Emotional journey to see her dad
Waikanae’s Suzanne McPherson reached an emotional end to a vigorous pursuit this year, after an eye-opening journey to Cassino, Italy, where her father lays buried 70 years after losing his life as a 39-year-old New Zealand soldier.
In what marked the 70th anniversary of 1944’s Battles of Cassino, Mrs McPherson and her husband Gordon took flight to Rome on May 13th for what spiralled into a day-long commemoration that saw the pair presented with honouree [honorary] seating.
“All I can say is thank you to God for keeping me alive long enough to see such a day,” said Mrs McPherson, who published her extensively researched book, Keith Harper – Man with a Mission, in 2012 after years of heartfelt research.
The book, which includes information and sources from all around the world, stemmed from years’ of digging and a desire to develop a deeper understanding of New Zealand’s only man [see correction at end of page] to have lost his life in battle.
Now buried in the Commonwealth War Cemetery at the foot of Monte Cassino Reverend Keith Harper holds a respected place in both Cassino and New Zealand’s history.
The McPhersons were among a large group of New Zealand pilgrims who attended the commemoration, which included 38 New Zealand veterans, all in their 90’s.
After a couple of days spent in Rome, the McPhersons endured a bus trip to Cassino, where they started the rituals by attending the Maori commemorative service alongside a local guide, Dr Gianni.
“Dr Gianni was an Italian Canadian university professor who held doctorates in literature and linguistics, as well as being a historian,” Mrs McPherson said.
“His specialist subject was Cassino at the time of the battle, and he was a remarkable man with every detail at his fingertips, as well as a great raconteur of relevant anecdotes.”
The New Zealand commemorative service followed on during the second day at the Cassino cemetery, which was established by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission following the war.
“The group asked me to read something from my book before we entered the cemetery, which was the most beautiful place.
“So we sat there and I read the letter father wrote me for my third birthday.
“There was scarcely a dry eye.”
Mrs McPherson recalled a man in the group “with no Christian affiliation whatsoever”, who had brought his guitar on the journey after practising Amazing Grace before leaving home.
“When his wife asked him what on earth he was practising it for, he said he didn’t know, but he’d had the feeling someone might need it.
“So then and there, at father’s graveside, he led a large group of us in singing that mighty song.”
Afterwards, the McPhersons were led by Dr Gianni to the front of the service, where seats of honour were waiting for them, nestled in the shade just behind the main proceedings.
The service, led by chief New Zealand army chaplain Lance Lukin, suddenly “came as a shock” for an overwhelmed Mrs McPherson, as Lukin began speaking about the day’s predominant topic: Keith Harper.
“I could hardly believe my ears.”
“The whole speech from then on was centred on father and his life, with quotes from his writings, including what he’d written about Anzac Day in 1940 and its relevance to today, all as recorded in my book.”
Completely blown away, the McPhersons listened on as Lukin announced the attendance of Keith Harper’s daughter and son-in-law.
“There were many people in high office present including Prince Harry, New Zealand’s Governor General, who later wanted to meet with me, New Zealand’s minister of Defence, diplomats, and top brass from the New Zealand Army. The fact father’s story was the lynchpin of the whole service ensured that he and all the family were honoured on that day, in a very public and utterly remarkable way, truly was the most extraordinary day of my life.”
Photo caption – HONOURED GENERATIONS: Suzanne McPherson, of Waikanae, at her father’s grave in Cassino, Italy, for the first time after losing him as a five-year-old during 1944’s Battle of Cassino.
PHOTO: SUZANNE MCPHERSON
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
A story in last week’s edition about Suzanne McPherson’s trip to visit her father’s war grave in Italy, should have referred to New Zealand’s only chaplain, not man, to have lost his life in the Battle of Monte Cassino.