The Unopened Parcel

2012.61.1 National Army Museum: The Unopened Package – note the red wax sealing the parcel twine.

When World War II started, David James Robertson was 32 years old and working as a hardware buyer in Wellington. Although David was living with his mother, Jessie (his father having already passed away) he was recently engaged to Ms Ena Constance Cashin, a dental nurse also living in Wellington.

Despite his recent engagement, David made the unenviable decision to enlist and leave his fiancé at home in New Zealand. Now 28838 Gunner David James Robertson, he embarked overseas in August 1940 as part of the 6th Field Regiment of the New Zealand Artillery. Unfortunately, David’s active part in the war was to be short lived. After the disastrous Greece campaign in April 1941 he was captured as a Prisoner of War (POW) and would spend the next four years interred in a German POW Camp. Despite being behind barbed wire, David continued to keep in touch with Ena, writing her letters with tiny words crammed onto each piece of paper.

After the defeat of Germany in May 1945, Ena received word that David had been liberated and was safe in allied Italy. On 29 May, David boarded the troopship Empress of Scotland which was to take him back to Britain and the start of his journey home to New Zealand. Despite surviving years as a POW, it was at this point, liberated and on his way home to his fiancé, that tragedy struck.

2012.61.1 National Army Museum: The Unopened Package – note Robert’s name typed at the very top of the label.

On a cold and windy afternoon on 8 June 1945, David Robertson was reported to have been sitting on the back of the motor boat deck of the troopship, wrapped up in a blanket enjoying a cigarette with a friend. His friend decided to go inside and David told him that he would join him shortly once he finished his cigarette. Shortly afterwards, however, men from a lower deck saw David falling into the sea feet first. The man overboard call was immediately given, a life buoy was thrown into the sea and the ships following in the convoy were signalled. David was spotted swimming in the water behind the ship, but he was soon enveloped in the wash of the following steamer. He was not seen again. Despite a military court of inquiry, the reasons why David fell overboard that day remain unclear. 

After what must have been a joyous cable informing her that her fiancé was returning home the previous month, on 16 June 1945 another cable was sent to Ena, carrying the devastating news that he was now missing, believed drowned. Aside from Ena, David left behind a grieving mother and a younger brother, Alexander Baxter Robertson, who had also served during the war.

A wartime photograph of the Troopship Empress of Scotland which David was travelling on at the time of his death. Source:

David’s personal effects, which were still onboard the ship, were bundled up in this small parcel and returned to New Zealand where they were given to Ena. Devastated at the loss of her fiancé so close to being reunited, Ena found it impossible to open the parcel and come to terms with David’s death. As his body was never recovered, she did not have a grave to visit to mourn him (although he is listed on the Athens Memorial and has a memorial marker on his parent’s grave in Wellington). Ena never married, nor is she believed to have had another boyfriend after David. It was not until after her death over 50 years later that her family made the discovery of numerous letters from David written to her during the war and the parcel was discovered.

This unopened parcel gives us a glimpse into the sorrow that often goes untold in the history books – the story of a soldier’s loved ones who are left behind to bear the terrible cost of war. The fact that it was never opened tells us in unspoken words more about the grief and futility of war than a letter or diary ever could. In David’s military personnel file, there is a typed page listing “articles of intrinsic or sentimental value” which belonged to David. These include a diary, personal papers, photographs and souvenirs. We can take an educated guess and say that some of these things are most likely contained inside the parcel. Perhaps they could tell us more about David’s experiences during the war and his relationship with Ena. However, out of the deepest respect for both Ena and David, we will not open it and will never know for sure what is inside. Besides, its story tells a greater tale as-is of life at war.


Memorial grave marker to David Robertson on his parent’s grave in Karori cemetery, Wellington. Brenden Shirley, April 2024.

Grave of Ena Cashin in Makara cemetery, Wellington. Brenden Shirley, April 2024.