The 28th (Maori) Battalion, with battle honours spanning multiple theatres in World War II, is to formally disband this weekend. Surviving members from each of its four companies reflect on their experiences fighting, sometimes literally, alongside their Maori brothers.

A Coy

Sol Te Whata, 95 today, reckons his uncle's blessing before he left for World War II was one of the things that brought him home safely.

Just before he was granted final leave, an aunt from Otaua sent him a telegram and told him in Maori: "Ki te whakawhiti koe ki tawahi, me hoki mai koe ki te kainga nei mo te po kotahi."

She was asking him to stay for a single night if he was headed to war, but she didn't tell him that an uncle would be blessing him. The ritual was practised widely throughout Ngapuhi then, performed with water, by a river in Mr Te Whata's case, and its purpose was to guard against enemies.


It gave him a sense of peace, as did being with Maori, many of whom he was related to. "I never got frightened when we were told, 'You'll get killed.' I never got frightened, perhaps because so many of us were there."

Conscription didn't apply to Maori; instead the battalion was formed entirely of volunteers. Mr Te Whata's memoirs speak of a laissez-faire attitude towards actually going overseas. It wasn't until Major Rangi Royal - a World War I veteran who also fought in Greece, Crete and the Western Desert during World War II, earning the Military Cross - asked him directly why he hadn't volunteered, despite training in the army, that Mr Te Whata made the decision to go.

He tells of the looting that went on but also of Maori soldiers leaving all their rations for civilians who had nothing. He tells what it was like to be in Rome to see St Peter's Basilica (Catholic Maori from Panguru loved it, he told the Herald) and of praying as "Jerry" bullets and airbursts bombarded a home he was in, and of breaches of discipline across the battalion.

Women in Italy were beautiful. He had a girlfriend near Florence who gave him a picture before he left: "The girls there, they were just like half-caste Maoris."

A story he'd like to tell is of an A Company officer who died after the Germans had surrendered. "Just before we left Italy we got word that our Sgt Major would be coming home with us. His vehicle went on a mine and he was blown up. We were all sorry for him because he was a good man, good to us."

B Coy

The B Company boys are at Rotorua's RSA. At 94, Arthur Midwood is the oldest of them. He is the last remaining 39er, men who joined the battalion in the same year World War II was declared. He fought in Greece and Crete, and will show you the deep scar on his forearm from being shot.

His chest and buttock also got torn up; the latter wound, he smiles and shakes his head about.

Robert Gillies, the baby of the group at 87, reckons it was the uniform that caught his wife's eye more than 60 years ago. It could have been his crooning, too, that helped catch Rotorua nurse Rae Ratima. He softly sings one of his favourite tunes learned from the Italians. In it, a son speaks of his mother being close to his heart.

Mr Gillies celebrated his 21st birthday in February 1946 in his hometown. The milestone meant he volunteered, served and returned to New Zealand before he was legally able to do so. "The thing is, I think we all went for the adventure. We hadn't even been out of town, most of us. We didn't go to fight a war, we went to have a look around and ended up in the war."

Puhi Patara, 89, from Maketu, is the laconic philosopher of the group: "I left home, we had cows that we were milking. When I came back, well, they were still here." He was happy to see them, he joked.

Aubrey Balzer served as an officer and took over as platoon commander from an injured brother, Clarence. The battalion's strengths and weaknesses were based around its tribal and sub-tribal division. It meant brothers, cousins and close relations could all fight in the same unit and while they fought for each other, he believes it increased the risks to the wider whanau of multiple deaths.

When he heard the war was over, he got drunk. He was in Trieste at the time. "You can't imagine what it's like going into action time after time. The worst part is the waiting. You'd get down in the cellar. Most of the houses were destroyed and generally our attacks were at night. You'd be in a cellar and I had 30 boys and you'd look around and you'd think, 'Now, who's not going to see the daylight in the morning? Is it going to be me?"'

He remembers a hard-case Pakeha who transferred to the unit. The surname is not on the Maori Battalion's roll, but Mr Balzer says he was John McKelman. Built like an All Black forward, he'd get the billy going and pancakes on, and had a habit of using anyone's rifle or machine gun. "He'd be absolutely loaded down going into action. He got killed and we really missed him too. Poor old Mac."

They are all Te Arawa men. On the day of the Herald visit, another of their number from Tuhoe country, Kepa Kepa, dies.

C Coy

Survival was always on Hinga Smith's mind as the Allies chased German forces north through Italy.

In the closing months of the war river after river had to be crossed. Mines littered the banks.

"I was wet all the bloody time. This bloody fulla John Waititi was running alongside me; he was an officer. I was jumping from shell hole to shell hole ... John was running along, next minute there was a cloud of smoke and a big bang and he was down. He lost a leg."

Hinga has a beautiful full head of white hair. He's not been well since Easter, he says; the ticker isn't great.

He was raised at Hauiti Pa in Tolaga Bay with his great-uncle. Without telling anyone, he hid his good clothes in a hedge before catching the bus into Gisborne to enlist. The year was 1942 and the 16-year-old lied about his age.

It wasn't until 1944 that he was called up as part of the 11th reinforcements to Egypt. The Germans had capitulated in the Western Desert and New Zealand troops were getting set for the Italian campaign.

At home, he'd trained with the Hawkes Bay Regiment but in Egypt he got his brother Henry to switch him into the battalion.

He remembers walking past Canadians at Monte Cassino and telling them they could take a rest from the line, not realising they were dead and hadn't been buried.

He remembers C Company killing some Germans who'd been raining machine gun fire from a nest at a river. They'd been sunbathing and weren't wearing any clothes.

He remembers coming across another brother, Chappie, standing in line for grub. He chuckles at the memory of Chappie getting shoved to the back after he'd left his spot to greet his younger brother.

A mokopuna is serving in Afghanistan but he hates war. "I wish to Christ there were no bloody wars. It achieves nothing."

D Coy

Of all the soldiers who fought in the war, Bunty Preece may have travelled the greatest distance to fight in Italy. The Chatham Islander this week launched a book written by journalist Tom O'Conner about his war service in Europe and Japan.

He rose through the ranks to lead platoons of men from the King Country, Ngati Kahungunu and the South Island in Italy and then went on to serve in J-Force in Japan after the Japanese surrender.

D Company was unique in that it took in a diverse range of Maori from disparate regions, giving rise to its Ngati Walkabout nickname, while A, B, and C were made up of tribal groupings.

It's a moniker Mr Preece dislikes because he didn't use the name. Part of the reason he wrote the book was to note some of D Company's history before the handful who remain pass away, but also so that younger generations will know the stories and take pride in them.

"I grew up in D Company and therefore I was always proud of it. I'll protect it for the rest of my life. So many fine young men that we lost."

He wants Maori to know the exploits of Colonel Arapeta Awatere, who commanded the company and was later convicted of the 1969 murder of his mistress's lover. "He liked to save lives. There was one soldier he told, 'Look, you've had three of your brothers killed, I won't allow you in the front line ... You won't go any further.' So he had a soul after all."

Mr Preece believes Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg captured the sacrifices of the battalion best when he wrote: "No infantry had a more distinguished record, or saw more fighting, or, alas, had such heavy casualties, as the Maori Battalion."