The Māori Chaplains

This article appeared in the April 1984 The Battalion Remembers booklet. 

The Maori Chaplains  

Throughout the war the Maori Battalion had its own Maori Chaplain. And for the last three years there was a second chaplain who worked with the Maori troops at Base. A special church service book in Maori was produced, with hymns and an order of service based on the 'Book of Common Prayer,' for owing to the unusual denomination ratio, the five Maori chaplains were all members of the Church of England. Padre Hawawira, who had first gone to the First World War at the age of sixteen, was the first chaplain, and he served in Greece, Crete, Libya and Syria before being invalided home. His place was taken by Padre W. Rangi, a man of great spiritual force, well-loved and respected. He was once described as having the face of a New Testament saint and the fire of an Old Testament prophet. He was not young for infantry work, having three sons serving with him in the battalion, but he made little of age and was giving splendid service up to the time when both his eardrums were burst by an exploding shell at Alamein.  

Padre N.T. Wanoa served with the battalion from Alamein to Tunis, after spending the first three years of the war as a combatant, during which he rose to the rank of lieutenant after good service in Greece and Crete. He had been a vicar before the war and was commissioned as a chaplain in 1942.  

Padre Wi Huata arrived in the Middle East in 1943 and served throughout the Italian campaign. He was a young man with many talents. Life, vitality, and enthusiasm flowed from him at all times, whether he was living in the front line or taking a choir on tour round the Base hospitals. Energetic in all things affecting the welfare of his men, he showed great courage and proved himself a worthy representative of his battalion. He was awarded the Military Cross for his fine work with the battalion, in Italy. His religious duties were performed with sincerity and love, and he presented over a hundred men for confirmation.  

Padre Manu Bennett, another distinguished son of the Rt. Rev. F.A. Bennett, Bishop of Aotearoa, arrived in the Middle East in 1944 and also saw service with the battalion in Italy.  

It was right that the Maoris should have chaplains of their own race for they had many characteristics which deserved real knowledge and sympathy. In battle they won respect for their fiery courage and their most light-hearted contempt of danger. They did not bother much about minor regulations and red tape, and many a time everyone, save Authority, smiled at some ingenious interpretation of military law. Like all New Zealand soldiers they grew restive in the monotonous routine of a Base camp, and sometimes this boredom led to trouble. But the crimes of a few individuals could not tarnish the record of the battalion in action nor disguise the fact that as a race they have an interest in spiritual things which is often deeper and more natural than that of the pakeha. 

Every morning before daylight in the front line prayers would be taken by the chaplain, but if he were absent an officer or private would always step forward to take his place. They took a real interest in their Church services and made them beautiful with their singing. Sometimes in big services at Base the Maoris would sing an anthem in their own language.  

There was one occasion on a hot, sticky, dusty day, when some two thousand soldiers attended a service in a cinema in Maadi. The church parade seemed formal and uninspiring until the Maori contingent stood up and sang. Then the war and the dust and the heat were forgotten in a moment. Something of home and of beauty was brought very near, and the glorious unaccompanied harmony brought new life to the listeners, as refreshing as rain in the desert. Time and again a small group of Maoris separated from their battalion would attend a pakeha Church parade and sing hymns in Maori with the same wonderful effect, giving a fresh meaning to the words of Isaiah: 'The desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose'. The Maori chaplains were always popular members of the Department where they willingly took their share of all extra duties, and in the battalion they were worthy members of a race famed for its martial tradition and respect for the deeper things in life.  

PADRE WI HUATA: 25 years Young, Energetic & Empathetic 

He says: I was honoured to-serve as Padre for the 28 N.Z. (Maori) Bn. I will never forget them and the days and months and years I was privileged to serve them while they served their people and their country. They were warriors with a long tradition of war, Field-Marshall Rommell said, "Give me the Maori Battalion and I will conquer the world". world". One of my saddest experiences was in Wellington, January 23rd, 1946 when I saw the dispersal of our Battalion:

A Coy - The Gum Diggers (Nga Kiri Kapia)

B Coy - The Penny Divers (Nga Ruku Kapa)

C Coy - The Cowboys (Nga Kau Poi)

D Coy - Ngati Walk-about,

H.Q. Coy - The Odds & Sods.  

It was a great body of men, proud and vigorous, second to none in a venture that taxed their total being - physical, emotional and Spiritual.  

An Unusual Celebration of Holy Communion 

After the Battalion moved back to Castelfrentano from Orsogna, where there had been no fewer than 233 casualties, 50 of them fatal, we had a Holy Communion Service which was attended by 788 men. The communicants sat under the olive trees while they waited their turn, and a team of runners distributed the bread and wine - I repeatedly said the words, with the giving of the Bread: Ma Te Tinana o to tatoua Ariki, o Ihu Karaiti, i tukua nei mou, e whakaroa tou tinana me tou, wairua kia ora tonu. Tangohia tenei kaigna, hei whakamahara ki a te Karaiti i mate mou, kainga whakaponotia ia i roto i tou ngakau, i runga i te whakawhetai, and with the giving of the Cup: Ma nga Toto o to tatou Ariki, o Ihu Karaiti, i whakahekea mou, e whakaora tou tinana me tou wairua kia ora tonu. Inumia tenei, hei whakamahara, ki nga toto o te Karaiti i whakahekea mou, mo te whakawhetai ano.  

Earlier I had persuaded Boy Tomoana to part with his considerable store of vino. He remarked afterwards that he was pleased to participate in the Holy Communion and in the holy drink.  

Two of my chief helpers at this service were Joe Poata and Corporal Rawhiti. When some of the communicants realised that Rawhiti who was the sanitary Corporal was also a server, they murmured, but Rawhiti was equal to the occasion with the retort, "Very clean, very hygiene."  

These two same Gum Diggers were also my fastest grave diggers at several burials. When I asked Joe Poata how he came to be such a fast digger, he said, "The first hole is always for your own protection." And when I said, "How about the Padre?" - "Please yourself', was his comment, so we all became fast grave diggers.  

During my time as Padre for 28 Bn, I suppose I did the same sort of things that all Padres do in the 2NZEF. The same sort of things that Kahi Harawira, Tunoa Wanoa and Whare Rangi did before me. But there are some things that I think a lot of people don't know about and it is these things I want to tell about.  

I believe that the 28 NZ (Maori) Battalion was so good at fighting because they had a strong spiritual side to their lives - a simple belief in their ability to fight and a real belief in the Hereafter. There were many times when men who were dying said to me, "Padre, homai te inoi tuku," or "E Wi pray for me," or "E Wi, pray for my mother." .  

When a young soldier is afraid or when he knows he is dying, he calls for his mother. The priorities of aroha to a young Maori soldier seem to be:

(1) Love for his mother.

(2) Love for his father.

(3) Love for his wife.

(4) Love for his children.  

Services: Formal & Informal 

Under the heading of Formal Services I include the massed Church Parades at Base, when we combined with other units and where the great crowd itself provided an atmosphere of excitement and shared the fellowship, which was strongest when the hymn singing had been set alight by our own powerful choir. With a good leader the ordinary soldier was happy to follow - hymn singing included.  

When we were out of the line, but spread out in company areas it was my custom to hold services separately for each company - a day each. This meant that the whole week was covered A to H.Q. with Saturday for Battalion H.Q. and Sunday for a combined Service, usually Holy Communion at a central area - two of the most popular hymns were: Piko nei Te Matenga and Aue Ihu Tirohia.  

The pattern of services when the troops were committed was not very different, but the details were - time and personnel available depended very much on 'the exigencies and the service' as the phrase goes. Half-demolished buildings, especially the cellars, convenient holes, sunken roads and stone walls were all places for corporate prayer and fellowship.  

There are two other aspects of this section of my reminiscences that I must mention. The first of these is how important it was to our men that there be some form of religious observance. If the Padre wasn't available there would usually be an officer or some other leader to conduct prayers in Maori.  

My second mention is my rememberance of Holy Communion services a few hours before and a few days after an action. These services were exciting and stimulating and very very sad. We came together as a family knowing full well that some of would die or that some of us had died. He Inoi Tuku mo te Tangata e tata pu ana te mata  

Before battle I always tried to get myself in a place where as each company went forward they would pass me. I would say He Ino Tuku - always in Maori - a Commendatory Prayer. 'Almighty God with whom do live the spirits of. just men made perfect after they are delivered from their earthly prisons: We humbly commend the souls of these Thy servants of the 28th NZ (Maori) Battalion into Thy hands, as into the hands of a faithful Creator and most merciful Saviour that they may in the end be brought to Life Everlasting through the Merits of Jesus Christ Thine Only Son Our Lord - Amen. After this I usually found my way to the RAP to see what I could to do help the Doc and his staff.  


We had a number of concert groups, large and small and for all occasions. Many of these concerts were held among ourselves and other groups were formed to visit the wounded in hospital. Some of the personalities I remember best were Pango Munro playing the piano, Lou Paul singing  the ‘Lords Prayer', Sonny Waru singing 'Kingi Tawhio & Bull Reedy Raumoko', George Asher was our music critic and Jackie Baker the piano accordianist.  

The harmony and volume that a group of our Battalion boys could produce was wonderful. Their singing brings back many fond memories.  

I recall an incident from one particular concert. We had a fellow Edwards from Tuhoe - B Coy. Could he sing. I dropped him from the programme and when he asked ... why, I told him that his songs were too dirty.  

There was the time we were giving a concert in front of an audience of men and women. Edwards pleaded with me to let him sing. He promised it would be O.K, and I let him. During the singing he placed the American and French flags around his Kumu. I was troubled about what might come next so I told he to get off stage, but he wouldn't. He was properly worked up, so we arranged a Commando Act - a real one was carried out by my brother Ossie. When the commandoes booted off the singer the crowd thought it was good acting and when Edward called out 'Padre Padre!!, have mercy on a cheerful ass,' the crowd' roared.   


Whenever and wherever we could, we played football. Company matches tended to be tribal affairs and they produced some pretty good games and so did the times we played other battalions and units. We had some pretty good players and we had some hard-case ones. Our best Maori soldier was our worst footballer. He was dynamite in the front row, but Ray Thompson and Rei Rautahi knew how to fix him. And there was the time he tackled Harry Lambert. Harry was surprised because he and Peta were playing on the side same. Peta had a vocabulary for all occasions, but I'm not going to record his football English - It might spoil my article and I am a parson. Peta always wanted his side to win. He even tried to get Johnnie Smith to transfer out of 21 Battalion.  

All in all, we had hundreds of tough foot bailers in our ranks. It was hard to knock a Maori out because he feared nobody. They used to say, 'Better to get hurt here than by a real bullet'.  

Footnote to 'Football - Canon Huata Cannon-ball 

Padre himself was a pretty tough footballer. He learnt to play in his home district of Wairoa were Rugby is rugged. (I was born there too, but never played football there). In the early days inter-unit football in Italy Wi Huata and I were on Opposing Sides, Tutu Wirepa was '2nd Five' and I was centre - a long split-second before the ball got to me a human cannon-ball, knees up and head down hit me. Somehow or other the top of its head made contact with my face, I didn't go down, but staggered on with  tears in my eyes I had no show of seeing the ball let alone catching it, and to add to my discomfort my team-mate cursed me for spoiling what might have been a brilliant back movement (Harry Lambert).

Places & Buildings of Interest

ASSISI: Anybody who went on leave to Assisi must have been impressed. All over Italy there are Churches and Cathedrals and Palaces and Castles and Monuments and Tombs. A lot of them because they are hundreds of years old and are in ruins. It is like that at Assisi. There is something of everything in the town perched on the hill, but the man who lived there 800 years ago, who was born rich, but devoted his manhood to the poor, his spirit seems to live on in this beautiful place, and we know and admire the friars who carry out his work in his name - the Franciscans.

SIENA: For country boys who had seen nothing more exciting or marvellous than Auckland or Wellington or even those who had been to England, Siena was like a fairy city - in the twilight on the hill. Little towers and big towers all decorated - so many of them made of red brick and in the middle the 'Campo'. We were told about the horse races they had there. It was hard to believe, but when you think about it, so much is different that after a while you can believe that some of these places belong to Fairyland - so different from the Desert I suppose, and the mud and slush of the rest of Italy - beautiful books and pictures and marble statues.

ROME: The Eternal City - the place where all the most beautiful painting and statues have been created to decorate hundreds of churches and cathedrals and monuments. I can't describe the thrill of all the wonders of Rome gave me. Hundreds of leave trips wouldn't have been enough ancient and modern all mixed together. The Victor Emmanuel monument next to an ancient Forum and then straight down the road to the Colosseum where the early Christians were martyred. The place where St. Paul was imprisoned is another holy place.

THE VATICAN: The Basilica of St. Peter with all those mosaic pictures, the altars of precious marble and the candle-sticks. The Cathedral is so huge and the square outside so immense. The statue of St. Peter is so impressive that even the non-Roman-Catholic can't help but be impressed, though they mightn't kiss the big toe.

THE LIBRARY & MUSEUM: Of the Vatican are other places that show visitors just how much has been done to glorify the Holy City. The people in the paintings seem to be very real. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is practically out of this world. Other picture book towns where there are special statues and Churches and tombs are St. Marks in Venice, St. Andrew in Amalfi and St. Nicholas of Bari (Santa Claus).

OTHER ASPECTS: These are some of the places that filled us with wonder and awe. However, there were plenty of times when leave was much more than just looking at or being overwhelmed by the marvellous things we saw. The Maori soldier knew how to enjoy his leave. He was smart and clean when he lined up at the parade, but when he got back it was obvious that he had enjoyed himself - his dress was "informal".  

My batman once borrowed my gear - without permission of course. When I tackled him he said the Officers tabs and the purple letters were wonderful, they had made his leave like heaven, but that now that I had caught him he felt like hell. He asked me to forgive him. When I asked him about my boots and blankets he told me he had sold them. "Where's the money?" I asked. "II selenzio e doro," he replied. There was a certain kind of simple psychology in the way a lot of our boys used the Italian language, to the Italians and amongst ourselves.  

Sometimes the Maori would bring back a jar of vino syrup which was supposed to be mixed 3 water to 1 syrup, but he would often take it neat - result, a very drunk Maori. On one occasion I was going to pick one of the culprits up and bring him in out of the rain, but Joe Poata stopped me. The next morning all those who had vino and the drenching, seemed to be extra fit. There were powers in that mixture that I didn't know about.

The Bombing of the Monastery  

One day shortly before A & B's attack on the Railway Station at Cassino, I arrived to take prayers with Monty Wikiriwhi's company. B Company was a mixture of Anglicans Roman Catholics and Ringatu. The sight of 250 bombers blasting the Monastery was fresh in everybody's mind and there was some heated discussion going on. The Re's were very worried about it and asked me straight. "What do you think Padre?" My reply was something like this: I told them that in Wairoa there is a beautiful meetinghouse called 'Takitimu'. We who belong to that Marae love that building. Then I went on to say that if my two brothers Ossie and Dick were standing near Takitimu and a bomb came down I would pray hard for the bomb to hit Takitiumu and not my brothers, nor anybody else in the 28 Battalion. A building can be rebuilt, but not a soldier's life. The men seemed to be quite satisfied with my answer.  

In 1977 I revisited Cassino. The Monastery has been rebuilt by money donated by the world. At the Fort of Monte Cassino on which the Monastery stands are rows and rows of white crosses which testify that, 'Their mana lives for ever'. Altogether 230 young men of the Maori Battalion still lie in Italy.  

The Monastery or the Abbey of St. Benedict at Cassino has been rebuilt, but not the bodies of those men.

Submitted by mbadmin on

Comments (1)

From the Waiapu Church Gazette, 1 May 1945, Page 9: WITH THE MAORI BATTALION The following interesting airgraph has been received by Bishop Bennett from his son, the Rev. M. A. Bennett, C.F., now serving in  Italy: —My thanks to all of you who have been so kind in writing and whose letters I appreciate. I look forward to their continuation, as they are of first-rate importance to the morale of us over here, and I also hope that you will consider this letter a reply to your individual ones. Please keep writing. I left Egypt about a month ago and was glad for the the change of climate and surroundings which I found here in Italy, although I was sorry to have left such good friends and fine Churchmen as Bully Jackson and many others who are still in Egypt. Italy at present is a very pleasant place to be in, with its vast contrast of blossoming trees and green grass to the arid sandiness of sweltering Egypt, although the towns m the southern part of Italy are dirtier than Cairo. Nevertheless, the different scenes of the countryside continually put one in mind of the homeland that we over here love so well. It gives one a very peculiar feeling to be on the same soil as the enemy. Our base camp is under the command of Major Lambert, and all the boys there are fit and well. At present I am up in the north of Italy spending a short time with the battalion, thanks to the kindness of our Colonel, Lieutenant-Colonel Awatere, who made this visit possible. It made me feel very sad and homesick to see so many familiar faces up here, especially those of Wi Huata, Jack Chadwick, Whiro Wehi, Edward Ward and Henry Potaka, who are all fit and well.  Already I have spent a whole night with Jack, both of us in the same bed, talking so much that there was very little sleeping done. Jack himself is very well, and is doing a very good and efficient job over here, and I think he is in line for a commission shortly, although I am not certain. However, his officers speak very highly of him and his work. He sends his aroha to you all. You can well imagine the joyous nature of my reunion with Wi, who is doing an even better job than reports credit him with. He is a priest and missionary of whom the Church and the people may justly be proud. In fact, I'm very nervous of the prospect of having to take over from him, knowing that I myself will never be able to fill the position that he has built up for any chaplain to this unit. At present he is on a few days leave in Rome, while I am here to carry on while he is away. It may be that I shall probably go into the next action with him, as he has expressed the desire that I gain my first battle experience under his guidance. The thing that puzzles me about him is that he is always as active and energetic, and also as humorous, as ever he was. There is no doubt about his popularity with the battalion as a whole. As to the battalion itself, we are very fortunate in having such fine and able men in command throughout. Colonel Awatere, as you already know, is in command, with Major Henare as his second in command. A Company is commanded by Major Marsden, with Captain Harris as second in command. B Company is under Major Henry Northcroft, with Lieutenant Ransfield as second in command; C Company under Major W. Reedy and Captain Waititi as second in command. D Company, which includes most of our Hawke's Bay boys, is under Major McRae, with Lieutenant Mataira as second in command.  Headquarters Company is under Captain Ben Christie, with Captain Aperahama as second in command. Our M.O. is Captain Moore. On my way up to the battalion I stopped at Cassino and saw the rubbled remains of that town  where such an epochal battle was fought by this battalion.  I stood on the spot where Alby was last seen; I also visited the cemetery where so many of our boys who died in and around Cassino are buried, including Glen Rogers, Tene Rickitt and Johnny Graham, over whose graves I stood and held a silent tangi. In Rome I picked up Pare Saxby and another Maori nurse, Kua Riwai, and brought them up with me. When we arrived Pare announced her engagement to Major Marsden. They have since returned to Rome. This is all for now. Love to all and God bless you all. Hope all is well.Your affectionate son and brother, MANU. Click here to view the article. 'With the Maori Battalion'. Waiapu Church Gazette, Volume 36, Issue 2, 1 May 1945, p9 URL: