Maori Battalion hero dies

Family member Yvonne Repia said Te Whata was proud to have been a member of the battalion and was proud of his comrades. He was also a humble man who had not spoken much about the war until later in his life.

One of the last of the 28th Maori Battalion has died.

The death of Whakahoro (Sol) Te Whata, 96, leaves just 18 survivors from the almost 3600 men who served overseas with the battalion between 1940 and 1945.

Te Whata's death leaves just one survivor of the "Gum Diggers", as the battalion's A Company were known.

His death was announced on the 28th Maori Battalion Facebook page.

Te Whata's tangi is being held at Mataitaua Marae in Utakura, with the funeral to be held at the marae on Thursday.

"The war stuff was left at the war. It was a job he was sent to do."

When he returned to this country he had gone through trades training and became a carpenter and had lived in Auckland for many years.

In recent years he had a keen supporter of the Leadership Academy of A Company.

"He was the poutokomanawa (centre pole of a meeting house)," Repia said.

The academy in Whangarei provides a residential programme aimed at helping young Maori men with talent and academic potential to excel.

"He was very proud to be part of that, in leading our boys into education. Education, for him, was a priority," Repia said.

Te Whata had been there for the students, and they were highly visual at his tangi.

Rawson Wright, president of the A Company branch of the Maori Battalion Association, said Te Whata had been a stalwart of the association. He was the last of the soldiers who was actively involved in the branch.

His recollections were among 100 hours of footage recorded from A Company members that was in the process of being edited and would be used to produce learning resources.

It was also hoped an A Company museum could be established.

Historian Dr Monty Soutar, co-ordinator of the Maori Battalion website project at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, said it was now realised "history is passing before our eyes".

"For a unit that had such a reputation ... to know the connection with them will eventually pass, I think that's why attention is given to these remaining veterans," he said.

Soutar recently returned from a tour visiting places in Europe the Maori Battalion helped liberate. Secondary school students in the party had been amazed at the way New Zealand veterans were received.

"It changed their [the students'] whole perspective, I think ... on the sacrifices New Zealanders made," Soutar said.

It was a pity time was running out for young people to see that reception.

"It's really hard for us back here in New Zealand to comprehend how they [the veterans] are received, because we've never been invaded by another country."