It was an emotional day at the Whirinaki Whare Taonga in Upper Hutt on 17 December as unclaimed war medals were presented to the whānau of soldiers from the 28th Māori Battalion.
Published: Friday, 23 December 2022 | Rāmere, 23 Hakihea, 2022
The tiny, white-haired kuia stood at the front of the room before the medal presenters, tears rolling silently down her cheeks.
The MC urged her on: “Kei te pai, Whāea. Kei te pai. Haere, haere.” Come forward, it’s OK. Come forward to receive your loved one’s medals.
Twenty-four sets of medals were presented, including to one of our own Te Puni Kōkiri kaimahi, whose father was in the 28th. He was 16 when he joined – and like many young men lied about his age. Many whānau receiving their soldier’s medals were the soldiers’ children - now kaumātua themselves, with their mokopuna.
Sadly, Tā Robert ‘Bom’ Gillies, the last remaining member of the Battalion, was unwell and unable to attend the 5th such ceremony.
The medals were presented by Ministers Kelvin Davis and Peeni Henare, Major General John Boswell (head of the New Zealand Army), and Colonels Kate Hill and Trevor Walker. Māori Wardens in formal uniform with white gloves on their shoulders welcomed whānau, directed traffic and formed an honour guard at the entrance.
It is now nearly 80 years since the events commemorated.
Briefing the crowd of around 150 people Sergeant Major Aaron Morrison said, “Your tīpuna fought for their country, not these medals. These medals are a taonga for you and your whānau to look after and consider how to pass down so that their history is not lost.”
Minister Henare said, “They were men who wore their mana lightly. They didn’t need medals. […] Remember as you look at these medals […] that war is a terrible scourge that took its toll.”
Te Puni Kōkiri funded lawyer David Stone and his team at Te Mata Law through the Māori Development Fund to travel the country and help the whānau of 550 soldiers to apply for the medals they never received.
The final medals presentation ceremony will be held on 18 February at Waitangi. The ceremonies are open to the public.
Lead image caption: Lawyer David Stone tells the story of how he started on this kaupapa.