Speech by Hon Dr Pita Sharples, Minister of Māori Affairs, at the launch of the 28th Māori Battalion website at Parliament, 6 August 2009: part 2, followed by waiata. See Part 1 here.
In the latest Toi Te Kupu, a magazine for rangatahi distributed across all of our kura, there is an article written by Hinemāia Takurua, entitled Ngā Tama Toa.
In her own words, this young girl from Tolaga Bay Area School reflects on the unique experience last October, in which several thousand people re-enacted the 1946 return of the Maori Battalion’s C Company, when the troops marched from the railway station to Te Poho o Rawiri marae. Many of those marching carried photographs of their tipuna who served in the Battalion.
Thinking of that time, Hinemaia says, “Ka waipuketia te ngakau i te pōuri me te aroha”.
Over six decades since the Māori Battalion did us proud on the battlefields of Greece, Crete, North Africa and Italy, our children of today are still overwhelmed with grief and with emotion, as they recognise the sacrifice of those who have gone before them.
Today, those connections between the young soldiers of the 28th Maori Battalion and the young pioneers of this age, become even stronger.
This is a remarkable event, when with the flick of a switch, the incredible stories of nearly 3,600 men who served overseas with the Māori Battalion between 1940 and 1945, literally come to life.
And it is life in its absolute richness.
The heroes of this story are the men of the 28th Māori Battalion who so proudly served this country in World War 2.
Many of our finest and fittest volunteered in droves when government agreed to Sir Apirana Ngata and other Māori MPs idea for an all-Māori unit.
Sir Apirana acknowledged, “we will lose some of the most promising young leaders, but we will gain the respect of our pakeha brothers”.
And so these promising young leaders left our shores in May 1940, to maintain the fighting strength of the Maori Battalion, to defend their country as a matter of duty and obligation.
We can follow their war trail by following the interactive map from Greece through to Trieste, Italy.
They persevered through battle in Greece and Crete, experiencing the ordeal of ferocious hand-to-hand fighting at Maleme.
They endured the harsh temperatures of the North African desert, the challenge of vicious sandstorms and swarms of flies.
At El Alamein in October 1942 the Māori Battalion suffered 100 casualties.
They fought under olive groves, along river valleys, and through the hazards of mud and snow.
They served with discipline and courage, experiencing victory and tragedy; surviving by a fierce sense of spirit and camradie.
The fearlessness of the 28th was legendary. General Freyberg, who led the New Zealand division through the Greek, African, and Italian campaigns noted that "no infantry battalion had a more distinguished record, or saw more fighting, or, alas, had such heavy casualties than the Māori Battalion".
In 1943, the 28th distinguished itself in Tunisia; first in March, where Lt Te-Moananui-A-Kiwa Ngarimu’s inspired leadership helped the successful seizure of Tebaga Gap.
Only a month later, the 28th was involved in one of the bloodiest hand-to-hand battles at Takrouna. There, Sergeant Haane Manahi led a courageous group of men to scale a sheer cliff and fought for three days to eventually overcome the German and Italian troops.
After its desert campaign, the 28th moved on to Italy where they suffered terrible losses at the famous battle of Monte Cassino; 128 out of 200 men were either killed, wounded or captured.
These astonishing stories of epic proportion are all now instantly available through this website.
We marvel, we reflect, we grieve as we come to know each of the 3600 men of the 28th now available on the fully searchable Battalion roll which is a feature of the site.
We become immersed in their lives as we scroll through the pictures, video and audio memories recorded during the war years and the written transcripts of the oral histories of the veterans.
Lest we forget – we must keep alive the legendary contribution made by the 3,600 who served overseas. We must remember them all - the 649 were killed in action or died on active service – the 1,712 men were wounded; the 237 who were taken prisoner.
Ka waipuketia te ngakau i te pōuri me te aroha.
But there are other stories, other glimpses of life, which bring those days alive.
The Maori Battalion earnt respect not just as formidable soldiers but as fierce opponents in military competitions in swimming, rowing, boxing, tug-of-war, hockey and rugby.
And it wouldn’t be a true record of the Maori Battalion without recognising the enduring legacy of their concert parties.
The distinctive waiata and haka from home were accompanied with the influence of the European arts – guitars, mandolins, ukuleles and piano accordians. Italian songs like Buona Notte Mio Amore became part of the Battalion's repertoire.
There is a special space reserved to profile Te Rau Aroha – the Battalion’s own mobile canteen.
Te Rau Aroha – funded by donations from Maori school children- followed the troops almost everywhere – bringing with it fruit, cakes, chocolate, the latest news, cigarettes, and in Christmas time the wonder of kaimoana – muttonbirds, shellfish, and other preserved delicacies from home.
And we even learn about the distinctive taste of the North African puha, or as Captain M R Pene put it, “the dam stuff smelt like hell – it simply stank”. But considering that the only other food the troops had had even vaguely resembling greens were dehydrated potatoes and carrot, the local variety simply had to do.
The history is fascinating; the stories compelling.
And there is a particular strength evident in the way in which we learn how the Battalion was organised along tribal lines.
We link in to the “Gumdiggers” from the North, the “Penny Divers” from the central and Bay of Plenty region, the “Cowboys” from the coast, the “Foreign Legion” or “Ngāti Walkabout” from the south and the remainder of the North Island including the Waikato, and the “Odds and Sods”, which drew from all over the motu.
It is of note that the strength of tribal companies and hapu platoons was one of the distinctive features of the Maori Battalion leadership. It was the tribal muscle, along with the unique Maori character, that created an outstanding front line; a formidable unity.
That unity was only strengthened by the massive war effort on the home front - the Maori at home, serving in the Home Guard, growing food, working in essential industries and raising funds.
It is an absolute privilege to be associated with this event today.
This gathering is as important an opportunity to honour and revere the 28th Māori Battalion, as it is a celebration of the special website, www.28maoribattalion.org.nz.
As each year passes, such opportunities become even more precious especially for the surviving fifty-one 28 veterans and their whānau.
This is no less true for those in the wider whānau of the returned services association all over the motu.
Before I close, I want to acknowledge all those agencies that made it possible for the website to go live:
- Ministry of Culture and Heritage;
- National Library of New Zealand;
- Ministry of Education;
- Te Puni Kōkiri; and of course
- 28th Māori Battalion Association.
They have helped to get this website going – the rest is up to you now.
For the next three to five years, registered contributors will be able to add their own memories to add to the richness already available on the site. The site has been live only since the end of June and already there are 39 registered users.
Finally, I want to take us all back in time to the Gaiety Theatre in Ruatoria, late in the afternoon of the 25th January, 1946. As the contingent of the C Company filed through the door of the theatre, lead by Porikapa Awatere in an immaculate white suit, the sentiment of Tomo Mai, especially composed for the occasion, truly brought the emotions home. And then Sir Apirana said,
“You and your comrades did what we expected of you. Bred as you are, you could not have done less. You come from families that have never failed in their loyalty, and if you had not their blood you could not have made that contribution that meant so much to the Maori Battalion in the field”.
Today we pay our respects to all those who served overseas on our behalf. We reflect on their discipline and courage. And our hearts are flooded with sadness for all those who have gone.
They lived and died in ways which told us it was an honour to serve.
We now, honour them by officially launching this website to recognise their outstanding contribution to our nation.
Recording by Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Transcript from Beehive.govt.nz
Photographer: Roihana Nuri, TPK.