FRAMED FOR PRIDE OF PLACE, A FARMER’S LINK TO FREYBERG
It was a poignant image from World War II: Prime Minister Peter Fraser and Lieutenant-General Bernard Freyberg visiting New Zealand troops after the fall of Monte Cassino, Italy, with a solemn soldier driving them in a Wilys Jeep.
And with this historic image comes a Kiwi connection, 75 years later.
That soldier was Driver Edward “Ted” Leeson, a former Morrinsville dairy farmer who had been with Freyberg in Egypt and then Italy.
Jeep New Zealand had included that image, along with many others from National Library of NZ and the NZ National Archive, as part of its press kit for the recent 75th anniversary celebration of the brand.
Driven used the famous photo of Fraser and Freyberg in our story to show the Kiwi bond with the brand, and a week later came an email that provided an remarkable link to the past for the Leeson family and Jeep NZ.
Ted’s daughter Sherryll saw the photo in Driven and was convinced it was her father. She contacted us to let us know about the incredible connection but when Jeep NZ supplied her digital images from NZ Archive she wasn’t so sure.
“Although we have a few photos of Dad while he was in the war, we have never been able to find a photo of Dad and Tiny [Freyberg’s nickname], or Dad actually driving it,” Sherryll told Driven.
“When when we were able to zoom in to the face, I saw an expression on Dad’s face that I had never seen before. He looked like a stranger because that expression was so foreign to me.”
Sherryll and her sister Julie weren’t convinced it was Ted but their mum, Avis, knew it was her late husband.
After studying other photos of Ted – and comparing his features such as hands and nose – the Leeson sisters still weren’t certain until they received a definitive text from their mother: “That is your father!”.
It was also when the sisters watched videos from NZ Archive that Jeep NZ supplied that they understood their father’s foreign expression: “It was 1000 words of war expressed in one picture — and in those eyes,” said Sherryll.
The Leeson family requested the photo but Jeep NZ’s distributor, Ateco, went one further and presented a large framed photo to Avis, Sherryll and Julie this week, to also commemorate what would have been Ted’s 100 birthday in July.
“This story illustrates just how many lives have been touched by Jeep during its unique 75-year history and what an influential vehicle it has been throughout that time,” said Ateco NZ’s CEO, David Smitherman.
“The discovery of this picture should not be just of great importance to the Leeson family as it reunites them with a key part of their family history but I also think it is a picture of which all New Zealanders may be justifiably proud.”
Ted was an avid rabbit and duck shooter and originally joined the NZ army’s artillery division, landing in Egypt in January 1943.
But when a broken leg (that the family suspected was due to the Waikato representative playing rugby with his fellow soldiers) led to his being admitted to hospital, the patient in the bed next to him suggested he move into transport because “you’ll get killed if you’re in the artillery”.
A Morrinsville link saw Ted become Freyberg’s driver. The vehicles were used as mobile offices with highly sensitive conversations taking place, and Ted was known to be discreet and trustworthy. He was also 1.82m tall and a crack shot.
Although Freyberg had use of staff cars, the main vehicle was the Wilys Jeep. Built in 1941 to support the Americans’ war campaign, Wilys Jeeps were used by New Zealand troops not only in Italy but also in North African campaigns.
Ted had to maintain the Jeep, and it had to be ready when Freyberg needed to visit troops or move to the new army HQ.
“The Jeep was Dad’s lifeline really – it was where Dad spent most of his time and was what connected Freyberg and Dad. Freyberg and Dad’s life depended upon that Jeep and that Jeep got them out of some rather tricky situations,” Sherryll said.
Ted’s job was to also plot the drive route for the following day, noting conditions, the course and the time it would take but one expedition in Egypt nearly proved the undoing of the pair.
Freyberg was being driven to the new HQ when the Lieutenant-General instructed Ted to take a left turn.
“It’s the next right, sir,” Ted replied.
“Turn left Leeson,” Freyberg bellowed, but about 10km down the road Ted noticed they were fast approaching the German line. “Turn around Leeson, and get us the hell of here,” Freyberg told Ted.
Italy also provided some demanding, famous and infamous experiences for the pair. By January 1944, Ted was there, first part of the transportation team and then once again Freyberg’s personal driver.
One story the family remember their father telling them was that when Milan fell in late April, 1945, Ted and Freyberg were in the first vehicle to enter the city.
Driving the Wilys Jeep into the main square they came across the body of deposed Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who had been shot and then hanged upside down.
Ted and the Wilys Jeep were also vital when Freyberg’s son, Paul, was captured in early 1944 at Anzio, but escaped and made his way to the Vatican. Ted was instructed by Freyberg to drive to the Vatican to retrieve his son.
Driving conditions in Italy also proved the most telling for Ted — and which affected him post-war.
“We never went skiing because Dad had to dig the Jeep out of the snow in Italy,” said Sherryll.
Avis also recalls him vetoing trips to the ski fields.
“He said to me, ‘I’ve been snowed up to my knees so I never want to see snow again’,” she told Driven.
But when the Allied troops took Monte Cassino after the infamous six-month battle with the Germans, the New Zealand Prime Minister visited the area and Freyberg asked Ted to be Fraser’s driver for the week. And with that duty came that photo.
But in a show of character, Ted played down the honour. Writing home to his sister soon after the Prime Minister’s visit, he queried his older brothers’ running of the family farm; spoke of the weather; and in just one sentence mentioned he had driven Fraser and that the Prime Minister offered to write to the Leeson family but Ted had declined the offer.
The Leeson family, Sherryll, Avis and Julie with a 1942 Wilys Jeep.
Returning to New Zealand and his Morrinsville dairy farm, after the war, Ted married Avis in 1950 and they had four children – Ian, Kevin, Julie and Sherryll.
A Jeep connection also continued. Every year Ted would buy a new Chrysler – from Valiants to Chrysler by Chrysler, Regal and VIP.
Ted died in 1992, but he is not the only famous Leeson. Avis received an award as a finalist of the 2015 Senior of the Year Awards due to her initiative of introducing gardens and orchards to 85 Waikato schools.
“The Leeson family have been enormously generous in giving us access to their family history and sharing stories about their father and his exploits in his wartime Jeep,” said Smitherman.
For the Leeson family that photo in Driven has given them a chance to commemorate their father and recall the wartime adventures.
“When we were little, every night once we were tucked up into bed, Dad would sit at the end of one of our beds and we would ask him to tell us a war story (they were never much in too detail or gruesome) — I absolutely loved those war stories,” said Sherryll.