Oamaru war hero to be commemorated

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The daughter of New Zealand war hero, Melville Mirfin, is attending a function in Wellington today to honour his memory and officially launch a line of commemorative post stamps.

Oamaru resident, Judy Smith, is attending a ceremony with her sister Jan Palmer, of Mosgiel, at Te Papa Museum where her twin brother John and son Ross, will speak about the bravery of Lance-Corporal Melville Mirfin of the New Zealand Medical Corp.

Mr Mirfin is being remembered for saving many lives when the Marquette sank during World War I after being struck by a German torpedo in the Aegean Sea on October 23, 1915.  One hundred and sixty-seven people died in the tragedy including 32 New Zealanders.  Among those who died that day was Isobel Clark who grew up in North Otago and served as a nurse in the army.

Mr Mirfin is the ‘ordinary soldier’ chosen as the face of the official New Zealand Post World War I stamp and coin series.  To help tell the story behind the stamps a book has been written about Mr Mirfin to explain how he left his family behind to defend King and Empire and ‘remarkably survived action from one end of war to the other.’

Mrs Smith said her father was a reluctant war hero and chose not to share stories of his experiences.

“He never spoke to us about this – I don’t know why,” she said.

“I think possibly it was just too horrible.”

“I knew he had been to war and that he had been very helpful, but didn’t realise the extent of what he had done.”

Mrs Smith has been told her father was one of the last people to leave the Marquette that fatal day, choosing to help others get to safety before jumping into the water as the ship went down.

“I feel very proud and I’m just sorry I didn’t know more about him when he was alive.”

She also believes he was one of the longest-serving New Zealand soldiers during the war,  signing up for the medical corp in 1914 where he travelled to Samoa, Egypt, Turkey and Western Europe before returning to New Zealand in 1919.

Upon his return he took up the position of manager of the Bank of New South Wales in Oamaru, now the Forrester Art Gallery, where he resided with his wife Myrtle and four young children, Peter, twins John and Judy, and Jan until his retirement in 1955.

“He was a very nice man, very ‘old school’ and always very strict on manners – that was just him.”

“I remember him going off in his uniform every Saturday to work in the Home Guard.”

Mrs Smith, who now does volunteer work at her old family home the Forrester Gallery, said her father worked in the bank which was in the front room of the gallery and the family were able to use the remainder of the large five bedroom home.

“It’s very nostalgic to be back working in the gallery.”

“I remember we used to have a small garden out behind the bank.”

Mr Mirfin attended every anniversary of the sinking of the Marquette upon his return from war and died in 1976 in Christchurch.

By LINDA MCCARTHY

PHOTO: SUPPLIED – Melvin Mirfin