Rotorua's band of brothers reflect on war

The 28th (Maori) Battalion, with battle honours spanning multiple theatres in  World War II, is to formally disband this weekend.

Conscription didn't apply to Maori;  the battalion was formed entirely of volunteers, grouping tribes  together.  

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.  

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.  


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.  

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



- Rotorua Daily Post

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