Cyprus Mail
Cyprus

Finding a family

Daniel with his wife Anastasia in 2013

By Alexia Evripidou

Like most former soldiers who fought in a war, 87-year-old Daniel Nugent speaks of his years at the battlefront with an immediacy, clarity and detail that belie the distance of time.

By any account his life has been full of challenges and hardship, particularly his childhood, and it wasn’t until he entered the army that he had a taste of comradeship and sense of belonging. It also brought loss.

Born illegitimate in Dublin, Nugent was sent to an orphanage aged five, worked for both the Irish and British army and nearly lost his life in the Korean War. He then spent years at sea with the merchant marines. Later in life he found happiness with his Cypriot wife but in recent years that has been tempered by her suffering from Alzheimer’s. She no longer recognises him.

“I don’t know why, but I’ve always had this urge to prove myself. Maybe it’s because I was put in the orphanage. It made me want to show that I was wanted, that I could do something, to show people that I was capable. That’s why I kept going.”

At 24, Nugent’s mother met and married a man who rejected the young Nugent. So she packed her son off to an orphanage to be brought up by nuns. “My mother was a good person. I never knew my father. She didn’t abandon me altogether, she came every month to see me. But she was very easily persuaded,” said Nugent.

At age 12 he was sent back to live with his mother, step father, half brother and half sister. He was not well received in this already unhappy home and soon enough his stepfather went to England to work and was never seen again. Nugent’s mother suffered a breakdown and was committed to hospital. His two half siblings were sent to the same orphanage where he had spent his early years. Nugent; a city boy, was sent to work unpaid on a farm by his step father’s family. Again, he was unwanted. He was miserable; a small and scrawny boy forced into heavy manual labour.

One morning as 14-year-old Nugent was feeding the lambs, he decided to take charge of his life. He dropped his bucket and ran away, finding another farm job, where this time, he was treated well and paid.

With nothing and no one to his name, he joined the Irish army armoured corps aged 18. “I thought it was a good idea; somewhere where I’d be looked after and fed. There would be no worries there,” says Nugent. Ironically, he found safety in the army. However, Nugent wanted to see the world, so went to Northern Ireland to join the British army. A conflict of interest for many Irish, but for Nugent, it offered a sense security and a ‘family’ he’d always yearned for.

His short lived security soon ended in October 10th 1950, when he was marched off to the Korean War as the driver of an armoured car and wireless operator. Nugent, however, felt lucky. He’d made a friend – Lieutenant Eastgate – during his earlier training, an officer who Nugent would ultimately be responsible for driving around Korea during his 22 months placement. Eastgate took Nugent under his wing; introducing him to his family where Nugent received much kindness.

Unfortunately this was not to last. Eastgate’s life was brutally ended aged 21 when both Nugent and Eastgate found themselves in one of the bloodiest battles of the war, the battle of the Imjin River. Some 141 British soldiers were killed and 1169 wounded, missing or captured.

Young Eastgate’s job was to observe North Korea’s movements towards the floating bridge on the Imjin River which they’d built, and Nugent drove him back and forth, operating the wireless. The enemy lay in the hills a few miles up the river. However, in 1951 the Chinese People’s Volunteer army joined the war supporting North Korea to break through the bridges and recapture the South Korean capital Seoul. Both sides were pushing each other back and forth over the existing dividing line, conquering and losing land repeatedly.

Swarming in “tens of thousands strong”, the Chinese army carried out a devastating assault during the St George’s Day festivity preparations. They attacked the unprepared British army on the lower Imjin River.

“Many regiments were lost, the Gloucester regiment being one of the most famous. They were on a hill when the Chinese came and surrounded them for three days. There was no way out for them. We tried to drop supplies but they were killed or captured,” Nugent said, the memory still painfully fresh in his mind. The battle may not have been large in scale but the ferocity of it grasped the world’s attention.

Nugent, the young soldier ready for war, jumped to battle but his armoured car’s battery was being repaired and Lieutenant Eastgate needed someone to take him urgently to determine the enemy’s position. With Nugent car-less, another driver took the job.

Daniel as a radio operator in the merchant navy in 1957
Daniel as a radio operator in the merchant navy in 1957

“I was very lucky I guess, but Eastgate and the other driver never came back. Our soldiers found him later with his arms tied behind his back and his head chopped off,” he said, still affected so many years on. They were trapped, surrounded for days, being pushed back south by the enemy until tanks came to the rescue, pushing through and creating an escape route.

“A couple of days later, we gathered strength and chased the Chinese up north again where we found Eastgate’s body.”

Eventually, the war began to wind down and Nugent needed to work out his future. With no one waiting for his return, he went to England where he was awarded a scholarship for his services, attending a resettlement course to become a marine radio officer. On graduating, he left the army and joined the merchant navy, then Marconi (a private merchant shipping company).

Always looking for ways to improve his lot, in 1961, Nugent saw an opportunity when radars exploded onto the scene and ensured he received training. Tired of sea life, he began an 18 year career with the British meteorological office, which finally brought him closer towards his ultimate life goal, having his own family.

Aged 37, he was sent to Cyprus. “In 1964, I was supposed to be sent to Malta, but as Cyprus was then considered dangerous due to the inter-communal conflicts, married families were not allowed to be sent here and as I was single, I came.”

Daniel in Nicosia in 1966
Daniel in Nicosia in 1966

At last, working for the RAF at the meteorological offices at Nicosia airport, he stumbled across a pretty Greek Cypriot girl from a Troodos mountain village and fell in love. Anastasia married the blue eyed Irish man and the couple had three sons. Nugent spoke no Greek and Anastasia only basic English, yet somehow they managed to communicate “we were happy, it wasn’t a problem.” Even though the years helped improve Anastasia’s English, their main form of communication was through shared experiences: long walks, games of chess and their mutual love of music and singing.

Finally, Nugent had found stability and people to call his own even though Nugent was forced back onto the ships to support his brood. In 1974 he found work in Akrotiri and in 1981, an opportunity arose in the Cypriot meteorological services; Radiosonde station. Utilising his experience from the RAF met office, he turned his knowledge to help Cyprus advance its systems.

Retirement eventually shipped 60 something Nugent permanently to what he called home, Cyprus. Unfortunately, six years ago Anastasia began behaving oddly: moving furniture around  for no reason, unable to explain why, placing keys under bathroom scales etc. It wasn’t until later that the family realised Anastasia had developed Alzheimer’s. The resilient octogenarian Nugent insisted on caring, cooking and cleaning for the both of them alone, until help became inevitable.

“In the earlier days of Anastasia’s illness, I used to play her music and we’d sing little songs together; she was happy like that,” says Nugent.

Although his life may not have been a fairy tale, Nugent finally found that sense of belonging he’d never had after he met his wife and created a family of his own. His legacy is one of determination, resilience and optimism.

“I feel I’ve been lucky in life, things just seemed to fall into place for me,” says Nugent. Maybe there was a little luck of the Irish after all.

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