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Willie Apiata went home to a hero's welcome and an emotional display that almost overwhelmed him.

As a gutsy, heartrending and impromptu haka rang out over the Te Kaha marae on the rugged eastern Bay of Plenty coast on Saturday, the man who won the Victoria Cross for saving his soldier mate's life in Afghanistan in 2004, clutched a greenstone mere, looked around several times and blinked heavily.

Corporal Bill Henry ("call me Willie") Apiata, VC, kept the tears at bay but it was a powerful and emotional moment.

While the country's only living VC hero only just managed to keep dry eyes, many of his family and the thousands of supporters who turned out to welcome him home pulled out their handkerchiefs.

Cpl Apiata, 35, was born Ngapuhi in the north but raised in the Te Whanau a Apanui tribal area in the eastern Bay of Plenty.

Yesterday, in a traditional Maori welcome, he returned to his home marae at Te Kaha on the coast north of Opotiki.

As he walked onto the marae beside his mother, Shirley, Prime Minister Helen Clark, chief of defence force, Lieutenant General Jerry Mateparae, and other dignitaries, he stopped to pick up a wooden mere carved in his honour as a revered Maori warrior and hero.

Two or three metres away a monument to the Maori dead of World War 2 bore the name of another east coast Maori to win the Victoria Cross, Lieutenant Moana Ngarimu.

He died with his tommy gun at his hip after leading Maori soldiers on a counter attack to take a strategic hill in North Africa in 1943.

Lt Ngarimu was only one of the East Coast Maori war dead remembered when Apiata and Miss Clark laid a wreath at the base of the memorial.

For Cpl Apiata it was a proud day for New Zealand, for Maori and for his family.

Standing beside the memorial was a special moment, he said.

"It is quite a humble and emotional thing, standing in front of your ancestors and all those soldiers. I don't know how to explain it but one thing I would like to say is to all of New Zealand, to all of the people who are here today, my heart is warming.

"It is a very proud day for our country and I just can't say any more than that."

Was it a harder challenge coming home than the heroic act that saved his mate in Afghanistan in 2004?

"It is never a challenge coming home," he said.

The Special Air Services (SAS) soldier would not talk about his future in the military, other than to say he was a soldier and intended to stay a soldier for a long time.

Like his new hero status he was taking it one day at a time.

"It's an awesome, humbling feeling. It's a great day for Maori and for New Zealand.

"It's pretty emotional, aye?"

As the powhiri ended, moments after he was presented with a greenstone mere, the impromptu haka by Te Kaha men echoed around the marae and stopped him in his tracks.

That was "something you can't train for. There are just some real awesome people here today, lots of tribes, lots of Maori, it's just a great day for us."

He said the day was more than he expected and the day was not about tribes.

"They are just proud to be Maori and New Zealanders. This is a great day for our country and it is awesome to come home and celebrate it with these people."

Asked if he just wanted out of the limelight and to get back to soldiering and a little bit of pig hunting, he replied: "Like I said, I take it one day at a time.

"I am just here to celebrate this great day with the whanau, Ngapui, Ngati Porou and all the other people who have turned up today."

As the Te Kaha marae prepared to welcome home the country's only living Victoria Cross winner yesterday, his old friend Reuben Parkinson, told of the other side of his SAS mate.

"He has a really good sense of humour, the real life of the party. When he was around there was always something going on and not just mischief, it was always good fun, songs and something always going on."

He was, said Mr Parkinson, the sort of Kiwi bloke everyone wanted to be.

"He is one of the best outdoors men you can have. On untold occasions we have been pig hunting together and in the bush together and he has got a really good sense of surroundings in the bush and survival. Now he is in the SAS, I suppose he'll be even better."

He was not surprised Apiata turned out a VC hero.

"When I first heard I thought, yep, yep, that sounds like Wills."

He said he was a man who went out of his way to look after his mates which was what he did to win the Victoria Cross.

The pride the people of the eastern Bay of Plenty felt in Apiata was hard to express.

"We all need positive and good role models. It is awesome."