I keep thinking I’m just about ready to publish the next piece about Captain Fraser, that I’ve found just about all the information I’m going to find and that I just need to go with it, and then suddenly a whole new trove of data — important data — opens up for me. Yes, yes, we now have the basic facts of his life, birth, marriage, divorce, marriage, emigration, divorce, marriage, etc. We know where he worked and basically what he did. But records thought lost and unreconstructable are now proving to be available in archives, or sections within those archives, formerly unknown to me. New avenues of research are appearing before me that are not just filled with trivia, but with the details that add life to his story, color to his sketch, and that will perhaps transport us back a little ways in time to put us briefly into his shoes. I can almost smell the cordite and fear after the torpedo hit. I can just about feel the cold of the Russian Arctic Convoys. I can hear the angry longshoremen striking in Auckland Harbour. Their voices are calling to me. I just need… a little… more…
The New Zealand Defence Force Archives have proven their worth. Included within the folder that came by post are copies of correspondence between a young Naval Reserve Lieutenant and the Navy Board about training exercises and promotions. Enticing details on letterheads give clues about the Reserve Officer’s civilian job and life, such as a request for compassionate leave before the birth of a child, and the names of the merchant ships to which he was then assigned. A fourteen-year period of the young Robert Fraser’s life emerges in a little more clarity. Still, he didn’t enlist in the Naval Reserve until 1950, and by then he had already earned his Merchant Navy Master’s Certificate and been at sea for twelve years. We need more. We need to know about the Union Steam Ship Company.
And a search, often conducted, finally leads us to a new source. A discussion board for ship enthusiasts and old sailors, Ships Nostalgia, has an entire forum for the Union Company! I posted a question there to see if perhaps anyone who sailed with my father might recall him, and within a matter of hours someone replied to tell me where I might even find a photo taken of my father upon his promotion to Master (the caption says January 1957, but I believe this is incorrect; from other sources I believe the correct date is early 1956 or even late 1955):
That’s him, all right, at the age of 35. My correspondent went on to tell me that the Wellington City Archives kept copies of all the records, including personal files, of the Union Company, because the company with its 125-year history is considered significant to the national history. For half of its existence it was the largest private employer in all of New Zealand. So, I wrote to the Wellington City Archives, and they have agreed to search their files for my father. That search is still ongoing at this writing, and I’m not certain how long it may take.
Before joining the Union Company, however, as a Cadet Robert Fraser worked for the British merchant company J & C Harrison’s, serving on at least three of their ships during the early years of the war. That record, or rather his “seaman’s pouch”, has turned up with the British National Archives (aka Public Records Office), and I am currently awaiting an estimate on the cost of copying and posting it. Since I’m not sure just how many pages might comprise the record, I don’t yet know if it will be cheap or expensive, but I expect it will be more on the inexpensive side.
In the midst of this research, I came across one final little oddity. The New Zealand Defence Forces, just this year, have created a new medal, retroactive, to recognize those with at least three years of service in the post-war years. With fourteen years in the Royal New Zealand Naval Reserve, my father qualifies. It seems he might be receiving one last medal for his service to add to his collection, the New Zealand Defence Service Medal. When I called him up and mentioned his medals (he has six now), he nonchalantly declaimed “oh, I don’t care about medals.” When I mentioned that it looked like he would be getting a seventh, after all these years, his response was “Really?” and he got quite excited. Doesn’t care, eh? It seems deep down we all like to be recognized for our achievements, even if the proper response is to act as if we don’t. It’s ok, Dad. You certainly earned it.