1935-1936 / NZBTI (Queen Street Campus)
At age 23 Charlie was working on a farm in Gore when he was persuaded to hear the Irish evangelist, Rev. W.P. Nicholson, and became a Christian the first night of Nicholson’s campaign. He learned verses of Scripture and would shout the praises of God as he drove his horse teams around the farm. He came to NZBTI in 1935, aged 26, and found study and examinations daunting. But he persevered and became an earnest evangelist, often using study breaks to witness in the streets to those who did not know Christ. He felt he was a hopeless preacher, but his fellow students never failed to be moved when Charlie spoke at the weekly open air meetings on the Baptist Tabernacle steps.
After graduating in 1936, Charlie spent a little over two years on the NZBTI Kemp Memorial Caravan, with other graduates Hugh Smyth (1936) and Munro Perry (1935). They did evangelistic work among the miners in Huntly and the farms at Te Kauwhata, where sometimes the dogs were turned on this fearless evangelist!
The advent of World War 2 saw Charlie begin serving as a YMCA Secretary at Fort Takapuna. With three days’ notice he was en route to the Middle East for five long years, where as “Charlie Y.M.” 1 he became almost a legendary figure in the 2nd NZ Expeditionary Force. He was attached to the Māori Battalion after the disastrous return from Crete. In Base Camp and out in the Western Desert, Charlie was in the middle of it all, dispensing comfort for the troops – both spiritual and material, conducting services where possible, sometimes burying the dead. His mobile canteen truck, named Te Rau Aroha (A Token of Love)2, was purchased with donations from children at Māori schools and supplied all kinds of goods for the troops. The truck, dug into the sand and covered in camouflage netting, was a place of refuge and friendship. Charlie endeared himself to members of the battalion by his bravery in following the men into battle in the truck. He was with the Division in the miraculous breakthrough at Minqua Quaim when even the Official War Records tell the amazing story of a YMCA van careering through a gap in the minefields – Charlie’s truck of course!
Many a time his life was spared. Flying shrapnel repeatedly tore at his truck when a bundle of notes or a carton of fruit preserved Charlie from instant death. One piece of shrapnel embedded itself in the New Testament in Charlies’ front pocket. In Italy a bomb exploded at his feet and he emerged splattered with mud but unhurt. Why? Charlie felt that God had kept his life for a purpose – to work among the Māori. He was bestowed with an MBE3 at Buckingham Palace and on his return to New Zealand was asked by the Government to take the mobile canteen, Te Rau Aroha, to all the contributing schools in appreciation of their students’ fundraising efforts. This assignment gave him the opportunity to use his free evenings to tell of God’s goodness and to seek to win many of his former friends for Christ.
Charlie then found himself a missionary of the United Māori Mission, pioneering work in Kaikohe, Kaitaia and Whangarei, and in the Gillies Ave Hostel in Auckland. In that ministry Charlie led hosts of boys and men to the Lord, counselling many over a period of years. Some of those went on to attend NZBTI/BCNZ themselves; including Bob Joyce and Dave Rika who both served as missionaries in Thailand. Charlie retired in 19724 and passed away on 3 September 1978 at age 70.
1 Charlie Bennet was called “Charlie Y.M” to distinguish him from Charles Bennett, the Commanding Officer of the Battalion
2 More about the exploits of Charlie and Te Rau Aroha can be found at: https://www.armymuseum.co.nz/te-rau-aroha/. Te Rau Aroha is located at the National Army Museum in Waiouru.
3 The Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) (Civil) citation reads: Mr. Bennet of the NZ YMCA has been attached to this unit since the first Libyan campaign. During all this time he has served the men of this unit with absolute devotion and loyalty, and during periods of front-line fighting, with complete disregard for his own personal safety. Mr. Bennet has always been untiring in his efforts to bring cheer to the men, and even when bullets have been flying and shells bursting, Mr. Bennet could be seen on his own vehicle or on a Bren carrier, distributing comforts to the men. The shell-splinters and holes in his vehicle bear witness to the thoroughness with which he did his job and of the personal courage that he has always displayed. Mr. Bennet has been a great influence in the unit, both spiritually and physically, and has always shown qualities of consideration and courage that have been a great source of inspiration to all the men of his unit. (L.G. 21/3/1944)
4 Much of the content of this story has been drawn from The Reaper April 1977 “Profile of a Graduate”