Once a mighty fighting force, the 28th Maori Battalion has dwindled to a small group of veterans.
Today a dozen of the remaining 25 men who saw such fearsome combat across North Africa and Europe gathered in Wellington to mark the end of their official association.
"It feels sad it's come to a close, but it had to at some time," 28th Maori Battalion Association president Nolan Raihania said after a military service at the National War Memorial in Wellington.
Among those at the commemoration were the Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae, Defence Force head Lieutenant-General Rhys Jones, Attorney-General Chris Finlayson, Labour Maori Affairs spokesperson Parekura Horomia, and Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown.
As a blustery, chill northerly gained in strength, some of the remaining members of the battalion placed wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior on behalf of the battalion's A, B, C and D companies.
Their faces clouded over as they recalled their fallen comrades.
"It's the sadness of remembering those of us who didn't return, and also those who were lucky enough to come back but are not with us today," Raihania said.
At the same time there was an immense pride in what the battalion achieved.
"It was known as our number one fighting unit - hand to hand fighting," he said.
"We have had that reputation all along. We were recognised for that by our own troops and by the enemy, so much so that we have been invited by the Germans ... to their reunions."
During his address to the service, Raihania welcomed representatives from countries the battalion had been associated with.
"We have a representative from India. The Maori Battalion didn't quite get there but we fought alongside soldiers from India in Italy," he said.
"Italy, personally that's where I arrived to join the battalion. There's many happy memories, and other memories, of our sojourn there."
Raihania broke into Italian briefly: "buongiorno, buongiorno," he said.
"Australia, of course ... We're brothers. We fought together for a while."
Rear Admiral (ret) David Ledson told the service the Maori Battalion was the most decorated battalion of the war.
"The battalion earned an enviable reputation as a formidable fighting force," he said.
In a statement today, Maori Party co-leader Dr Pita Sharples said the Maori Party saluted the survivors of the battalion as they assembled one last time to remember fallen comrades and reflect on their exploits.
"This is the end of an era because we will not see another national hui - so it is an appropriate time to acknowledge our wartime heroes, and to thank them for the way they upheld the mana of our ancestors," he said.
The winding up of the association will relieve the old soldiers and their whanau of a legal responsibility. But this is not the end of the Maori Battalion by any means.
"Their whanau and the nation will treasure their legacy of service and sacrifice, and their mana will live on forever in the hearts and minds of people in Aotearoa and overseas," Sharples said.
"Their exploits are recorded in song and haka, on films and tapes and in books, and on the (battalion) website. They will continue to inspire future generations to give their utmost for their people and their nation.
"Ake, ake, kia kaha e!" We will not forget."
In all, 3600 men left this country to fight voluntarily as members of the battalion during the Second World War. They earned a mighty reputation for courage, and paid a high price, as they fought their way across Greece, Crete, North Africa and Italy.
Of those in the battalion, 655 were killed or died on active service, 1712 were wounded and 267 were taken prisoner. This casualty rate was almost 50 per cent higher than for other New Zealand infantry battalions.
The battalion's first 681 men, organised into four companies on tribal grounds, departed Wellington on May 2, 1940, aboard Aquitania. When they called at Cape Town in apartheid-ruled South Africa Maori were forced to stay aboard the ship while the Pakeha soldiers were given the run of the city.
After training beneath the skies filled with the Battle of Britain they finally reached Egypt in March 1941.
They were quickly moved onto northern Greece to face a German invasion. The Allies were outflanked at Olympus Pass on April 15, Maori saw their first action. Four men were killed.
With Greece's fall, the New Zealanders were moved to Crete to face a German airborne invasion.
It was there the Maori legend was forged, in places like a sunken road called 42nd Street. Short of ammunition the 28th used bayonets.
"The New Zealand Division would have been overwhelmed if not for a grand bayonet charge by the Maoris," Private Paratene Kohere wrote home to his family in Tikitiki - a tiny East Coast village with 100 men in the battalion.
"It was a fearful thing to hear the shouts and shrieks of the Maori Battalion. The Germans could not stand it, and so they took to their heels."
Most of the Tikitiki men were killed - including the battalion's first death, despatch rider Tokena Pokai. Tikitiki had many tangi without a tupapaku or corpse.
The New Zealanders were evacuated back to North Africa.
With the British 8th Army and the New Zealand Division, Maori fought Erwin Rommel's Africa Corps for possession of North Africa, beginning at a railway station called El Alamein.
In Tunisia they fought for a point in the enemy line they called Hikurangi.
They lost 22 men there, including 2nd Lieutenant Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngarimu, who was bestowed with a posthumous Victoria Cross.
Sergeant Haane Manahi, a month later, led his men in seizing a rock fortress at Takrouna. New Zealand Division commander General Bernard Freyberg wanted him to be awarded the VC. It was refused amid rumours the British did not want two Maori VCs in a month.
Maori lost 270 men dead by the time North Africa was over in May 1943.
Historian Monty Soutar of Ngati Porou and Ngati Awa in his 2008 book Nga Tamatoa: The Price of Citizenship said the cost plunged the around 87,000 Maori back home into mourning.
He describes the day in Ruatoria when the Ngarimu family received their son's VC.
Makere Ngarimu said of it, "I would much rather have my son."
The governor-general told Fairfax Media the battalion made a significant contribution to Maoridom and New Zealand. They fought for God, King and country against totalitarianism.
"Too many paid the ultimate sacrifice but their defence of the freedoms and values that we as New Zealanders continue to enjoy are taonga to us all."
Sir Jerry, a former army general, said the battalion members were regarded as the most courageous of soldiers and the unit received 99 honours and awards- the highest number among the 11 New Zealand infantry battalions in the war.
"The battalion's living legacy was a new generation of Maori leaders in the years that followed the war and who laid the groundwork for the renaissance of Maori culture, tikanga and te reo that was to follow," he said.
Men such as James Henare, Charles Bennett, Rangi Royal and Rangi Logan from the battalion led Maoridom.
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