A Northland soldier's remains have been brought home to be buried among his own people — more than 60 years after he was New Zealand's first SAS soldier to die in action.

Trooper Adrian Raymond Thomas, who was born at Waimahana Bay in the Far North and schooled at Ruawai in Kaipara, was killed during a jungle patrol in what is now Malaysia on May 2, 1956.

The 21-year-old was part of the first overseas deployment by the NZSAS, to the ''Malayan Emergency'', and was buried in Kuala Lumpur.

Government policy from 1955-71 was to bury war dead close to where they fell.

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Twenty years after Trooper Thomas' death, his youngest brother, Paul Thomas, promised their mother he would bring his remains home.

Paul Thomas' 42-year-long campaign for a change in the government's repatriation policy finally paid off last Saturday when his brother was buried among his mother's people at Te Pātūnga Marae near Kaeo.

Adrian Thomas was one of 27 servicemen and one child exhumed from cemeteries in Malaysia and Singapore and brought back to New Zealand on a chartered flight on August 21, as part of the Defence Force repatriation project Te Auraki.

Trooper Thomas lay at the NZSAS chapel in Papakura for a night before his brother took him to Ruawai College, Parirau Marae near Matakohe, and finally to Te Pātūnga.

His mother, Ngawini Thomas, died in 1987 so didn't see her boy come home — but Paul Thomas is convinced his return will bring her peace.

"My mother was a very humble person and never asked for anything. The reason I kept going all this time was her undying love for her son that didn't come back. Now he is with his people."

The remains of 27 New Zealand Army soldiers, including Thomas, and one buried child arriving at Auckland Airport. Photo / File
The remains of 27 New Zealand Army soldiers, including Thomas, and one buried child arriving at Auckland Airport. Photo / File

Another 10 New Zealand servicemen have returned, or will return in the next two months, from the UK, Fiji, American Samoa and Korea as part of Te Auraki.

A team of bio-archaeologists, forensic anthropologists and Defence Force dentists identified the remains before they were returned. The project is expected to cost $7 million.

Since 1971 New Zealand military personnel who die overseas have been brought home as a matter of course.

■ See 48 Hours, the Advocate's weekend feature section, for the full story.