The John Masters Story

Veteran Fighter

'A Bridge Over' by Allan Marriott

Introduction by Allan Marriot

This is one story about John Masters. There will probably be others. When John and I first discussed writing about his experiences, I sat with a man who is much more than his military background. Yet experiences and stories from his military career were always close. John gave me insights into the man behind the medals.

     When I asked John to describe what and who has influenced him, he spoke first of his life with Alisoun, his family, his grandchildren, his friends and his on-going relationships with veterans. The army, tours of duty, court charges, Agent Orange and his own cancer came later. The more I talked with John, the more the influences became interwoven as the professional impacted on the personal and vice versa. John’s military career has some singularly special moments that deserve to be written about. I think it would do him and his family a huge disservice if his relationships and reflections were not a part of this story.

     I first knew of John in 1965, the year the New Zealand government committed forces to Vietnam. John was to serve in Malaysia and Borneo later that year where he received an immediately awarded Military Cross. He served in Vietnam and returned to New Zealand in 1971 to lead his men in an official welcome-parade down Queen Street, Auckland. Two days later, he was arrested and charged with disorderly behaviour. I, and many New Zealanders, read the court case with more than passing interest.

     I met John again early in 1980. During the planning of a major health survey aimed to reach 1000 far-flung households in rural Canterbury, I cheekily approached the former Vietnam veteran, now the commandant at Burnham Military Camp, for logistic consideration. John and I had walked different paths through the 1960s and 1970s. In early 1965, I had objected to the coming announcement of New Zealand’s involvement in Vietnam and walked out of compulsory military training halfway through my stint at Burnham. For seven years, I faced the threat of both a military and civilian court case for my action. Eventually in 1972, I received an ‘honourable discharge’ from Norman Kirk within three weeks of his becoming prime minister.

     John cut through our past differences and stepped forward to my request with precision familiar to him. I got total and immediate support. Every detail was covered from transport to food, to radio telephones, to drop-offs and pick-ups of survey researchers from dawn to way past dusk. Not a beat was missed, not a researcher lost from the team of social work students at the University of Canterbury.

     Through the late 1980s and 1990s, I regularly came across John’s involvement in trying to get the New Zealand government to take the issue of Agent Orange seriously. During these years, I worked with several Vietnam veterans in counselling and group work as they dealt with other residues of Vietnam: ill-health, alcoholism and separations. I heard also of stillborn and deformed children. My own views on the Vietnam War had no place with men who hurt and despaired.

     I read the Reeves and McLeod Reports on Vietnam with unease. The reports simply dismissed the reality of toxins and the latency effect in both the Vietnamese environment and in the bodies of those New Zealand soldiers who had served. I understood the on-going objections to the Vietnam War having taken place but I questioned what seemed to be a hidden agenda behind the denials in the reports and the reticence of both the National and Labour governments to acknowledge and provide support for the soldiers and their families. The quality and content of those two reports were professionally inadequate and their acceptance by the two governments was professionally inept.

     In 2002, I read of John uncovering the map which showed where New Zealand troops had been exposed to American spraying of toxins, the resulting media focus, the further work by Vietnam veterans and the eventual Parliamentary Select Committee in which the Reeves and McLeod Reports were shown up for their inadequacies. Even with the establishment of the Agent Orange Trust Board back in 1985 though, little had changed for the ageing soldier. It took until 2008 for this to begin to be rectified through the memorandum of understanding and the subsequent Crown apology.

     In 2005, I asked John, the retired lieutenant-colonel, to consider launching a book for me, a memoir of World War I. I sat with a man who knew where soldiers met pain, sometimes death, often comradeship. He also knew the unspoken and therefore unshared world of those soldiers.

     Many of our military personnel present us with events and actions of military history. The personal has usually stayed hidden. My hope is that this book will enable the reader to sit with an old soldier as he tells a tale or two and gives us more than bits and pieces.

     John is now in his mid-70s. Like many other Vietnam veterans, he has cancer. This book is both about the events and battles that shaped his 70 years and about his reflections and battles now.

     It is an intimate look into how events on a world stage can affect an individual in his own home and own country, how events can throw open doors to invitations and acknowledgements and how events can lead to paths along which personal codes and character have been shaped for one New Zealander, honoured nationally and internationally.

     I know of only one New Zealander who has been a New Zealand lieutenant-colonel, received an immediate Military Cross, been awarded honorary life membership of the Gurkha Regiment, served on active service in Malaya, Borneo, and twice in Vietnam, been a prime mover for obtaining recognition and compensation for those affected by Agent Orange, rescued the Rannerdale War Veterans Home, been appointed an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit and is now fighting the very toxins he fought over for others – and been arrested for riot incitation.



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