Kurt Bayer is a Herald reporter based in Christchurch

Call for New Zealand Government to honour elite unit

New Zealander Frank Wigzell with his Certificate of Appreciation from the Australian government. Photo / Brett Phibbs
New Zealander Frank Wigzell with his Certificate of Appreciation from the Australian government. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Families of a forgotten World War II crack commando unit are calling on the New Zealand Government to officially recognise their behind-enemy-lines feats more than 70 years on.

There were 22 New Zealanders who signed up to the ultra-secret Z Special Unit which caused mayhem waging a guerrilla war against the Japanese in the Pacific.

But after the war, they were silenced by 30-year secrecy agreements.

Many died before they could tell anyone - even their wives and families - exactly what they did in the war.

In August, a memorial plaque recognising the unit's remarkable feats will be unveiled at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

But families of Kiwi veterans - who are all now dead - want them to be officially recognised in New Zealand.

A similar memorial at Pukeahu National War Memorial Park in Wellington or a posthumous medal would be appropriate, said Judi Millar, daughter of Sergeant Frank Wigzell who trained headhunter tribesmen in Japanese-held Borneo into a feared resistance fighter group.

"My father campaigned the Government right up until the day he died only to be turned down repeatedly," said Ms Millar, who will attend the Australian ceremony on August 1 and who has been instrumental in organising other veterans' families.

"The Australian men were highly decorated years later but the New Zealand men were denied everything. They were given a Pacific Star and that was supposed to be sufficient. What a disgusting thing to say to someone."

In Mr Wigzell's book, Blood Brotherz - The true story of a New Zealand commando in Borneo during World War II with Australia's top secret Z Special Unit, which was published after the official secrecy had lifted, he decried the fact that neither the New Zealand Government nor the Defence Force had ever recognised the existence of his group.

But in December 2006, five surviving New Zealand veterans of Z Special Unit, including Mr Wigzell, were honoured by the Australian Government with a Certificate of Appreciation, signed off by then Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

Earlier the Australian Government had recognised the veterans' war efforts by giving them the Australian Front Line Medal.

"The Australians treat their veterans beautifully, so why can't New Zealand?" said Ms Millar.

Z Special Unit, attached to the Australian Army and part of Special Operations Australia, was devoted to special operations including intelligence gathering and guerrilla warfare.

It was considered the forerunner to the modern-day SAS (Special Air Service) and Commando units in New Zealand and Australian military.

In 2002, the New Zealand SAS commissioned its own memorial to World War II heroes at its Papakura Military Camp barracks in Auckland.

The families are allowed inside the top-secret army base on Anzac Day to lay wreaths and pay their respects.

But Ms Millar believes there should be a more public memorial accessible to all New Zealanders.

"These guys put their lives on the line and when they came home, nobody wanted to know them. To honour them now is the least we can do, the humane thing to do."

A spokesman for the Ministry for Culture and Heritage said it is "happy to talk with groups who want to discuss such requests".

"Generally it is not policy to recognise individuals or groups of individuals with additional memorials on the principle of uniformity and equality of treatment in death for those who have died on war service," he said.

"The principle also applies to requests for special memorials to honour particular branches of the Armed Services such as Bomber Command."

- NZ Herald

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