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"Gunner Inglorious" Goes West
James Herbert (Jim) Henderson 24563
The young Henderson grew up on his father's farm Kairuru, Takaka Hill. He later remembered as a child laying on the floor of an abandoned hut on the farm becoming "enchanted, enraptured ...swept away with "Unofficial History of the AIF" in Smith's Weekly left by Aussie quarry workers'—the inspiration for what would later become one of the iconic features of postwar New Zealand newspaper publishing.
Educated at Nelson College, Henderson showed an early gift for writing as founding editor of the school publication Barnicoat Breezes (1935). He entered the journalism profession as a reporter on the Nelson Evening Mail before joining the staff of the NZ Free Lance.
On the outbreak of the Second World War, Henderson served as a lance-bombadier (a "gunner") in 29 Battery New Zealand Artillery, 2NZEF. He was wounded and taken prisoner at Sidi Rezegh on 1 December 1941 during the North African Campaign. His left leg later had to be amputated while he was being held in a POW camp in Italy, where he wrote a comedy skit Wrack and Ruin Castle.
Following his repatriation to New Zealand in June 1943 and suffering from grotesque nightmares, Henderson wrote while a patient in Wellington Hospital an account of his experiences, which proved to be the most popular as well as enduring personal account of the Second World War: Gunner Inglorious, first published in 1945 is now in its fourteenth edition and has sold in excess of 100,000 copies as well as being successfully adapted for the stage. On a personal level, Henderson claimed that writing "purged the demons" and that he never again suffered a bad war dream.
After the war Jim was commissioned by the War History Branch to prepare two official histories: RMT: Official History of the 4th and 6th Reserve Mechanical Transport Companies (1954) and 22 Battalion (1958).
The official historian simultaneously embarked on collecting the unofficial, but nonetheless valuable, wartime anecdotes for what would become possibly the longest-running regular column in New Zealand newspaper publishing history. In January 1953, "Unofficial History" featured in the NZRSA Review for the first time:
The first story was submitted by a veteran of the South African War and for which he received one guinea for best story. The New Zealand post-WWII equivalent of the Australian column he had been so fascinated as a child during the inter war period in rural Takaka. In 1978 Henderson published the best stories from "Unofficial History" as Soldier Country. After 43 years and "never an issue missed", Henderson signed-off in December 1995:
A popular radio personality, his "Open Country" show ran for fourteen years from 1961 to 1975, as well as "This is New Zealand" (65 radio talks) and more than 100 radio documentaries. Henderson was also a talk-back host during the early days of Radio Pacific and in 1984 he won a Mobil Radio Award for outstanding contribution to radio. His now popular published and radio format also crossed over to television with two series of "Henderson's Country" for TVNZ. He also wrote numerous books on non-military subjects and his autobiography Down from Marble Mountain was published in 1983. He was made an MBE in 1984.
Jim Henderson's enduring legacy is that he understood the need to capture our firsthand war history decades before today's historians, publishers and government-sponsored projects. "Unofficial History" is a greatly undermined vein deserving of digital extraction so that the generation that turns out in growing numbers each ANZAC Day can appreciate these firsthand accounts of New Zealanders at war.
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