Bryan Petersen was killed more than 50 years ago, in a deeply unpopular foreign war. His loss – and the loss of innocence – still ripples in his home town. John Summers traces Petersen’s story to Eketahuna.
Still, there are signs of life, even growth. The pub was renovated a few years back, and recently a new business opened – a reflection, the mayor told the paper, of how vibrant the town was. Tabu, this business was called, stockists of adult toys. Sex had come to Main St.
Death, however, remained discreet. The town’s two cemeteries lie well away from shops and homes, the oldest not even within the town boundary but on a hillside off the highway. It was there Bryan Petersen was buried in 1968, at the age of 21, one of the few New Zealand casualties of the Vietnam War (37 died on active service).
I was reading about New Zealand’s involvement in Vietnam when I first learnt about Petersen’s death, and added it to the things I knew about Eketahuna. It felt odd to hold those two disparate places within the same thought.
Later, I’d come to see this response as a sort of arrogance or, more generously, ignorance. The Petersens wouldn’t have had the luxury to think it strange, something I began to realise only when I talked to Bryan’s sister Linda, and saw her face turn quizzical when I explained my reaction. It was just a fact to them, hard-edged and inescapable. Linda’s surname is Haddon now, but that final “e” in Petersen was a reminder that Eketahuna was founded by Danes, Swedes and Norwegians who had been contracted to clear bush and had named their settlement Mellemskov: the heart of the forest.
Linda and Bryan’s ancestors were among these Scandinavian founders. That’s how long the family had been there. Their father, Jim, a veteran of World War II, was the town blacksmith until that business waned; he then became an engineer, running machinery at the local dairy factory. Jim and his wife Vera had four kids: Bryan (born in 1947), Gary, Karl and Linda. They were fond of the pub and of hunting. There were plenty of deer in the hills back then, wild pigs too. Jim took Bryan and Gary with him, and after killing a sow might bring back the piglets, fatten them up in the yard behind their house and then eat them.
It didn’t pay to get too attached to animals in the country – something Bryan knew well. He worked as a butcher’s apprentice and did a stint at the freezing works before leaving Eketahuna to do his national military service at Burnham Army Camp. By 1967, he was in Malaysia, before being sent to Vietnam.
Together we looked at a family photograph from her childhood: six sturdy, smiling people gathered in the garden beside a weatherboard house – Bryan with his dark, wavy hair tamed into short back and sides by the local barber. “He looks like a Kiwi bloke,” I said. “I think they all had that haircut back then,” Linda replied, resisting my lazy characterisation, and spoke instead of a goodhearted boy, honest and sensitive.
As soon as she started talking about him, her conviviality gave out and her voice wavered. She cried, remembering how Bryan fussed over his younger siblings; he used to play cards with her when she was feeling down. On the day their brother Gary started school, eight-year-old Bryan came home complaining he’d had a pain in his chest
“What was wrong?” their mother said.
“I was really worried Gary wouldn’t know what to do at school,” he told her.
Bryan wrote to them from Malaysia and, rereading these letters recently, Linda saw his innocence – their innocence. There was a gee-whiz quality to the letters, an astonishment about things foreign and the world beyond Eketahuna. At that time, a trip to an uncle’s place in Waipukurau had been a major undertaking, and yet there was Bryan in Southeast Asia. He phoned them and they crowded around the receiver to hear his voice. Linda was 11. “Don’t get killed over there,” she told him. Her mother shushed her. That early lesson: there are things we all think about that must never be said.
Her father had been told he had till seven on that same Sunday morning to let the army know whether he wanted his son’s body brought home. So he followed the local policeman down to the station to make the call, to tell them he wanted his boy back in Eketahuna.
“They said, ‘How much money have you got?’” Linda recalls. There was a price for repatriating the body from the army base in Malaysia: $400, quite the sum in 1968. Her father wasn’t sure how he would pay it – his wages were modest. But word spread, and just as the people of Eketahuna had once gathered for a dance to see Bryan off, so they came together again, chipping in what they could so Bryan’s body could be flown back on a French airliner.
Linda spread out a receipt between our coffee cups: thick, creamy paper with the letterhead “Ministry of Defence”. It showed her father had been refunded some of the money in October 1968 – the cost of air freight had come in under $400 in the end. But before that, the army had insisted on talking to the Petersens’ bank manager, first by phone and then in person, to make sure they were good for the cash.
“They’d already paid with their lives!” said Linda, lamenting all those Kiwi soldiers who’d been killed in Vietnam. It was a sore point still for her. In 1988, her parents had spoken to the Wairarapa Times-Age. In 2015, she’d given an interview to Newshub about it. But back then, when it happened, they had trusted in the official channels. They asked to talk to their MP and then-Prime Minister Keith Holyoake, who owned a farm near Dannevirke. He refused to meet them. It would have been favouritism, was the explanation given by his aides, presumably because he wouldn’t be meeting the families of anyone else killed, either.
In Malaysia, the army must have doubted the family would spring for that flight home; soldiers there had begun rehearsing a funeral, preparing to bury Petersen on foreign soil. Among them was a private named Michael Shale. He had once lived only a few doors down from the Petersens in Eketahuna and was a school friend of Bryan’s until Shale and his mother moved south to Masterton when he was 12.
“What was Bryan like?” I asked Shale, now in his 70s. He came out with an antique phrase: “A hale fellow well met,” he said. The two had been reunited briefly at Burnham and again in Malaysia. “Shale!” Petersen would shout across the quadrant. He was popular, Shale told me. They’d both gone to Vietnam but were in different companies. He’d been in Malaysia when he heard of his friend’s death. It came to him as hearsay. “Oh no, that’s not right, they’ve got the story wrong,” he’d thought, dismissing the news as the usual barroom talk. This time, though, the barroom talk was true. He was asked to rehearse a funeral, and volunteered to help carry the coffin.
He was eager to retire, to visit his two daughters in the UK and relax at home in Masterton, a brick townhouse that was more or less conventional from the gate, but inside was painted a lush red, with furniture from Bali and interesting art. It was there Shale talked with me about Bryan Petersen and the war generally, a subject I thought I knew well, because it was inescapable. Hadn’t I read all the books, seen all those movies? But I would discover there was something else to know, a closeness that came from hearing a man in Masterton, with an accent the same as mine, recalling a man from Foxton being shot beside him.
Shale remembered landing in Vietnam in one of the RNZAF’s lumbering Bristol freighters, disembarking among the hundreds and hundreds of helicopters, the lines of planes. “Mad,” he said, searching for words, only to come back to that first impression: “Mad.”
The excitement soon wore off. As an assault pioneer, tasked with blowing up enemy mines and booby traps, Shale was given the duty of readying a body to be airlifted away when one of their own was killed. It was a job that had to be done quickly, methodically; the pilots wouldn’t linger longer than 10 seconds for fear of being shot out of the sky. “It was a terrible war, wasn’t it? We shouldn’t have been there. Not at all.”
What were these Kiwis doing there? It was an adventure, Linda reckoned. All those young men, raised on stories about World War II, as Bryan had been. It was everywhere back then: at the movies, on TV and in dads’ talk at the dinner table. This was their chance to do what their fathers had done. She was explaining the choice they’d made. Unlike America and Australia, New Zealand didn’t conscript men for this war.
They were, in theory, volunteers. I include the qualifier because Shale added one too: “So-called volunteers,” he said. He had joined the army in want of a fresh start after failing an engineering degree at Victoria University. We had troops in Malaysia then, and he counted on “a three-year holiday in the tropics, an adventure with coconuts and sunny beaches”.
The holiday would last six months before the government announced it was sending infantry to Vietnam. Their colonel gathered them together and gave them a “hell of [a] spiel” – telling them, “You’ll be serving your country in Vietnam… You’ve heard of the domino theory? Communists coming down. We’ll be stopping the communists from invading New Zealand…”
“It went on and on and on,” said Shale.
At the end of the speech, anyone not prepared to go was asked to step forward. Shale didn’t recall anyone taking that option. He didn’t recall that anyone felt they had the choice.
That was the official version, but Linda had heard another. At a veterans’ event one year, a man grabbed her by the arm. “There’s something I need to tell you,” he said. Petersen had been killed by one of his fellow soldiers, a case of “friendly fire”, he claimed.
For a long time, she worried about this, worried what she should do with this information. Other veterans told her the man was wrong. The official story remained the truth, and eventually, she stopped worrying, came to see the ending remained the same. Loss was loss, and by now she was, sadly, an expert. Bryan, dead at 21. Her brothers Karl and Gary were both gone too, taken young by cancer; her parents were dead, and she was a widow of three years.
“You’ve been through a lot,” I said. I peered into my notebook, not knowing what more to ask.
When I went to the cemetery where Petersen was buried, Vietnam didn’t stand out as I’d expected it to. Bryan’s headstone was within the RSA section, among many neat bronze plaques that made reference to far-off places: Korea, France, South Africa. Eketahuna had long sent its people to foreign wars. I also found that Linda had been there before me. On Bryan’s grave; on Karl’s, a navy veteran; and on Jim and Vera’s shared plot were plastic flowers. They were bursts of yellow, blue and orange, brighter than nature on that grey day – and they would stay that way, a light left burning.
The Petersens moved from Eketahuna not long after Bryan’s death. Linda hadn’t lived there for 50 years. From her home in Palmerston North, she returned a few times each year, and still spoke of the place with real affection. It had a much better rugby team than Pahiatua, she said.
She also wondered sometimes how Bryan would have fitted back into life in Eketahuna had he returned. It seemed the saddest and truest thing about loss I’d heard.
No longer knowing why I was there, I wandered into the old part of that same cemetery, where the early settlers lay and peered at the worn inscriptions on old headstones. I read Scandinavian surnames and years of birth and death. There were no flowers on these; none for Jessie Lemberg, or for Job Bassett, who had died in ripe old age in the 1920s. “There is a line death cannot sever,” his headstone read.
A statement; a hope.