The Auckland War Memorial Museum has expressed regret for the way it treated a family seeking to recover war medals held in its collection.
The museum’s director of collections, David Reeves, told Fair Go he couldn’t rule out returning the medals to the family, but didn’t want to prejudge the outcome of a long-overdue consultation.
“We offered to meet the family in person and for various reasons that didn’t happen, and we regret that,” Reeves said.
Douglas Paterson’s family had been seeking the encounter since 2019, after Labor MP Chris Hipkins took up his cause and urged the museum to make the family’s wishes ‘paramount’ in any decision about the future of the medals.
Paterson was an RNZAF helicopter pilot attached to an Australian unit fighting in Vietnam in 1970 when he risked his life to save a platoon of Australian soldiers.
The quote is online and tells the story of a helicopter pilot who repeatedly faced a hail of bullets to ensure his Anzac comrades could escape the life of a fight where they were outgunned and in danger.
This earned Paterson the Distinguished Flying Cross.
“It was given to a man who came to harass my mother at a very stressful time for her,” says her son Rosco Paterson.
His mother Margaret had been contacted shortly after her husband’s death in 1980.
“He told me he looked at obituaries in the Herald and then dealt with widows,” Margaret Paterson told Fair Go.
“He started wanting Doug’s medals, calling me, calling me, really being a nuisance, telling me about them and how now they’ll be safe.”
Forty-two years later, speaking to Fair Go, medal collector Brent Mackrell disputes that.
“It wasn’t pressure. It was always an open invitation.
But there was a sense, Mackrell explains, to preserve the story.
“We lost a lot of our history where widows just said no, it’s bang, and it was all swept away.”
Rosco says her mother was pressured, needing to find work to support her family and move into a new home after burying her husband.
Margaret did not remember signing them at the time. A detailed search by Fair Go found no written agreements.
In 1998, Rosco wanted to wear his father’s medals in a national parade of remembrance for Vietnam veterans and their families, and it was only then that he found out they were gone.
Mackrell insisted that he would only return them for this parade if Margaret signed an agreement to return them immediately afterwards and concede that they were hers for donation. Feeling helpless, she agreed.
The medals pass
Mackrell held the Paterson DFC and two other Douglas medals until 2001 when he gifted them to the Auckland War Memorial Museum along with 1,200 military decorations collected over the years.
The family was unaware for several years and the museum believed there was no problem with how the medals were obtained.
In 2018, the museum considered a formal request to dispose of the medals – the technical term for removing them from the collection.
He reviewed available records, but no one spoke to the family until it was news that the museum’s board had denied their request.
Former RSA National Chairman, Air Vice Marshal (Retired) Robin Klitscher had served in Vietnam with Douglas Paterson. He wrote to the council but his strongly worded letter supporting the family did not change that decision.
Paterson MP Chris Hipkins wrote another letter strongly urging the museum to reconsider and put the family’s wishes first.
The museum’s general manager, David Gaimster, later promised Hipkins in writing that he would be happy to meet the family.
Rosco sent a request to meet with them soon after, but the Museum failed to follow up on that offer.
David Reeves says the museum is renewing this offer and is meeting to discuss options with the family for the future of the Paterson DFC and other medals.
“These particular medals, particularly the Distinguished Flying Cross, are the only medals in the Museum that relate to Vietnam, which limits our ability to tell this story to future generations,” Reeves said.
“It is an important part of our collections policy to bring to light those stories which perhaps did not receive the recognition at the time that they should have had.”
When asked if one of the options might be to return the medals, Reeves told Fair Go “I couldn’t rule that out.”
Rosco Paterson says the family is preparing to meet the museum soon.
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