Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Editorial: Upham's legacy is priceless

It is a sad and tawdry fact of life that many a family, contemplating a deceased father's or grandfather's war medals, decide to sell them into the thriving market for military memorabilia. Even the Victoria Cross, our highest award for gallantry, can be acquired for cash these days because some poor recipient's descendants have capitalised on his honour. But no matter how many horses have bolted since this stable was opened, there is one medal that must be kept.

The Victoria Cross and bar awarded to Charles Upham for valour in World War II have been on loan to the Army Museum in Waiouru, and there they should remain. The family of Captain Upham, who died in 1994, agree that their father's medals should stay where they are. Unfortunately, they are also discussing their sale, preferably to the New Zealand Government.

The Government, quite properly, is not bargaining. Defence Minister Phil Goff says he hopes the family will decide to gift the medals to a museum, as the families of 19 other VC winners in New Zealand have done. Amanda Upham, whose twin sister Virginia Mackenzie made the approach to the Government, told the Weekend Herald, "The Government are not interested. It would mean they have to fork out for the other VCs."

By fobbing off the family's unseemly claim with that excuse, Mr Goff is guilty of under-stating the singular value of the Upham medals. Captain Upham is one of just three people anywhere who have been awarded the Victoria Cross twice. Worthy as those 19 gifted VCs may be, they would not necessarily warrant the same treatment as the double award pinned on the chest of New Zealand's most celebrated soldier.

Captain Upham was admired throughout his post-war life not only for the fighting qualities exemplified by his actions in Crete, 1941, and the Western Desert, 1942, but just as much for the modesty and unassuming manner he maintained through years of adulation as a war hero. He was the epitome of the ordinary soldier, and respected as such by former officers who may have outranked him in wartime but would not let themselves precede him in post-war commemorations, which he attended assiduously.

It may have been in the character of a self-effacing man to allow his daughters to believe they could cash in his medals after his death at no dishonour to his memory. But it seems unlikely he would have wished it. He always said the award belonged as much to the men of his unit as himself. He once turned down an offer from his home province, Canterbury, to help buy a farm, explaining, "The military honours bestowed on me are the property of the men of my unit as well as myself and were obtained at considerable cost of the blood of this country. Under no circumstances could I consent to any material gain for myself for my services."

If he gave his daughters to believe differently, they should now reconsider. They have failed to do a quiet deal with the Government for the sum they were seeking, $3.3 million, according to Mr Goff. They may get offers exceeding the $1.1 million made at the weekend by an Auckland collector, who also said an Australian auction house was interested in trading them, but at what price to a proud name?

The family say the Government could stop the medals being sold overseas by invoking the Antiquities Act. But it is hard to see much point in stopping the medals at the border once they have disappeared into private collections. Their value lies in public access to them. They memorialise a national hero who risked his life in the service of this nation. No price can be put on his legacy. Let us hope none is paid.

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