John Douglas Stark: The real-life Rambo

by Redmer Yska / 16 April, 2015

The Battle of Chunuk Bair, 8 August 1915 by New Zealand Defence Force artist Ion G Brown, 1990. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

The exploits of heroic troublemaker John Douglas Stark provide a colourful window on the realities of New Zealand’s World War I soldiers.

We tend to see the Kiwi “digger” fighting in the vile trenches of World War I as a cynical, stoical but fundamentally obedient individual. To use a vulgar 21st-century term, the men of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) mostly chose to suck it up. This is not surprising: their commander Major General Sir Andrew Russell, all beady eyes and bristling moustache, wanted the small minority of what he called “incorrigibles” – the mutineers, drunks and brothel-creepers – sent home and punished. Savagely.

Wellington overruled the Major General. Minister of Defence James Allen decreed in 1917 that troublemakers should be given “the post of honour” at the front lines, where they might be shot, blown to bits or reformed.

Enter John Douglas Stark, the most disobedient Kiwi soldier of them all, the wild one who became a war hero. “Starkie” or “Killer” got to remain in France with the NZEF. His clashes with military discipline (nine courts martial in France and two sentences in hellhole military prisons) continued up to the Armistice.

Stark’s astonishing, almost forgotten story reminds us that the Anzac legend refuses to follow straight lines. His exploits are immortalised in the 1936 book Passport to Hell, to be republished this June.

Doug Stark. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

In the deadly field of war, this 21-year-old Invercargill private turned into a real-life Kiwi Rambo. He’s been called “a berserk Norseman of old … completely oblivious of fear and driven to acts of bravado unmatched in the division”. Recommended for the Victoria Cross and wounded 37 times, Stark never readjusted to peacetime.

“In the chaos and violence of war, Starkie thrived while the more respectable types did not … war was a pursuit not of gentlemen but of crude untrained wild men. It was moral chaos, a revival of frontier disorder,” writes Jock Phillips in his 1987 book A Man’s Country?.

Stark’s war record doesn’t end there. In the course of one firefight in 1918, Stark saved Gordon Coates, a future prime minister, who always felt indebted to him.

Stark posed for and is commemorated in a noted World War I memorial in Kaiapoi, yet because virtually no photographs of him have been published, he remains an elusive, almost mythical figure. Now, drawing on family and police sources, the Listener is able to show his face for the first time.

NZ WWI stretcher-bearers. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Damning review

Stark was born in 1894, to a father of mixed Native American and African American blood whose name truly was Wyald. Born in Florida in 1832, Wyald Stark followed the gold rushes to Australia, arriving in Southland in 1857, later running pubs in Invercargill. He married twice, the second time in his sixties. John Douglas (known as Doug) was the last of three sons from the second marriage.

Doug Stark broke away. By 12, he was committed as a ward of the state to the tough Burnham Industrial School. This type of Government school for neglected or delinquent children was run along harsh, Spartan lines.

The judiciary, too, was unrelenting to those who refused to buckle. Early in 1914, six months from the outbreak of the war, Stark, 19, earned a year in Invercargill prison for stealing a bicycle. Described in newspaper reports as a “half-breed Maori lad” and a “coloured youth”, he received damning reviews from Burnham School’s deputy-manager, HJ Bathgate.

“The accused was an absconder from the school and committed the theft practically on the date of his last absconding. Since 1906, his record had been a very bad one. He had absconded frequently and there were convictions for theft against him.” Bathgate recommended a term in the adult prison rather than a return to the school.

Stark’s military records held at Archives New Zealand show that on February 13, 1915, fresh out of prison, he enlisted in the Fifth Regiment of the NZEF, joining the Otago Infantry Battalion as a private. He later travelled with his unit to Gallipoli, where he was wounded and hospitalised three times that year.

In the heat of August 1915, following the offensive at Chunuk Bair, Stark joined one of the burying parties helping recover the dead and wrapping them in oiled sheets. Passport to Hell includes an indelible account of this activity: “From a distance of a few yards, the bodies, lying in queer huddled attitudes, appeared to have something monstrously amiss with them. Then the burying party, white-faced, realised that 24 hours in the Gallipoli sun had caused each body to swell enormously – until the great threatening carcasses were three times the size of a man, and their skins had the bursting blackness of grapes.”

Stark’s burying party mistakenly scooped up Lieutenant Frank Hunt, one of the Otago unit’s commanding officers, knocked unconscious during the offensive. Historian Jane Tolerton taped his story half a century later: “[They] put me on a heap with the dead people. The next morning Colonel Thomas, who had been told I’d been killed, came down … he saw my foot twitch and he had me pulled out. Years later I saw Starkie at the bottom of High St in Dunedin. He stopped and said, ‘Mr Hunt, you are alive!’”

A wounded soldier is transported by a member of the NZ Medical Corps. Image/Horace Millichamp Moore-Jones

An overnight legend

In April 1916, Stark and his unit travelled to the battlefields of France. He was soon in trouble, following a drunken spree. At Armentières, on June 6, he was court-martialed for creating a disturbance in billets, “offering violence” to his superior offices and using “traitorous words regarding the sovereign and army”. The result was a five-year suspended term of imprisonment in the hands of military police he called “villains”. This was soon reduced to probation.

On July 13, 1916, as a concession to his commanding officers, Stark volunteered for a raid at Armentières on German machine gun posts, killing three of the enemy with his bare hands. Passport to Hell records Stark in action that day: “There was a German machine gun with a crew of three that in the rising dawn made merry across No Man’s Land, telling the story of a raid that got cut to pieces before it reached the lines. But as the gun sang, there was a shout overhead and a terrible figure crashed down upon it. The figure wore a tunic torn open to the waist, clotted and dyed and hideous with blood. Blood dripped from its nose and open mouth; blood stained its nightmare club – a great axe handle with an iron cog nailed to one end.

“It was neither white man nor black. Under the blacking smeared on face and throat, the skin shone red-brown. So much the three German gunners had time to see before the figure uttered a madman’s shriek, and with a madman’s strength leapt down on them. The axe handle swung twice … then the butt end was thrust into the third gunner’s face as he turned to run. The three lay in the pit.

“The figure groped forward with great brown hands, swung the machine gun round until its muzzle pointed directly at the gunners. Then the rattle of bullets began … The terrible figure met an officer from the Otago lines as it dragged the machine gun towards the British wire. The officer, a major, stopped and said, ‘Good work, Starkie!’”

But it was the compassionate, selfless activity that occurred next that made Stark an overnight legend. A semi-official 1963 account recalls: “He was wounded, but went back over the parapet at least a dozen times, bringing in a wounded man each time, and at dawn had to be restrained … from going out again.” The sentence would be cast aside as a result.

A fellow digger later painted a vivid picture of this event: “As we entered the trench midst a hail of bullets came Stark with a badly wounded man on his shoulder. He laid him at the doctor’s feet as gently as a kitten. Backward and forward he continued, carrying them so easily.”

Stark was recommended for a Victoria Cross for his actions that night. In the end, his sentence was commuted. As Passport to Hell relates: “It was not considered the thing at headquarters for a soldier to win his country’s highest honour while on probation for a proud and picturesque crime sheet.”

Family photo, with father Wyald at the rear, Stark in front and brother George at left. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Under a cloud

Despite his heroic behaviour, Stark kept butting heads with authority. He was thereafter regularly behind bars, chiefly for disciplinary offences such as refusing to attend daily parades, roll calls and fatigue duties. During the winter of 1916, Stark received the first of two spells (seven and 14 days) of the notorious army field punishment, a more severe version of which was administered to conscientious objector Archibald Baxter. In Stark’s case, a passing fellow soldier recalled in 1977, he was tied to a wagon wheel: “The weather was hot and he [Stark] apparently slept as other ranks and civilians went past unnoticed. But when any officer appeared, Starkie raised his head and called him every uncomplimentary term imaginable.”

Finding his dead brother at the battle of the Somme in September 1916 unhinged Stark. Passport to Hell describes the scene: “… he started to dig a shallow pit in No Man’s Land, tearing at the soil like a dog, sometimes with his bayonet, sometimes with naked hands. When it was about three feet deep he put the awful contorted bits of George into the pit, but he couldn’t make them look like a body.”

The Oxford Companion to NZ Military History records that this event “reduced him to a state of berserk fury, his ensuing slaughter of the enemy extending to the cold-blooded killing of prisoners”.

In May 1917, Stark was sentenced to two years in the “hell house”, the feared military prison at Le Havre, for hitting a corporal. Within five months, he escaped from a jail working party, first roaming for some days, then returning to his battalion by Christmas. He remained under a cloud with the military authorities.

During the second Somme battle of March 1918, in which the enemy spectacularly counterattacked, Stark and a companion rushed to a dump of 8kg shells set on fire by a German shell. An officer later described their actions as lunacy. The pair cleared a path through the dump, putting in a break that saved the bulk of the shells – and many lives.

On June 6, 1918, one of Stark’s most famous exploits occurred at Mailly-Maillet. A sniper using explosive bullets had killed eight men. Stark stalked him with a bomb in No Man’s Land and killed him 550m from the British lines. But first the sniper put a bullet through his chest. The remainder of Stark’s sentence for assaulting a corporal was remitted as a result.

Stark returned to the front on October 20, 1918, where he was seriously wounded again while leading a raiding party. He then waited alone in a shell hole with 11 dead, six prisoners and two captured machine guns until he was relieved. “All I got out of that was six bottles of schnapps,” was his famous quote.

The struggle to settle down

A week before Christmas 1918, Stark embarked for home on the troop ship Mahana, leaving from Southampton and arriving home on January 29. He was 24 years old. Like so many other returned soldiers, he struggled to settle. The spiralling legends around his wartime exploits, especially the “denied” Victoria Cross, isolated him from many of his “cobbers”.

By mid-1920, he was back in his old stomping ground, Invercargill, where he took occasional work as a shearer. Later that year, he appeared in the local court and was sentenced to three years’ jail (with hard labour) on charges of burglary, arson and theft.

Following his release, he worked as an unskilled labourer, drifting in and out of jail mostly for assaulting police, invariably intoxicated. In 1926, he headed for Australia, but Sydney authorities sent him back after a year, with a warning they feared police would be murdered if he stayed.

Meanwhile, Stark’s wartime associates Gordon Coates and William Downie Stewart (an officer in the Otago regiment) became prime minister and finance minister respectively in the Reform Government. The pair stayed in touch with Stark, urging him to settle down and to record his wartime escapades.

Stark sought compensation for a host of medical conditions, including bleeding lungs. In 1926, Downie Stewart arranged for Auckland doctor friend PA Lindsay to examine him. The letter is a raw reminder of the undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder affecting so many World War I veterans: “Your protégé is a problem in peacetime … I saw him and am sure there is nothing in the story of bleeding from the lungs. The Chief Detective at Auckland Central Police Station said, ‘He is a good and willing worker for a day or two and then something upsets him and he becomes violent and dangerous’.”

In 1926, Stark married his first wife Isobel, but the relationship failed. Back in prison in 1929, he approached an inmate named Murphy for help in compiling his memoirs, to be known as When the World Seen Red. The result was two closely written exercise books. Stark forwarded a copy to Coates and Downie Stewart, but they judged it unfit for publication.

Late in 1929, he set up house in Auckland’s Greys Ave with Ritahei, a woman with three children. She would have two more to Stark in the early 1930s, as economic depression bit hard.

In 1931, while Stark was on probation in Auckland, he met prison chaplain Reverend George Moreton. In the 1942 book A Parson in Prison, Moreton recalled Stark’s struggles to provide for his partner and family: “Sometimes, when the kids wanted clothes and there was no money to buy them, Starkie would become gloomy and I would get anxious … ‘George, my boy,’ he would say in his ornamental style, ‘if something doesn’t turn up soon, I’ll wreck this bloody town.’ And I knew he meant it.”

An instant success

Late in 1934, Ritahei died of pneumonia and pleurisy. Desperate, Stark saw the publication of his war story as a way to pay his bills. It was with this in mind that Moreton approached Iris Wilkinson (who wrote under the pen name Robin Hyde). He recalled their first meeting, writing: “A slight woman with an interesting face and a lame leg swung into my office on a walking stick … I can recall the excited pursing of her lips as she turned the pages of the document and the way she laughingly waved her stick as she left my office.”

At the time, Wilkinson was recovering from morphine addiction, living and writing in Grey Lodge, an extramural ward attached to Auckland Mental Hospital at Avondale. She agreed to write down Stark’s story, drawing on the notebooks and his personal recollections. Proceeds from the book would be shared equally.

Passport to Hell opens with an account of their first meeting in Greys Ave, then a shabby, rickety area in the heart of Auckland’s Chinatown: “The four little bantam hens … quarrel bitterly for a place on Starkie’s shoulders. The outlaw sits at the table, brooding over a cup of tea. He has washed the children’s clothing, scrubbed the floor, induced the baby to take a nap and once again successfully beguiled the formidable rent man – a wisp of a youth who I privately believe to be terrified of the dusky and enormous Starkie – into waiting one more week.”

Over six feverish weeks in the autumn of 1935, Wilkinson rattled out the manuscript she variously called Bronze Warrior and Crime Sheet, sitting at Stark’s table as he recounted, often drunkenly, his war stories. An anxious person, she found the process gruelling, writing in her diary: “If I can only keep Stark to the point for another fortnight or so, the book about him will be absolutely outstanding. Unfortunately he drinks and wants money and I haven’t any … I have just got Stark through Egypt and if I can keep him going tomorrow on the Gallipoli campaign, I’ll be exulted.”

Spending many hours alone with her to get the book written, the recently widowed returned serviceman fell for the fragile author, and in time, the feeling became mutual. As the weeks passed, Stark kept begging Wilkinson to marry him, but after he made a pass, her psychologist urged her to tell Stark she wasn’t available. Her diary reveals her mixed feelings: “I refused by letter, not without a certain amount of purely speculative regret. I mean, it might have been an adventure to marry Starkie. (He’d wring my neck inside a month – just as well for I hate to think what would certainly occur within 10 months if he didn’t!) However, I am not going to marry him.”

Wilkinson deliberately rushed the writing and editing process to expedite the payment of royalties to Stark, having little time to check the accuracy of his account. Some of the “tall tales” would later be challenged by those involved, especially given the book’s assertion: “This is not a work of fiction.”

Published in London, the book that emerged as Passport to Hell was an instant success, with one British reviewer saying “the description of the battles in which he takes part are terrible, more realistic than any other writer”. The book sold so well in the UK that few copies of the first edition were left over for New Zealand. A second and third edition followed.

The local reception was somewhat muted, despite a glowing comment from Labour Minister and returned serviceman John A Lee that “it was the most important New Zealand war book yet published”. Stark’s cobber Downie Stewart said Wilkinson had recreated the battlefields “almost as if she herself had been one of the soldiers on service”.

Stark was delighted and sold and signed copies in his favourite pubs. But the royalty cheques, shared with Wilkinson, failed to make much of a dent in his debt. In 1937, Wilkinson paid Stark in advance for his input into a sequel, Nor the Years Condemn. This account of his peacetime struggles includes a sequence where, in a demented bid for financial compensation, Stark deliberately used explosives to remove the fingers of one hand. The book was published in 1938 following Wilkinson’s departure from New Zealand, a year before her death.

In July 1940, as the country joined another global conflict, the Auckland Star reported that Stark was working at Waiouru Camp for the Public Works Department: “‘Starkie’, who has lost the fingers of one hand, shows remarkable skill in handling a spade or shovel and does his full share of labouring work.”

Eighteen months later, on February 22, 1942, a worn out Stark died in Auckland Hospital. In a brief paragraph, the Auckland Star saluted the man “brave enough to have been recommended for the Victoria Cross, reckless enough to have served imprisonment, tough enough to have escaped from Le Havre prison”. He was 45.

In Passport to Hell, Wilkinson had already paid homage to the survivors of World War I battling with the peacetime, the men like Doug Stark: “The returned soldier is a social problem in every country today. These men lived or died, as the luck had it, without getting into war novels, talking the language of the trenches, bothering very little about their own psychology, remembering horror and fear only in the loneliness of their own sleepless nights. They were neither knights nor machine-soldiers. They were that most unknown of soldiers, the ordinary man.”

Gordon Coates in 1919. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

A friend till the end

The Prime Minister and the prisoner.

In March 1918, in the midst of a savage firefight, Stark ferried a hurt Captain Gordon Coates of the Auckland regiment to safety. Seven years later, Coates, parliamentarian and war hero, would be Prime Minister.

According to biographer Michael Bassett: “[Coates’] knee was injured when he missed his footing, and he was obliged to relinquish command of his company for a time. He was carried from the field of action by Stark … Coates always maintained that Starkie had saved his life.”

Though their lives took different directions, the pair remained in contact. Bassett tells how Stark “would turn up at Parliament at inopportune moments, asking for money. Coates always gave it.” Stark’s letter to Coates in 1930, asking for help with finding a job, reveals the closeness of the relationship: “Yes, Gordon, I am sick and tired of wandering about. I want to settle down and be a gentleman. I am absolutely finished with the beer. I have been a damned nuisance to myself and everyone else but no more. I am settling down forever.”


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