When your relative becomes a character in your novel 

My research for Where Sunflowers Grow took well over a year. True to say, I went into more detail than I probably needed. Although I ever-so-briefly mention a Luger pistol in the book, I spent ages fretting over the firing mechanism and how many bullets it took.

While there were rabbit holes I disappeared down, there was one special moment when I realised I had come face-to-face with a relative. I was reading a book I borrowed from the local library about Kiwi prisoners of war and discovered some Italian camps (and 

others) had held Kiwi POWs. I did know that New Zealanders had been held in Italian camps, but I wasn’t prepared to come across a familiar name in the book – Jack Gallichan.

My maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Gallichan (pronounced Galli-shawn I believe in the Channel Isles were it’s a somewhat common surname). But my family pronounced it Galli-shun. She would often talk of two relatives: the well-known Kiwi cricketer, Norman Gallichan, and his brother (I think) Jack Gallichan. I’m not sure of the exact relationship but Norman and Jack were probably the sons of one of the brothers of my great-grandfather.

I met Jack Gallichan when I was really young and full of curiosity about the origins of surnames in my family – Gallichan, Le Masurier, Le Sueur, Hellyer, Le Maistre, Le Brun. Being a kid growing up in Sydney, I couldn’t fathom why all the French-sounding names. I came to NZ many times, mainly with my father, to meet all the relatives (my mum wasn’t keen on flying).

Jack was an editor for the Manawatu Evening Standard and a historian who I met in Palmerston North on one of my trips. We struck up a conversation about family history and poetry and ended up exchanging many letters. I remember him being very kind to a young kid asking a lot of questions. Back then, I was scribbling poetry (I’m sure it was cringeworthy stuff) and we had a love for poetry in common. He never mentioned being in the war or in a prison camp (but did send me a long letter full of the history of the family as he knew it).

So – I was reading this book and up pops the name Jack Gallichan. What a coincidence, I thought. I have a relative with the same name but it can’t be the same chap as he wasn’t in WWII. But then, the book mentioned that POW Jack Gallichan was the writer and editor of the camp newsletter, The Tiki Times. Knowing that Jack was an editor and loved to write poetry, I started to think, could it be?

A little further digging and I found out, yep my relative was a POW. I dug out the one letter I still have from him and in it he says he was: “overseas during the second world war from 1941-1945 spending most of that time as a prisoner-of-war. Never married.”

Somehow, when I was much younger, I didn’t pay attention to the POW part of his story (probably because I was more interested in the French side of our family history). Kicking myself now because I didn’t ask him a ton of questions about being a POW. Jack was captured at El Alamein on July 15, 1942 and ended up in Italy in camp Agra [Aqua] Fredda high up in the Apennines with 300 other New Zealanders and 50 South Africans. When Italy capitulated in September 1943, Jack took off to the surrounding hills and valleys, trying to find a way to the British lines. 

He sheltered in hay sheds, managed to snatch some grapes from vineyards and survive off the little food Italians gave him. A family risked their lives by hiding Jack and some other POWs, but the Germans found them in November 1943 and Jack was shipped off to Camp E 535 in Milowitz, Poland.

You can read about his war experience here (there’s even a poem of his) and there’s a photo of Jack here.

I decided to pay tribute to my relative by including a Kiwi POW. I’ve changed the name from Jack to Jimmy and what Jimmy experienced is based in large part on what I know of Jack Gallichan's experience as a POW on the run in 1943.

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