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Memories of working as a parish minister and an army chaplain during World War 2

Ian Dixon talks to Dorothy - 12/05/06

Anzac Day has been held on 25 April each year since 1916 to give public recognition to the sacrifices and courage of New Zealanders who were killed in war or who returned after war service. Anzac Day is similarly honoured in Australia. The name is drawn from the initials of Australian and New Zealand Army Corps - troops who fought together at Gallipoli in 1915. The number of people who remember living through World War 1 is very small. There are now no surviving New Zealand veterans who served in the forces in that war. The number of those who served in World War 2 or lived through those years as civilians is shrinking. Fortunately for us the Rev Professor Ian Dixon, now 94 years of age, has vivid memories of the years of World War 2.

In his blog, "Out and about with Rob" Rob Ferguson wrote, "During Anzac Day St Ninian's decided to have a time of story-telling. It was a fascinating glimpse into life during the war of 1939-45. Folk talked simply about their experiences as children, as adults, as wives waiting for either their man to come home or news that he would never return. It was a moving time because we heard first-hand stories. It was a moving time too because these are voices that do not find a place in history recounting of wars where official versions prevail."

After that memorable gathering and Rob's urging us to share our memories and listen to others' stories I wanted to hear a story about the attitudes of the church during World War 2, and who more able to tell me about that than Ian Dixon who was inducted into his first parish a month after the war began and later served as a New Zealand army chaplain. He is now the oldest surviving chaplain to the New Zealand forces in that war.

Ian told me his story which I now share with NZine readers around the world.

I was inducted into my first parish in Pleasant Point in South Canterbury in October 1939, one month after the war broke out in September 1939. My main awareness of the war at this time was of people suffering acute anxiety and needing support. At every service we were tremendously conscious that we were at war and that many of the people in the congregation were suffering greatly.

When young men from the district departed to go into camp the district would hold a farewell in the town hall. These were well-attended and significant occasions with flag waving, speeches with an emphasis on patriotism, and ending with a dance.

When casualty lists started to appear that was especially poignant. As many of the young men from Pleasant Point enlisted early in the war all too soon I was asked by the postmaster to be the person to deliver to members of my church bad news telegrams from the War Office. I felt that people dreaded seeing my car approaching, so I would ring them the day before to let them know that I would be visiting in their area and so allay any unnecessary anxiety.

I was appointed as chaplain to the Home Guard, but could not attend their training sessions as they were held on Sundays when I was conducting a Sunday service.

A camp for a whole company of troops, territorials or new recruits, was held in our district and did manoeuvres there. On the Sunday evening the church was packed with soldiers who attended voluntarily. I took as the text for my sermon a verse in the book of Joel, chapter 3 verse 14.

Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision: for the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision.

I stressed that war focused us on the crisis that humanity is going through and signalled the ultimate issues. I was not preaching about the Second Coming, but a World War says to us that we had better all wake up and make an effort to save the world. I really believed in those days that God could and would intervene. The congregation appeared to be really stirred by the message and for me it was an occasion which made me feel that I was not going to be in civilian life much longer and that I needed to be where it was all happening.

Ministering to a parish in time of war I found very different from ministering in time of peace. There were some attitudes among the congregation which I found difficult to cope with.

During the war the production of food was of paramount importance and some farmers were seconded to farm management rather than serving overseas. In many cases if a family had one or more sons already serving overseas another son would be seconded to manage the farm and keep the crops growing. Within the parish sometimes those who had boys overseas adopted a rather superior attitude to those who could not claim to have parted with their sons.

There were some who probably expected me to preach sermons attacking Hitler. As a student I had been a pacifist, but once the war broke out I felt that I was involved pastorally and the parish members needed to be cared for, rather than be offered militaristic sermons against Hitler and the Nazis. As far as I was aware the general attitude towards conscientious objectors was ambivalent, with more tolerance among people in the church than among others. I remember saying from the pulpit that war would be worse if there were no conscientious objectors and that people must have the right to act according to their conscience. I don't think you could say that that was greeted with great applause!

Brenda and I were married in 1940 and were given our first radio as a wedding present. I listened every night to the BBC news to keep up with what was happening overseas. Every day I was mentally and emotionally involved in the war. I had to talk with each young man before he left to go to camp. All of us in the parish were busy organising parcels to be sent to the men overseas.

The national church had asked me to serve as a chaplain. I agreed and then had to wait for the call up. This was a very trying time. We had been married only two years and had a young baby. I felt that the only honourable thing to do was to resign from the parish and Brenda had a very lonely time while I was away.

Once I put on uniform I was busy caring for the boys in the camp and was no longer preoccupied with the outcome of the war. Churchill's 'No surrender' speech had a huge influence over millions of people, Christian and non-Christian, who experienced the power of the word and believed in his leadership.

It was a relief to be in uniform, and although at heart I did not support the military process I believed it was my duty to minister to men and women who were serving in the armed forces. At the same time I had a very close friend who was in prison because of his conscientious objection. We kept in touch all through the war years and I felt that he needed my support and prayers as much as anybody.

I was sent to a recently formed battalion, a special force of men from Nelson and the West Coast. I had no training for the duties of a chaplain, but I had to preach to the church parade and take public worship, and I took care to make the service brief. It was encouraging for me when the Commanding Office told me it was "a bloody good service - bloody good." I told him I would be happier if attendance at the service was made voluntary, but he replied that the rules were that attendance at some services was mandatory and at others it was voluntary. Most of the soldiers turned up even if attendance was voluntary.

There were some lighter moments. The boys needed some entertainment and the CO said it was my job to organise this. The Mayoress of Blenheim had offered to send about sixty young women to partner the boys if a dance was organised. I arranged a date, there was a suitable hall in the camp, and I organised a band. I got in touch with Mayoress who said that unfortunately the girls had been promised to another camp that night. The CO said we could not cancel and sent me with another officer to search around Blenheim and find sixty girls. He and I took opposite sides of the street and went to the managers of the businesses and asked for permission to invite girls from their staff. We found sixty girls willing to attend and sent army transport to bring them to the camp. My only problem was that when the girls I had invited arrived I found that they all thought I had invited them to be my partner!

To keep my mind alert with some academic interest I borrowed from the University of Canterbury Library successive volumes of Arnold Toynbee's books called "A Study in History". Using candles to read after lights out I read all the volumes which expressed his view of all the civilisations in the world from the beginning. I realised that what was happening at that time was not new. His interesting philosophy of history was that civilisations grew during times of great challenge and declined when people in power were too preoccupied with their own enjoyment.

When I was sent overseas I was posted first to Cairo, then to Italy as chaplain to the Nineteenth Armoured Regiment, and then to Japan as chaplain to the New Zealanders in J Force serving as part of the occupation forces. My unforgettable memory of the time in Japan is of the appalling sights I witnessed in Hiroshima shortly after the atom bomb was dropped on that city. A comforting memory is of the way Kiwi soldiers there got on with the Japanese people employed to do work in the camp - a friendly attitude treating the workers as other human beings. I was proud of their essential humanity, their inbred humility and friendly manners, not always the hallmark of the troops from other countries.

Ian's thoughts today
Ian has continued to feel deep sympathy for the returning soldiers who suffered mental problems and for those at home wracked with anxiety while members of their family were serving overseas. In his comment published in the Christchurch Press on Anzac Day he said:

"The mental-health problems of returning soldiers were exacerbated by the fact that they could not talk about their experiences. Some men suffered very severely and one of the problems was that when they came back from war in the mid 1940s, nobody wanted to hear much from them and they themselves didn't want to talk much. Men were supportive of each other at the front line and acted with bravery and resourcefulness. It was usually years later that they broke down. Later many of them felt as though the bottom had dropped out of life for them.

"Wives, mothers and sweethearts also suffered agonies in wartime. Wives or mothers got letters from their boys and the next thing was they got news of them being killed. We forget sometimes about the suffering they went through."

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