It’s a small world after all!

Western Bay Museum volunteer Pauline McCowan, centre, shares Jessie’s identity and back story with Katikati College students Pippa Flett, Hamish Tanner, Leilani Rooks and Theo Turnwald. Photo: John Borren.

It’s the twist in the tale – a feel-good one.

Because, all along, Western Bay Museum volunteer Pauline McCowan knew the family of the mysterious “Jessie” in the World War II battlefront diary she had been transcribing.

But she just didn’t know it at the time.

“I was overjoyed – it’s incredible, isn’t it?”

As outlined in The Weekend Sun’s recent articles, Pauline had spent months laboriously transcribing the 1940 red, leather-bound war diary which had been bequeathed to the museum. December 16 1940 – “Blowing a hell of a dust storm…gave troops a lesson on the Vickers gun”

The diary recorded the thoughts, feelings and moments in the life of Lieutenant Russell Freeland Walford of Katikati, killed December 1943 during the Italian campaign.

But Pauline’s labours cut deep.

“It was a beautiful job, but I would have to stop and take deep breaths.

"It reminded me so much of my father.”

When Russell Walford came home briefly in 1941 to teach troops to drive tanks, something he specialised in, Pauline’s dad’s medical unit moved into Orsogna on the Gustav line, the main German defensive line, exactly where Russell had been.

Dad came home, Russell didn’t.

“It was all a bit close to the bone…but good stuff.”

All the time Pauline wondered about “Jessie” who featured frequently in the soldier’s diary entries.

October 23, 1940 – “Went for swim, wrote air mail to Jessie”.

That was the 27th time in 10 months the soldier had written to “Jessie”.

But no one knew who Jessie was.

Jessie was just a Christian name.

Jessie’s daughter 

That was until The Sun got drawn into Pauline’s red diary story and found Jessie’s daughter Deborah, or Debbie, living in Auckland.

Through the diary Pauline had developed a very close connection to the memory of the dead soldier Russell Freeland Walford.

And now we’ve been able to connect her with Jessie’s daughter.

They had a long telephone chat.

“A wonderful moment,” says Pauline.

“It is incredible.”

Now Deborah wants to read Russell’s diary – a year in the life of a man her mother loved and then lost. The museum volunteer will make it happen.

The other “wow” aspect of this story is that all those months Pauline was pondering about the mysterious Jessie, she already knew of Deborah – but there was no reason to connect her with Jessie.

She knew Deborah but she didn’t know she was Jessie’s daughter.

“Deborah and I were teachers at the same school in Auckland.”

And years later a soldier’s musings in a little red war diary would reconnect them in a special way.

A challenge 

Then a challenge to Katikati College head students Leilani Rooks and Hamish Tanner.

“I’d like to think that sometime in the future, perhaps when you’re doing your OE, you will visit Russell’s grave and put a poppy on his headstone.”

The Sun had earlier introduced the pair to the fallen Katikati war hero’s story in its Anzac Day coverage.

“School trip, let’s do it!” says Leilani.

One day Leilani, sometime.

They were also both surprised and delighted to learn Jessie’s back story.

“I thought she might have been a partner, a girlfriend, clearly someone he missed.

"But I wasn’t expecting an engagement,” says Leilani.

She thinks Russell and Jessie’s love story is the stuff of books and movies.

“He’s fighting for his country but he’s got a girlfriend back home he wants to marry.”

But it wouldn’t happen.

Jessie lost one love to war but would be blessed with another.

She would marry returned soldier and Prisoner of War John Gardner, settle in Auckland and have five children, including Deborah.

Russell Walford’s diary and service medals are now in the safe keeping of the Western Bay Museum in Katikati.

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