Returning unclaimed war medals to whānau

Where are Koro’s war medals? For many whānau of the 28th Māori Battalion, they were never claimed. Whether from a change in address, not wanting the reminder - or a sense that something so significant should have been presented in person, not in the post.

Published: Wednesday, 26 October 2022 | Rāapa, 26 Whiringa ā-nuku, 2022

Te Puni Kōkiri is helping to find the whānau of those soldiers, so they can receive their unclaimed war medals. So far, the team has found 200 whānau and continue to find more every day.

Three medal ceremonies have already taken place in Pakipaki (Hastings), Gisborne and Horowhenua. Four ceremonies are due to take place in the next few months:

  • Burnham (Ōtautahi) in November 2022
  • Rotorua on December 3 and Trentham on December 17 2022
  • Waitangi on February 18 2023.

Time is running out for whānau to be part of the ceremonies and have their medals presented – the application form for B, C and D Companies are due early November and for A Company they are due December 4 to the NZDF Medals team. Information on how to apply and the documents needed to show links to relatives can be found on the Te Mata Law website.

David Stone from Te Mata Law has been leading this kaupapa, which is very personal to him and his whānau.

“My father and I were looking into why we didn’t have any medals from my great-uncle. I wrote to the New Zealand Defence Force asking for his file. That’s when I realised, we can’t be the only whānau who never got their medals,” David says. 

David initially looked at just over 100 files finding that 10 percent of the soldiers from Muriwai and Manutuke (C Company), 12 percent from Pakipaki (D Company), 2 percent from Ōpōtiki (B Company) and 25 percent from Motukaraka (A Company) never received their medals. “Dad said to me, what are you going to do about the rest?” 

David wrote to the Chief Judge of Waitangi Tribunal Wai 2500 Military Veterans Inquiry informing him of the initial research asking if the Judge could ask the Crown to complete the remainder of the research for the entire Māori Battalion. The Chief Judge put the question to the Crown who were unable to help at the time. Undeterred David and his legal executive (who was also in the Defence Force) started to work on it themselves, and in conjunction with the Medals team set about looking at the entire C Company list.

When the C Company research was finished, 134 soldiers who had never been issued with their medals were found. There was at least one soldier from every single C Company village on the East Coast.

Once that list was compiled, the next task was to find the families of these soldiers and David’s team put a notice on social media and in the Gisborne newspaper.

“I wasn’t sure anyone would come, but the line was out the door. So, for three days I was at the C Company Memorial [building in Gisborne] helping people sign the paperwork for 70 families [to receive their medals],” David says.  

The completion of the research for the whole Battalion revealed that about 550 soldiers had never received their medals, or 15 percent of the original 3,600 soldiers of the 28th Māori Battalion. This was the same percentage as David’s initial research from the first 100 files looked at. To find the soldiers’ whānau, they advertised on social media and in newspapers, and sent letters to iwi organisations all over the country. Then, David and his team ran ‘signing days’ in key locations all around the country.

David says that Te Puni Kōkiri funding has “certainly helped and is much appreciated”. David’s team has used the funding to travel up and down the country running ‘signing days’ to help whānau apply for their unclaimed medals. In a few cases, they’ve paid for birth certificates to be ordered where this was out of reach for whānau. The team has now spent several years on this kaupapa.

David says, “It’s really rewarding work. What it means for the recipients is huge – full of emotion. We’ve helped seven widows to get their late husbands’ medals, including one who tried to get them over 20 years ago with no luck.”  

Koro Bom Gillies, the last surviving member of the 28th Battalion, agreed to come along to the medal presentations without hesitation. On the day of the first presentation, Minister Willie Jackson was able to see his own tipuna medals presented. David is grateful for the support of Minister Jackson in raising awareness of this kaupapa, which fits within the Te Puni Kōkiri strategic priority of Te Ao Māori.   Te Puni Kōkiri invests in initiatives which help whānau to thrive, and the Te Ao Māori strategic priority helps ensure the collective and individual rights and interests of Māori as tangata whenua are recognised, protected, supported, and invested in.

“This project uplifts the mana of everyone involved: the Crown, iwi, the Defence Force, everybody,” David says.  

“The pride on the soldiers’ faces and how they beam as they present the medals to the whānau. One soldier brought up his great-grandfather’s medal. And in February, we hope to present a medal to a 96-year-old widow at Waitangi.”  

More information about the project and photos of the presentations can be found on the Te Mata Law website.

Caption: Last surviving member of the 28th Māori battalion Koro Bom Gillies with Hon Meka Whaitiri the Minister for Veterans at the second Medals ceremony held in Gisborne at the C Company Māori Battalion Memorial House. Photo credit: Paul Taylor via Te Mata Law