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The Pacific Wonder Box

Written by Brenden Shirley, Curator of Accoutrements, Social History and Medical

This object is the story of a little bit of kiwi ingenuity which not only brought together two very different New Zealand soldiers, but also helped bring together New Zealand and American soldiers stationed in the Pacific during the later days of World War II.

1996.2041 Handmade violin constructed by Bill Duck in New Caledonia during World War II, National Army Museum Te Mata Toa.

This violin was handmade by 46776 Driver William Marwood (Bill) Duck whilst stationed in New Caledonia with 16th Composite Company, 3rd New Zealand Division in 1943. Whilst in New Caledonia, Bill Duck met Lance Corporal Phillip Mancel Rutherford Knox who mentioned to Bill that he missed having his violin which (back home) he would often play to cheer himself up. Violins were not expected to survive long in the sub tropical climate of the Pacific as the glue and varnish were prone to deteriorating. Bill Duck (a shearer from Huntly who hadn’t had much experience with violins), offered to make Phillip a violin. Phillip originally scoffed at the idea, but Bill told Phillip that if he drew him a sketch, he could make it. 

Although doubtful, Phillip drew a sketch of a violin and Bill set to work. He gathered together several pieces of plywood and some leftover nails taken from American army ration boxes and amazingly created this violin. Although slightly larger than a standard violin, after procuring a string and bow, it was said to have produced an excellent sound. In fact after the war, the violin was inspected by a prominent music teacher in New Zealand who felt that the tone the instrument produced was equal to that of many professionally made violins. Bill Duck himself however, was unimpressed with the sound that the “fiddle” as he liked to call it, made.

1996.2041 – Detail of the back of the violin with William Marwood “Bill” Duck’s name painted on it. National Army Museum Te Mata Toa

1996.2041 – The detailed artwork painted on the back of the violin by Bill Duck. National Army Museum Te Mata Toa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Philip Knox spent many hours happily playing the violin and it wasn’t long before word got around and the American soldiers were asking to borrow it. The violin was lent to the  American Army Band for a concert where the bandmaster told the audience the history of the violin before performing a solo of Gounod’s “Ave Maria” on it.  As the violin became more popular and travelled around, Bill Duck constructed a wooden case for the violin to be stored in. Bill was said to have been good at art and drawing whilst at school and these talents were put to good use on the back of the violin and on the lid of the case.

 

1996.2041 – The wooden case for the violin with Phillip Knox’s details painted on the lid. National Army Museum Te Mata Toa

1996.2041 – The interior of the case for the violin. National Army Museum Te Mata Toa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The violin returned to New Zealand with Phillip Knox and remained a treasured possession of his until his death in 1984 at which time, the violin was given to Bill Duck. In the early 1990s Bill Duck, on the recommendation of his friend Jack Brockett, decided to donate the violin to the National Army Museum in Waiouru. Bill Duck passed away in June 1995 aged 83. It is due to the fore fought of Jack Brockett who wrote down the history of this instrument, that this amazing story has not been forgotten.