Anzac Weekend reflections drawn from the ‘last of the last’ of the Maori Battalion’s B company
TO BRING readers this Bon Gillies profile, Our People became ensnared in a war of wills.
The last surviving member of the 28th Maori Battalion's Te Arawa B company was resolutely opposed to "being in the paper". He had, he repeatedly insisted, nothing to say.
As his story unfolds, it will reveal what balderdash that was.
It was our mention of Anzac Day, the most sacred of all days in the calendar for this man of 90-plus years, that let us over his doorstep.
A salute 'here to our mutual friend, Ena Mitchell. Had she not turned up at the must opportune of times he'd still be lying low. Thank you, Ena, for helping flush this very special Rotorua taonga into the open, his metaphorical white flag of surrender waving.
Having his photo taken was a different matter - on this, Bon out-dictated Hitler. "Use the one I give you or forget the whole bloody thing [profile]."
Hobson's choice indeed; it was our turn to produce the white flag.
Why Bon's called Bon, sometimes Bon-Bon, is something not even he knows; only officialdom calls him by his given name, Robert.
Nor is he sure how old he is. He reckons he was born in 1924 - "my mother's Bible and my baptismal certificate say so" - but when he applied for a passport he was told his birth was a year later.
"I tried to put them right but they wouldn't listen."
He arrived in Rotorua as a "refugee" as the Napier earthquake had devastated his Waimarama home.
"My mother, Horomona Maata, was from here. We settled in the pa [Ohinemutu], I grew up there."
School wasn't to his liking. "I went to eat my lunch. When I was 14, I was out of there - what I had in my head was how to read, write and spell. Kids today can't do that, they press a button."
He joined a haymaking gang, moving on to Waipa Mill "making butter boxes on the night shift".
At 17 he enlisted. "Everybody was doing it, looking forward to getting into action. One of our teachers, "Granny" Cooper, was our commander."
With the word out that a Japanese invasion was imminent, Bon and his buddies were sent to Northland's Ohaeawai.
"We were known as the 2nd Maori Battalion. It wasn't until the threat of the Japanese landing died down and we went to join the troops already overseas that we became absorbed into the 28th Maori Battalion."
BON headed for war aboard the New Amsterdam - "a huge liner, 7000 troops, it was so rough at Hobart the escorting destroyers signalled they hadn't had a hot cup of tea since leaving Wellington because it was too turbulent to make one".
Landing at Suez, it dawned how far from home he was. "I looked at the terrain; all sand, desert, no green grass. I was standing next to Rock Maika from Whaka, and he said: 'What the hell are we doing here?' I just laughed."
From Egypt's Maadi Camp the Maori "boys" sailed for Italy.
"We went to Taranto, right at its toe, marched into the hills, made camp, dug trenches, suddenly we were fighting the Jerries ... it was scary, terrible.
"Maori All Black Johnny Pile, from Whakatane, was in my platoon. He was killed, I was by the radio, heard him gurgling his last."
Moving up the Adriatic coast, the battalion became locked into the bloody Battle of Monte Cassino.
"That would never have happened if we'd gone around it, Churchill and his cronies didn't have a proper plan for Italy, it was just to divide the German troops there. Our engineers were building a bridge across the River Rapido, the Jerries could hear the hammering, we were one span short when they brought their tanks out, we were pummelled.
"When the Maori held the railway station, Monty Wikiriwhi from Whaka put the flame up to signal they'd taken their objective.
"The Jerries saw it, fired, his leg was badly hurt, he was put under a tarpaulin with it sticking out. They thought he was dead but he got back to battalion HQ in a Jeep."
Bon was there to greet his hometown mate. "My job was to replenish the ammo supplies, I was a private, you can't get any lower."
Bon was among the "lucky blighters" given leave. "They let those with money in our pay books go. England was very short of money, they wanted us to spend ours there. We stayed at the New Zealand Club in London, learned to use the Tube - they should have one of those in Auckland. We went to Glasgee [Glasgow], looked at the Firth of Forth bridge."
He was back in Italy when the war ended. "We crowded around Te Rau Aroha [canteen truck] listening to the BBC, we couldn't believe it was finally finished."
Back in New Zealand he joined the Post and Telegraph "digging holes again".
Par for the course for the era, he met wife-to-be Rae Ratima at a Tama dance (in Tamatekapua wharenui). "She'd come from Aria to learn to be a nurse. We went back to Waimarama for about 10 years, I was clearing drains for the farmers." When that work fizzled out he became a freezing worker before returning to Rotorua in 1960 and a job as a hammer hand.
"I swore the day I turned 60 I'd retire" - but don't believe that retirement tale.
The morning Our People got our foot in his door, Bon fretted we'd make him late for his labouring job.
"But I won't be working on Anzac Day, it's the saddest day of the year, when I think about my mates - the ones who didn't come back, the ones who did but drank themselves to death because the war was still killing them."
BON (Robert) GILLIES:
Born: Hastings, either 1924 or 1925.
Education: Rotorua Primary and High Schools.
Family: Widower, three sons, six mokopuna.
Interests: Whanau, "helping out mates and the pa with upkeep and maintenance". Keeping fit on his Swiss ball and abreast of the news. "I used to follow the races, haven't had a bet for years - blame the pension." "I always enjoyed going to the
RSA but we don't have one now."
On being the last B company survivor: "It's terrible, there're only eight battalion members left in the country."
Personal philosophy: "I'm not a philosopher."