A plane carrying the remains of 27 New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) personnel arrived back in the country this morning.

The remains are on board a chartered Air New Zealand 787-9 Dreamliner which landed at Auckland Airport. They have been being sent back to New Zealand from Malaysia following a ceremony at Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

A 100-strong military march accompanied the unloading of the remains of the first soldier. Several more caskets were taken off the plane, including a small white casket containing the remains of a child, understood to be the son/daughter of a member of the armed forces.

Once all the caskets were off the plane, armed forces personnel carried them to a hanger for a private service.

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Prime Minister Jacinda Adern pays her respects as the soldiers' remains were returned to New Zealand. Photo / Greg Bowker
Prime Minister Jacinda Adern pays her respects as the soldiers' remains were returned to New Zealand. Photo / Greg Bowker

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern waited on the tarmac with other military personnel to welcome home those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Defence Minister Ron Mark was also reportedly at the ceremony.

Over 200 people, families and friends of the fallen huddled under gazebo tents by a hangar as light rain fell.

The New Zealand Defence Force with the casket of a child among the returned remains. Photo / Greg Bowker
The New Zealand Defence Force with the casket of a child among the returned remains. Photo / Greg Bowker

A man dressed all in back held a frame of a loved one. A young girl held a framed black and white wedding photo.

The soldiers and one child buried in Malaysia and Singapore are being returned to their families at the ceremony in Auckland this morning.

NZDF says it was meant to be 28 but RNZAF Flying officer William Devescovi was unable to be disinterred and repatriated from Kuala Lumpur.

He died with two other RNZAF crew members in a plane crash in 1956.


Senior officers from the NZDF and Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) and representatives from the New Zealand High Commission to Malaysia attended the ceremony in Kuala Lumpur.

A change in Government policy is seeing NZDF personnel and dependents buried overseas between 1955 and 1971 returned back to New Zealand.

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Old policies meant personnel who died overseas were buried there and were only returned to New Zealand if their families paid for repatriation costs.

The New Zealand Defence Force carries the casket of George Nepia. Photo / Greg Bowker
The New Zealand Defence Force carries the casket of George Nepia. Photo / Greg Bowker

The remains from Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam returned on a chartered Air New Zealand flight and is part of project Te Auraki (The Return).

Te Auraki project manager Group Captain Carl Nixon said the NZDF was grateful to the Malaysia Government for caring for the resting places of the NZDF personnel.

"We would like [to] thank the Government of Malaysia, and the Malaysian Armed Forces for honouring our fallen personnel with a moving handover ceremony, and for providing logistics and forensic support for this project," Nixon said.

"We recognise the repatriation of New Zealand servicemen holds special significance to the people of Malaysia because these men lost their lives in defence of the country.

"Their sacrifice underpins New Zealand's long standing relationship with Malaysia and the Five Power Defence Arrangements."