Old warrior recalls Maori Battalion heroism

SURVIVOR: Bunty Preece, far left,  one of the last remaining living members of the 28 (Maori) Battalion with his son Alfred Preece, grandson Hayden Preece and great-granddaughter Ava Preece. Photo: CARYS MONTEATH/Fairfax NZ
SURVIVOR: Bunty Preece, far left, one of the last remaining living members of the 28 (Maori) Battalion with his son Alfred Preece, grandson Hayden Preece and great-granddaughter Ava Preece. Photo: CARYS MONTEATH/Fairfax NZ

The final reunion for the 28 Maori Battalion will be held this weekend. Mike Crean talks to one of the few surviving veterans - a soldier whose story has been published in a new book.

They marched into battle. Now they march into history. And still they sing as they march: "Maori Battalion march to victory, Maori Battalion staunch and true . . ."

They are staunch and true, those that remain. But they are few. They are in their 90s. Soon their battalion will be no more.

Bunty Preece is 92. He marched with 28 (Maori) Battalion of the NZ Army 2nd Division, right through Italy, in 1944 and 1945. He marched through fire, through woundings, through the loss of comrades. He marched through the stench of dead soldiers left lying in the open because enemy snipers were watching. Now he marches through memories.

The few staunch and true are meeting today in Wellington for a final battalion reunion. It is a sad time because so many can be present only in their comrades' minds, and because their proud warrior unit, 28 (Maori) Battalion, will be formally wound up this weekend.

Preece is a Chatham Islander. He and a few South Islanders were sprinkled among regionally based North Island companies. Preece served in D Company, among men from Taranaki.

Like all of them, Preece was a volunteer. Like some, he won promotion from private to corporal and to sergeant. Like few, he was commissioned in the field and promoted to lieutenant. He was an officer at 24.

In Christchurch this week for the launch of the book, Bunty Preece - Soldier of the 28 (Maori) Battalion, by military historian Tom O'Connor, Preece insists the book is not about him.

"It is about the battalion," he says. In the poetic tones of the Moriori people from whom he is descended, he adds: "It speaks for all the sad and silent stones that cannot speak for themselves".

Pride in his battalion surges through a body bent by 92 years of rain-laden winds that storm off southern seas to enshroud his islands.

"We were all equals. We all came from working families. We were all volunteers," he says. The last is a reminder that conscription was not applied to Maori, but encouragement from tribal elders to fight for their country made it unnecessary.

He proudly quotes the words of German General Siegfried Westphal, Field Marshal Rommel's chief of staff: "Give me the Maori Battalion and I will conquer the world."

"That was a great compliment. Hearing that gave us a lift. It was the extra push we needed," Preece says.

Other compliments were paid. He recalls NZ Division commander General Freyberg's remark: "No infantry had a more distinguished record, or saw more fighting, or, alas, had such heavy casualties . . ."

Preece remembers the Germans listened to Maori radio communications. Though they could not understand the language, they traced the New Zealanders' movements.

"They saw us as New Zealand," he says. The ethos of the Maori Battalion was to do better, always.

"We were proud of what we were and of what we were doing. We respected our officers. We all competed. Our aim was to go from private to officer. My dream was to command a company."

Preece did command a platoon and turned his dream to reality - temporarily, by taking over company command in an extreme situation. His skill and courage won the favour of legendary battalion commander Lieutenant-Colonel Arapeta Awatere, DSO, MC.

His head bows as he explains how immediate are his memories of those traumatic days in battle. His sheet of white hair flops over closed eyes. Again the poet in him speaks - "The most gentle became savage, and the savage would weep. These were the two extremes. These were what the Maori Battalion was all about."

Beside Preece sits old buddy Henry Norton. They came through the war together and remain comrades.

"I am honoured by Henry's presence here today," Preece says. He reiterates the book is not about himself. It is about Norton and all the other battalion members.

Yet the book tells of Preece's emergence from isolation on the Chatham Islands to fight with distinction and to command men in wartime, while little more than a boy. It is also about the man in peacetime who, as leader of his island people, confronted the high and mighty over policies that threatened the future of the Chathams. Many will remember him as the mayor who provoked Prime Minister Muldoon with the threat of secession and joining the USA. A joke perhaps, but it was noticed, and it got government action. No one took old warrior Preece lightly.

Settling back into farm life on the islands after the war was tough, Preece admits. But he deflects the subject by bowing his head again. It is painful and personal, as it would be to a man who had served in the killing fields, had seen Rome, Florence, Venice, had then served in Japan and experienced the quiet hostility of the populace after the dropping of the atom bombs.

He looks up and sees his 2 year-old great-granddaughter Ava, cuddled into the arms of her father, Hayden Preece. He sees his son, Alfred Preece, named after him and succeeding him as mayor of the Chatham Islands. And he smiles. This, and the peace and freedom his descendants enjoy, are what he fought for.

John Douglas Publishing broke new ground with the simultaneous launch of two books last week. The Bunty Preece story is told in English first but, flip the book over and it starts again, in Maori, translated by Kingi Ihaka.

The other book is a facsimile edition of the 1956 Official History of the 28 (Maori) Battalion. John Douglas director Bob Anderson says the set of official war histories is long out of print and scarcity has boosted the prices collectors will pay for its volumes. His company wanted to re-release them, so New Zealanders who fought would not be forgotten.

Anderson gained permission from the Ministry for Culture and Heritage to re-produce the books, on condition they remained exact copies. The only concessions were computer enhancing of contemporary photographs and a slightly smaller format,making the new books thicker.

The Maori Battalion history is the first in the project to re-produce the set. With the battalion winding up, this is appropriate.

The Press