Born to be a battler
American infantrymen for a few exciting weeks “of general scrapping, shooting and advancing”.
The fun was short lived. Military police spotted him and he was locked up in Aachen, Germany, before being returned to the displaced person’s centre.
“Surely there was an army somewhere in the war, apart from the Germans, that would accept me into their ranks. I was not asking for much, just a weapon, ammo and some tucker,” he says.
More escapades and another arrest followed – far too convoluted a story to go into here – before Pedro managed to track down his original regiment, the 1st RTR, somewhere in Belgium.
He was taken to a major who demanded his release papers from the Foreign Legion or the Free French, which needless to say Pedro did not have, and roared: “You’re a bloody deserter. You can’t just walk in here and ask to join our bloody army. If we take you in, every Tom, Dick and Harry will leave their armies and want to join ours.”
So Pedro was ordered to return to Paris and get an official release from the French. But Paris was more than 100 miles in the wrong direction, away from the front and the country was swarming with grim-faced military police itching to get their hands on anyone who looked like a deserter.
There were many close calls, but Pedro managed to get to Paris by wrapping a grubby bandage around his head, adopting a limp, and approaching any military police he saw to ask for directions. They never asked for his papers.
Although it was late in the war, Pedro joined the British 6th Airborne and crossed the Rhine with an armoured reconnaissance unit.
He fought with them for about ﬁve weeks, until his light “recce” tank was hit by two panzerfausts – a shoulder-held anti-tank weapon, much like a bazooka.
“The gunner was dead and the Commander was in a bad way, he was moaning and his clothes were on ﬁre. In spite of the lead buzzing around, we managed to get him out and carry him over the road to a house, where a young woman came out with a bowl of water…and before we knew it we were surrounded by Germans,” Pedro says.
The survivors were marched “practically the length of Germany” to Bremerhaven in the north, and from there to a semi-concentration camp at Sandbostel.
The story of that forced march would fill a book on its own, Pedro says – passing through hostile towns, running into “arrogant swine” Hitler Youth, the mock executions, and how a guard, “a fine looking blonde lad” shot a prisoner through the head moments after showing off photos of his wife and family.
Of the camp’s 22,000 inmates, about 15,000 were Allied troops; the rest were political prisoners of the Gestapo.
Pedro says he was lucky because the British were left alone and fed three potatoes a day and some ersatz coffee. Other prisoners were reduced to eating the dead, and when the camp was liberated about ﬁve weeks later he saw “bodies stacked up like cords of wood”.
He was ﬂown back to Britain where he forfeited his rights as a prisoner of war and rejoined the 6th Airborne. He was hoping to take on the Japanese in the Far East, but the atomic bomb intervened.
Instead Pedro was diverted to Palestine for a year, before returning to New Zealand and signing up for the J Force that occupied post-war Japan.
The memories of his time there as a Kiwi platoon sergeant are especially fond.
The country was beautiful, and it was such an easing off after the war – it would’ve been hard for a front-line soldier to go straight back to civilian life.
Back in New Zealand he became an army instructor, and was sent to Hastings to start up a territorial unit.
He bought himself out in 1950 and a few months later ﬁghting broke out on the Korean peninsula. This time, the war would have to get by without him.
“I went and presented myself for the K Force, but was rejected because my bullet wound had become progressively worse over the years, and the two panzerfausts that entered the tank had provided my own telephone exchange in my ears,” he says.
For the first time since he was a teenager running away from Ireland, he had to work out what civilians did for a living. In Pedro’s case, it was teachers’ college and a job teaching in the islands for 12 years.
Samoa also gave him plenty of skindiving, his own outrigger canoe, and a beautiful young wife. Little wonder he returned to a more temperate climate only when a tropical illness left him no choice.
He was deputy principal at Frimley School in Hastings for nine years, under the “wonderful headmaster” Jim Norton, and taught at Hastings Boys’ High until he retired in the mid-1980s.
About the same time, Pedro’s years of fibbing to authorities about his place of birth ﬁnally caught up with him.
Internal Affairs discovered he had never been registered in Britain; and Pedro discovered he was not a New Zealand citizen, despite serving in the New Zealand army, voting in New Zealand, and working as a New Zealand teacher on secondment to the islands.
He was stateless for three years, after which he was allowed to apply for citizenship. And to this day officials at Internal Affairs scratch their heads in bewilderment as to how he travelled the world for decades without a passport.
So what was the appeal of army life all those years? Why was he always fighting to get in, while other men were desperate to get out?
Pedro is adamant that there is nothing romantic or glorious about war; that it is, in fact, “a disgusting affair”.
Instead, it was the chance to fight for a cause and the rush of adrenaline, a sense of living on the edge, that kept drawing him back.
“Sometimes I also feel there’s something primitive in a man, that this is our destiny – I suppose it seems a bit ridiculous, but you could be there shivering at night, cold and soaking wet, and yet you have this feeling of elation.”
These days Pedro lives alone in a modest ﬂat in central Hastings. He and his ﬁrst wife drifted apart after more than 20 years of marriage; he met his second wife in a cathedral in Malaga, the town where he escaped from his brutal captors during the Spanish Civil War.
She has since had to return home to England, but Pedro still writes to her twice a week. His son Ricardo visits occasionally from Palmerston North.
He reads Greek classics and Harry Potter, and spends about three hours a day practising his “non-agricultural crutching” – charging around town on a pair of crutches, the legacy of a failed hip replacement almost four years ago.
As well as the chunk of bone shot away by a German airman, Pedro has lost his large intestine to cancer which he believes is the result of a post-war stint in Hiroshima; both knees have been replaced and he is minus one kidney, much of his hearing and a good amount of hair.
Yet he is resolutely upbeat, or as he puts it, happy 90 percent of the time. The other 10 percent he is “just cheerful”.
Pedro ends his brief memoir with these words: “I still consider that my gains outweigh my losses. Nothing can deprive me of my memories of my army life, the comradeship, the team spirit and the sacriﬁces men are prepared to make for each other.”
Surely there was an army somewhere in the war, apart from the Germans, that would accept me into their ranks. I was not asking for much, just a weapon, ammo and some tucker
– War veteran Pedro de Treend
Photo captions –
SOLDIER OF FORTUNE: Pedro in his Free French Army uniform.
RIGHT: A few of Pedro’s wartime photos and papers: “Who the hell would believe my story if I didn’t have all this documentation?”
HBTODAY PICTURES: ANDREW LABETT