This article appeared in the April 1978 NZ 28 Maori Battalion Tenth Reunion booklet.
MOANA AND THE MOUNTAIN 'PT 209' - ARTICLES BY BILL RURU
In the early hours of the morning Moana was killed in action. The citation of this action, and of his leadership, tells part of the award.
Moana the Man
He was a quite retiring person, even during his home and school life. The army life he lead was accepted by Moana as part of his then profession. Like all trained men, who obtained officerhood fmm a private, Moana retained his quiet assuming nature. He maintained this attitude until his death. I recall vividly while lying on top of the "mountain" alongside Moana, only then a few minutes away from his losing his life. We were a small number of the platoons of 'C' Company, and we were called to assemble rather than cover the ridges on our left and right flanks because of the loss of men and officers. Moana called us together and we were soon explained the situation as regards us and the enemies. His final words were that we were to hold our positions until relieved, or a surrender, but at all costs we were to hold our objective. Moana the man had taken command, but still in his quiet and unassuming manner. After organising our positions, he asked two of us to try and locate who was on our left flank because of the noise and digging going on. Having approached the area, my companion called out in the usual Maori language and manner, but was answered in an unusual enemy language and manner, the language of the Spandau. Returning to Moana and the rest of the group, we then fully realised our complete isolation.
It was during the night that several sorties were executed both by the enemy and Moana and his handful of men. They were unusual attacks, in that each attack went only so far and recalled. One attack I recall was when both the enemy and the Maoris stood up it the same time only a few yards apart and fired almost point blank at each other. No one was actually shot or wounded. In the history of the Battalion during this action it was made mention the fact of stones being used. I know we were losing men and ammunition, suffering from lack of sleep, and the situation was desperate, and there were plenty of stones around, and rocks, which were used more for the purpose of cover rather than the forementioned.
During a brief rest, Moana reassembled his remaining men. He and I lay together on top of the mountain. The wind was blowing and sand was being blown into our faces. Only someone who has been in these desert circumstances can remember what is was actually like. It is difficult to describe on paper. It was during these brief moment of his last mortal life that he asked me, "Where would you like to be now?" A thousand answers went through my head and the first was certainly not where we were right then. Before I could answer him, he said, "If only my mother could see me now." Then he continued talking of his mother, how she brought them all up as children, no different from any other Maori upbringing, his school days, friends, family relations and many other personal things, which to my knowledge have never been written, or told. But to remember one's mother when we were in such circumstances. After all these years I still wonder at his last conversation, concerning his mother, not much of his father. Was this a premonition of what was to happen, or was the love of his mother being conveyed spiritually by her to a son about to be lost to man's mortal world and to become immortal in the annals of history. We as Maoris are capable of these feelings. Once again he called for another move forward and from one of these attacks he lost his life, but not the objective.
Moana leaves the mountain
A surrender came early next morning due to the fierce attack from 'D' Company. Unfortunately this attack didn't come soon enough. 'D' Company's attack put an end to the enemies chances of holding this outstanding feature. Quickly we organised burial parties. As many as possible of our dead were carried from the "mountain" to their first burial place. Moana was the last to be buried and a cross was duly made. One of the burial party had a camera. The burial group, Frank Henderson, Keepa Rangi, Vic Thompson, Jackie Munro and myself later, when on leave, all saw the photograph. Unbeknown to us, it was to became a photograph world known. Since Moana was awarded the Victoria Cross, not one of us has seen the photograph again.
Mountain to Mountain
Moana was born and raised to manhood in the vicinity of a mountain, and possibly even climbed it - Hikurangi. Then he and his people fought and captured another mountain, "Pt. 209". Only to lose his life to gain yet another mountain. The mountain of spiritual glories. There he resides with his mother and father and many others.
I and many others have been privileged to return to the cemeteries. Sfax was one. There they lay Moana and his men. Their resting place marked by headstones, carved by man. And this I believe was the purpose of the stones pre-mentioned.
During our stay in Sfax, Bino Reedy and Hoko Ropiha went through a lot of trouble to make arrangements to go back to the Tebaga Gap area. When Harry Ngarimu discovered Alex Ropiha and I were on "Pt. 209", also Brownie Wotherspoon of the 24th Battalion, who fought in the earlier action, a party was organised, including some of our Kaumatuas (Kuias). We left Port Alexandria at 5 a.m. and travelled to El Harmna to the French Barracks, who were hopeless in assisting us. We then went back to El Hamna. By now patience was runing low, until we decided to ask the oldest looking Arab person. He gave us a rough idea of the area. Soon our party was headed along a bitumen road and then it turned into the desert area. Fairly soon familiar landmarks began to appear and then we recognised the Tebaga Gap itself. We approached "Pt. 209" where a small ceremony was held. Jerry Mohi directing our service, with our Kuias performing the Maori etiquettes of such a ceremony. Looking at "Pt. 209" from the enemies' point of view, it was a very important vantage point. On one side of the hill is the coast, on the other the range of mountains and between these two points stands "Pt. 209", guarding the gap. We approached it from the way the enemy knew it. Shrapnell, shells, rusted tins, sales of boots, buttons still litter the area. Trenches partly obscured by wind blown sand remain with a large stone cenotaph which stands in the centre of the gap, in memory of the allied forces who fought and broke the enemy hold, by pouring through Tobaga Gap. To us that day, it was more of a day of remembrance, of "Pt. 209" which stands as a sentinal to Moana and his men.
Having seen and handled the same decoration on the Pilgrimage Tour, I was able to compare it with other medals of war. We are all aware of the history of the Victoria Cross, the highest military award; how it was first originated. When one makes a comparison with the metal, it is similar to schrapnel, black with a maroon ribbon attached. One gets decorated with metal which is manufactured by the hand of man for killing man. The other comparison then is, how much value is man's life to his decoration? But our pride gives us the honour of being represented in the histories of war for courage, service and leadership. Not taking away the honour of the decoration. What has the highest honour? The value of the metal? The value of life? Freedom from tyranny and force. This is the true value, but let us not forget the many of the nations fallen who lie with Moana and his men, throughout the fields of war. Many are decorated by awards for their gallantry, with medals, and cloth, which become faded, dusty and corroded. But unlike the ode which says "They shall grow not old as we who are left grow old. Age shall not weary them."