'I would rather be with you'

by Kirsty Cameron / 28 January, 2015

Les Kirk. Photo/Cameron family archive

Thousands of New Zealanders fought with their mostly American and Australian allies against the Japanese in World War II in three main conflict areas — Singapore, in the seas around Japan and in the Solomon Islands. In November 1942, New Zealand troops began arriving in New Caledonia, and from there were sent to Guadalcanal from August 1943. That October, the Kiwis also arrived on Mono Island, in the Solomon’s Treasuries group, to successfully take the island from the Japanese defenders. It was the first opposed amphibious landing by New Zealand forces since Gallipoli – NZ History

A trove of wartime letters from Kirsty Cameron's grandfather to her father reveals a soldier’s loving guidance to his young son.

Valentine’s Day, 1940. Les Kirk, the teacher in charge of the rural school of Kokopu, Northland, had much in his life to love. There was his wife, Molly. They had met at teachers’ training college in Auckland and married just before Christmas in 1933. Les loved teaching, his music – he had played cornet with Epi Shalfoon’s dance band at the Crystal ballroom – and rowing for the West End club. He also loved his son. Four-year-old Christopher had the Kirk mouth and Les’s lanky legs, and his colouring came from Molly’s Ngati Porou blood. He was their only child, adored but not spoilt, although certainly nurtured in a more child-centric environment than his parents’ generation had been.

On that Valentine’s Day, Les signed his name to another evocation of love, the Oath of Attestation to serve King and country. New Zealand was at war and Les was one of the 104,000 who would serve in the 2nd NZ Expeditionary Force. At 190cm and 83kg, he was marked Grade 1 for fitness and duly inducted into the infantry, leaving the Kokopu-Kara district for the military training camps at Papakura and Trentham. Les had grown up in Ponsonby in his grandparents’ home, his father often away logging kauri in the Coromandel.

Perhaps Les joined up with the thought that if he had to be physically absent, he wouldn’t be emotionally distant as well. All soldiers were encouraged to write, and often (“Write Home First” exhorted the supplied stationery), and he certainly obeyed. He wrote to Molly, to the spinster aunt who raised her, to friends, neighbours, his Kokopu students, nieces and nephews and directly to his son.

From his first days away, Les wrote to Christopher on topics to engage a four-year-old boy – guns, trucks, football games and types of barbed wire (one sort for repelling Germans, another for tanks). He signed himself “Les”, or “your loving father”, never Daddy or Dad. Molly was likewise named. Printed carefully on flimsy sheets of airmail paper bearing YMCA, National Patriotic Fund or Church Army crests, the letters were often illustrated with stick figure people, trees, bombs and barbed wire. While keeping up with Christopher’s world of starting school, lost teeth, and scooter maintenance, he gave him encouraging – if unvarnished – reports of his own activities.

Christopher Kirk. Photo/Cameron family archive

From Trentham:

“Dear Christopher, Yesterday we went for a run. It was over three miles long and when we finished we had to run between stools and get tickets to say who was first and who was second and so on. There were 300 of us and I got ticket 135. We did not have to run fast, but we had to get in by a set time, which about half of us did. Molly will say that 135 is not very good; but I ran just hard enough to get the right marks for my team without getting too tired.”

“I hope you like Bayfield school. It may be a long way for a boy to go; but you know the walk will make you strong.”

A letter to Les must have reported some indiscretion of Molly’s to elicit this response. “… Your letter is very nice. You will have to look after Molly, and not let her say bad things or I will be wild with her.”

Sometimes, the longing to be with his family could not be masked with humour and homilies. A single page, undated, is a few simple lines showing Christopher’s name in various writing styles, “X X X 3 kisses, not crosses” and a sketch of an umbrella with falling rain. “Do you remember a long time ago when I showed you how to draw rain?”

Les, now 2nd Lieutenant LJ Kirk (“good type of officer, is a leader, should do well”, noted his Trentham commandant), was posted to the NZEF’s Pacific HQ in New Caledonia with the 34th Battalion, but was soon on the move to Fiji. The letters continued, longer and more detailed as Christopher’s reading skills developed. They were still illustrated – Fijian flora and fauna, descriptions of training (or as much was allowed), excitement – “we locked the prisoners in the guard house” – and local observances. “Tobacco here is sold among the Indians and Fijians in the shape of rope, and it costs sixpence a yard. An Indian spends lots of time sniffing at the ends of different tobacco ropes before he spends his sixpence.”

Les also kept up on the everyday of the Norfolk St, Ponsonby, household, where Molly and Christopher had set up home with her similarly war-separated sister, Jean, and her two children.

“You must like the new hot water; and I suppose that the Electrolux is working well. The coconuts on the trees are getting ripe now, and turning brown. We are working pretty hard here and learning a lot of new things too, but the Army will not allow me to tell you about them.”

The envelopes sometimes contained little gifts. In January 1942, Les was pleased to send three used hat patches for his six-year-old son and his cousins. “I have worn these three patches on my hats (left side is where you sew them on) ever since I came to Fiji. They have been in the bush, and through cane and rice fields, on the beach, and on to other islands too … They are only bits of cloth; but I have quite an affection for them.”

There were also parental edicts on expected behaviour.

“… I also think of Molly taking you out, and you are quiet and polite then, because grown-up people and their tidy houses can’t stand anything else … Then I think of you romping and playing, and singing out, and running about. It will only be a few more years and you will able to drive the motor car. I think of this because I was remembering how we used to fix the Morris up at Kara, so that it would run well, and drive us along over the hills and sometimes to the beaches.”

Les would often reassure Christopher he was safe, but would prefer to be at home.

“I like it over here all right, but I would rather be with you and Molly in New Zealand. I cannot send a snake over to you. I am not allowed.”

Only one letter to Molly from Les survives, in which he does not temper his loneliness, or grief. In February 1943, he wrote, “If I didn’t love you so much, then I shouldn’t think of you all the time and perhaps it would be easier to live here alone. But then I should be only half alive … Let me tell you that my feelings have never been more jumbled. That’s because there’s a war on, and I love you. I must be away from you, yet I want only your love, and life with you.”

Photo/Cameron family archive

With Christopher, he kept his tone lighter, and focused on the future. On October 20, 1943, he composed a long letter to his son, discussing his growth and fitness, which would ultimately lead him to being able to run well, swim, dance and bat “at the wicket”. In Les’s view, he wrote to the now-eight year-old, “every man should try to be fairly good at everything”.

He believed riding a bicycle wasn’t good for growing boys, but regular running was. He outlined his philosophy, suggesting a jog-and-sprint training regimen “at least every other day”. “Always arrive home at a jog, never a sprint. The sprints come in the middle of your work-outs. You should be cooling down and breathing more quietly as you jog up to the back gate.”

The letter ended with his usual “Your loving father”, followed by stick-figure sketches of JC Kirk (Christopher’s first name, James, was never used) as a school boy at Cornwall Park Primary, then Les’s secondary, Auckland Grammar School. The final figure is JC Kirk, “a University Man”.

Les did not live to see his son become any of those things. Less than two weeks later, he was fatally wounded in an encounter with a Japanese force at Mono Island, in the Solomon Islands. The battle is recounted in The Pacific, the official New Zealand war history by Oliver A Gillespie.

“… Closer to the beach, inside the perimeter in a strongpoint covering a barge drawn up on the sand, was a small force of nine men, six New Zealanders and the three American members of the barge crew, under Captain L. J. Kirk.

Late on the night of 1 November, between sixty and ninety Japanese attacked the west perimeter, using grenades, mortars, and machine guns in an attempt to reach the landing barge. Before midnight the field telephones joining strongpoints with the commander had been put out of action by grenades, and the groups fought independently of each other. Japanese infiltrated through the perimeter and attempted to break Kirk’s small garrison, which was armed with hand grenades, one tommy gun, and two machine guns taken off the barge.

The first assault came at 1.30am, killing Staff-Sergeant D.O. Hannafin and wounding Kirk, whose skull was creased with a bullet. He recovered and kept directing the defence. When the machine guns were hit and put out of action, Kirk and his men held off the Japanese with hand grenades. A suggestion to abandon the strongpost and withdraw to the main defence position was discarded in favour of holding out until daylight. Soon afterwards Kirk was again wounded, this time fatally, though he survived until the next day.”

Leslie James Kirk died on November 2, 1943, and is buried at the Bourail New Zealand war cemetery in New Caledonia. He was Mentioned in Despatches in recognition of “distinguished services.”

Postscript

Christopher did not follow his father to Grammar, nor did he go to the Quaker-run Friends School in Wanganui, as Les had wished should he not return from the war. Molly, who had returned to teaching, became secretary of the War Widows’ Association and took a role in December 1946 in Tauranga, aiding a returned soldier who had come home to find his wife gone and young sons scattered.

Molly helped restore the household and in 1949 married the soldier, Charles Cameron. When Christopher was a teen, his stepfather formally adopted him without discussion, and he became Christopher Cameron. Next month he will turn 77. He never did become a good runner, but he did row, dance and try his best to be fairly good at everything. The Kirk name continued – my two sisters and I have it as middle names, as do our children. Several of Les’s letters are framed on our walls, a remembrance of the man who drew kisses, not crosses.

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