A series of serendipitous coincidences has returned a transistor radio that belonged to a soldier killed in Vietnam to his family 50 years later.
Timaru man and Vietnam vet Peter Anderson bought the radio from a fellow soldier, Jack Williams, while both were at Burnham Military Camp in late 1968.
Following a series of chance meetings at last year’s Anzac Day services, Mr Anderson was able to return it to Jack’s brother Grant, to be part of a collection of stories, photographs and items from Jack’s life.
“In late 1968, I was a member of A Company, 1 Battalion Depot in Burnham Military Camp doing our infantry corps training.
“Jack Williams must have been in the 1 Battalion Depot Transit Barracks in Burnham Camp prior to travelling to the 1st Battalion RNZIR, 28th Commonwealth Brigade in Terendak Camp, just north of Malacca, in Malaysia.
“The Transit Barracks were at the other end of our barracks block, A Block, which we occupied while doing our training.
“He must have been short of money and decided to sell his transistor radio that he had bought duty free, I think in Australia on Exercise Tasman 7.
“He wanted $20 for it a lot of money in 1968. I wanted a radio, so I bought it off him. That explains why my name and regimental number are printed on the inside back flap.”
Mr Anderson said transistor radios were very expensive in New Zealand in those days, if you could get one at all, so buying one duty-free was the only realistic option.
“I used it while in Burnham, and when I was posted to 1 RNZIR, 28th Commonwealth Brigade in Terendak in May 1969, I took it home with me on my final leave and my sister bought it off me, as I said I would buy another one duty free in Malaysia or Singapore.
“I caught up with Jack again in Terendak just before he was posted up to Victor 4 Company, who were already up in Vietnam.
“Sadly, he was killed on his first operation on June 17, 1969, shortly after arriving in Vietnam.”
On Anzac Day last year, at the Timaru Dawn Parade and later at the Citizen Service, Mr Anderson noticed a man wearing Vietnam medals on the right side of his chest, along with medals on the left side, which were obviously his own.
“Later, at the South Canterbury RSA Dick Bennett (W3), Rapa Whiu (V5), Max Hunter (161Bty) and I were having a drink when this chap who was at the next table asked if there was anyone from Victor Four Company there.”
There was not, but the trio asked if he was looking for someone in particular.
The man, Grant Williams, said his brother had been in Victor 4.
“I asked what his name was, and he said, ‘Jack Williams, who had been killed in Vietnam’. I replied that I remembered Jack, as I had bought his transistor radio off him prior to him going to 1RNZIR in Terendak, Malaysia.”
Mr Anderson then learned that Jack William’s son was the man he had seen at the earlier services, but he had since returned to Christchurch.
“I told him about the radio and said I would see if my sister still had it, and if so, I would try to get it back and give it to him. She still had it, but it had been put away in a box and been replaced by a newer AM/FM radio – she would send it down with my brother.
“When it arrived, I put in new batteries and it still works. It is pre FM – only AM – and has two shortwave bands.”
The following day, Mr Anderson was one of a number of people helping to box up the crosses of South Canterbury’s World War I dead on Caroline Bay.
One of the women helping, RSA member Christine Stuart, mentioned she had just researched a family member who had been killed in Vietnam.
“I felt a tingle up my spine, a sort of premonition, and almost said to her, ‘was it Jack Williams?’; instead I asked ‘what was his name?’ She replied, ‘Jack Williams’. I couldn’t believe it. What are the chances of all that coming together, all purely by chance meetings?”
Mr Anderson explained he had been speaking with Jack’s brother Grant, and that Jack’s son had been in Timaru for Anzac Day services as well.
“It was her turn to be surprised, and she said that Grant and Jack were her husband’s cousins.”
All met at the South Canterbury RSA that Friday night – Mr Anderson, Mrs Stuart, and Jack’s brother Grant.
“Neither had known the others were in Timaru. In fact they were both sitting about five tables apart in the RSA on Anzac Day, but hadn’t seen one another.”
“Grant had bought a book that had been put together about Jack, called Our Boy Jack. It was a very well-presented book full of information, stories, reminiscences, and photos. Grant said they were collecting bits and pieces of things from Jack’s life, and the radio would be part of it.”
Jack Williams was buried in the Military Cemetery in Terendak Camp. His body was repatriated back to New Zealand in 2019 as part of the Te Auraki return of New Zealand service personnel who were buried in Southeast Asia, and he is now buried in Waipukurau Cemetery, in Hawke’s Bay.