Merv was born in Whanganui in 1922, the son of Martha and Theodore Browne. He attended Gonville School and Wanganui Technical College before beginning a printer's apprenticeship at the Wanganui Herald. Merv and his parents were active members of the Methodist Church, which took, in the interwar years, a strongly pacificist stance under such Ministers as Ormond Burton, and, in Whanganui, the Reverend 'Tubby' Martin.
In August 1941 Merv's name was drawn in the 18-year-olds' military ballot. He decided to refuse military service. He was given one month's hard labour at Whanganui prison. On his release the military authorities were waiting and he was taken to the Waiouru military barracks. In November 1941 – following brief spells at Mt Eden prison and the police cells in Hamilton – he was sentenced to defaulters' detention for the duration of the war. He was taken to Strathmore detention camp and then in March 1942 to Hautu detention camp.
The Hautu detention camp was situated near Tūrangi, close to a prison. The men were meant to be preparing the pumice and scrub land for pasture for returned soldiers. During Merv's time at the camp conditions worsened and in response he and Chris Palmer refused to work. They subsequently escaped and made their way to Wellington. Eventually both were arrested and sentenced to three months' hard labour. In September they were returned to Hautu and put in solitary confinement. Merv was subsequently sent to Waikune and then on to Mt Eden. He was discharged from there on 23 May 1946.
During Merv's detention at Hautu he became engaged to Marjorie, who he later married. Read more about Marjorie Browne and listen to her speak about this period.
Here Merv talks to interviewer Megan Hutching about the changes he saw take place at Hautu detention camp:
Merv Browne: The fences were doubled and I think heightened, or something was done to them, so that the … screws as we called them, warders could walk around between the wire fences and keep an eye, day and night. Later they put flood lights up too.
So it was, it became, we felt very strongly that it was becoming something along, possibly – I don't know whether it happened like that in Germany – but the progression of things. The isolation of the camp, very difficult to get to, and the type of supervision we had there, it was pathetic really. People who were really almost unemployable, I think, were given jobs there. Some of them were not too bad, but it was rather pathetic.
Interviewer: So it was being more and more like a prison camp and less like a detention camp?
Merv Browne: Oh very much so, even more so than a prison camp except still they had no guns whereas quite often in the prison camps the warder would take a revolver with him.
Merv and Marjorie Browne at St Heliers, 1947 and at home in 2007.