THE PEN THAT WENT TO WAR


Rediscovery

The day before Christmas 2017 I was searching through some old boxes for my old Osmaroid 56 and Shaeffer Imperial fountain pens. Those were until recently the only two fountain pens I had ever purchased. And having caught the fountain pen bug was keen to see if I still had them and did they work.

No luck with that but I came found what looked like a Conway Stewart. Well it had It had the striped brown finish I attributed to Conway. I had a recollection of a fountain pen being among the effects from my mother when she too crossed the bar. But at the time fountain pens were not part of my world. In search and rescue they have no place because every document might end up in court and they do not regard water damaged writing very well.

I got onto the net seeking more about the pen but could not find a similar Conway Stewart. There were no brand names I could read with the naked eye so it was out with the magnifying glass and to my amazement I found I had a Parker Vacumatic in my hand. This was made in Canada in the second quarter of 1938. It is a top of the line or Master in Laminated Burgundy/Red Pearl opaque first generation Vacumatic. It has a two tone nib .

It has a lockdown filler tab which Parker produced only until 1938. Originally the celluloid from which the pen is constructed was laid up in sheets with alternate layers of clear and textured. The pen body was then turned up from strips cut from the sheets. Because of this the pattern does not go right around and you have a darker area on each side of the cylinder. Later pens used celuloid which had been formed into rods and the pattern goes right around. It is beautiful. If you hold it up to the light you can see the ink level inside the pen. You fill the pen with a push down lever under an end cap. This creates a vacumn which draws ink into the pen. I tried to ink it up but after all this time it needs a new diaphram which I hope Pat at INKT in Whanganui can fix. I dipped the pen and it writes like a dream.

Above. The nib is a beautiful wide flexible stainless body with a gold lamnation. It writes like better than any pen
I have ever experienced, and I do own 20 fountain pens.

The the brain started to work and it clicked. On the 3rd September 2939 this pen was my father’s 21st birthday present. It would not have been cheap but for the oldest son pretty appropriate. Probably came from Whitcombe and Tombs.

My Dad crossed the bar many years ago now but it is at Christmas when I think of him and miss him. Probably because I saw more of him at Christmas when we were staying at the family bach at Wattle Bay. He was a quiet sort of bloke and pretty resourceful. He never discussed his very eventful war and it was left to others to do that job.

1939 – War had been declared on Germany. Within days of Dad’s 21st birthday he was called up and off he went to war. More about that follows in a little bit.  I can track the journey this pen has made with my father and since he passed right up until the present day. I can also have access to letters he wrote to my mother with this pen during the war. Dad would have been 100 this year and the joy this brings me as a lover of fountain pens is huge. I enclose a short history of his war. This is being expanded and rewritten for a future publication date. After the war the pen followed him back to Cyclone Fence & Gate and no doubt signed many a document as the manager of that company.


OFF TO WAR……

I know that this pen went to war with Dad from letters home which the family still has

When you were a kid born during WWII you grew up in a world where most of the men around had been to war. Seldom was the war itself discussed they did however have a few laughs about the good times. I have learned more about my late father through this Comms Website and long talks with Jack Harker than I ever got first hand.

Last night when I was thinking about this I did some trawling and found information that filled in some gaps… and not always directly related to my prime search…. Always wondered why a Dutch kid at my primary school suddenly stopped coming and his family up tent and vanished. Father had been a collaborator and was ‘discovered’.

My father Harold Jasper Robertson AB D/1697 MID USN left school in 1937 and went to work in the family company Cyclone Fence & Gate as a wire worker. He joined the RNZNVR at Ngapona and was an active Zambuck [St johns Ambulance]. He is third from the right in the bottom row about to embark on the NZ Navy Training Vessel Wakakura. He loved to wear his had flat aback like that. In my day you got a thick ear for you troubles. On declaration of hostilities there was an Esso tanker John A Brown (JAB) berthed in Auckland.

A few days after the Declaration Dad shipped out on the JAB as a Defensively Equipped Merchant Ship [DEMS] Gunner. He used to joke they gave him a ship, a gun in a box and a user manual and told him to go and fight the war. That tends to indicate that the Poms had remembered the lessons of history and built the ship then only about a year old, to be ready for war. There is a corollorary to that after the war when a new wire netting machine arrived at Cyclone Fence & Gate from Germany. You guessed it, Dad had the job of putting it together from instructions he said were in ‘industrial German’.

 Above. After the war the John A Brown is shown arriving in Perth, Western Australia. I assume the gun mounting would have been for’d about where you can see the funnel of the tug.

The JAB had a distinguished war and was finally broken up in 1959 under a Panamanian flag of convenience. She carried petrol on the Atlantic run. She once took a bomb which went through the decks and out the bottom of the hull without exploding. Her charmed life continued until in 1940 she hit a mine and went off to dry dock for repairs.

Note I did find the JAB her travel history for the rest of her days.She did come back to Auckland several times after the war…. wonder if Dad knew, and if he did if he went to visit.

When the JAB was mined Dad was moved to Bomb Disposal in Portsmouth until the NZ Navy remembered him. He used to give another reason for doing what  your are told… apparently he was accompanying and officer on an inspection. The officer directed Dad to walk on the other side of him which he did. Shortly after a wall collapsed and killed the officer.

Like a lot of Kiwis fighting the war in Europe Dad found himself posted to the ill fated HMS Neptune.

As a Gun Layer it would have been a totally different Navy to the one he knew. Neptune already had a large NZ component in the crew and more were drafted on as the ship was heading back to NZ. Not for Dad, another pier head jump and he and another gunner who would remain a good friend for the rest of his life were drafted off Neptune at the mouth of the Thames. They were sent up to Leith to stand by HMS Moa. On the creation of the RNZN Moa of course became HMNZS Moa.

Note: A pier head jump is Navy slang for a last minute posting. They come out of the blue without warning and can be very disruptive in life. I had no fewer that six of them. When I was young and single they were part of the adventure. later married with a young family I became more and more resentful if them. Finally I told the Navy to shove it where the sun does not shine and resigned.

HMNZS Neptune was sunk in the Med in an Italian minefield. 30 of the ships company got off but only one survived in the open boat. He was picked up by the Italians. On the 75th Anniversary of that sinking earlier in the year I wrote a summary of events based on Jack Harkers book. It did not get any promotion by the RNZN who have an aversion to Jack’s somewhat loose interpretation of official data to write his books. Never the less nobody else even got close to what Jack wrote. I will post that again on this website shortly

After working up out of Leith in Scotland Moa set out for Auckland. This may be at variance with other Moa recollections on this site but this is how I remember things…….. Her first port of call was Halifax and from there she worked her way south to the Panama Canal.

I do know that they went to New York and to the World Fair because I have seen photographs taken there. Recently I found a plate from Bermuda in my mother’s effects which indicates Moa went there as well.

After transiting the Panama Canal Moa then had to steam up to Canada. Some problem with getting the code books and routing plans from the USN I think. The journey home from there is obscure.

On arrival home Dad found time to get married and in his groomsman was Acting Leading Signalman Campbell Buchanan US Navy Cross later killed on HMNZS Kiwi in the action with the Japanese submarine l-1 near Guadalcanal Jan 1943.

In that action Dad was the gun layer on Moa’s 4” inch. For his conduct that day he received the MID USN signed by Admiral Bull Halsey. The gun from the Japanese submarine  l-1 came to NZ on Otago in 1968 and seeing it at Kauri Point sent shivers up my spine. If the Japanese gun crew had been better at their job I most certainly would never have happened. (yeah I know)

Later Moa and Tui intercepted a group of heavily armed Japanese landing craft which were know to be running at night resupplying Japanese forces on the ground. In the gun action that followed Moa’s gun shield took a hit which ignited the cordite bags on deck. Dad and three others suffered extensive burns and had to be evacuated ashore strapped on deck on a US PT Boat. The USN considered it too dangerous to carry wounded below decks on the PT Boats.

Luck was once again with Dad because he was alive and back in NZ under treatment when Moa was sunk in Tulagi Harbour. She was alongside a USN dsestroyer at the fuel wharf and took a bomb down the funnel during an air raid. There was quite a to do about this because the authorities had failed to pass on indications that there was an incoming air raid. All of his kit including the silver cigarette case he received for his 21st went down with the ship.

Recuperating from his wounds Dad was drafted to Waiouru W/T as a driver, specifically as Eggy Biggs driver. He used to tell how the local traffic cop was encouraged (you know that rum we use to great effect) to fail Eggy his drivers licence so the boys would have use of his car at nights. Stu Sinclair the local farmer at the RNZN camp near the receivers was a radio operator in WWII. I spoke to him often when I was there and he remembers that story.

I was born in Auckland on the 5th Feb while Dad was serving at Waiouru WT. He visited me a couple of times while I was serving at Irirangi and thought the only change was it was a bit easier to get into the Wrennery.

Having fought a reasonable war you might have thought they would leave him there….. No, he was drafted to HMNZS Gambia. Gambia was actually quite busy, one day I will get on the net about that. On the day Japan surrendered Dad was at his action station as gun layer in the main director when a Japanese aircraft appeared. He had the aircraft in the cross-hairs but then the Japanese aircraft was shot down by an American fighter plane. I am not sure if Gambia actually opened up. At that stage of the war their sense of survival would be pretty well tuned. The US aircraft would have known to keep out of the way of their shells.

For Gambia the final act really was the signing of the surrender in Tokyo Bay (at action stations). They must have been on shore because Dad told the story of a Japanese typewriter which one of his mates libereated. Connect the dots… a Japanese typewriter would be used for typing……..
At the end of the war the Navy got rid of Hostilities Only sailors really quickly. I did not think to check if he continued with the RNZNVR and now I cannot find his papers. I would imagine most of them would have had a guts full by then

AFTER THE WAR

For Dad it was back to Cyclone Fence & Gate in Khyber Pass where he eventually took over from my Grandfather as manager. He was with that company for the whole working life. I am working on the Cyclone story for another time. It must be said that this was important work. The world needed food and farmers needed fencing and buildings. Cyclone was the leader in the chain mesh and which I call pig mesh, the square mesh, production of fencing wire and fencing staples. Quickly erected and economical hay barns and farm buildings were needed. Strong light trailers were needed. My grandfather and then my father managed that production. Many of the haybarn and trailer designs came from my fathers fertile brain and I wonder how many were first sketched out with the Parker Vacumatic.

It was also back to his beloved bach at Wattle Bay on the Manukau dealing to the snapper which he did until he passed away.

Dad said little about his war, just the odd remark from time to time.  Many of his old Moa and Gambia mates used to come to our bach to go fishing, have a few beers and lots of singing with Dad on the piano accordion. No short range gunnery, just funny stories.

I once asked him why he remained an AB. His reply was that he liked the job and promotion often meant a draft and a place on the list of those killed in action. His only advice when I joined “never buck a draft”. I grit my teeth when I think of some of my crash drafts but I kept to his advice. Just an aside on that, once again I had been posted at short notice to the other end of the earth arriving in Navy Office as a Leading Radioman. My Petty Officer rank promotion came a few months later with a job change from the Signal Office into the Navy Directorate. Seven months after that the combined service system came into force. The job I was doing was zone for an officer. For the first time in the history of the Navy and just seven months as a Petty Officer I was promoted to Chief Petty Officer.

Not too long after that I had to go to Auckland for a post exercise debrief. I managed to sneak Lisa onto the plane {DC3 top part of your body red hot, legs and feet frozen solid]. I had arranged for Mum and Dad to pick Lisa up at the airport. When I entered the terminal building in the uniform of a CPO my Dad had tears in his eyes.

And a closing note was the launch of the ‘new’ Moa. When I found out about the launching I contacted the Commodores Office. Chief Yeoman Buck Rogers was running the guest list and pulled a few strings. Dad was invited as guest of honour that day and the photo of him on the wheel in the Herald was his pride and joy. Afterwards Mum and Dad were invited to lunch on HMNZS Waikato by the Captain. That man turned out to be David Niven Woods who had been my skipper on HMNZS Mako. Dad had a wonderful day that day and I am pleased we made it happen.

It is good to remember that for many the war story had many chapters. I imagine Dad would have felt just a little bit safer on Gambia compared to Moa, Bomb Disposal in Portsmouth and Neptune.

Dad continued to work at Cyclone until the day he retired. The company changed hands many times over the years and that is a story to be told another day.  What is important here is that the Parker fountain pen was with Dad throughout all of those years……..