Popeye comes home alone…

“Dear Mum, A few lines once more to let you know everything is OK. Been raining fairly continuously for the last few days…”
Inside Nana’s glory box was my Uncle’s letters to his Mother, our GrandMother.  We all knew they were there, but Mum said it was too painful to have them out and there they stayed.  I never looked at them until after Mum’s passing and the glory box was left to me. He was no stranger. His photo sat on all the family mantles and was remembered in prayer. I sat down and began to read and was soon lost in the voices of a Mother and her son. He writes from his first entry into the army, through his training and then deployment overseas to fight in World War 2. He talk unbearable heat and the pyramids in Egypt, the camaraderie of the boys and coming across other boys from local families.
 “The boys are strangers to one another, but it makes no difference at all”
He writes of the cold, cold winter with snow and ice in Italy, the locals and their help when needed and of considering to try and learn the language. He shares stories of their escapades and fun, of trying to stay cool in the heat and warm in the numbing cold. His last letters come from Italy, where he was tragically killed in a jeep accident on Xmas Eve 1944, at just twenty two years of age. He is buried there in Forli, where many of his family have visited him and tragically many others lie.

maurice1
Every letter has been cherished and safely stored. Cruelly after his death, Nana received his letters that were in transit at the time. Returned to her was a bundle of his clothes and personal items, like his shaver and his pyjamas, along with the last letters she herself had written to him, that he had never received. A Letter from the King, Medals and thank yous from the local RSA on behalf of the community, and the army. Beautiful words from the Priest and the Padre who attended his burial and went to great lengths answering Nana’s questions and getting photos of his grave for her. A letter also from his regiments commander, as well as notes from his fellow soldiers, telling Nana how sad they were at his death.

maurice7.jpg
How sad and poignant are these windows on the past. It was incredibly moving to read, and as a Mother my heart broke thinking of the sadness she must have carried. Condolence cards, telegrams and letters arrive after his death notice, many from other Mothers. Together these families bore so much sadness. Imagine hearing of the losses, day after day. Friends neighbours and relations.

 

Before Mum’s passing she wanted to ensure the protection of this group of items that had been kept safely together for around 70 years and she asked Lindy and I to see that they were not squirreled away by one person, nor split up, and we promised we would speak to the museum about accepting them. My Aunty Molly as the last surviving sibling gave her blessing also and shared some beautiful memories of her big brother as we sat together one afternoon.

He was the eldest of six and our Mum was the youngest. He had wriggly hair that was held back with a hair cream, but when wet would drop down in ringlets. He worked hard on the farm and it was where he wanted to be. Nana however had other ideas. She wanted him to have an easier life and managed to get him a job at the post office, but after three days he begged her to let him leave, hating every minute of it, and returned to the farm life he loved.

Molly fondly remembers him tossing the girls a shilling if they gave his shoes an extra good shine, ready for church on Sunday. She remembered the family story about how Maurice rode Topsy the pony to school each day but one day, coming to the gate after a fresh coat of paint, Topsy shied and Maurice was thrown off, breaking five toes. A lovely big brother to his five younger siblings, Molly also remembered them playing rounders in the paddock.

 

When the call to war came, he saw this as an obligation. Especially as he didn’t have a family yet and he was soon signed up and in training. He was offered dispensation on the basis of needing to help the family on the farm, given Grandpa’s ill health,  but he declined, explaining to his Mum and Dad that he couldn’t look other families in the eye if he stayed behind, when their Fathers and sons had already gone.

“You’ve been having quite a time of it. Too bad I couldn’t be there to give you a hand out with things. Still, as Pop says, these things are sent to try us. By the look of the war news, our little vacation may be short lived. ” 21/8/44

 

When it was time for him to leave, the two youngest girls, Molly and Maureen, ran off to find something special to give him to take, and knowing it had to be small, decided on a little badge of Popeye the sailor man. This seemed perfect as Maurice was about to embark over the seas on a trip where he would certainly need all his strength!  Maurice wrapped his fingers around Popeye as he kissed his parents, four little sisters and a younger brother goodbye.

“Been cooking for ourselves for sometime now. Doing pretty well too, believe me. A few spuds were dug up when turning into a paddock. A rooster that annoyed us at about 5am each morning, and various other things all helped toward our feasts. Whilst digging, one of the lads stuck a large jar of vino. I need not relate exactly what happened. A good many songs, both old and new were sung. Not the type they taught us at school. All in all it was good. First five or six drinks were the worst. After that it was just a matter of form.” 6/9/44

 

His letters come regularly from his travels and he writes without reserve as a son who is very close to his Mother. He writes of the weather, the places and the people he meets. He gives news of old friends and relations whenever he hears snippets, knowing she will pass this along to their families, as they are to her. Each family in this small community sharing the burdens, and the grief when it comes.

Maurice Xmas card
Shortly before Christmas 1944, she sent him some money so he might buy anything he needed as he had talked of his watch not working, but instead he buys her a beautiful Italian leather handbag and sends it to her for Christmas. She receives it and tells him he shouldn’t have spoiled her, the money was for him. He tells her, rumour has it there is an end in sight and she will meet him before ‘one Xmas’ on the wharf, though not this one.

 ” I suppose you are thinking seriously about hay making if you haven’t already done it” 23/12/44
 His last letter is dated 23rd Dec and he is killed the next evening in a road accident. She uses her beautiful leather handbag just the once, taking it to the Boxing Day races, unaware that he has died the day before. Her last letter to him is dated Jan 2nd 1945. It is posted on the 3rd and she talks of the wins and losses at the races. She posts it the day before the family is notified of his death.
Molly remembers this morning well. The girls were being hurried by Nana as they finally have the weather and the help to get their hay in, and the men are working hard up on the farm. They girls are busy preparing morning tea, when there is a knock at the door as a man with a telegram has arrived. He sees the girls and Nana and asks for their Father. The girls tell him he is up the farm and he sends one to get him as quickly as she can.
Nana must have known by now what this telegram contains, and as the news is delivered Molly remembers Nana didn’t cry. They are all numb finding it hard to believe their big brother won’t be coming home. Nana steels herself and tells the girls there is no time for sitting around while the men are up the paddock waiting for hot tea and to get it up there quickly. The news is carried up and delivered with morning tea and Molly said she remembered no one wanted sandwiches or cake.  She never saw Nana cry, but she heard her, many a night after lights were out.
Photo sent by Fathe Fletcher
Sharing the story with my children and grandchildren, I know it is a familiar story to many families and last year we decided to join Lindy’s family at the Waiuku Cenotaph where Maurice’s name is engraved. The crowd was much larger than I expected for a small community and contained so many young people it was heart warming. While we may not agree with war, or the decisions of the governments, I have no doubt our world today could have looked very different, if our Men and Women didn’t stand up when they were asked to.

We approached the Auckland War Memorial museum some time ago to discuss the items we were holding and asked if they were interested in having them as part of their collection. They were thrilled with our offer and said it is very rare for a group of items such as this be preserved so well, for so long. To have a local family story to compliment the items and be something they can showcase as a group is very special. A story that is sadly familiar to many families and one we can share. They said they will get offered a letter or two, or bits and pieces, but to get such a full account is very special indeed. From his first letter to his last, and his personal belongings, still packaged in its govt brown paper tied in string.

 

 Popeye
As I parceled up the letters from the glory box something fell back in with a thud and I almost didn’t look, but glancing in saw something coppery and reached to find Popeye.
The badge Molly had talked about, that the girls had given him as he left. I held him in my hand as my thumb absently ran over the surface, and I have to say I shed a tear as I imagined five young children kissing their wonderful big brother goodbye, never fully appreciating where he was going, and the chance that he may not return. The badge he held dear, and was thankfully returned with his belongings. I asked Molly if she wanted the badge back. “No dear”, she smiled sadly. It would be too sad.  As the last living sister, she gave her blessing for it all to be donated as Mum had wanted.
After having the letters professionally photographed so that all family members can have a copy, the parcel was delivered to the Auckland War Memorial Museum so that they will be safely kept together as a group along with his other personal items.  Fitting that it’s our National War Museum and Maurice’s name is there on the wall of honour. That his story, a local family one, can be on display and that we, his family can be proud of.
Maurice O'Connor aged 22 yrs died 25-12-44
“…hoping this finds you all well, I remain, your soldier boy, Maurice.”
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6 Responses to Popeye comes home alone…

  1. Tara Moala says:

    What a lovely story mum, thank you for writing xx

  2. Raewyn says:

    Lovely Tricia.

  3. raewyngleerowenathelmaterinaatereta says:

    Thank you very much Tricia, appreciate all you have done.

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