John Patrick ‘Aussie’ O’Brien was a “hell of a nice guy”, yet his body lay unclaimed in the Waikato Hospital morgue for two months.
Despite appeals for family to come forward and claim the body of the former army staff sergeant, who friends describe as a loner, no one did.
So up stepped the Cambridge RSA.
O’Brien was farewelled with a graveside memorial service at the Hautapu Cemetery’s RSA section last week thanks to Grinter’s funeral director Jim Goddin who uplifted the body from a first storey Hamilton unit on behalf of the coroner on March 4, two days after his death.
It was Goddin who made the formal application to authorities to claim O’Brien’s body from the morgue after notices placed in newspapers and army publications resulted in nothing.
He approached Brigadier Jon Broadley and Cambridge RSA president Tony Hill who said they would give O’Brien a proper farewell befitting his 20-year army service.
Retired chaplain Ants Hawes led the service and bugler Doug Rose played the Last Post. Broadley read details of O’Brien’s service and Hill gave him an emotional send-off noting he knew two of the men buried either side of him and they were top chaps.
Two men who served in the New Zealand Army with him were there – Mike Madden and Lionel Orr – as was Julie Strawbridge, the neighbour who found O’Brien’s body, and her friend Dawn Babbington.
Sharon Smith, the Waikato Real Estate property manager for his Thames Street, Hamilton unit and Rob Good, the maintenance manager, both attended as did Darren and Janine Sutton, his former neighbours in Te Awamutu when O’Brien worked at the Fonterra factory.
Rounding out the onlookers were Andrew and Cathy Cuming, John Taylor and Goddin himself.
Seventeen people in all – including The News – recited The Ode of Remembrance “We will remember them.”
But missing from those memories are whether Aussie O’Brien had any family. What is known is he was born in Australia on March 14, 1943 – so he died 12 days before his 80th birthday – and came to New Zealand as a young boy.
When his family returned to Australia, he stayed put and joined the army on February 6, 1963, serving in the Service Corps, which included a two-month stint in Vietnam in 1965.
He left the army on February 20, 1967, but 52 days later he rejoined and was transferred into the Corps of Transport where he stayed until March 28, 1983. Lionel Orr met him in 1971 at Waiouru where O’Brien was the barrack commander and a staff sergeant at the Regular Force Cadet School.
“We called him Crinkley because he was tough on us cadets.”
O’Brien would take some of the cadets, who were away from their families for the first time, into Taupo in his Leyland P76 to go to the hot pools.
“He cared about people but when he fired up, he fired up,” said Orr.
O’Brien served in Singapore with Mike Madden as his commander in E Platoon 18 Transport Company.
Orr met up with him again there and recalls O’Brien coming to his wedding but not attending many of the platoon celebrations.
“He was always a loner.”
After he left the army, O’Brien worked at the old Hillcrest Tavern as a barman which is where Cuming – a newcomer to Hamilton – met him in October 1984 and struck up a friendship.
“I last saw him the week before he died. I’ll miss him.”
The two used to swap books. “I’d give him a David Baldacci and he’d give me John Grisham.”
O’Brien then worked several years at Fonterra in Te Awamutu where he met the Suttons who had just bought their first home.
“When we first met, he had a sewing machine car which he later replaced with a gold Jaguar,” said Darren Sutton.
One day he was water blasting his house while perched on a high ladder and had a fall. On his subsequent retirement from Fonterra, O’Brien moved into Hamilton to rental accommodation in Thames Street which is where he first encountered Rob Good 12 years ago.
“He made a good cup of coffee.”
O’Brien still had his Jaguar then and crashed it twice. He got a green Mazda which he crashed as well.
“He was a nice guy, a hell of a nice guy,” said Good.
Sutton said he would visit O’Brien and in later years tried unsuccessfully to get information out of him about any family.
Julie Strawbridge lived next door. He would look out for her, bring over meals because he told her he was a chef in the army, which is not borne out by the facts.
She had the spare key to his unit and found him two days after his death when she hadn’t seen him around.
“I’ll miss him,” she said.
John Taylor, who was also at the funeral service, thought it was the same John O’Brien he worked with at a Waikato contracting firm. Now he is not so sure but paid his respects anyway.
Now the loner has a final resting place in Cambridge and the RSA will look after him and tend his plot.
But down in Wellington at Defence Force headquarters, there are four unclaimed service medals. O’Brien never picked them up or wore them at Anzac Day commemorations or service reunions.
There will be others like John Patrick O’Brien who served their country and are now living in our communities who have dropped off the face of the earth, said Orr.
“We need to reach out to those people.”