'All well. Nancy has son Gavin. Many letters sent. Have received three cards and radio message. Glad you are well, also Alan. Love Mother.’
A collective assurance, a birth, a summary of communications sent and received, a nod to health and a large dollop of love: Ruby Wotton’s 24-word cablegram to her son, Lessel Greig, a prisoner of war in 1944, is a message any modern-day tweeter might admire.
Relayed from Otahuhu to Geneva (Red Cross headquarters) and then on to China, the sparse and expensive words were a critical link for the Greig family. Getting messages in and out of a Japanese prisoner of war camp was a triumph. News that Lessel and his friend were alive and well a source of great joy in these toughest of circumstances. Lessel, along with others in his company, were taken prisoner at the fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942. He spent 6 months at Changi prison camp before being sent further north to Mukden, Manchuria (current day Shenyang) in Japanese-occupied China where he spent the rest of the war. News from home, news from the camp, was the most precious commodity carried across distance in wartime.
In 2020 we are learning anew what distance and separation means. We are staying apart to save lives from the threat of a highly infectious and novel virus; we can’t meet, touch, swap things, let alone hongi, shake hands or hug. But we are urged to ‘stay connected’ and we have been doing so at such a rate that we have strained our phone and internet networks to the max.
Three and four weeks into lockdown at Alert Level 4 we are missing being together – the loss we feel at the everyday company of workmates, friends, wider family, the strangers and acquaintances we see across counters or in the bus, or the harder absences at significant birthdays: children turning 5, friends turning 40. In the major life crises that go on, cradling a newly born baby, keeping vigil at the bedside of a dying parent or a seriously ill child, Level 4 distance cuts deep.
It is the giving up of these chances of being together, of shared life, that we currently feel. That loss of life as well as lives is part of the sacrifice that we remember on 25 April.
Staying connected through radio waves
Radio messages were one of the ways Ruby Wotton knew her son was alive and well over the long years in which he was a prisoner of war. A former pupil at Dilworth and Auckland Grammar School, Lessel (Arnold ‘Lessel’ Macmorland Greig, 1913-84) grew up in the era of radio. The voice from the crystal set and then the fancier valve radios of the 1930s was what brought the latest news and entertainment direct into his and most New Zealand homes (by 1939 New Zealand had 317, 509 licensed radios, 1 for every 5 people).
Lessel Greig and Allan Griffin’s recorded radio messages were broadcast from Shanghai and Nanking, intercepted by ’the Authorities’ in Australia and passed on, in turn, to the New Zealand Military who, in turn, passed them on to Ruby Wootton. In her turn, Ruby lost no time in passing those messages on to Ngaire Griffin, Allan’s wife, then living in Blenheim and to Marjorie Horner, family of another POW, Brian Horner.
Words on paper as well as words on the wireless were vital in WW2. When Ngaire heard from her husband in September 1944, a letter she was ‘thrilled’ to receive, she wrote immediately, on the same day, to Ruby in Auckland. ‘I presume you also have had something from your son this week. It does make [us] feel the war is a little closer towards finishing. The general news is splendid – I’d hate to be a journalist running out of stupendous adjectives.’ Connections in the camp were mirrored by connections ‘at home’.
Four days after VJ Day (15 August) Lessel addressed his mother, pleased at last to be able to write ‘what I please without having to be conscious of censors looming in the background’. ‘The war has been over for the past three days’, he told her, ‘but I imagine that you will have heard about that. So far the only contact with the outside world has been made through the office of six Americans who landed by parachute on a nearby airfield on the morning of the 16th and who assisted in the taking over of the camp from the Japanese authorities. They had established two-way communication with a portable radio and now arrangements are being made for our removal as early as possible’. Later he tells her he has received four letters, including the first from ‘Gran’. Can she pass on his thanks.
A few weeks later Lessel was on board the US medical ship Relief. Ordinary pleasures: a ‘civilised meal’, ‘clean, cool white sheets’, and even ice cream, together with the ‘delightfully patient’ crew ‘smiling us welcome’, were the everyday miracles to celebrate. Lessel, Allan Griffin and their fellow prisoners were on the way home. Their families could expect to see them soon.
Distance in war time, distance to stop the spread of disease: different reasons for separation but in both we turn to all the tools we have to stay connected, to save life as well as lives.
Professor of History, Victoria University of Wellington Te Herenga Waka.
Principal Investigator of the Soldiers of Empire project, supported by the Marsden Fund, which led to the creation of a comprehensive database of the 12,000 British soldiers and sailors who served in the New Zealand Wars in the 1860s.
 Online Cenotaph entry - Nancy was Lessel’s sister, then living in Hawera as a young mother who gave birth to two sons while he was a POW.
 https://teara.govt.nz/en/radio/page-2 - As such, New Zealand was the third most radio-dense society in the world, after Denmark and Sweden.
 MS-2018-3-10, AWWM. Thanks to Diana Greig for her donation of Grieg Family Papers to the AWWM.
 Ngaire Griffin to Ruby Wotton 19 Sep 1944, MS-2018-3-4, AWWM
 Lessel Greig to his mother, Ruby Wotton, 19 Aug 1945, MS-2018-3-11, AWWM
 Lessel Greig to Ruby Wotton, 12 September 1945, MS-2018-3-14, AWWM
Cite this article
Staying connected. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 20 April 2020. Updated: 24 April 2020.