James Ihaka is a Herald reporter based in Hamilton.

12-year-old boys Anzacs of the Year

Cousins who rushed to help a swimmer caught in a rip youngest winners of award that honours war hero.

Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae presents Will White (left) and Sergio Schuler with their Anzac of the Year Awards in Waihi yesterday. Photo / Christine Cornege
Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae presents Will White (left) and Sergio Schuler with their Anzac of the Year Awards in Waihi yesterday. Photo / Christine Cornege

In 1915, a young Richard Henderson of Waihi braved the horrors of Gallipoli, where he and his donkey helped to evacuate the wounded and dying from the battlefield under heavy fire.

Nearly a century on, two 12-year-old cousins, both with strong ties to Waihi, have received an award created in the soldier's honour. The pair showed comradeship, compassion, courage and commitment to save a drowning man.

Will White and Sergio Schuler yesterday became the youngest recipients of the Anzac of the Year Award.

Still recovering from the surprise - the boys found out only on Tuesday that they were to be honoured - Will and Sergio revelled in the news over a celebratory sausage roll and sandwiches.

"It's pretty cool ... The Anzac Award is about helping your mates," said Will.

Said Sergio: "It is a great privilege for us, and to be the youngest people to ever win the award is really cool too."

Will said he was still training with the Waihi Beach Surf Lifesaving Club and he credits time there for him and Sergio being able to save Vincent Shao from drowning at Bowentown Beach on December 29.

"It [the training] is pretty important because without it I might not have known what to do and I might have drowned and without our teamwork we wouldn't have made it," he said.

Sergio said he hadn't thought about where he would hang his award.

He said his mates were proud of him and he was looking forward to today's Anzac Day proceedings in Te Aroha, where he will be a part of the official parade with the mayor.

The boys' citation says that despite their age and size, they took immediate action after Mr Shao lost his footing and was caught in a rip.

Sergio rushed to shore to raise the alarm before heading back to help his cousin. The pair battled 1.5m swells and a strong undertow to go to Mr Shao's aid.

When the boys reached him, Mr Shao was in a distressed state, fighting the water and then holding onto Will and Sergio to stay afloat.

But using his surf lifesaver training, Will managed to calm the situation, and worked with Mr Shao to get him out of the rip.

The two boys used their training, teamwork and bravery to navigate the crisis, showing maturity beyond their years and ultimately risking their own safety to ensure Mr Shao's survival. Will and Sergio supported Mr Shao to the shore, where he collapsed unconscious.

The pair continued to care for him before an ambulance crew transported him to Tauranga Hospital in a serious condition.

Presenting the award, Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae said the boys exemplified the Anzac spirit that was "still alive and strong in even our youngest New Zealanders".

Sir Jerry said the Anzac Award selection panel were unanimous in choosing Will and Sergio.

"They did display those four values [comradeship, compassion, courage and commitment] and when you think about their situation - they are young men and you can see how big they are - they had the presence of mind to do a remarkable act and that is what stood out for all of us."

Will's dad, Paul Schuler, said it was difficult to express how remarkably proud he was of the pair.

The Anzac of the Year Award is a 700mm tall bronze statue depicting Private Henderson and his donkey.

Go to nzherald.co.nz for full coverage of Anzac Day services, including a live stream from the Auckland Domain, and updated news from around the country. Tune in from 6am.

- NZ Herald

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