By Moana Maniapoto
New Zealand’s last surviving member of the legendary 28th Māori Battalion believes the sacrifices he and his comrades made in World War Two achieved little for Māori back home in the years that followed the war.
Sir Robert Nairn Gillies (Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Kahungunu) says the racial discrimination and inequities Māori suffered before the war were unchanged after it, and for that reason - if he had had his time again - he would have refused to go.
“I'd have been a conscientious objector,” Sir Robert told Moana Maniapoto.
It’s a comment the old soldier also made in his statement of evidence to the Waitangi Tribunal in the Military Veterans Kaupapa Inquiry in 2016.
Sir Robert’s objection relates to his return to a country where Māori were excluded from some public facilities – swimming pools and theatres, hotels and bars. He recalls how Māori couldn’t buy alcohol to take home.
Researcher Paul Spoonley recorded how one senior Treasury official in 1937 justified inequitable pension payments between the average Māori age-old pensioner and their European counterpart.
'All for nothing'
“The living standard of the Māori is lower – and after all, the object of these pensions is to maintain standards rather than to raise them.”
When asked what he wants New Zealanders to understand the most, Sir Robert replied: “We were all volunteers for six years, six long years. Our battalion was all volunteers. We weren't conscripted. And not only that, the Māori war effort was second to none at home. And you know, it was all for nothing, all for nothing. We came back and things were much the same as for our forefathers.”
This Wednesday, ‘Koro Bom,’ as he’s affectionately known, will formally be dubbed as a knight at Government House in Wellington.
It’s something this remarkably fit and mentally agile 97-year-old is not looking forward to, not because he doesn’t feel hugely honoured but because he hates being made a fuss of.
He still drives, lives alone in the red-brick house he built 60 years ago, helps out around the marae with hammer in hand and is often on the sidelines cheering on his beloved Waikite team.
As for the nickname ‘Bom,’ he’s been stuck with it all his life, doesn’t know what it means and sums it up like this, "It’s a humbug name".
These days, he barely speaks above a whisper – he lost a vocal cord to cancer eight years ago – but his memory is razor-sharp.
Poring over the old photos of mates long gone, he can still reel off their names and remembers the campaigns as if it were yesterday.
He’s literally the last man standing and with comes the enormous weight of responsibility: that the stories are not forgotten, that the memories continue to be honoured.
His own story is typical of those who joined the 28th. They were often under-age – two of his mates were just 14 years old. They’d barely been outside the town limits. Inspired by stories of World War 1, they were looking for adventure.
The realities of combat changed everything. These days Sir Robert is firmly of the mind that war is a "waste of time"’ – whether it be Ukraine or anywhere else.
After training in Egypt, he arrived in time for the brutal Allied effort to dislodge German forces from Italy in late 1943.
Though he didn’t experience hand-to-hand fighting as many of his comrades did, the campaigns in Orsogna and Cassino took a heavy toll on the men of the 28th.
Sir Robert tells of B-Company Captain Monty Whikiriwhi and his heroic crawl to safety after being brutally wounded. He spoke emotionally to Te Ao with Moana of others cut down in their prime.
By the war’s end, the 28th had lost 649 men. It was the most highly decorated unit in the New Zealand Battalion.
But it’s the futility of war that stays with Sir Robert. He remembers all too well the lasting impact on returning soldiers and their whanau – particularly the heavy drinking.
“I was lucky,” he says. “For others, the booze took over their lives, and their experiences left them mentally scarred and affected their relationships with their families.”
It took Sir Robert three months to find a job and settle down. He met his wife, Rae Ratima, at a dance at Tamatekapua and they had three sons, Ture, Robert (who died last year) and Taupua.
In 2009, Sir Robert was appointed a cavaliere (knight) of Italy, which he said he accepted on behalf of the entire Māori Battalion.
When it came to accepting a New Zealand knighthood, Sir Robert at first refused – he just didn’t feel deserving of it.
“I was the lowest-ranking soldier,” he says. “You couldn’t get any lower.”
It took a legion of people to convince the old man to reconsider, which he did – reluctantly.
'For the boys'
“I should have refused,” the war veteran told me, “Because I’m not worthy. But I thought … it’s for the boys.”
In 2007, the Duke of York (representing the Queen) presented a ceremonial sword in recognition of the gallantry of Lance Sergeant Haane Manahi, and it’s that sword which will be used at Sir Robert’s investiture.
But don’t expect Sir Robert to fade away into well-earned retirement, he’s still got one last campaign to fight; he is determined that the 28th Battalion’s battle honours are enshrined on the Battalion flag.
“Well, Jim Henare requested it when he came home, that they put our battle honours on the flag and they haven't done it.”
He’s also hoping to retrieve the (now banned) semi-automatic he smuggled into the country after he returned from war and tried to register with the police last year. But that’s a whole other story ….
Watch Te Ao Marama for news of the investiture. Te Ao with Moana, Mon 8pm on Māori Television.