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The Mail Run

Jack Rogers - 19/11/08

My story is unusual. It is about a secret link between two prison camps during World War Two. This wasn't in Germany, but on the volcanic plateau south of Lake Taupo. The camps were the Hautu Defaulters' Detention Camp and the Rangipo Prison Camp. We prisoners were called 'military defaulters', and we were imprisoned there because we believed it was wrong to go to war.

The two camps were about eight kilometres apart, and separated by rough pumice and manuka scrub country and the turbulent Tongariro River. During the winter the area was bitterly cold and windswept. Sometimes it snowed.

When we weren't locked in our compounds, we were put to work on the prison farm, or clearing scrub, but the "no-man's land" between the prisons was very much out of bounds.

Among the prisoners at Hautu were Christian Pacifists, and there was a strong bond of loyalty among this group wherever they were. Imagine, then, their feelings when they learned that some of their friends in a prison camp near Rotorua had been sent to Rangipo, at that time, probably the country's smallest, most isolated and primitive prison. They had been sent there as punishment for speaking their minds about war at their weekly Bible discussion group. We tried to think of ways of getting a message of encouragement to them, but all mail was censored.

One of the Christian Pacifists at Hautu was my friend Jack Hamerton, or "Ham" as he was known. Ham had the job of camp butcher. His duties meant that he had to rise early, but after completing his daily work he had several free hours in the afternoon. One day he grasped a chance to slip out, and headed across the forbidden territory to try to get a message of support to his friends in Rangipo.

Using Mt Pihanga as a landmark, he finally reached and crossed a narrow swing bridge spanning the Tongariro River. Suddenly, he came face to face with a Rangipo prisoner who had an unsupervised job repairing boundary fences, and who, by luck, was one of our friends.

And so an arrangement was made. At the Hautu side of the swing bridge we would bury a large syrup tin. Whenever we could, we would bring messages of encouragement, news and cuttings from newspapers (forbidden to prisoners). Occasionally we would try to manage titbits like rare pieces of chocolate, or prison tobacco for the few who smoked. We would leave all these in the tin for the Rangipo "postman". He in turn would leave their messages, articles for our underground magazine, and uncensored letters to special friends and influential contacts. These letters would be smuggled to the outside world by another secret mail run.

After managing the run for about a year, however, Ham decided because of his principles to refuse to do prison labour. He knew this would mean he would be locked in a hut in Hautu's special "red" compound with only half an hour a day of exercise in the tiny yard, so there would be no possibility of his continuing as message carrier. A new mailman would have to be found, and that is how I came into the job.

I well remember my first time, when I was shown the way through the dead of night. Ham and I left soon after the guards' final evening round, when every inmate was checked in his hut. We had both fitted dummies in our beds a lump of spare clothing and a rabbit skin fur for hair as random checks were carried out during the night. Fortunately, our prison clothes were a dark colour, for the run had to be done by moonlight to avoid getting lost in the scrub.

Ham met me near the double fence, and we lay in the deep shadow of a hut. Hiding our faces we waited anxiously for the steady beat as the patrolmen walked between the fences, thinking their own thoughts maybe, but only a couple of metres from us.

Once they were past, we moved quickly. We had perhaps two minutes before they would be round again. Ham stretched the wire up, taking great care not to let it squeal, and we wriggled through. We climbed through the second fence, scampered like hares across the floodlit paddock, then set our course due south by the Southern Cross. Mt Ruapehu and Mt Pihanga showed clearly in the moonlight, and we kept them to our right ahead as landmarks. The sixteen kilometre round trip would have to be run at a jog to get us back to camp with the least chance of discovery.

Rough paddocks of pumice, moss and tussock soon led into high scrub, many times cut over by unfortunates like ourselves, and regrown. After a couple of kilometres, we dropped down to a small stream and crossed in shadows that to me held the feeling of ambush. I froze as two wild ducks took off in a frenzy of flapping.

For about three kilometres we followed deer tracks, more instinctively than consciously, and soon Ham pointed out a fork in the track I needed to remember. To the left it led down to ford a large stream: the easier way unless there had been heavy rain. To the right, the deer track led to the edge of a gully and down to an ancient, disused swing bridge with several footboards missing. Both tracks met again near a pine shelter-belt, and ran along the stream to the Tongariro swing bridge. This was where the syrup tin was buried, in a hollow between the roots of a pine tree.

We quickly emptied the cache and put in our own offerings. I stuffed the bundle down my shirt, and we started back. This way was harder, as the mountains that had guided us lay behind us now. I was conscious of the need to hurry, but also worried about losing our way.

The landmark for the last kilometre was another belt of pines above Hautu, but at breeding time a colony of pied stilts always nested near a shallow lagoon in the shelter of the trees there. Woe betide anyone who disturbed their midnight hours. The whole colony would erupt in a shrill chorus of complaint that would be only too easily heard by the patrolmen below.

Getting back through the wire was nerve-wracking. There were no convenient shadows near the fence to lie in, waiting while the patrolmen showed us where they were. However, the trip was successful, and Ham handed the task of postman over to me.

In those days, deer were a fairly common sight. Some days we would see stags running with cattle in a distant paddock, but there was no hope of seeing a brown deer in brown scrub in the moonlight. One night, jogging along a deer track during the roaring season, I seemed to be surrounded by their guttural coughs and grunts. My mind was filled with the thought of being challenged as a rival, and I very quickly got out of there.

Shortly after taking on the run, I got to know Lofty, a humanitarian objector or "hoon" for short. Lofty was finding it difficult to cope with life in remote and isolated Hautu. He was depressed and desperate, and was convinced that if he could just get out to the Desert Road, he could then manage on his own the fifty kilometres to Waiouru. There, he felt sure, he could get a ride to Auckland from one of his old railway guard friends.

Advising or assisting in an escape was taken very seriously indeed by most of us, but we thought in this case it could work. Could I help? I accepted with much misgiving.

On the chosen night our normal route was temporarily blocked and we had to adopt a daring plan. As the patrolman checked us in at the top compound and left for the one below, Lofty and I headed in the opposite direction through the wire into the guards' quarters. The route was brightly lit, and at nine o'clock there was every chance of walking slap-bang into the arms of a guard going to his ablution block or to a neighbour's hut.

As we passed the open doors of the guards' huts, our boots seemed to crunch extra loudly on the frosty gravel, and we could imagine looking in to see startled faces. But we daren't, and we safely passed the last hut. We clambered up a brace on a corner post and jumped the three metres down into the shadows of the punishment compound. We couldn't go through or under the wire here as the guards had interlaced the fence with tea tree to keep the punishment compound hidden from our view. Over another fence, and we made our escape through the veggie garden.

With two of us out, there was more risk that it would be noticed. Imagine our relief when we arrived at the Desert Road: a beautiful night and almost as bright as day. We shook hands by the icy road, wished each other luck, and quickly parted.

(Lofty did reach Waiouru and hitch a ride on a guard's van of the Auckland Express. He went free for three months, then he was caught and spent the rest of the war years in Mt Eden prison.)

On the way back, jogging along on automatic, I was suddenly stopped dead in my tracks by the strangest noise I had ever heard a loud, dry, rasping sound. The hair slowly rose at the back of my neck. Then I saw what it was. At shoulder height on a kanuka twig, just centimetres from my ear, a large weta was rubbing its spiny back legs together!

I was so shaken that as I approached the belt of pines near Hautu, I forgot all about the pied stilt colony. Fortunately, the guards didn't hear the uproar, or else they were too cold and tired from their patrol in the heavy frost to bother investigating. I soon found myself inside again, creeping back through the staff quarters to the social hall. I took shelter under the floor so that I could look out for the patrolmen. I had a real fear of an uncontrollable sneeze while I lay waiting. Then I saw a patrolman walk by my hut and shine his torch inside. Would my camouflaged substitute work? Apparently it did. He made a round of the compound and walked out at his usual pace.

Was I ever caught? Not quite, but very nearly. One night when I got through the two outer fences, I suddenly noticed that there was a dense half-grown crop of oats. Now how can one crawl through oats without leaving a trail? On my return, which had to be the same way, I realised when only a few metres from the fence that two figures were moving towards me on the other side, I went flat to ground in the oat track and hid my face. For what seemed an age I waited, imagining they had stopped and were contemplating the prostrate body through the wire. Maybe they had seen me and decided that trying to get back in was not such a major offence; I just don't know. When I finally looked up, they had moved out of sight.

There was one time, however, when they thought they had me. One of our group had managed to get a camera smuggled into camp and run off a few rolls of film. Then he asked me to take some shots of the mail run. Now this would have to be done in the daytime, so I chose a showery Saturday afternoon. All went well in the poor conditions. I took a shot from above the Tongariro swing bridge and remember the strangely black water; Mount Ruapehu was erupting great quantities of black ash at the time.

One of the smuggled photos - the swing bridge where the cache was hidden for letters both ways
One of the smuggled photos - the swing bridge where the cache was hidden for letters both ways
Photo source Jack Rogers
Click here to view a larger version

I completed the run and got back to my hut, took off my wet boots, hid my bag of mail and the camera, and went to take a shower before tea.

Above the noise of the shower there came a hoarse whisper. I had been missed by the guards, and I'd better have a story prepared. Soon after, I found myself called before the supervisor. He was in a fierce mood, and lined up behind him were five or six of his senior aides. I knew that I couldn't lie to him so I decided to act dumb and take the consequences. The supervisor delivered a long tirade, then, as a master stroke of evidence, produced my wet boots. But for reasons I didn't understand at the time, he didn't ask where I had been. An hour or so later, with the loss of two months' privileges, I was able to go back to my hut. Later I learned that my friend Hank, realising that the warders were looking for me, had gone to the supervisor and said, "We know you are looking for Rogers, and we know he has gone fishing and will be back." They had accepted his story, perhaps because some of them were not above doing a bit of poaching themselves!

It wasn't long after this that Allan Handyside, chief scribe for the Rangipo group, sent an alarming note. Questions had been asked in Parliament revealing information that in no way could have been known officially. The authorities were now certain that messages were getting out regularly although they still had no idea how it was being done. But from now on, they would be patrolling the tracks around the prison.

And so we reluctantly decided to bring the "mail run" to an end.

Looking back, I remember well the sheer exhilaration I felt once I was through the wire: the sense of danger, and the sweet taste of freedom. I remember, too, the majesty of the starlit skies and the snow-clad mountains to the west and south, and the sombre, brooding bush in the east. I recall learning to run through the night, relying on dormant instincts and I recall the feeling of unreality as the prison closed around me each time I came back from a run.

Such is my story.

This story was published in the NZ School Journal, Part 4, No 3, 1993. Jack has authorised it being re-published here.

Related articles
Jack Rogers Man of peace prepared to suffer for his convictions
Part 1 - Influences and decisions
Part 2 - The years in detention
Part 4 - for some happier events.

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