By Suzanne Kaye McKenzie | Posted: Friday April 24, 2020
Fresh faced and proud: uniformed young men look out from behind framed glass in a photograph that takes pride of place in Lewis and Nancy Nicholson’s comfortable double room at Peacehaven Village Resthome. It’s a permanent picture of the brave men of the 23rd Battalion, C Company, 12th Platoon, with whom Lewis fought alongside at the Italian Front, during World War II.
Supported by his spritely wife of seven decades, 96-year old Lewis is open to sharing a wartime tale or two, but shies away from any involving gore – he’s buried those a long time ago and believes them best left unsaid.
Lewis’s soldiering story begins when he, as a 21-year-old shearer from Croydon Bush, is conscripted into the Army. Completing training at Burnham, Lewis left New Zealand in 1944 for further training in Maadi, Egypt, before being shipped off to Italy where he was to join his brothers in arms as a bren gunner.
Lewis recalls the shock he felt when told he’d have to continue up the Adriatic coast by foot, alone, to find his platoon “en-route to Trieste” - amidst fierce fighting, formidable terrain and mired conditions.
It’s a well-told tale of the longest day of his life.
Setting off in blackness, Lewis trekked all day and into night through hostile territory, jumping often into one of many irrigation ditches to avoid detection by pockets of Germans.
Completely exhausted and figuring he still had some way to go, Lewis spotted an abandoned farmhouse with what he thought were NZ trucks parked outside. When no one answered his knock, he kicked the door in.
“I got a hell of a fright,” says Lewis, “Here’s this huge pool of blood inching toward me and sitting in amongst it are these two big, burly Italians butchering a pig!”
On discovering they couldn’t speak a word of English, a puzzled but spent Lewis made himself a bed of straw upstairs and instantly fell into a deep sleep.
“I woke up with a start around 3am, thinking something’s not right here, and found myself looking up at hundreds of stars in the night sky?!!”
Lewis (also) couldn’t move. A shell had ripped half the farmhouse roof off, waking and pinning him beneath a pile of tiles, acrid fumes and debris.
When he finally freed himself, unscathed but shaken, Lewis cautiously ventured downstairs to find the two Italians looking like they hadn’t battered an eyelid – still at it ... still butchering the pig!
But that’s not the only surprise his tale unfolds.
As Lewis readied himself for another gruelling day, he heard muffled voices coming from somewhere below. An unnoticed cellar door slowly opened and 30 or so grimy soldiers emerged from beneath.
"Blimey me!” says Lewis with a wry grin, “I had found my boys, or they’d found me!”
Many more dry-witted stories are peppered amongst the sombre strands of Lewis’s 18-month stint at the front.
There’s the tale of flushing out German soldiers hidden beneath traditional haycocks for interrogation; of being so ‘dead’ asleep he’s within 4 feet of being run over by a “fair-rattling” 80-tonne tank; of three weeks laid-up in a convalescent hospital recovering from shrapnel wounds; of his replacement being killed the day after he’s relieved of his post; of the tragic combination of local wine vats and drunken escapades … of heart strings pulled by letters of life and love back home.
Indeed, like most of the men, Lewis couldn’t wait for the war to end.
He got his wish on the 2nd of May 1945, at the age of 23.
Lewis’s service ended in Trieste and he returned to the Gore District in February of 1946, marrying his sweetheart six months later.
And there he stayed for 40 years, shearing, working the land and raising four sons with his beautiful Nancy.