Pte Hona Te Moananui a Kiwa (John) Palmer
b. 4 January 1918 d. 11 March 2011
17 Platoon, D Company, 28th Maori Battalion
Ngati Raukawa, Ngati Toarangatira, Ngati Tuwharetoa
In Pahiatua, on 15 March, a large gathering assembled at 93-year-old John Palmer‘s tangihanga to farewell a much loved friend and relative. He was the last of the Maori Battalion's D Company veterans who fought in the Battle of Greece during the Second World War. In fact, of the 750 Maori Battalion members who were transported from Egypt to Athens in March 1941 only three now remain: Sir Henare Ngata (Gisborne), Arthur Midwood (Rotorua) and Arthur Brooking (Havlock North).
Some years ago John gave an account of his war experiences to a young Welsh friend who wrote that no sooner had the Maori Battalion arrived in Athens they were despatched to the pass below Mt Olympus in northeastern Greece where on 16 April John and his mates found themselves facing a German attack in the Mavroneri Gorge. The gorge was something akin to the Manawatu Gorge except the slopes were much higher and steeper and covered in dense bush "which we thought a goat couldn't climb or come down." The fight was frantic but brief and D Company's 16 Platoon lost four men before the Germans withdrew to their side of the gorge. Night fell soon after accompanied by wind and driving rain. Word was passed between gun pits that the Battalion was pulling out and each of its five companies was to hike it up the slopes behind them.
17 Platoon was made up of three 10-man sections and in the confusion that night the message did not reach the section John belonged to. "My mate and I, we stood to all night." Each section was divided into pairs and each pair shared a trench and pup tent. ‘Stood to' means you watched your front for two hours and then slept while your mate guarded for two hours, and you kept this up until dawn.
"We had our blankets on and we were wet right through to our boots. Then the rain stopped in the early morning. Its something one never forgets, it was quiet, we heard the birds twittering in the trees. It was just becoming dawn. All of a sudden we heard this voice behind us, ‘Have you seen anybody?' we said ‘No'" he said ‘That's funny.' So he went on to the next trench. We got up and had a look right around. The whole Battalion had pulled out. Six of us were left behind. We couldn't understand it."
"Seeing that we heard that the Battalion was going to make a stand at the end of the Pass we climbed right to the top of the range ... when we ran into a mob of Serbian soldiers. Through sign language, noise and whatever they told us there's nobody there, it was all Germans, our guys had left."
John and his mates, who had been without food for three days, then decided to make their way down to the coast, steal a boat and set out for Turkey. They were attempting to do just that when they ran into Germans. "They must have been a labour corps. They were fixing up the roads because a lot had been bombed. Because the Greeks were dark like us Maoris and a lot of them wore more or less the same uniform we decided the only thing to do was carry on and say we were Greeks forgetting we had a New Zealand patch on. We just walked past, they just looked at us, ignored us, except the officer. Being in the army its automatic, you hear the word halt and you automatically halt. He said, ‘Halt, for you the war is over."
So on 25 April (Anzac Day) 1941 fighting in the war ended for John and his mates and life as a Prisoner of War began. Three months in Salonika before being transported to Germany and Austria where for four years his home was a further five P.O.W. camps and where appeasing one's hunger was always uppermost in the prisoner's mind.
Haere ra e koro, haere ki o matua tipuna, ki o hoa o te Hokowhitu-a-Tumatauenga kua mene atu ki te po. Noho huihui mai ra koutou i te ao o te wahangutanga.