To commemorate ANZAC Day and mark our 30th issue, Capital chatted to three returned servicemen, who, by the age of 30, had already fought their biggest battles.
1 of 3: Ken Gordon
Ken Gordon enjoyed his time as a professional soldier. He retired as a major general, collected a CBE and was deputy chief of defence staff. He was in the defence bureaucracy in the early 1980s, far from the troops during the difficulties caused by the then Labour Government’s anti-nuclear policy.
He’d decided to join the army in 1953 and was selected for officer training, which in those days meant four years full-time in the Royal Military College at Duntroon near Canberra.
He graduated as a full lieutenant in 1956 and was posted to Linton (near Palmerston North) where he took intakes of young men doing their compulsory military training (CMT).
“About half of them didn’t want to be there, but we turned them out spick and span after 14 weeks”
He was a fan of CMT. “It was possible after World War II – because we had huge amounts of army war surplus – and didn’t cost us much. There were plenty of rifles, uniforms, barracks, kit and other materials.
“By the 1960s that was all gone and we had to start building and buying stuff, which made it more expensive and the government backed away. The whole strategic climate was different, and that changed a lot again in the 1980s.”
In 1958 CMT was replaced by national service, where 18-year-olds were randomly selected by ballot, and when that was abandoned in 1972, the army became wholly profeSSional soldiers.
Ken was posted to Waiouru and then sent to Malaya in 1958 and caught the tail end of the Malayan Emergency where communist insurgents led by Chin Peng were seeking to overthrow the government.
“They were still active but in far fewer numbers than earlier. We tracked them day after day, some of the Maori boys were very good trackers, almost as good as the native guides from Sarawak who were working with us.”
Platoons spent a month at a time in the bush on patrol, but encounters with the enemy were few. He regards his two years in Malaya as a formative time in his military career.
“This was the foundation. The troops were real scallywags. In the jungle I was ‘Skip’ but in barracks I was addressed as ‘Sir’. They never took advantage of the close relationships that are forged where men pursue a common purpose in arduous circumstances.
New Zealand war historian Chris Pugsley quotes Ken talking about men “bursting for action … shepherds, freezing workers, deer cullers . .. as hard as nails … but it made for a wonderful battalion.”
One of those wonderful men was a certain young Lieutenant Jerry Mateparae, later to become a major general himself and then governor-general.
In Malaya Ken met his great love, Eleanor, a British nursing officer. She joined him in New Zealand in 1961 and began married life at Waiouru, then the major army establishment where Ken was now an instructor at the various military schools.
He went to Vietnam as a liaison officer. The New Zealand presence was small – some engineers, and a medical group, later artillery and finally a single company of infantry, which later expanded to two companies. They operated with the Australians. Two days after Ken’s arrival, the base was shelled by mortars, but it was just “friendly fire” from their own side.
The domino theory was the prevailing orthodoxy; China had fallen and Vietnam was under attack. If it fell into communist hands, then the rest ofIndochina would be threatened.
Malaya and Indonesia (and there had already been significant communist guerrilla activity in both countries) were next, which meant a direct threat to Australia and New Zealand.
In 1966 he was sent to the British Army Staff College at Camberley, Surrey, a positive sign of favour. Promotion came regularly if slowly as he moved into general staff roles ending at Defence HQ in Buckle St. “A great job but away from soldiering.”
Only then, in the mid-1980s, did he discover “how dependant we were on the Americans for intelligence. [In this period] we found it very difficult because the relationship was restricted in the aftermath of the dispute over ship visits. The upside was that we had to scramble for ourselves.
“To be a senior officer in the higher echelons of the army services was professionally very satisfying, but it was not soldiering.”
He retired in 1988, and was awarded a CBE for his service. Ken cherishes his experiences with his men.
“My best moments were as a platoon commander, living with, on patrol with, and in charge of about 32 men, all depending on each other. Likewise as a battalion commander.”
Now 81, he is a widower who lives quietly in Karori, but still meets his mates once a month for lunch.