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Willie the Medal Man Calls it a Day

11 September 2007

Medals and the name “Willie Walker” seem to go together in military circles.

From an office tucked into an old building at Trentham Camp, Willie has for the past 15 years been the NZDF medals officer - the person everyone who wanted advice about medals turned to.

His office has drawers full of different medals, and reels of the brightly coloured ribbons that denote campaigns or other reasons for medallic recognition- gallantry, bravery, distinguished conduct special and long service.

Now Willie, a Vietnam veteran with a long history of service to the New Zealand Army, has called it a day. He is moving with his family to live in Napier, and while he is not retiring he “isn’t quite sure” what work he’d like to do in the Hawkes Bay.

Medals, and whether or not they are awarded, are an emotional issue to many serving and former personnel, and the relatives of personnel who have fought for their country.

He regularly fields enquiries from the families of World War 1 veterans asking if, for example, replacement medals are available or able to be issued. And calls come in at least daily, he says, from World War 2 veterans or their families asking about medals.

“After WWII personnel who had served were given a form to fill out and send in if they wanted to receive medals for the campaigns they were part of. The medals weren’t available until 1950, and a lot of people just didn’t bother applying for them. Now there is a greater interest in war service, and families, and sometimes the veterans themselves, apply for the medals.”

Willie checks their entitlement from the archives stored at Trentham, and most applicants who are owed medals, or their families who apply, receive them within days. Some claims are more complex, or not enough information is available, and research must be done.

People will argue about whether they are entitled to a medal, and families often want more than one set “for the grandchildren”.

One veteran, Willie recalls, sold his medals, and later applied for another set.

“I asked him why he sold the first lot and he said he needed the money for a load of firewood. I think he regretted his actions, but we couldn’t replace them.”

Willie has one award on his own set of medals about which he says little. Pushed to explain it, he talks quietly about an incident in the Vietnam jungle more than 50 years ago. The bronze oak leaf “Mention in Dispatches” was awarded for “his devotion to duty, calmness under fire and disregard for his own personnel safety” during the historic Battle of Long Tan in 1966, regarded as the most significant battle fought by Australians during the Vietnam War. The Mention in Dispatches was replaced by the New Zealand Gallantry Medal in 1999.

The 22-year-old had been in Vietnam for just over a year when the Battle of Long Tan took place. He was serving with 161 Battery because of a shortage of radio operators, and was attached to Delta Company, 6 Royal Australian Regiment when it made contact with a small group of Viet Cong. Lance Corporal Walker manned the radio as artillery fire was called in to support a forward platoon, and before long the contact escalated into a battle.

Willie and his colleagues were outnumbered 15 to one, and he spent the next eight hours crouching in a rubber plantation, surrounded by Viet Cong, all the while calling in artillery fire. The company of 105 Australian soldiers, plus three New Zealand soldiers (including Willie) held off between two thousand and three thousand Viet Cong.

Heavy rain precluded an air strike, and another worry was running out of cigarettes half way through the battle. “You had to have a cigarette now and again to calm the old nerves.”

Willie’s military career continued well past the Vietnam War, and he left the Army as a Warrant Officer, First Class, in 1992. He was one of the Army’s most senior Regimental Sergeant Majors when he retired.

He is looking forward to living in Napier, but the military, he says, will always be important to him.

“It has been a big part of my life, and you don’t forget that easily.”

(Reprinted from Army News, Issue 380).

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