Harry Shaw put his life on the line to fight for his country during World War II so its citizens could be free.

Now his Whangārei family is devastated after heartless thieves stole Shaw's war medals and other mementos. And the family want them back.

Shaw's granddaughter Julianne Bradley said she was returning from work about 4pm last Monday when she saw the flyscreen and back door of her Puriri St, Kamo, home wide open.

She was initially confused because she had locked up before she left for work, but that was quickly replaced by concern as she realised she had been burgled. It was one of at least three burglaries in the area that day.

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The thieves had ransacked the house, taking two TVs, stereo equipment and other electrical and household gear.

But it was what they stole from her bedroom that has devastated the family.

''There was a trunk in my bedroom that held all my sentimental things, including Harry's three war medals, his World War II pay packet and other information about his time in the army.

"It also had some old coins - possibly coronation coins - my grandparents had collected. There was also my gold nurse's fob watch that my grandmother gave me, another gold watch, my grandmother's pearls and all my jewellery,'' she said.

''They must know their jewellery as they left my cheap stuff behind and only took the good stuff. It's not actually worth much, but it's priceless to me, it's just all so sentimental.''

Bradley said the theft of her grandfather's medals and wartime mementos had left the family in shock.

Sergeant Harry (JH) Shaw served in the NZ Army in World War II with the Second Expeditionary Force. He fought on the front line in Egypt where he was injured and earned the Africa Star medal.

Bradley said he went to war to protect our freedom and for somebody to steal his war medals, which he put his life on the line to earn, was so upsetting for them all.

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''I don't really care about the electronics and household items, but the war medals and jewellery are just priceless to me. They are just so precious and the sentimental value is huge.''

The theft had been reported to police and Bradley hoped making the details public would spur somebody into returning the precious items.

''Drop them off to the police or at the Advocate office - we just want them back so much.''

She said one positive to come out of the theft was that it had seemed to bring her community closer together after the other burglaries too.

Whangārei RSA immediate past president Chris Harold said the theft of medals would have a major impact on the families of any returned war veterans and he felt for Bradley and her family over the loss.

While nobody went into service to get medals, they were recognition for the sacrifices and efforts service personnel made to help protect their country.

''I'm really at a loss as to what to say [about the theft]. It's heart wrenching. These medals will be very important to that family and it would be nice to see them returned.''