15 Jun 2020

Recording war veterans stories for future generations

From Nine To Noon, 10:08 am on 15 June 2020

After becoming tetraplegic in his teens, oral historian Patrick Bronte was inspired by two war veterans to archive wartime experiences.

He's established the Nga Toa Project which so far covers World War Two, Korea, Malaya-Borneo, Vietnam and some other recent operational deployments, including Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a free online archive which contains more than 300 interviews with veterans.

Bronte says: "'Experience teaches you the hard way. Lots of people have done some excellent oral history projects that I've been fortunate to learn from, including the opportunity to work alongside the National Office of the RSA. I push through my own set of challenges to finish the side projects...

“One of my biggest hurdles is just, due to my situation of being a tetraplegic, you can get sick at anytime… In the 24 years now since I had the accident I can just go down with the drop of a hat. That becomes a problem when you’re dealing with professionals who had to set deadlines and very strict schedules.”

When talking to veterans, he first asks them to give a background about their lives and then let’s them speak freely.

“Keeping it natural has produced some good results, I believe,” he says.

He has recorded over 300 veterans, after being inspired to do so following an accident where he broke his neck in December 1996. He dove into a river at the age of 16, with tragic results.

It was during the following period of rebuilding his life that he become interesting in military history. Not only did veterans Tony Langley and Charlie Reid inspire his recovery but also his father, who backed his work even though he lacked the technical tools for the job.

“When I started I could only afford a very basic handy cam, so there was no pro element to it at all. And I never had any intention of using it for anything other than collecting it for posterity, but things change and opportunities arise.

“So, back in 2002 I was using this camera that wasn’t really up to the task. I didn’t really know what I was doing as far as the whole filming side of thing went and I had a problem where I could not really control the camera myself, so I had to direct someone on how to use the camera, while setting up the interview and throughout the interview.”

He says a lot of the early material recorded was very raw and uninhibited. He says veterans themselves have said ‘the chair’ has had an influence, due to possible empathy with his experience, bringing an openness and willingness to open-up more about their experiences.

Service people began to increasingly see the worth and sincerity of his initiative. The recordings eventually went into a local museum archive and grants to continue the work followed.

His approach isn’t to write a history book, but only the individual soldier’s point of view and collect these accounts.

“I’m starting to record and preserve those experiences of returned servicemen post-Vietnam and one of the most interesting things for me is that New Zealand has deployed personnel over a multitude of countries that the average New Zealander hasn’t heard about…

“I was approached by a member of the New Zealand SAS Association and was asked if I would be interested in doing an oral history project with them… such a question blow me out of the water… interviewing some of our elite soldiers. So that was possibly one of the biggest compliments I have received throughout the whole process of me doing this.”

He says the soldiers spoken to have all been striking in their humility, giving honest appraisals of their experience. One moving aspect of the interview process is many veterans will tell him a story or experience they are expressing is something they haven’t shared with anyone, including their own family.

“Being able to give back that interview with those experiences that haven’t been shared before is a great motivating factor.”

The documentation of military personal history will also play a societal role, including within education.

“I’m working on an educational resource that is aimed at children or students between 11 and 13 and I’m taking advantage of the augmented reality, or mixed reality space, which seems to be the way of the future in terms of education and entertainment.

“With this particular app we’re focusing on Gallipoli, and through the use of augment reality it will be an interactive experience for those children to learn the fundamentals of the Gallipoli campaign and way we have Anzac Day.”