Veteran takes centre stage

Christchurch man George Watson (92) had three generations of his family in the audience when he spoke at Wanaka's Anzac Day service yesterday - his great-granddaughter Mya (7), daughter Joss, grandson Michael and great-grandson Riley Walker (4), all of Wanaka.  Photo by Lucy Ibbotson.
Christchurch man George Watson (92) had three generations of his family in the audience when he spoke at Wanaka's Anzac Day service yesterday - his great-granddaughter Mya (7), daughter Joss, grandson Michael and great-grandson Riley Walker (4), all of Wanaka. Photo by Lucy Ibbotson.

Three generations of George Watson's family looked on proudly as the 92-year-old returned serviceman shared some of his war stories with a packed Lake Wanaka Centre yesterday.

Mr Watson was the main guest speaker at the Anzac Day memorial service in Wanaka, where his daughter Joss Walker, a grandson and two of his eight great-grandchildren live.

He drove from his home in Christchurch for the occasion and told the audience of more than four years of service during World War 2, particularly his time in the full Italian campaign, which included action in Sangro, Cassino, Central Italy, the Adriatic coast and finally at Trieste.

While war was ''really a pretty horrible thing'', there were some light-hearted tales to be told, too, Mr Watson said.

He recalled the commander of the New Zealand Division being determined to capture a fancy Venice hotel as a ''New Zealand club'', and when the job was done, Mr Watson got to take his ''first bath in two years'' in a grand marble bathtub.

He also spoke of his and fellow comrades' admiration for the Italian women - many of whom married New Zealand soldiers - and joked that war was not all bad, as ''we were getting a free trip to the other side of the world''.

However, the significance of what the young New Zealand troops were fighting for was never far from their thoughts.

''We felt that New Zealand should try to stem this danger that was threatening the world ... by dealing with it from a distance [in Europe] rather than waiting until the enemy came to our own country.''

He summed up with a simple request of all New Zealanders in recognition of the battles fought and the lives lost: ''Love your country, be proud of it, respect it, respect everybody and everything in it. That's not too much to ask, is it?''

Mrs Walker said her father had felt like the ''man of the moment'' after the service, as many people congratulated him on the ''personal touch'' he gave his speech.

''We felt very proud listening to him. I just think he's a living treasure and I'm very privileged and very honoured to still have him in my life really and to be able to recollect these details and for the subsequent generations to be able to hear about them firsthand.''