WWII veteran Gatune, who dreamt of publishing ‘bullets, blood and carnage’, dies at 108  

Ephantus Waweru Gatune

Waweru Gatune, who died last week aged 108 years.

Photo credit: Mwangi Muiruri I Nation Media Group

Ephantus Waweru Gatune of Murang'a, who fought in World War II as a contracted soldier, had aspired to write a book titled bullets, blood and the carnage of war.

The book will now not materialise, as death has consigned him to eternal silence.

He had started compiling his memoirs in 2015, aspiring to publish them, but he has now only left behind raw handwritten manuscripts after dying aged 108. 

Had he published the book, Mr Gatune, who loved to flaunt his fine English, would have become Kenya's oldest author to release a book.

Mr Gatune developed breathing complications at home and was rushed to Murang'a Level Five Hospital, succumbing as he received treatment, said his daughter-in-law Margaret Njambi.

Mr Gatune takes to his grave memories of World War II and the Mau Mau uprising.

"His death makes it urgent that we make it a national agenda to be pursuing those with fresh memories about historical events and be recording them as firsthand narrations for reference by future generations," publisher John Kiriamiti, who wrote the novel My Life in Crime, told Nation.Africa yesterday.

Before he died, Mr Gatune granted Nation.Africa an interview and shared his exploits in the war.

He said he fought for Britain against Germany on Indian soil and in the Indian Ocean.

Fascinated youths visited him at his home in Gikandu, Murang’a County, just to hear his stories of war.

Dropping out

Born in 1913 and dropping out in class seven, he studied motor vehicle mechanics and worked in Nairobi.

As he walked around the city in 1938, he met a village mate, who was serving in the Kenya Regiment that had been formed in 1937. It was disbanded in 1939 when World War II started. The village mate was in military fatigues.

“He told me he was preparing to join big time combat abroad and if I was interested, he could hook me up with people who could enlist me in the military,” he said.

The idea of fighting in a global war enticed the young man and he agreed to be taken to a recruitment base in Kangemi, He was then seconded to the Embakasi camp to train for war.

He said the war coincided with the great famine of 1939-40, drawing many young men to join fighting – some as volunteers – just to escape hunger. Many others joined the war as a sport, fascinated by travel and witnessing war firsthand.

“This war was declared by Britain on September 3, 1939 and upon passing out after a three-month drill, I was among 157 young Kenyans who on the same day were assigned war duties in India,” Mr Gatune narrated.

He came back to Kenya in 1947, now detached from his 53-member platoon that battled the Nazis in the Indian Ocean and beyond. He said he stood in a guard of honour that British Army Commander-in-chief Sir Claude Auchinleck inspected thrice near the Indian Ocean in 1944.

African Riffles

He said nearly 100,000 Kenyan soldiers were recruited and dispatched across battlefronts as the King’s African Rifles “but thanks to racism, no African commanded any unit and the highest-ranked was a warrant officer”.

His rawest memory of carnage in the war was on November 15, 1939 when German’s pocket battleship Admiral Graf Spee sank the tanker Africa Shell south of Madagascar. “We were assigned duties in the islands scattered in the Indian Ocean that also included Seychelles, Comoros and Mauritius,” he said.

About the Admiral Gulf Spree, Mr Gatune said many Africans died in the war because the “black man’s understanding of warfare technology was very poor”.

Many African soldiers forgot that they were in war and would be caught in crossfire as they stood admiring and cheering tactical manoeuvres, he said.

“Many of us Africans in the war were only good at using guns and hurling grenades. But when it came to fighter jets and diving under water to attack the enemy, many did not come back,” he said.

He said he was lucky countless times not to drown, be felled by gunfire or get into unarmed combat, saying those were the three riskiest encounters for Africans who had been recruited hurriedly into the war without undergoing exhaustive training.

“But I twice found myself in an airplane manning a gunship and the twists and turns in the air as the pilot somersaulted the bird, swerved it into circular motions and flew low and shot back into the air to avoid gunfire aimed at bringing us down was an experience I even miss today,” he said.

Asked whether he killed any enemies in the war, Mr Gatune exclaimed: “Why not! In one instant, I just sprayed bullets into the bodies of young Japanese soldiers whom we had ambushed. 

“I have no remorse, because that was war and it was a matter of who sorted the other first … In war, we did not have human beings as a factor, we only had friends or enemies.”

Royal Navy's

He recalled that on March 23, 1940 he was among soldiers who served in the Royal Navy’s Malaya Force of cruisers, destroyers and submarines assigned to stop German merchant ships leaving the Dutch East Indies and later to assault the German merchant raider Atlantis that in May entered the Indian Ocean from the South Atlantic.

Mr Gatune recalled how an Italian submarine by the name Galileo Galilei sank a royal tanker christened James Stove but revenge three days later saw it captured by the British naval trawler.

And as soldiers were perceived to thrive by liquor, meat and women, Mr Gatune said he successfully avoided the first item “but on the other two I did not successfully manage to evade”.

"War emphatically speeds up your life to access the best of opportunities, since death lurks all over in the shadows,” he said. 

He added: “During that time, however, only whites could get away with trading in contraband.”

Marijuana was one of the booming trades among soldiers, he said. 

Three puffs

“It was so big that I pulled three puffs of the stuff in July 1940 but the experience that saw my mouth dry up felt like I had warts on the face and then I collapsed into an unconscious stupor [and] hastily withdrew from experimenting with it. It is an awful substance only fit for the devil,” he described the drug.

After leaving the Kings African Rifles, he returned to his native Murang'a village in 1947 and with his Sh660 savings bought 50 acres. In 1953, he joined Mau Mau soldiers in Murang’a to battle the colonialists.

"My experience in the British army made me a very critical strategist in guerilla warfare and many are the whites who lost the cause at my own hands,” he said. 

“I led a team of seven men who freed our soldiers from a Kigumo jail in 1959 and in the process two of the guards in the facility died.”

When independence came, he ran a garage in Murang’a town before he was recruited as a casual labourer to help in land demarcation. 

In his lifetime, Mr Gatune said, he had never been hospitalised and he owed his immunity to “discipline in refusing to be dragged into unnecessary worries about anything … just keeping it easy and cool and relying on God to have life work out well for me”.

He said that since he was about 20 years old, he had always prayed before sleeping and after waking up, beseeching God to “just have your will prevail in my life”.

“My desire has always been a blessing to remain alive to enjoy the rays of the sunrise and sunset … enjoy the star shine and the moonlight as well as the thunder of rain that assures me of a bounty in our granaries,” he said.

About Kenya, he had four major worries – tribalism, unemployment among youths, which he called a time bomb, dysfunctional health and the high cost of education that he said only favoured the rich.

About corruption, he said “there is nothing we can do about it until that time we will make it a national value to remain within the four corners of integrity, arguing that “nearly all Kenyans as of now are wired into some sort of corruption”.

He has left nine children, 31 grandchildren, 18 great grandchildren and eight great-great grandchildren. He wanted these words to be inscribed on his tomb: “here lies a man who aspired to make the world more peaceful and prosperous than he found it”.