Brave Hearts and Courage
Many years after the end of World War II Major Don Stewart, a former officer in B Company of 28 Mäori Battalion, was asked in a video interview to name the qualities that made the men he served with so special. Pain and pride illuminated his face as he answered thoughtfully: “It was their brave hearts and courage.”
At Rotorua Museum a major exhibition now celebrates these men, the “brave hearts” who volunteered from the Bay of Plenty Hauraki area to serve in the famous fighting unit. The battalion, which was drawn up along tribal lines, went on to fight in Greece, Crete, North Africa and Italy from 1940 to 1945.
The pain and pride felt by Don Stewart is shared today by many visitors to the museum who come to see the permanent multi-media installation. Tears often flow as people from all over the world experience the story told in the men’s own words. Many who visit are family who come to pay tribute to loved ones, and to retrace the saga of legendary deeds and appalling losses that surrounds the men of B Company.
The years have taken their toll – less than 30 of the thousand-strong force of B Company are alive today. The opening of “Ake! Ake! The Story of B Company 28 Maori Battalion” provided an occasion for many of these old warriors to gather to salute their comrades. Eyes were moist as onlookers watched the old men march the last few yards to the museum.
Part of the power of the exhibition comes from the fact that images of 400 men line the walls of the gallery. Hamuera Mitchell, whose father Henry Mitchell is one of that number, talks of his reaction to seeing the panoply of faces: “After the formalities of the opening had ended I joined the throng of friends and relatives who had come to see their fathers, husbands, uncles, cousins or grandfathers.
As we wended our way through the Te Arawa wing of the museum I realised how integral a part of our collective tribal memory the battalion still is. And then, when the queue finally edged into the exhibition itself, the din quieted as though we’d passed into a giant family mausoleum…I’ve only ever been caught breathless by an exhibition once before, but that was more like an epiphany as I found myself captured by Michelangelo’s creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. This time it was different. Seeing the gallery of faces just took my breath away….For the first time since embarkation, here they all were.”
They were all there in 1939 when Arthur Midwood and his mates rolled up, eager to volunteer. “As soon as we heard they’d opened the registry office…away we went. There was a long queue of Mäori: Martin McRae, Haane Manahi, Pine Timihou, myself, all those ’39ers – we were all there” he recalls. Arthur was seriously wounded during the battle for Crete and again during the North African Campaign. Yet he was there, sixty years later, remembering stories, marching with his comrades the day “Ake! Ake! The Story of B Company 28 Mäori Battalion” opened.
28 Mäori Battalion’s losses were the highest of any in the New Zealand Division. One man in six was killed. “I believe that when this history is published it will be recognised more widely that no infantry battalion had a more distinguished record, or saw more fighting, or alas, had more casualties as the Maori Battalion” wrote Lieutenant General Lord Freyberg in his foreword to J F Cody’s official history.
The death of so many men, some of whom would undoubtedly have become leaders of their people, has been hard to bear. Horton Stewart was one of those men, killed whilst leading the charge at “42nd Street”, Suda Bay, Crete. His brother Don gives voice to the grief he has felt: “When he was killed so early in the piece it really devastated the family. I would like to say to Horton that I’d love him to have been with me in life during the last 50 years, to have lived his life through, because there is no telling what he would have been.”
There are many stories of valour and sacrifice surrounding these men. None is quite like the story of Sergeant Haane Manahi, which is tinged with political interference. Manahi distinguished himself during the last months of the North African campaign in the bloody battle for Takrouna, a fortified citadel in Tunisia. He led his platoon of men up the 300 metre limestone outcrop through heavy machine gun and mortar fire, making the journey twice more over three days of fighting. The battle for Takrouna was won by the 23rd April 1943 leaving one more task for Manahi: the removal of the dead and wounded.
The New Zealand Expeditionary Forces Official War Correspondent wrote from Cairo: “A remarkable story of continuous acts of gallantry is unfolded in the citation accompanying the award of Distinguished Conduct Medal to a member of the Maori Battalion, Sergeant H Manahi.” What the correspondent did not know was that Manahi had been recommended for a VC, a recommendation crossed out on his citation and replaced with the DCM. “…in my opinion it was the most gallant feat of arms I witnessed in the course of the war and I was bitterly disappointed when Sergeant Manahi, whom we recommended for a VC, only received a DCM,” wrote Lieutenant General Sir Brian Horrocks, 10 Corps Commander.
Persistent pleas to redress this glaring injustice have so far been rejected.
The story of 28 Maori Battalion is also a story of camaraderie and kinship, loyalty and laughter. “They were ideal comrades in arms – high spirited, happy and brave. They had a further great military value – their sense of humour never failed, they always saw humour even in the most difficult situation,” wrote Lieutenant General Lord Freyberg.
That spirit is illustrated in a story about Te Rau Aroha, the canteen truck, a gift from the children of the Native Schools of New Zealand that accompanied the battalion from 1941. Going into battle against Rommel in Libya, the Maori Battalion prepared to charge. The driver of Te Rau Aroha charged too, speeding down the hill and into the fray. Later an English officer said he could hardly believe his eyes when he saw the “fierce men racing downhill with a YMCA van in their midst”.
Research goes on into the story of B Company. A committee will continue to advise the museum, aiding the location of the remaining 400 odd photographs which will be copied and placed on the gallery walls. The men of B Company will then be together again. The legend will march on.
Reproduced originally in NZ Memories Magazine No 29