War veteran trumps tragedy


Obituary: Neva Yvonne Clarke McKenna, QSM, 1920-2015

A woman whose life was the stuff of movies died in Tamahere last week aged 94.

Neva Clarke McKenna on her 90th birthday at Tamahere Eventide
Neva Clarke McKenna on her 90th birthday at Tamahere Eventide

War veteran, author, and historian Neva Clarke McKenna, who lived her last few years at Tamahere Eventide Home, was one of the first New Zealand women to serve overseas in World War 2 and experienced some of the worst war delivers.

Tragedy, including the loss of two much loved fiancees and being raped at knifepoint by soldiers (retold in the 1995 Gaylene Preston documentary War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us), was not allowed to define her life which she lived well and creatively.

Neva Yvonne Morrison, born in Gisborne on April 20, 1920, was a happy, confident, and bright girl who was keen to do well but had to leave school during The Depression of the 1930s to find work.

She learnt to type, trained as a secretary and worked mainly in Gisborne and Whakatane until after the outbreak of the 1939-45 war.

Her first love and fiance Geoff Chambers joined the Air Force, and was killed in Libya in 1942; a day later she signed up for army service in Gisborne, where she initially helped with clerical work and medical examinations. She soon reached the rank of sergeant with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and was sent to Egypt and Italy where for the rest of the war she worked at NZ Army Headquarters.

Her second fiance was killed just three weeks before the end of the war. She kept a diary of this period which was later published as a book, An Angel in God’s Office.

At Army Headquarters in Senigallia, Italy, Neva also met Ted Clarke, from Wellington, and in 1947 they married in the garden of her parents’ house in Gisborne.

Neva was a modern woman. She was intelligent, capable, ambitious and talented. She had seen the world and despite her love for her family – son, John (the Melbourne-based comedian renowned here as ‘Fred Dagg’) and daughter Anna – the role of housewife in Palmerston North during the 1950s was not alone going to hold her interest.

She got involved with the local theatre group and began to appear in plays. She also started to write short stories and for the next 50 years she published them, wrote book reviews, appeared in radio drama, published a novel and even into her 80s had a weekly newspaper column.

In the early 1960s the family moved to Wellington and Neva continued to work in theatre, radio and on her writing. She became the New Zealand President of PEN, the international organisation of writers, and was instrumental in introducing public lending rights into New Zealand.

Early in the 1970s Neva remarried and moved to the far north, settling at Coopers Beach with her second husband Len McKenna, an American, ex-Lockheed executive who adored the bays and beaches of the Far North as much as she did.

Neva in 2010 when the Mangonui boardwalk was named after her
Neva in 2010 when the Mangonui boardwalk was named after her

They drove the roads, walked the beaches and swam the waters of the place they called paradise. Neva became the unofficial historian of the entire region and published books which are still among the best research ever compiled about the early days, places and people of the Far North.

In 1997 Neva was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal for services to the community and in 2010 a waterfront boardwalk was named after her at Mangonui.

She took up painting in her 60s and in her 70s went to Hollywood for the launch of Preston’s War Stories Our Mothers Never Told Us.

Neva died peacefully on January 15, survived by her children John and Anna, daughter-in-law Helen, grandchildren Alice, Lorin and Lucia, and great grandchildren Ari, Crue and Claudia.

Her ashes will join the waters of Doubtless Bay in the Far North, a place she greatly loved.

Earlier story: War veteran, historian honoured

One thought on “War veteran trumps tragedy

  • January 27, 2015 at 10:57 am

    A real star. Thank you for sharing her story, Tamahere. Condolences to family.


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