The young private arrived at Tauranga's town wharf at 2 o'clock in the morning, on board the Ngatiawa.

He had been wounded and gassed on the Western Front.

As the sun rose on that Wednesday morning, the ailing soldier could make out his home across the harbour – Matapihi, where his parents were waiting for him.

When he enlisted 20 months before, he was 5ft 8 inches tall and weighed about 68kg.

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He had a dark complexion, brown eyes and black hair.

Now he was gravely ill.

After several spells in hospital in Europe, he had been sent back to Aotearoa, only to spend more months holed up in the Cambridge Sanatorium.

Then he left. He wanted to go home, and now, he was so close.

As he crossed the harbour to Matapihi on a launch that day – such a short distance, so far away from the horrors of war – he collapsed and died.

It was November 13, 1918. Two days after the Armistice was signed.

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ROTORUA DAILY POST
10 Nov, 2018 9:00am
3 minutes to read

Whare Dickson swells with pride when he walks past the entrance to Wharepai Domain in Tauranga.

"I see my grand-uncle up there," the 62-year-old Matapihi man says.

R. Rikihana is one of 90 names etched on white marble plaques at the World War I Memorial Gates on Cameron Rd.

At the centre of the structure – on an ornate, black, wrought-iron gate – are the words "Lest We Forget".

Dickson reminds his family of that.

"I tell all my younger cousins 'don't forget you've got a tipuna on that gate over there'," he says.

"That's not just anybody, that's my grand-uncle – my grandfather's brother."

A single red poppy has been stuck to the top right-hand corner of the plaque bearing Rongoihaere Rikihana's name.

On the other side of the centre gate on another plaque, a second poppy – this one faded but still clinging on – sits under the heading "1917 France".

That's when and where Rikihana first entered the field of war.

Unlike many of his compatriots, however, his tragic story didn't end in France or on the frontline.

It ended on Tauranga Harbour, within sight of home.

Whare Dickson, 62, sharing the tragic war story of his great-uncle Rikihana (inset, left). Photo / John Borren
Whare Dickson, 62, sharing the tragic war story of his great-uncle Rikihana (inset, left). Photo / John Borren

Rikihana's road to World War I began on his 23rd birthday.

That's the day he enlisted at the Tauranga recruiting office – March 6, 1917.

Although, there is some doubt as to whether that recorded birth date and age is correct. Some family members believe he changed it so he would be old enough to serve.

Whare Dickson was told by an uncle that Rikihana might have been 18 or 19 when he signed up.

"I think he was excited about seeing the world," Dickson says. "Not that excited when he got there, apparently."

Rongoihaere Rikihana, also known as Harry Dickson, was born in Matapihi to Rikihana and Te Aorewa Tari.

He was the second of five children.

Before enlisting, he was living in Ngawaro and working as a labourer at Gamman's Sawmill in Oropi.

After volunteering for war, Rikihana did his basic training in Wellington, before setting sail for England.

He arrived on July 20 and was stationed at the UK headquarters of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, where he undertook further training.

He then shipped off to France and found himself in the northern town of Étaples.

Rikihana marched out to the Western Front to join the New Zealand Māori Pioneer Battalion.

"And then he was in the thick of it," Dickson says.

"He spent most of his time sick. As it turned out, he was gassed."

A few years ago, the 62-year-old started to research his great-uncle's war story and pieced together a four-page handwritten account.

He did it for his aunty, who was getting on in years.

"She passed away not long after I finished it."

Dickson says his report was based on Rikihana's military files and stories passed down by family.

His uncle told him that Rikihana was in signals and ran messages on foot in and between the trenches and also on a motorcycle, from the field to the command post.

"He said they did hear stories of his feats through the trenches. Apparently, he was an excellent runner, a good sprinter and he would do things you'd call stupid – just sprint out and get the messages back to the commanding officers, and then run the orders back again."

But Rikihana's active service was to be cut short by something that would eventually kill tens of millions of people worldwide.

He had arrived on the Western Front in France in the second half of 1917 and made it through to the New Year.

By January 11, however, Rikihana had developed a troublesome cough.

He was admitted to a field ambulance with bronchitis and on the same day was dispatched to a hospital.

During that winter of 1917, several hundred soldiers at Étaples were struck with influenza-like symptoms and 156 deaths were recorded by the medics there, according to a centenary article in the Guardian earlier this year.

One prominent scientific theory, the Guardian explained, has it that the influenza pandemic of 1918 – commonly referred to as the Spanish flu – began in the vast British military camp at Étaples.

There were several hospitals where soldiers who had been gassed were evacuated for treatment, their lungs compromised.

At the time, the epidemic was being labelled "purulent bronchitis".

Rikihana was one of those gassed on the Western Front, and the diagnosis of "bronchitis" was recorded more than once in his military files.

He was also said to have contracted tuberculosis and was transferred from hospital to hospital, first in France and then in England.

He was eventually sent back to New Zealand on the hospital ship Marama, and admitted to the Cambridge Sanatorium.

Whare Dickson believes his great-uncle Rikihana, after months at the Waikato medical facility, was trying his hardest to get back home to Matapihi.

"He just up and walked out, eh, and made his way back."

Only to fall agonisingly short.

"That's quite a heartbreaking story; crossing the last hurdle – the harbour – and then dying before he gets to see his mum and dad," Dickson says.

"I think he knew his time was up and he wanted to see them first."

Rikihana's cause of death on November 13 was listed as influenza and tuberculosis.

The influenza pandemic would eventually kill tens of millions of people around the world, about 9000 of which were in New Zealand.

"Could have wiped out our whole race, actually – influenza," Dickson says.

After his tangi, Rikihana was laid to rest in the Matapihi urupā, where his headstone still stands today.

He was posthumously decorated with the British War Medal and the Victory Medal, which were sent to his father.

The young private was single and did not leave behind any children.

But the name Rongoihaere has been passed on and used by new members of the whānau.

At the time of his death, Rikihana had a niece who was just 22 days old.

She was the daughter of his younger brother.

That baby girl was given a special name – Hingatu – to remember her brave uncle.

It means to collapse or fall down.

Hingatu was the aunty for which Dickson researched and wrote his great-uncle's story.

She died four years ago at the age of 96, but not before she read it.

Dickson says she was "very overwhelmed".

Tauranga Harbour, with Matapihi Peninsula visible on the left. Photo / Tauranga Heritage Collection
Tauranga Harbour, with Matapihi Peninsula visible on the left. Photo / Tauranga Heritage Collection

Meanwhile, he continues to share and honour Rikihana's story and makes an effort to point out his name on the World War I Memorial Gates at the entrance to Wharepai Domain.

"I'm proud every time I go past those gates," Dickson says.

"Having a grand-uncle go through all that; having his name up there.

"It's there because the people of Tauranga remember him, as long as those gates are standing."

On the right-hand side of the gates is a flag pole and a large camellia tree, some of its pinky-red flowers lying on the grass surrounded by daisies.

In front of the tree and pole, on a slab of white marble surrounded by red bricks, is a four-line inscription.

"Sons of this place, let this of you be said,
That you who live are worthy of your dead.
These died that you who live may keep
Home, honour, freedom, till you fall asleep."

Tomorrow morning, the New Zealand flag will fly above those words as The Last Post and then the Reveille sound out across the Domain.

The plaque bearing Rongoihaere Rikihana's name at the World War I Memorial Gates in Tauranga. Photo / John Borren
The plaque bearing Rongoihaere Rikihana's name at the World War I Memorial Gates in Tauranga. Photo / John Borren