The tale of Flight Lieutenant Charles Fergusson and Doris Ackerman is one of the great love stories of the Second World War
ON the gently sloping hillside at Taradale Services Cemetery on New Zealand’s North Island is a simple grave belonging to a Hurricane pilot who flew with the RAF during World War II.
Beside a line of jacaranda trees in spectacular purple bloom, in section J, plot 56, a memorial plaque marks the final resting place of Flight Lieutenant Charles Fergusson.
When this former officer died, there was a low-key funeral at All Saints Anglican Church in Taradale, near Napier. In death as in life, ‘Chook’, as he was affectionately known, never wanted an unnecessary fuss.
Yet today, 70 years after his military service ended and more than a decade after his death, I have been able — thanks to his family, friends and former comrades — to piece together one of the most incredible untold stories of World War II.
My inquiries across three continents have revealed a breath-taking narrative involving a miraculous escape from a plane crash, barbaric treatment by Japanese torturers, allegations of cannibalism — and an enduring love story with more twists than a Jane Austen novel.
Charles Douglas Fergusson was born in May 1921 in Hastings, part of the fertile Hawke’s Bay coastal region of North Island, renowned for its fruit growing and wines. One of five children born to Francis Fergusson, a plumber, and his wife Rose, young Chook excelled at swimming and rugby at the local school.
At 16 he left school and worked as a carpet fitter for two years before enlisting into the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) in November 1940, when the war was little more than a year old. Soon he was flying in the UK with 3 Squadron and, later, 607 Squadron, RAF.
It was here that he met and fell in love with Doris Ackerman, a pretty North London girl widely known to her friends as ‘Pat’ (a variation of ‘pet’, which she was called as a youngster). Keen to support the war effort, she had enrolled as a private in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the women’s branch of the British Army.
After a whirlwind romance, the couple married on January 13, 1942, when he was 20 and she 19. Chook — stocky, handsome and 5ft 9in tall — called her his ‘blonde, blue-eyed English rose’, while Pat promised their wartime marriage would last for ever.
However, within months, Chook was sent to India to serve with 607 Squadron against the Japanese in the air over Burma. Before the young officer left, he made his wife vow that if he was killed in action, she would travel to New Zealand so his parents could meet her — their son’s widow — for the first time.
Flying his single-seat Hurricane fighter, Chook was soon taking on the Japanese over Burma. He filed a report detailing an attack he and his fellow pilots made on Japanese bombers on December 16, 1942, recording that he’d damaged an enemy plane.
However, on Christmas Eve 1942, Chook’s Hurricane was one of two British aircraft shot down in a series of dogfights with the Japanese fighter planes.
Fergusson – known as Chook – married Doris in 1942, but was shot down over Burma later that year, and caught by the Japanese and kept in a prisoner of war camp for the rest of the Second World War. At one point, he thought they would cut his head off, as they did Leonard Siffleet (pictured)
Chook was reported as ‘KOAD’ (Killed On Active Duty). His family back in NZ and his young wife in London were among those who mourned his ‘death’. His squadron leader later visited his ‘widow’ saying there was no hope: he and others had seen his Hurricane spiral into the ground and burst into flames, and the pilot had been unable to use his parachute.
Yet, miraculously, Chook had survived. True, his parachute had not opened but his aircraft had, in fact, exploded just yards before it hit the ground at around 300 mph.
He appears to have been thrown upwards before landing in the shallow Irrawaddy River: this cushioned his fall and the water put out the flames of his burning flying suit.
Such a miraculous escape makes him a rare member of the unofficial ‘Gannet Club’, named after the bird that plunges vertically for fish. Fewer than 20 servicemen are said to have survived full-blown plane crashes without parachutes during the war after something — snow, trees, water — cushioned their fall.
For the next half century, Chook refused to detail his wartime ordeal because it brought back such painful memories — including, as I will explain, that distressing incident of cannibalism — and because he wanted to protect his family from the appalling truth about his suffering.
However, in the final decade or so of his life, Chook confided in a close friend, Bryan Church, 65, who owns a garage and antique shop in Taradale. He only made Chook’s family aware of most of the pilot’s revelations at his funeral.
Chook had told him how he had cheated death: ‘We were flying over a forest when we got pounced on by some Japanese Zeros [fighter planes]. My wingman said “Watch out, Chook, you have two on your tail”. There were tracers [bullets] flying past my cockpit and so I did the only thing I could think of to escape: I went into a vertical dive.
‘The airspeed indicator was virtually off the dial and the ground came rushing up. I pulled hard back on the stick [joystick] but I realised I wasn’t going to make it and I blacked out.’
Doris believed him dead – and when he was freed he was too nervous to contact her directly. So he wrote to her father, asking if he could come home to his wife if she hadn’t married again. She hadn’t, and they were reunited
The next thing Chook remembered was standing, dazed and confused, in a shallow river with a terrible pain in his shoulders. He could see and smell a crashed plane and he thought to himself: ‘Some poor bugger has copped it.’
Then he realised the burning aircraft was his own Hurricane and he had been thrown out of it; in the explosion his parachute had been ripped of his back and it was never found. Chook recalled to his friend: ‘There were two Jap soldiers coming into the stream, bayonets fixed. I went to draw my service pistol but I couldn’t because my hands were a hell of a mess [from burns]. I felt weak and I was captured.’
Long after Chook’s death it emerged that he had given an interview to Patrick Bronte, who had been paralysed from the shoulders down in a diving accident aged 16. Inspired by the courage of former servicemen, the young tetraplegic set up the Nga Toa (Maori for ‘Many Warriors’) project dedicated to recording the oral histories of former New Zealand servicemen.
In this interview, Chook described his treatment after his plane crash, when he had a broken left wrist and terrible burns to his face, hands and groin.
He was initially treated kindly by an English-speaking Japanese doctor who had trained in America, but the next day he endured a terrifying interrogation by the military.
‘They said “what squadron?”,’ Chook recalled, and I said “you know I can’t tell you that.” And they just went berserk. And they got stuck in, and they grabbed all the bandages around my head and they yanked them off … And they dragged me up a big hill…
‘This officer came up there and he got hold of a sword,’ he continued. ‘They had me sitting up and pushed my head forward and [one officer] pulled his sword out, and I knew what was coming.’ However, suddenly a car came around the corner and a more senior Japanese officer screamed at the soldier to halt the execution.
Yet Chook’s 2½-year ordeal was just beginning, and at one point, he remembered rats nibbling on his skin as he lay in his filthy prison cell. He was singled out for interrogation from the Kempeitai, the feared Japanese secret police, who claimed he was a spy because they did not believe he could have survived his plane crash.
The full horror of what happened to Chook would only be revealed years later, when it emerged the Japanese soldiers in his camp had shot a Canadian dead, and eaten his internal organs. Pictured: British survivors
The Japanese treated their PoWs far more inhumanely than any other country: prisoners were subject to torture, beatings and near starvation diets, while many were beheaded or hanged. Chook told how, towards the end of the war, a Canadian pilot had been shot down and brought to the camp.
On arrival, the pilot was, of course, far healthier than the other malnourished PoWs and he was popular because he brought encouraging news of the war’s progression. Chook told his friend: ‘One day the Canadian pilot disappeared — shortly afterwards, we heard a single shot. That night a strong smell of cooking came from the kitchen. We could smell meat at a time when meat was scarce.’
Shortly afterwards some PoWs, out on a working party, dug up the Canadian pilot’s remains and discovered he had been ‘opened up’. Several organs, including his liver and heart had been removed.
Bryan Church said: ‘Chook said all hell broke lose because the PoWs realised the Japanese had murdered the pilot and ate some of his organs — cannibalism.’ There were, in fact, several instances during the war when the Japanese were guilty of cannibalism.
Chook was singled out for particularly savage treatment because he refused to bow to guards and visiting military officers, and because he stood up for other prisoners who were being brutalised.
Gradually, however, the Allies gained the upper hand in the Far East. The Allies eventually swept into Burma, freeing PoWs as they gained ground. Chook was released from Rangoon camp on May 5, 1945 and he immediately raised a British Union Flag on a flagpole above the prison.
I have obtained the two-page form that Chook completed long after the war ended when he and some comrades were seeking reparations for their treatment as PoWs. He revealed that after weeks of interrogation he was released into a compound with other PoWs, by which point he was emaciated and bent over with pain. Chook wrote: ‘Captain Brian Weston said: “Terrible, an old man like that coming in here.” He told me later he thought I was well over 70. I was 21.’
Chook was singled out for particularly savage treatment because he refused to bow to guards and visiting military officers, and because he stood up for other prisoners who were being brutalised
In captivity, Chook had suffered from beriberi, scabies, ulcers and dysentery. When his plane crashed he had weighed 12½ stone, yet when he was released he was just 5½ stone.
He had survived against the odds — but what of his wife? Too afraid to contact Pat directly, he sent a telegram to his father-in-law: ‘Pop, If Doris hasn’t married again, can I come home? Love Chook.’
Frank Ackerman broke into tears when he received the news and his daughter, who still lived at home, was even more emotional. In fact, Pat was engaged to an American airman but she had told him she would not marry until after the war ended just in case Chook had survived. She immediately broke off her engagement and declared her love again for the man who had come back from the dead. They were re-united after he returned to Britain in November 1945, just after the war ended.
Chook discovered that his wife had kept her promise — and had made the long and arduous trip after his ‘death’ by ship to New Zealand, where she met his parents and stayed for several months before coming home.
Early in 1946, the couple set sail for New Zealand together for a belated honeymoon and a new life, stopping off in Italy on the way. Chook always joked that memories of his mother’s ‘jam roly-poly’ pudding — rather than his wife — had kept him going during his imprisonment.
Back in New Zealand, he returned to carpet fitting before switching career to become a dairy farmer, eventually saving enough money to buy his own 150-acre dairy farm near Tokoroa on the North Island.
Throughout his adult life, Chook suffered nightmares as a result of his time in captivity, when he had witnessed beheadings and terrible human suffering. Several years after his youngest son was born, he had a nervous breakdown. As Lindsay Fergusson, 64, his British daughter-in-law who is married to the pilot’s eldest son, put it: ‘The man Pat had married in 1942 was not the same man after he returned from the war. Events had taken their toll on him. But they had an incredible bond because they had gone through so much together.’
By the time he was rescued, he appeared to be an old man – not the 21-year-old he actually was. Pictured: Allied prisoners of war celebrating their liberation from Changi Jail, Singapore
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Chook retained a dislike of the Japanese and refused to buy any Japanese goods all his adult life. In fact, when a Japanese wool delegation visited New Zealand shortly after the war, he physically attacked a visiting businessman who had made a disparaging remark, unaware that Chook understood some Japanese as a result of being a PoW.
Chook was charged with assault but the charge was dropped after the magistrate learnt of his wartime ordeal and had been shown his scars.
Less than a decade before Chook’s death, records emerged from Japan that identified who had shot him down more than half a century earlier. It was Master Sergeant Satoshi Anabuki, the top Japanese fighter pilot of the whole war who was credited with 39 ‘kills’. Chook’s eldest son, Wade, hesitantly showed his father the details of the Japanese pilot who had nearly killed him. ‘In fact, they had similar backgrounds: they were both country boys doing their job. Dad identified with him,’ said Wade Fergusson, 69, a retired New Zealand estate agent.
I am full of admiration for my father: he was a quiet hero. I think his inner strength and resilience enabled him to survive all his ordeals.
Chook died on December 12, 2004, aged 83. He had four sons, 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. His wife Pat, the love of his life, had died two years earlier, aged 79. They share the same grave at Taradale Cemetery.
Chook’s family remain frustrated that his bravery was never formally recognised with a gallantry medal. ‘I am full of admiration for my father: he was a quiet hero,’ said Wade Fergusson. ‘I think his inner strength and resilience enabled him to survive all his ordeals.’
Martin Fergusson, 58, Chook’s youngest son and a retired car salesman, broke down in tears as he recalled his father’s suffering. ‘I think my father deserves the VC [Victoria Cross] for all he went through,’ he said.
My involvement in this astonishing story stems from the fact that I was approached late last year by a Briton who had been told of Chook Fergusson’s wartime experience by Bryan Church, after a chance encounter in New Zealand.
The former serviceman, who has asked not to be named and whose uncle died in a Japanese PoW camp, knew I championed bravery: I have established the largest collection of VCs in the world and written five books on gallantry.
He said Chook’s friends lacked the resources and know-how needed to piece together the various strands of Chook’s life — and could I help?
I feel privileged and humbled to have been able to investigate his extraordinary story and to detail his remarkable achievements publicly for the first time. Until today, Chook Fergusson was an unsung hero. Yet, without him and those like him, Britain, New Zealand and their allies would have been on the losing side in the World War II.
Their courage and self-sacrifice must never be forgotten.
- For more information on Lord Ashcroft’s work, including his books, visit lordashcroft.com. He has asked for his fee for this article to be donated to the RAF Benevolent Fund.