A Knight of the Italian Republic honours the 28th Māori Battalion

By Kereama Wright, Regan Paranihi

The last surviving veteran of the 28th Māori Battalion’s B Company has been honoured by the Italian Government.

Robert Bom Gillies received one of Italy's highest honours, the Cavaliere or Knighthood Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.

Italian Ambassador to NZ, Fabrizio Marcelli, his officials, Victoria Cross recipient, Willie Apiata, and Robert Bom Gillies Waimarama family were among those welcomed on to Te Papaiōuru Marae in Rotorua on Saturday morning.

“It’s the equivalent of Sir in Italian, Cavaliere,” says Mr Marcelli.  “It was given directly by the President of the Italian Republic Sergio Mattarella to Robert Gillies the award is signed by him.”

During the presentation ceremony, memoirs of Gillies time in the 28th Māori Battalion were read out, stating back to the day he signed up for the job.   

“I tried to sign up twice and I got turned away because I was too young … we wanted to see the world we hadn’t even been to Ngongotahā,” read Hemi Rolleston (Te Arawa)

Matt Te Pou (Ngai Tūhoe), a member of the 28th Māori Battalion board says, "There were a lot of stories over there with Bom, a lot of moving stories, he spoke very clearly one time we were there, one of his close friends, a Dinsdale from Te Arawa, later on when we went to Cassino and there he was across where the guy Dinsdale fell at the railway station."

Grandson Bayden Barber (Ngāti Kahungunu) says it is time for the government to step up to the plate and give credit where credit is due.

“He has received the title of Sir, therefore, this needs to also be recognised from the New Zealand Government. For his service and the service of all of his friends in the 28th Māori Battalion.”

Te Pou says this was the ultimate sacrifice Gillies and the rest of the men of the 28th made to pave a better future for their generations

"Most of these guys were only 17, 18, when they went away. So the young one's today have got an opportunity to make something of their lives because the supreme sacrifice was paid by a lot of our koroua.”

Fabrizio Marcelli says the most significant part of the war was what the battalion gave during the battle in Italy.

"It was a tribute in blood to New Zealanders especially the 28th Battalion."

And despite the aftermath of the war, Barber says his grandfather is a strong man

"He's staunch, he's a person who grew up among his ancestors, he is a knowledgable man when it comes to Te Reo and tīkanga Māori, and despite his old age his brain is still sharp and his body is still fit."

Te Pou adds that Mr Gillies is a, " a very humble person the fact that when he was offered up the taonga he said that it must go to the 28th Māori Battalion and to the Māori People so that's the example of how all the 28 men were very down to earth."

To return the honour, the Gillies family gifted Marcelli and his wife with two greenstone tiki as symbols of their friendship and the memories of those who have passed.