From Te Tai Tokerau all the way to Italy

By Kereama Wright

34 students and staff from the Leadership Academy of A Company, based in Whāngārei, are on the trip of a lifetime retracing the footsteps of their koroua who fought in World War II.

CEO Raewyn Tipene says the purpose of the pilgrimage is to “honour the men who came and visit the men who died and remain in Italy.  More importantly, for the boys to understand that there’s a bigger world outside of Whāngārei and Te Taitokerau and to start their journey of expanding their experiences and exposing them to the world”.

17 cadets from Te Taitokerau, aged 14 to 17, have traveled to Italy to take part in the 75th Commemoration of the Battle at Monte Cassino. 

Leadership Academy of A Company in Italy (Source: File).

The young men and their teachers make up four intakes named after A Company soldiers, Kahi Harawira, Charlie Petara, George Marsden and Sir James Henare, the last commander of the 28th Māori Battalion. 

The young men marched at the 75th commemoration of the Battle at Monte Cassino, held in the Commonwealth cemetery, where young men their age lie.

A day later the cadets performed a spine-tingling haka at the official ceremony held at the Cassino Railway Station in honour of Robert Gillies, the last remaining soldier of B Company, who fought in Cassino seventy five years ago.

Tipene says that while the impact of those the experiences may not be immediate, they are profound.

“It takes about five to ten years for that to sink in.  It’s the long journey for us.”

“We’re not here to make quick impacts.  It might happen, but we know that over time our boys are going to remember this trip and the stories they’ve been told and they’ll start living lives with mana.”

The academy was born out of a need for better outcomes for Māori boys in the north.

“In 2007, 81% of boys in Whāngārei were failing NCEA level 1,” says Tipene.

“The important point was not that there was so much failure but what they went on to be.  They went on to lead the Headhunters and some of the biggest gangs in town. That’s the implication of us not getting this right.”

“We decided very early that we needed to do something for the change that was going on for our boys.”

Leadership Academy of A Company pose for group photo in Italy (Source: File).

The group is travelling from Formia to Rome, before flying to Crete, Greece, a place of significance for A Company and the Māori Battalion.

On 20 May 1941, thousands of German paratroopers and glidertroops swooped onto Crete in one of the world's first-ever airborne assaults.  Two days later, as enemy reinforcements poured in, the Māori Battalion took part in the belated Allied attempt to wrest back control of the key Maleme airfield.

They used the bayonet to good effect in a spirited night attack, but were forced to withdraw as daylight approached, leaving 33 dead behind.

“They were left there to hold the German onslaught back with the 27 Battalion from Australia and then they ended up on 42nd street fighting with no weapons or bullets, fighting hand to hand.  Most of them didn’t make it out of there.”

“All of our school buildings are named after battles and 42nd street is one of them.  This is our way of paying tribute to all of that.”