It was an ad in the paper looking for volunteers to go to Malaya that prompted Ross McLay to join the army at the age of 22.
As the second to youngest of 12 children originally from Taumarunui in the King Country, Ross had been working at the Post Office in Wellington having left school aged 15.
He had done his Compulsory Military Training in 1959 and then returned to the Post Office.
“It appealed to me I suppose,” he says. “I was a young fellow and the jungle warfare was a challenge.”
Ross was part of the 2NZ Regiment, the last battalion to leave New Zealand on the ship TSS Captain Cook before it was decommissioned.
During basic training Ross had been given the job of barman in the officer’s mess and was rather dismayed when this role continued on landing in Malaya.
“When you join the army you don’t tell them what you’re going to do, they tell you. You don’t get a choice!”
Seven months later, Ross was given a new role in transport platoon. It wasn’t in the rifle company as he’d hoped for but it was certainly a position of great responsibility.
Ross was appointed driver for the battalion’s commanding officer, Lt Col Aitken.
“It was very interesting. It was a position of trust because you were privy to a lot of confidential information. The Colonel said to me ‘you hear nothing!’
“I did that for about 14 months.”
Despite their difference in rank, the two men got on very well.
“He was a real good man to drive. He was like a father in a lot of ways. We’d have some very good conversations about what was going on,” says Ross, who even drove the Army Secretary to a concert on one occasion.
The Malayan Emergency had been going on since 1948 and saw Commonwealth troops from Australia, New Zealand and Fiji helping the British to keep communist terrorists from disrupting communities there.
Ross says they arrived in the late stages but they still had to train up and go out on jungle patrols.
“We trained with live ammunition and hand grenades. You’ve still got to learn how to use them. Once bullets start flying you don’t say ‘when do I shoot?’ you just fire!”
Jungle patrols could be gruelling, especially in the muggy, humid heat.
“You’d have these big packs on your back with weapons and rations. I did three escort patrols during that period.
“We went in with extra stuff they needed and were met on the river by longboats. Then we’d walk through the jungle to the campsites.”
One event stayed with Ross for many years. The three-year-old son of one of the married soldiers ran out in front of his vehicle and was knocked down unconscious.
“He got sent to hospital and I was quite shaken up about it and years went by and I would often say to my wife I wonder what happened to that boy.
“Well about two years ago I got a call out of the blue and it was his step-father. They had tracked me down and he asked if I’d like to talk to him.
“That little boy is now 65 years old, and is called Ross as well. He told me he’d passed out four times on the operating table but he recovered well, joined the army and did time overseas before becoming a truck driver!
“It was a relief to finally know the outcome of that!”
Ross left the army in 1962 after completing his three years and went on to marry Gretta with whom he raised four children. He enjoyed a variety of jobs ranging from owning a restaurant, rugby refereeing and driving a vege truck before working for Woolworths as produce department manager for the next 30 years.
He attended army reunions every two years and even caught up with the Colonel years later at his home in Australia where he shared some of his history with them.
“He attended several of our reunions and lived until his mid-90s.”
Ross is philosophical on the topic of war but unequivocal when it comes to marking Anzac Day properly.
“We don’t know how to stop wars. There will always be those who want to do it, be it for religious reasons or power or whatever. We tried to make Malaya a safe place to live so people could get on with their lives.
“It’s important to remember those people who have done a service for their country be it conscription or otherwise.
“By joining up you want to do your best for your country and be proud to be able to do it and come home safe. Whatever the job was you just took it on.”
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