Students immortalise our World War II heroes

Issue: Volume 93, Number 21

Posted: 24 November 2014
Reference #: 1H9csE

Winners of the Ngārimu VC & 28th (Māori) Battalion Memorial Challenge have been announced recently and both Supreme Award-winning entries come from the area that Te Moana Nui a-Kiwa Ngärimu himself left to serve with such distinction during World War II: the North Island’s East Coast region. Judges in fact received such high quality entries that the decision was made to give two supreme awards. You can read an essay by one of the Supreme Award winners Hariata Dalton-Reedy, called ‘Where my grandfather lies’, in the article published in this issue of the Education Gazette.

Run for the first time, The Challenge gave Year 7–13 students the opportunity to express what they learn about the Battalion using 21st century media. Rangatahi were asked to imagine they were creating a piece about the Battle of Cassino, for a hypothetical museum.

Rongomai Callaghan and Atareta Smith-Taumata, Gisborne Girls’ High School for Māori Battalion Tū ake e, a music video

Phyllis Callaghan is a teacher at Gisborne Boys’ High School, and her daughter Rongomai attends Gisborne Girls’ High School. This brought about an interschool collaboration in producing the music video Tū ake e, one of two winning entries in the Supreme Award section of the Ngārimu VC & 28th (Māori) Battalion Memorial Challenge.

Rongomai is passionate about music – “she sings from dawn till dark!”, says Phyllis. When Rongomai discovered that she also had lots of enthusiasm for the history of the 28th (Māori) Battalion, she saw a chance to express herself on a subject she felt strongly about through her medium of choice.

Phyllis and Gisborne Boys’ have had for some years now a scheme in place called ‘Mentoring Māori Youth Through Film’ that seeks to link enthusiastic students with the equipment and expertise to make their dreams a reality. Many of the students involved have gone on to careers in the film industry, says Phyllis, and are grateful to the programme in giving them a solid technical grounding. This means Phyllis had no problems finding an ex-student willing to give of their time to help Rongomai edit the Tū ake e music video.

The video was put together from an existing movie that Phyllis and her students had created called Tūmatauenga: ‘Tū of the angry face’, the Māori god of war – which tells the story of one of the many celebrated exploits of the Māori Battalion: according to legend, a group of Māori soldiers found shelter from pursuing German forces in a cave, but they found themselves cornered. With the Germans in sight, the men of the 28th Battalion performed such an intimidating haka that the enemy soldiers assumed there to be many more Māori in the cave than there actually were, and retreated, buying the New Zealanders valuable time.

“My daughter [Rongomai] sings from dawn till dark, and she came to me after learning a bit about the 28th Battalion and said, ‘Mum, I’m really inspired by this, can we talk about some ideas,’” says Phyllis.

“So I basically said, ‘well you know, a lot of our men lied about their age to get into the army back then, lots of them were the same age as you.’ I just said, ‘keep that in mind.’

“I also said to them to keep in mind how they would feel if their whānau went away to fight in a foreign war and didn’t come back. Imagine that they were parents or loved ones of a soldier who didn’t come back. Their bodies never came home; they lie buried on foreign ground.”

Thanking our grandfathers

Rongomai Callaghan says that in the end, what stood out for her as she came to know more about the 28th (Māori) Battalion is the age of some of the ‘boys’ who went to war thinking it was going to be the greatest adventure of their lives; that’s unfortunately how war was sold to strong, able young men to get them on the troop ships at that time. Some of the soldiers who fought and died in the battles of Europe and North Africa weren’t much older than her.

Atareta Smith-Taumata agrees with this sentiment.

“It was kind of like trying to imagine our own cousins going to war now, who are the same age as some of the guys that fought in the battle of Cassino [Italy].

“We just want to tell everybody and show them how amazing these people were, so that they don’t forget what they’ve done for the country. People need to remember them, and I think we’re helping to pass it on to other people.”

Rongomai says that as a nation, we need to continue remembering, and expressing our gratitude in whatever small way we can to a group of men who have become a crucial piece of the mana of New Zealand, and of East Coast Māori in particular.

“Hearing all the stories about what they went through, it just hits you and you realise how hard it was.

“[Our song] was just kind of like a thank you to the Māori Battalion for what they have done for us, and to admire their bravery and courage. They dedicated their lives for us, and they’ve left an amazing legacy that we can all be proud of.”

Hariata Dalton-Reedy, Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Waiū o Ngāti Porou for Where my grandfather lies, an essay.

“‘We’re here to remember’, the minister would repeat without notice but with meaning where ever it was that we seemed to go. We had already been to three or so war cemeteries but this one, this was different. This time we were on our way to the Cassino War Cemetery, where my grandfather lies.

“I can still see it all playing out in front of me. Most of the 2nd NZ Division at the rear and just like I had studied, the 28th Māori Battalion in the front line. I saw my Granddad a hundred or so metres in front of me, fixated on the precision of his rifle’s range, eliminating all that threatened the peace of his home land.

“His surviving friends were right when they told my Nan years later that they swear he was born for this task; he was only a private but he was so good at what he did.”

- Hariata Dalton-Reedy, Where my grandfather lies.

Remembering the fallen

The tiny town of Ruatoria has a 94 per cent Māori population and a proud history. Two of Māoridom’s most influential figures came from this town of 750 people; politician Sir Apirana Ngata, and of course, Te Moana Nui a-Kiwa Ngārimu himself, recipient of the highest military award that can be bestowed on a soldier of the British Commonwealth.

Ruatoria - within the rohe of Ngāti Porou, one of the largest iwi in New Zealand, which contributed far more than its fair share of exuberant young men to the cause of the Crown during World War II - is home to Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Waiū o Ngāti Porou. Phillip Heemey is Tumuaki.

He thinks that initially so many signed up for the simple reason that it seemed like an exciting thing to do. As the war ground on and it became apparent that many whānau weren’t coming home, he thinks that the Māori emphasis on family meant that many continued to go to war to support their relatives; many more refused to be evacuated after being wounded, unable to bring themselves to leave their brothers.

Hariata Dalton-Reedy is a student at Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Waiū o Ngāti Porou, whose winning entry is a poignant and stirring reflection on the sacrifice of the 28th Battalion, and on her own experience visiting the grave of her immortalised ancestor, who gave his life defending the cause of peace against aggression, and fighting for the Māori contribution to this war and New Zealand, to be recognised

“I was a part of the group of C-Company descendants that visited the Cassino war cemetery [the Battle of Monte Cassino was one of the pivotal battles of the Italian campaign].

“I didn’t know it at the time, but I got to meet one of my great grandfathers at his gravesite. It was a really special moment for me. I rang my Mum that night, and she asked me what it felt like. I didn’t know what to say, it was so hard to describe. So when I came back, for English, I wrote a story about it,” says Hariata.

Hariata was part of a major trip undertaken in May, supported by the Ngarimu VC and 28th (Māori) Battalion Memorial Fund Board this year to the theatres of war where the 28th Māori Battalion fought. This encompassed many schools around the East Coast region, as well as an advance adult party, who took in the battle fields of North Africa as well as Greece, Italy, and Crete. The security situation in North Africa was deemed to be too unstable for the student group to accompany the party.

Phillip Heeney says that the point of the trip was to continue the work of immortalising a group of men that have such a powerful connection to Ngāti Porou.

“One of the key goals of the trip was to maintain the memories of the sacrifice that was made in the Second World War, by our whānau. In the East Coast area, we’ve got one surviving veteran, and he actually accompanied our party. His name is Noel Raihania, and I guess from his point of view, it’s important that the stories and the history aren’t lost. People with first-hand knowledge, they’re all leaving us now, and it’s crucial that a new generation of our people gain more than just an academic understanding of what transpired over there.”

Bringing history to life

What the entire company of pilgrims came to understand, says Phillip, is that the trip wasn’t just about them. Wherever the party went, he says, they were all astonished and humbled at the reception and treatment they were greeted with, by the descendants of those whose homeland the Māori Battalion did so much to liberate.

“[Residents of some villages] still had powerful memories of the liberation of their homeland. We had villages that would pretty much stop when we arrived! We had mayoral welcoming committees, plaques were unveiled. In the town of Faenza, we were treated to a military guard of honour, and the plaque that they unveiled was really touching; it had a picture of the Māori Battalion entering the town. They blocked off streets for our party, the whole thing was just incredibly humbling, very special. I think it was an event that wasn’t just for us; it was for them as well.

“Prior to going, I think most of these kids had some kind of book learning about the Māori Battalion. But seeing, feeling, and hearing is something altogether different. It’s as close as they can get to understanding what it was like to actually be there in battle. I think they came back with an entirely different perspective on the Māori Battalion.”

Hariata Dalton-Reedy certainly came back inspired. She entered her essay into the Ngārimu VC & 28th (Māori) Battalion Memorial Challenge of her own volition, so the trip must be seen as a success by Phillip and his team. Hariata explains that she wanted to record her feelings as honestly as possible, which she has surely achieved.

“The story is me trying to imagine what the experience would have been like for my great grandfather at the Battle of Cassino in which he died. It’s also about my own experience of finding him at the cemetery, with all of those important people who passed away with him. I don’t think my story is anything special. I just wanted to try to be honest, and it’s really personal for me, and I’m glad that people felt that as well.”

So why does Hariata believe that it’s important that we continue striving to remember the Māori Battalion?

“I’ve been asked this question so many times, and it’s so hard to describe! Before that experience, you really don’t know what it’s like. I don’t mean to belittle anyone who hasn’t had that experience, but it’s impossible to really understand until you’re physically there, you see the battlefields, the cemeteries, and you hear about the conditions they fought under.

“You also hear the stories of the local people, and it just brings you to tears. I can’t stress enough how important I think it is that we remember the Māori Battalion, it was the best experience of my life, the whole thing has really shaped me.
“I’ve never felt so proud to be Māori, being over there. Especially when the Italian people could still remember what our grandfathers had done for their home country, it was just really humbling.”

To read a more in-depth excerpt of Hariata’s essay, Where my grandfather lies, see the article in this issue of the Education Gazette.

For further information about The Challenge, contact

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 12:51 pm, 24 November 2014

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