Sunday, April 23, 2006

Kerre Woodham: War medals belong here

Everybody knows that Charles Upham chose not to profit from being a hero. As the only combat soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross and Bar, Charles Upham was forced to accept a level of attention from the country and the Commonwealth that he found taxing. When he was offered £10,000 on his return from war by his home province of Canterbury to help him buy a farm, he was adamant that he should not gain in any way from his fame. "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," he wrote in a letter to the mayor. "Under no circumstances could I consent to any material gain for myself for my services."

Over the years, he turned down many offers for his decorations, so his view on money for medals was clear. However, nobody, except his family, knows what his views were on the sale of the medals after his death.

He could have chosen to leave the medals to the Waiouru Army Museum which would have ensured the medals would never be sold. But he didn't do that. He left the medals to his three daughters. And for 10 years the family has had them on loan to the Army Museum. Now his daughters want to sell them. One of the daughters says it's a messy, awkward business that is only going to get more messy with future generations.

And she could well be right. I've heard horror stories of families splitting apart under the pressure of property division. Of course, bequeathing them to the Museum would solve the problem but everyone within the Upham daughters' families would have to agree to that and in this day and age, $3 million may well have more currency than a couple of pieces of bronze. We don't know whether Charles Upham told his girls to sell the blessed things and set themselves up for life or whether he assumed they would never let the medals out of the family. Only the family knows. But the matter went beyond the private sphere when the Upham daughters approached the government to buy the medals.

Then the sale of the medals became public property and everyone, it seems, has an opinion on the rightness or otherwise of flogging off a precious piece of New Zealand's history for profit.

Phil Goff's gone all terribly sanctimonious and pointedly referred to the families who have donated their medals to the Museum without seeking to gain financially and mused aloud as to whether or not it would be fair to pay the Upham daughters and not these other families.

However, a VC and Bar is in a league of its own. And Charles Upham's story is a special one too, beautifully told in his biography Mark of the Lion. The government had no compunction in selling off New Zealand's family jewels in the mid-80s and they've also had no problem in picking up the tab for other pieces of fabulous New Zealand art, taonga and property. So why are they so resistant to the suggestion that they pay to ensure Charles Upham's medals stay in this country, on public display, forever? Should the medals go offshore, Charles Upham won't be any less a hero. His iconic status is assured. And it's the family who have to live with their decision, not the people of New Zealand. The myth of the New Zealander is that of a brave, resourceful, anti-authoritarian, laconic and humble individual. In Charles Upham, that myth was made man. His medals are a powerful tangible reminder of an important part of New Zealand's history. They should stay in this country - no matter the price.

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