• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

The former major reuniting service medals with their rightful owners

Retired army major Ian Martyn has become an ace at genealogy, finding the rightful owners of more than 250 medals.

Service medals are being reunited with their rightful owners thanks to former major Ian Martyn and his determined research.

After 37 years in the army and air force, the last thing Ian Martyn expected to become was a detective. The hours he’s spent digging into historic documents since he retired aren’t crime-related though, but to reunite service medals with the families of the men and women they were awarded to.

Since establishing Medals Reunited New Zealand (MRNZ) in 2014, the former major has become an ace at genealogy, finding the rightful owners of more than 250 medals. “Ancestry.com is my main tool because my work often requires building a family tree,” says Martyn, who operates from a small office – “The Bunker”, he calls it – at his home in Nelson.

His detective work began in 2011, when he tried to locate the medals of his great-grandfather, infantry soldier Private John (Jack) Ormsby Sullivan, who’d survived Gallipoli but died on the Somme. “I concluded his father had sold them after becoming destitute in the Great Depression,” says Martyn. “I haven’t found them – yet – but was saddened by the volume of named medals being traded on the internet and wondered why they weren’t still with the families.”

Since then, Martyn has made it his mission to return misplaced awards to where they belong, setting up a website and spreading word of his service, which is free.

Sometimes medals arrive in the post – from deceased estates, recovered by police or even, on occasion, dug up in people’s gardens. Other times, he’s asked to locate missing medals, and he often acts as an intermediary between vendors and families. With the twists and turns of history, including adoption or divorce, matching medals with descendant families is no easy feat.

Helping Martyn in his mission is partner Carolynne Davies, who supports him by providing rations into the early hours when he’s hot on the trail, and former army pal Brian Ramsay, who helps promote his work, and mounts medals for veterans and their families.

Where possible, deliveries are made in person. When a World War I Victory Medal was sent in by a navy captain who’d found it among his father’s effects, it was discovered after many intensive hours of research that the recipient, Private Henry Bevan of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, had been a Māori All Black. Martyn successfully placed the medal, along with two others he uncovered during his hunt, with Bevan’s nephew.

In another case, he reunited medals salvaged from a rubbish dump with a veteran whose family had mistakenly discarded them when he was moving house.

A committed royalist, Martyn modestly keeps his own decorations for service at home and overseas tucked away, unless on parade (he personally designed the ribbon for one of them, a United Nations service medal for a mission in East Timor). However, he proudly displays the medals awarded to his uncle, a World War II bomber pilot who was lost in action.

“Any I can’t find correct homes for, I would pass to the relevant forces museum, but so far that’s not been necessary,” he says. “There are many still out there and, were it in my power, I’d like to save and return them all. Obviously that’s not possible and I have to limit myself or I’d never leave the computer. But it’s a pleasure being of service.”     

This article was first published in the April 2019 issue of North & South.

Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email.