World War II veterans, and new friends, John Woods, 103, (left) and Eddie Smith, 98. Photo / Stephen Parker
Seventy-six years ago, four hours after sunset, 900 guns opening fire illuminated El Alamein’s skies.
Eddie Smith, 21, spent the next 11 days relaying messages and ferrying necessities to and from his comrades on the front line, while John Woods, 26, fed ammunition into 25-pound guns behind the fighting troops.
Their efforts were rewarded on November 4, 1942, when the Axis retreated, giving the Allies their first win over the master German strategist general Rommel in the Battle for Egypt – that took 1300 Kiwi lives.
One-and-a-half-years later, New Zealand suffered heavy losses in an attack on a German stronghold at Cassino, Italy, but again, Woods and Smith were not among the fatalities.
They and their fellow Kiwis waited three weeks for heavy rain to stop, until March 15, 1944, when they were finally able to co-ordinate land and air attacks.
They were unable to hold on to the progress they made that day, and were back on defence a week later.
The attempt killed 343 New Zealanders, and they were withdrawn in April, but the Polish made a successful attack in May, with some support from remaining New Zealanders.
Seventy-five years later, 18,500km away, Woods, 103, and Smith, 98, happened to sit at the same dining table at the Glenbrae Village Rest Home and Hospital, and met for the first time.
Their shared longevity and World War II service ignited a new friendship, at a time when almost all of their veteran friends had passed.
They are now found side-by-side at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The straight postures they once marched with are now stooped, but they’re quick to smile.
Woods’ daughter Hazel Kusabs first met her dad at age 4, when he returned home.
She says he has barely changed.
“His second name should be resilience, he just copes. Whatever he has to do, he just does it.”
Woods had to leave school in Palmerston North at 14 to become an apprentice and help support his family through the Great Depression.
He moved to Rotorua 50 years ago and lived alone until the April floods last year, Kusabs tells me.
“He only had help with his daily shower, but was otherwise independent with his wheelchair and mobility scooter.”
Smith’s “establishment” is just 60 steps from Woods’.
In it, you’ll find his medals and an ornament of a kiwi made out of a heavy artillery shell, a gift from a fellow soldier that he has kept since.
He arrived back in New Zealand in 1946 on his birthday, January 13, after four years away from his home, Motueka.
Smith volunteered, but Woods was conscripted, and it’s evident in the ways they speak, or in Woods’ case, don’t speak, about their service.
Andrew Kusabs has known Woods, his father-in-law, for 60 years, but only found out last month how he lost hearing in his left ear.
“A plane dived on them and he went to get ammo from behind the gun, but his mate got a fright and let it off too early. The force threw John through the air after he hit the ground, he just remembers blood all over his head and face, being concussed, and being deaf on one side.”
Woods never applied for his medals, instead he told his family “they knew where we were when they wanted us, so blow them, they can bloody well send them to me”.
He was entitled to a free trip to the Mediterranean war sites, and Andrew wanted to join as his caregiver, but Woods told him “I didn’t want to go the first time and I don’t want to go now”.
“All I wanted to do when I got home was forget about it all,” Woods says. But when I ask what his service number was, he instantly recites it – “66336”.
On Anzac Day he tries to be unemotional.
“As far as I’m concerned it’s just another day, that’s it.”
He was an RSA member, but after going to two events he decided there was too much drinking involved.
Smith spends Anzac Day thinking of those who fell.
“I remember some things that happened and those that came before us, sometimes they’re not good thoughts, but it’s good to remember.”
When asked what young New Zealanders can do to honour servicemen like him, Woods says: “I don’t want to tell them to do anything exactly, but they should make the most of their lives here.”
“Love thy neighbour and do the best you can for your family if you are lucky enough to have one.”
When our interview is finished, Smith refuses help to get out of his chair and into his walker.
I drop my notepad on the table and discreetly raise my hands towards Smith in case he falters.
He takes two steady steps, and places his left hand on Woods’ thin right shoulder, padded by a navy blazer Hazel dressed him up in for the paper.
Woods initiates a handshake, and Smith projects his words towards Wood’s left ear.
“See you Johnno, take care,” he says, and edges away until lunchtime.