Fair Go: Auckland Museum returns Vietnam medals after 42-year battle

Garth Bray
Source: Fair Go

In a rare move, Auckland War Memorial Museum has withdrawn three Vietnam War medals from its collection and handed them back to the family of the pilot who earned them.

"I'm so ever grateful, it means the world to me and to my family," Rosco Paterson told Fair Go, choking back the emotions.

He came to the Museum to accept his late father Douglas Paterson's Distinguished Flying Cross and two other Vietnam medals in a special handover witnessed by Fair Go.

"On balance, we've got a really good outcome for both the Museum and the family," said Museum Director of Collections David Reeves, who delivers the medals, ending a 42-year quest to have them returned.

Fair Go brought the problem to light on Anzac Day this year.

Squadron Leader Douglas Paterson was an RNZAF helicopter pilot attached to an Australian unit fighting in Vietnam in 1970. He risked his life to save a platoon of Australian soldiers.

The citation is online and tells a of a pilot who faced a hail of bullets many times to ensure his Anzac comrades could escape with their lives from a fight where they were outgunned and in peril.

That won him the Distinguished Flying Cross - but then it "was given away to a man who came and harassed my mother at a very serious of time of stress for her”, said Rosco, who's now also an RNZAF officer.

Widow Margaret Paterson says she was approached by medal collector Brett Mackrell soon after Douglas died in 1980.

“He told me that he looks at the death notices in the Herald, then he gets on to the widows,” Margaret told Fair Go.

“He started wanting Doug's medals, ringing me, calling, really being a nuisance, telling me about them and how now they'll be safe.”

Collector Brett Mackrell disputed that.

“It was not pressure. It was always an open invitation.”

But there was a sense of purpose, Mackrell explained, to preserve history.

“We've lost a lot of our history where widows have just said nope that's it bang, and out it's been turfed."

Rosco later tried to get the medals back from Mackrell, who insisted on a short-term loan only and required that his mother sign over ownership to him first.

Under duress, Margaret did so. Mackrell gifted the medals to Auckland War Memorial Museum, which accepted at the time that he had the right to do so.

"They are incredibly important and from a conflict that isn't so well documented," Reeves told Fair Go.

"Our curatorial team were keen to have them as part of the Museum's collection to be available for the telling of those stories."

And keen to keep them. In 2018 the Museum Trust Board turned down a request to formally de-accession the medals - that is, to remove them from the collection and hand them back.

Rosco had been building a case for years, getting support from retired veterans who had reached senior ranks in the Defence Force and from his MP, Health Minister Chris Hipkins.

But promises from the museum to meet and talk were only belatedly kept after Fair Go got involved.

Reeves apologised to Rosco and his family for the clumsy way that had been handled.

"New information comes to light and you adjust your view," Reeves said.

Rosco said the change has allowed his family to start afresh with the museum. His family has paid for, and gifted, a duplicate set of seven medals to the museum, along with a treasured scrapbook of wartime photos that present Douglas's story.

"I'm just so ever grateful to everyone that's been involved, everyone that's supported me and to the Museum for returning them but especially to you guys at Fair Go," Rosco said.

"You brought the new information to light and put on a very professional show so that everyone had a solid look at it and it managed to return the medals to the family."

Auckland War Memorial Museum curators are prepared to look at other cases where families make a claim on items in the collection, but they warned the bar is still high.

It's planning a refreshed medal display in Pou Maumahara, the Museum's War History gallery, which will be ready for ANZAC Day next year and include the story of Douglas Paterson's skill and bravery in Vietnam.

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