John had to endure a “This is Your Life” in this very establishment.  I could not be present, but in a message sent on the occasion I said this:

“Many is the time I have landed my helicopter under the snouts of your guns on the southern outskirts of Nui Dat, even as they fired to protect our troops in the field.  Metaphorically since then in the aftermath I have done the same thing - watched and admired as you continued to fire your protection of those same troops in a different but no less effective way.”

What John Masters learned in the jungle of Borneo so long ago about facing the odds and persisting despite them has enabled him to stand high on his own shoulders ever since, and to achieve things that most others would have given up on.  Veterans owe him an impossible debt of gratitude for that.

But the wear and tear has not been John's alone.  What the book also brings out, both clearly and rightly, is the heavy toll taken also upon Alisoun and the family as John has struggled to attain his goals so unselfishly on behalf of others.  As veterans we owe them at least as much as we owe him.

And we also thank Allan Marriott for setting it all down in everyday language to help us understand the extraordinary life of this man who has been decorated in the field, welcomed into an alien society as one of their own because of it, overcome his own demons of self-doubt and uncertainty, provided consistent and powerful leadership both in combat and in peace, broken through the hard shell of disbelief that had frustrated the Vietnam veteran community for more than 30 years, rescued an old soldiers' home, and been recognised by the Sovereign for all of that.  Oh, and as Allan points out, has also been arrested and charged with inciting a riot.

Of this stuff is the book made.  And the man.

But in closing, I have one further duty.  I am also a messenger for others.  I have here for John Masters two envelopes.  One contains a card for the occasion from the Minister of Veterans' Affairs the Honourable Judith Collins; and the other from Prime Minister the Honourable John Key.

And on that note I am very happy to announce this book launched.

Address; Hon Jim Anderton, Member for Wigram, Progressive

John Masters Speech: 

  • One of life’s ironies that an inveterate Vietnam protestor gets to help launch the book of one of our most respected soldiers.
  • For many years of my life I worked closely with Bill Rowling – who represented many West Coasters in Parliament – and when Bill had an occasion to heap praise on someone he would describe him as “As straight as a gun barrel”.
  • I can’t think of a more appropriate description of John Masters than that!
  • I think that’s what Lieutenant Colonel Nicky Neill meant when he wrote quote (pg 59) – “You know, I think, how we felt when you saved Hariparsad’s life – words are inadequate when used to describe soldiers’ feelings concerning an episode such as that.  I know you said that anyone else would have done the same thing as you did had they been present.  That might well be so, but it would depend on the man how the deed was accomplished.  The fact remains that you were there and you did what you did because you are the man you are – the man we have come to admire and respect so very much”.
  • I got involved in the refurbishment of Rannerdale Veterans home because of Mick Connelly and John Masters.
  • It is mentioned in the book that I was badgered by John (I would describe it as harassed!) to get what amounted in the end to around $400,000 for the project from the government.  It wasn’t easy – but, one bad day in government is worth 1000 good ones in opposition – and it may have been belated but I never had any doubt that John would win.
  • Quote (pg 219) from Robert “Dad never voluntarily offered his stories, he’s not one to brag, so I’ve not known the detail.  But he always follows through, with guts and determination, sees things come to a resolution, to an end”.
  • I want to congratulate John on his book.  It is an important addition to NZ’s proud (and not to proud) history.
  • And to thank Alisoun for being the rock on which his strong foundation of courage and determination was built.