Students react to fallen Katikati soldier's diary

Katikati students, from left, Theo Turnwald, Leilani Rooks, Pippa Flett and Hamish Tanner peek into the diary of Lieutenant Russell Walford from 84 years ago. Photos: John Borren/SunLive.

Four Katikati College students are standing beneath a road sign at a rural crossroads south of town. It’s balmy, autumnal; the clouds of war that once hovered are long gone.

But the students are remembering those dark days, and a long lost local man – a man they sense they owe, but didn’t know.

“He is a huge part of the reason we can live in the peaceful and beautiful Katikati that we do.” Leilani Rooks is Head Girl at Katikati College.

“Selfless and heroic.” Hamish Tanner is Head Boy.

They’re delving into the story of Lieutenant Russell Freeland Walford – a son of Katikati. That’s the soldier’s name up there on the road sign – “Walford Road” – it’s down Apata Way.

And to help them weave together the strands of Walford’s story, The Weekend Sun has put the students in the setting – the very road Walford lived on, drove stock up and down more than 80 years ago, the road that carried him off to war.

We also have some props - the soldier’s 1940 war diary and military medals out of the Western Bay Museum.

The Walford Road sign in Katikati.

Hamish is holding the medals and feeling the moment.

“This is more than a name on a monument. This man had a life in Katikati. The medals are a real connection with a real person. It’s quite touching.”

But Lieutenant Walford was dragged away from that life, away from the family farm near Katikati, to fight another man’s war. And to die fighting so these young students could live and thrive.

That was December 16, 1943 – the soldier was 29 – not too much older than Leilani Rooks.   

She tries to put herself in Russell’s standard military issue boots, and struggles with it.

“Imagine - in just a matter of days all the male figures in my life going off to war, and me going as a nurse. I can’t get my head around that – way too crazy for me.”

The students are now huddled over a tiny red leather bound book – the Walford diary of 1940 - looking for insights that might help them build a picture.

Entry for Friday, March 8, 1940: “Chap by the name of Cpl Woolsey of the Royal Army Service Corps reckons we’ll be home by Xmas.” History would prove Woolsey calculation was very wrong - by about five years. History also reminds us that in Walford’s case, only his spirit would come home.

“It’s so raw and so real,” says Katikati College student Pippa Flett.  

The diary; Tuesday, March 12, 1940: “Chap Hughes suffering concussion takes violent fits and it needs four or five men to hold him down.” An observation from a military hospital bed in Italy 84 years ago.

Pippa is deeply reflective. “The diary makes me feel like I am living through him.

“Experiencing what he experienced.” Difficult to grasp for generation which, gratefully, has never been embroiled in such a conflict.

“But seeing how worn and how loved that diary is, it’s an absolute privilege to connect with the man,” says Pippa.

A diary of carefully penciled thoughts, a lot of it the very ordinary, the very mundane.

Tuesday, March 19, 1940: “Rained very heavily today.” But a weather report set against the backdrop of enemy tank and artillery shells raining down just up the road.

“Yep, even the weather,” says Pippa. “It tells me he was someone exactly like us  going through a major event.” A major event which took the lives of 11,000 New Zealanders, twice today’s population of Katikati.

That puts it in perspective. 

“I am not sure they truly understood they might die because it was such a huge adventure,” says Hamish. “But had they understood I don’t think it would have changed anything. We are just proud of... and, yes, very, very grateful to them.”

A symbol of the passage of time. Katikati’s clock tower ticks in memory of a lost son, Russell Walford.

Hamish often wondered about the significance of the clock tower on Katikati’s main street. It was erected by Walford’s family in honour of the fallen soldier.  “Everytime I drive past it now I think: ‘Yes, that’s Russell’.”

It’s Katikati tradition for the college Head Boy and Head Girl to offer some youthful insights at the local ANZAC Day service.

“This one will be very different for me,” ponders Hamish.

“Because many of the local men who went and fought would have gone to Katikati College. And I will be standing here on ANZAC morning representing them.” Including Lt Russell Freeland Walford.


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