Hero who faced down Buchenwald Nazis
By Christine McKay
THERE were just three days left before 168 condemned Allied airmen were to face a Nazi firing squad, but Squadron Leader Phil Lamason hadn’t told his men. He was determined they’d survive.
“When the 168 allied airmen arrived at Buchenwald concentration camp, they didn’t know what they were dealing with yet,” Mike Dorsey says in the foreword to I Would Not Step Back . . ., which recounts Lamason’s story.
“And in Phil Lamason, the Germans didn’t know what they were dealing with yet, either.”
Dorsey is a United States ﬁlm and documentary maker (The Lost Airmen of Buchenwald) and grandson of Buchenwald survivor “Easy” Freeman.
Dannevirke’s Phil Lamason is one of New Zealand’s greatest World War II heroes, but his contribution has been largely unknown – until now.
Lamason’s heroism and a remarkable eye-locking encounter with a senior German ofﬁcer and a 20-strong ﬁring squad is captured with spine- tingling realism in I Would Not Step Back . . . Surrounded by snarling german shepherds in the Buchenwald Camp in 1944, Lamason convinced the ofﬁcer to back down.
It was a deﬁning moment in an already momentous Bomber Command career – his life was on the line, but he would not step back.
Because Mr Lamason refused to back down, all 168 of his men, 82 Americans, 48 British, 26 Canadians, nine Australians, two New Zealanders and one Jamaican, survived the hell hole that was Buchenwald, where often the only way out was as smoke through the chimney, he told the Dannevirke News before his death in 2012 aged 95.
Last Thursday night, the new book by Hilary Pedersen detailing his leadership and courage, an inspirational and empowering model for people of all ages, was launched in Dannevirke.
But this is more than a war story, it explains what made Mr Lamason the man he was. It’s a story of a humble hero and loving family man too.
“Phil was a very, very, very brave man,” Ailsa Cullen, widow of Malcolm Cullen, the other Kiwi in Buchenwald with Mr Lamason in 1944, said at the launch.
For Mrs Cullen, whose husband died 15 years ago, the trip from her home in Whangarei to Dannevirke was something of a pilgrimage.
“The boys [in Buchenwald with Phil in 1944] would have followed him anywhere,” she said.
“I’ve tried for years to get the Victoria Cross for Phil and I’m praying the younger generation will read this book and learn how precious their home country is and how stupid war is.”
Mr Lamason was a mighty man and a truly magnificent New Zealand warrior, Colin Burgess, the Australian author of Destination Buchenwald, said by video from his home in Sydney. “Phil was a wonderful man who should have received far more recognition in his lifetime,” he said.
The Phil Lamason Heritage Centre Trust, committed to preserving and sharing Mr Lamason’s story, commissioned Pedersen to write the book.
“Its been three years and has come to fruition, but there’s almost a sense of unreality for me,” she told the Dannevirke News.
But on Thursday night the reality was here and Pedersen said it was a wonderful moment for the Lamason family and friend Glenys Scott, who has been passionate about getting Phil’s story out.
“Mike Harold [chairman of the trust] and Glenys have been stunning,” Pedersen said.
“I was proud to be the lead writer of an extraordinary biography about an extraordinary human being.
“With the help of Mike, Glenys and Sal Crisillo, this compelling story unfolded.
“It was Glenys who broke the story and her dedication and commitment to Phil and the project have been utterly outstanding, almost bordering on fanaticism.”
Pedersen admitted when approached about writing the story she had no idea who Phil Lamason was.
“This was a bit like saying yes to a marriage proposal without really knowing the bridegroom,” she said.
“But what a bridegroom. I defy anyone to outperform him.”
The book also reﬂects Crisillo’s artistry and ﬂare, with stunning layout and design.
“This is a story which touches layers of humanity,” Pedersen said. “One cannot remain untouched.
“For those who succumbed theirs was the ultimate sacriﬁce. For those who overcame, theirs was the ultimate triumph of fortitude and spirit. Phil Lamason was one of those.”
Air Vice Marshall John Hamilton, former senior commander of the RNZAF, said Mr Lamason didn’t call himself a hero.
“His was an outstanding example of leadership and service,” he said.
“I believe this book will ﬁll the gap in RNZAF history.”
The RNZAF was also represented by Wing Commander Ron Thacker and Squadron Leader Mike Ward from the RNZAF Base Ohakea.
Phil Lamason, humble hero:
Phil Lamason flew Stirling, Lancaster and Wellington bombers in World War II.
He was shot down over France on June 8, 1944. He was hidden by the French Resistance for seven weeks before being captured by the Gestapo.
Phil and fellow airmen were sold out by traitor Jacques Desaubrie for 10,000 francs, the equivalent of $120.
They were herded into cattle cars for the horrendous five-day journey to Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald, on the Ettersberg (Etter Mountain) near Weimar, Germany.
He went to save the lives of 168 airmen who were incarcerated with him in Buchenwald.
His values were hard work and he never took the easy way out. Whether he was staring down the barrel of a gun, or staring down the bank manager who didn’t want to lend him money, there was no backing down.
Mr Lamason attended Massey University, was a young cadet at the Smedley training farm in Ongaonga and in later years was on the Smedley board for 20 years.
Photo captions –
TOP BRASS: Air Vice Marshall John Hamilton, left, former senior commander of the RNZAF, joins the Phil Lamason biography launch in Dannevirke, with author Hilary Pedersen. Mr Hamilton helped with technical details in the book.
PHOTOS/ CHRISTINE MCKAY
FAMILY PRIDE: John Lamason, centre, son of the late Phil Lamason, attends the launch with extended family, including daughters Trish Simmonds and Cherry Taylor, who travelled from Australia for the event. Phil’s grandson, Matthew Lamason, also attended, but is not pictured.
REMARKABLE: I Would Not Step Back. . ., the story of World War II bomber command hero Phil Lamason DFC and Bar, is now on sale. It can be purchased on Friday, February 16 at the Dannevirke Information Centre, between 10am and noon. It can also be purchased in hardcover or as an e-book from [www].phillamason.com.
“Dad was just a family man a farmer, who returned from the war and got on with life.”