This article appeared in the April 1984 The Battalion Remembers booklet.
"They can't take that away from me" - a ricordo
Mandolin and guitar, Johnny Tihema and Charlie Robust; in the RAP, voices sang to the rafters - or where the rafters would have been if the casa had had a proper roof. "Blue smoke" was Charlie's favourite and "Ka Patu Patu". The war-time version of "Pamai to reo" brought in such a solid bass chant that even a tone-deaf Pakeha could take part. "Thanks for the Memory" came next and I thought to myself: "This is a memory that is being created right now - one that will never fade." And in the words of another song - "They can't take that away from me."
They could, of course, take the Battalion away and leave me behind, which one day the did, in cold, inept, bureaucratic fashion, transferring me to the 23rd Battalion when the boys took off for home. Then they, the bureaucrats, reversed this with apologies a few days later and made a thunderous last-minute dash down to Bari to catch up, but just in time to see the Battalion sailing away without me - blue smoke and all.
They had not as I thought disappeared forever. When I got home I found that I was still part of the Battalion, which is why I (and other takuta) attend the 28 reunions rather than those from the NZMC.
This sense of belonging was one of the outstanding features of this part of one's service. I had been attatched to other units, but with the 28 I was rapidly absorbed, engulfed in a warm and genuine welcome from the start. As the Muktar had said to a few pakeha under his command, "We integrated ‘em". And it was true and I no longer felt merely seconded; I was in 28 and the scarlet rectangle with great pride.
It helped to be in such a closely knit group as the RAP. Two great sergeants have been the core of this outfit, first - in my time - Keepa and the Waiwai, wonderful characters who themselves had disabilities that they ignored, but which might have daunted lesser men. Bill Waiwai had had to change his name from Ramiha and mysteriously swap X-ray plates before he could bluff his way into the Battalion at all. Most were there on some sort of wrangle. One man had only one eye and one had a leg two inches shorter than its fellow. Both had been passed fit. The slim, slight Charlie Robust of the melting eyes and liquid voice was only 14 when he enlisted. Adopting, as he so well could, the mien of an inscrutable oriental, he convinced the enlisting officer he was 21. Working the same thing in reverse, "Hak" Hakaraia, a veteran of World War I equally inscrutable and with the lean, craggily handsome face of one of his own carved ancestors, persuaded the authority that he was not 52 but 32. A fierce and legendry rifleman, Hak had a most delicate touch when it came to dressing a wound.
Burly Dick Alex, blinded at Faenza, and "Dicky" Bird, killed in the same action, vied with each other in providing comic relief. Peering unwisely out the door of one RAP, when things were noisy outside, Cpl. Alex brought his own head in again very rapidly, when that of our statue in our garden came off and thudded into the wall beside him. "He lost his head," said Dick gravely, "you should never do that in action."
The role of resident comedian subsequently passed to Johnny Tihema who acted his stories with tremendous verve. There was always a lot of laughing and rolling about. This is how he got himself a seat when there was not room by the fire. There was deep snow outside and he was forced to remain in a draughty corner where he sat whistling to himself and handling a grenade in an absent-minded fasion. As he told it, he kept on whistling and throwing up the grenade and catching it until he got on everybody's nerves. "Put that thing down, Tihema! Put it down man, it might go off."
"Oh no" I say, "she's all right," ad I just toss it around and go on whistling and then when no one is looking I whip it under my arm and take out the primer and go on chucking it up and down until, when I pretend to drop it a few times, they say "Hey put that thing away Tihema - don't be such a fool."
So then I pretend to go mad suddenly, I say, "hoh! Fool eh?" and I jump up and down and go really wild and whip out the pin and roll her across the floor. They all go! Out they go! Out the windows, out the door. Whapa gets under a little stool, only so high and Pitahira just sits there frozen. When they come back I get the seat by the fire, tossing up the grenade again.
Part of our RAP policy was the inclusion of a representative from each of the main tribal areas so that a man gravely wounded or wounded could hear the tongue of his own whanaunga. In lighter moments, this would provide comical disputes over accent or choice of words. The musical Ngapuhi rhythm might have the rest pretending to sway solemnly to the cadence when a Wanganui voice was heard; they would start looking in corners and under chairs for the letter that had been dropped.
The change of season in continental climates struck us all forcibly when the dust of summer turned to mud, and eventually, to dust again. Sitting in interminable convoys seemed to be one's major contribution to the war effort. It is the winter sound of chains and the spatter of mud that now sticks in the memory, contrasting with the powdering of white dust that settled over all of us in the summer as the vehicles lumbered slowly along. In both scenes, our Don R figures prominently, weaving his way up and down the convoy, his little dog on the pillion seat. There always seemed to be something happening at the end of the convoy to hold us up. The MO's jeep attracted a lot of attention when we passed through villages, but it was not the red cross on the canopy or the takuta inside, it was the driver. "Che bel' uomo!" the maidens could be heard to sigh, as Sindu Morrison cast his flashing eyes towards them. But dashing good looks were more the rule than the exception as the boys rolled by and surely a trail of broken hearts marked the Battalion's progress to Trieste!
During the last part of this advance, somewhere inland to the West of Venice, is a small town called Abano which was liberated not just by 28 but the O·group alone - C.O, company commanders, MO and IO. This small train of jeeps had trustingly followed Colonel Awatere in one of his more imperious sorties allegedly to locate precisely what hereabouts we were supposed to take over from a 6th brigade battalion later on. It was a fine clear day. The autostrada was broad and undamaged on this area of the front. It seemed invitingly and surprisingly clear as we hummed swiftly along. Then, as we swung around a high-banked turn, I looked out across the broad expanse of the Po Valley to my right and saw, a little way below us, miniature tanks with small puffs of cotton wool coming from them. A tank battle was in progress. Wonderingly I looked to the left and was startled to see, lying by the road, their hard, determined faces pop·eyed with surprise, lines and lines of Ghurkas, squinting at us along the barrels of their rifles. We appeared to have out-run the infantry in someone else's sector.
No doubt the same thought struck the Muktar, for he rapidly turned in at the next small town and, spreading maps out on the bonnet of the jeep, sought to identify our position.
Meanwhile the welcome was prodigious. Our jeeps were surrounded by pretty girls and old men. The former gave us flowers. The latter kissed us, their yellow teeth and droopy moustaches redolent of wine and garlic. There was a lot of joyous shouting and shooting from the partisans. Some of it whistled past.
"When did the Germans leave?" I asked.
"They haven't gone yet" was the reply. "They are just shooting their way out now. Where are the rest of your troops?"
We were not sure. Jim Henare and a weary Battalion convoy were still inching their way up the coast; trying to discover where the front was likely to be by change-over time at 1800 hours. They had had a long and frustrating day and were not mollified by our hilarious descriptions of our attempts at speechmaking. We had all been introduced in turn, declaiming from the small iron-railed balcony of the Abano town hall. the mayor had dashed home to change into his moth-eaten old World War One uniform. He stood proudly on the balcony, introducing us all in turn and pouring large tumblers of cherry brandy. We felt very well and the crowd seemed appreciative, even if they appeared not to realise that what we were speaking was Italian.
The formal part of the ceremony over, we made our way unsteadily to the headquarters of the local partisan chief. He was a Serbian naval officer and, as we drank each others' health, became increasingly depressed in genuine Slavic gloom, reflecting that there would no longer be a place for his people in post-war communist Yugoslavia. He had survived the war; he did not expect to survive the peace.
The session ended with long and suitably emotional interchanges between Peter Awatere and his Serbian officer, culminating in theatrical gestures when the latter presented Peter with his Luger. Not to be outdone, the Muktar presented his own side-arm in exchange. We parted with flamboyant protestations of goodwill. As we left, I said to Peter, "How are you going to explain away your lost pistol?"
"Don't worry, Doc, I'm not going to lose that; I have signed for it. I'll soon kleftie it back."
And so he did, a few hours later, shinning over the wall in the dead of night.
Solitary sorties appealed to our C.O. In those long, quiet stretches, when the battalion was reduced to a holding role, he would slink out of BHQ at night and stealthily join a recce patrol that had gone out.- The first they knew was than an extra man was silently moving along with them an un-nerving and not entirely safe manoeuvre of which the Adjutant, Jack Baker, disapproved. He took to ringing the R.A.P. "The old man's tin hat has gone, Doc. Keep a watch out for him in case he goes past your way". And so the Muktar took to leaving his tin hat behind.
Then, one morning, in the very early hours, he appeared in my room looking a bit distraught. He was almost speechless and kept pointing to his forehead and shaking his head. A spandau bullet had cut the black diamond out of the front of his beret, raising a horizontal red wheal without breaking the skin. Although he was generally regarded as being quite without fear, the incident had clearly been a little disturbing.
Other incidents in which people were disturbed come to mind - the orderly who was preparing a meal when a shell struck the roof and who instinctively clapped a large cabbage on his head, the A Coy boy who halted us all as we were moving through a wood, appalled at hearing the song of a cuckoo. '''E hoa! A clock!"
My letters home were erratic and irregular. I numbered them and, when I got to three hundred I commemorated the fact in doggerel verse.
Perhaps it is unfortunate that it survived.
He aha tre cento Che grande momento! Ho seritto tre cento per voi. The mahi was niente E ngari he plenty Di reciprocita con noi.
It started in Maadi Ed alquanto tardi I wrote uno kupu per week; you (writing less often) Did poco to soften A vista remarkably bleak
But then came the Ities And molti great maitais, He pakanga filled with surprise. I wrote con emotion, And molto devotion Was registered in your replies.
Through times like Faenza My letters got tenser, The writing possible male; Though other things bowled you, The things that I told you You took with a grano di sale
La guerra finita Cerro nostra vita Sicuro e poco domanda Soltanto tornare Per molt 'amor' fare Con te in Nuova Zelanda.
Then Takuta Mua, With children huhua, Will prove to be somewhat sposa to And who'll ricordare This hoia kuware So katua e corregato?
Pat Moore MO 28th Bn.