Major Don Stewart served in the Māori Battalion. He survived World War II, but his brothers did not. Don waited 50 years for a chance to return to Crete and weep over his brother Horton’s grave. Tainui Stephens recalls that moment.
Many years ago, I was part of a big crowd in our hapū cemetery as we laid to rest a local Māori Battalion veteran. A handful of his comrades in their dress jackets and medals stood by the grave to see him off. Before the burial, the minister announced that “The Last Post” would be played, not by bugle but with a cassette recording.
A veteran pushed the play button and we heard something that sounded like a kazoo. The button popped out and he kept stabbing at it. The kazoo turned into a bugle for a few seconds before stopping with a strangled squawk. Silence. The elderly gent swore at his munted machine with startling words for a sacred space. “You stupid **** piece of ****!!” Then back to the kazoo. Then “****!!”
In time, “The Last Post” played as it should, and we returned to the world of the dead.
The military bugle call known as “The Last Post” was traditionally played at the end of day to signal that the camp was secure. It was also played to let the lost and wounded on the field of battle know the day’s fighting was over, and they should follow the bugle to their mates and safety.
The sound of “The Last Post” was on my mind in early 1988 as we discussed an Anzac Day programme for our weekly television series Koha. Researcher Brad Haami spoke of his uncle Don Stewart, a Māori Battalion vet who’d seen action in North Africa. If his koroua agreed to an interview, Brad suggested we take him a bottle of whiskey as a koha.
We drove to Don and Muriel Stewart’s cozy home in Whakatāne. Don was a charmer — a dignified, compassionate man with old-school manners typical of his generation. I was a student of war history and felt honoured to sit with a soldier who’d known battle.
Don was happy to talk. He asked if he might sip some whiskey and smoke during the interview. I said: “No problem.” He asked me to join him. “No problem.”
We recorded a terrific interview, and I left Whakatāne as pissed as a newt.
The Anzac Day programme An Old Digger Remembers simply showed Don talking about his war. He spoke of the camaraderie of the Māori soldiers, and of their discipline in combat. He revealed his sadness at the death of his brothers, Robert and Horton.
Robert took a direct hit from a mortar in El Alamein, and his body was never found. Horton died in the battle for Crete and was buried there. Don never got a chance to say goodbye to Horton. That was his greatest pain. After his soft words on Koha, the 15-minute episode ended with archive footage of the Māori Battalion and a soaring soundtrack.
Don’s quiet honesty commanded attention. The New Zealand Herald television critic Barry Shaw wrote: “I cried inside.”
Sir James Hēnare, the final serving commander of the Māori Battalion, was a friend of Don’s, and suggested I make a documentary about the unit. He told me his own personal role models, such as Āpirana Ngata and Te Puea, were too “long in the tooth” for today’s youth. People were attracted to the awful allure of war, and he felt the last action of the battalion should be to provide new heroes for young Māori.
The mana of the 28th (Māori) Battalion and its contribution to history and cultural lore was well known to Māori, but its fuller story was not widely appreciated. I came up with a proposal to take a representative of each battalion company back to Europe and North Africa and record their war stories from the places where they’d fought. Don would be our B Company representative. As well as recording his stories, most important to me was to take him to the war cemetery in Crete so he could finally say goodbye to Horton.
There was a lot of support for making a feature documentary in time for the Māori Battalion’s 50th anniversary in 1990. Funders and sponsors came on board willingly, except Air New Zealand. They weren’t interested, but Lufthansa was. The German airline supported us with respect and enthusiasm.
We chose four other veterans to travel with Don to Europe and North Africa. A Company’s Ben Porter was known as a calm presence under fire. I could see why. He was such an unhurried man. Bully Jackson of C Company was like a gentle teddy bear with a gruff voice. The ebullient Wī Huata had his roots in D company. He was adored as one of the battalion’s brave padres, who conveyed messages of love in a real hell.
Our final veteran was to tell his story as a Māori prisoner of war. Hēmi Wiremu of A Company had married an English nurse and lived in the UK. He was a beloved kaumātua for the London Māori community.
The old soldiers were all in their late 70s, so we took along an army nurse, Georgina Parata, to monitor their health and their meds. Not long into our first flight in Germany, Don had a small turn and keeled over. It wasn’t serious, but it heightened my concern about their health. My daily nightmare for the entire shoot was the thought of bringing one of these beloved koroua back home in a box.
By the time we arrived at our hotel in Stuttgart, we’d been travelling for a few days. Ben’s luggage had been lost en route, and he was miserable wearing the same clothes. He was further anxious because his medals were in the missing bag.
As I walked into the hotel lobby, I could hear Wī Huata’s voice booming out in Māori. Startled German businessmen in immaculate suits looked up. Wī was never one to be quiet. I listened to his words and realised it was a karakia. He was praying for the safe return of Ben’s luggage. Sure enough, not long after the “Āmine!” I got a message saying Herr Porter’s bag had been found.
We started filming on the Volkstrauertag, Germany’s day of mourning for their war dead. We travelled to a little church in Herrlingen and the grave of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the legendary Desert Fox. His son, Manfred Rommel, was the mayor of Stuttgart, and had given us permission to film the memorial service and participate in the proceedings.
Wī led the prayers, but his first words were directed at the simple wooden Iron Cross marking the resting place of the former enemy leader. He turned to the German veterans gathered there and acknowledged them with skill and humour. At the conclusion of his karakia, he started to sing “Au e Ihu”, and we all came in with “tirohia”. It was the first of many times that we would sing this beloved battalion hymn together.
I loved to see our kaumātua enjoying themselves in another country. Everywhere we went they would dress up in the evening and stroll — or totter — through the streets. We called them “the galloping majors”, and they attracted interest from everyone. Don had a corny line he would lay on German waitresses. “Could you help me please? I’m looking for Marlene Dietrich,” he would say with a mischievous wink.
Despite my attempts to get them to enjoy the local food, it was all foreign muck as far as they were concerned, and they would invariably head to Maccas.
The Italian campaign was a different war for the battalion. In the desert they had fought huge battles in wide open spaces. Here, close-quarter fighting took place in the streets and spaces where people lived.
In Italy, we filmed the old soldiers singing and enjoying pasta alongside the civilians whose homes and country they had helped to liberate. Don was always quick to bust out a wartime hit and prove why he was called “the silver tenor”.
In Florence, I asked Don how he was going with not smoking. Ever since his turn early in the trip, he’d been off the ciggies. He said he felt good. The next day, we visited a cemetery outside of the city with our hosts Bruno and Angela Ballara, before heading to a nearby cafe for lunch. It was one of those tiny places with no menu, just an ancient mamma seated outside informing you about the single dish of the day.
During the meal, I realised I hadn’t seen Don, and was immediately concerned. Whenever the vets were late somewhere, my mind went into overdrive. He eventually turned up, and all was fine. As we left, I went to the toilet, and there, on the cistern, was Don’s I Love Munich cigarette lighter.
It felt awful to dress down a man more than twice my age. I threatened to send him back home before we got to Crete. He was embarrassed and promised there would be no more sly smokes. After that, he always had a lolly in his mouth.
Our filming in Tunisia concentrated on the dirty business of fighting and killing. The Tunisian army were keen to help out. They provided us with an army jeep, a driver, and a young officer named Lieutenant Salahuddin.
We drove into the desert to find PT209 Tebaga Gap, the place where Moana Ngarimu lost his life and earned a Victoria Cross. Bully had fought near his cousin on the night of the battle and had also helped to bury him. Moana’s grand-niece Paula Walker was with us as a rangatahi witness to the veterans’ stories.
We spent all day driving around looking for a hill that looked exactly like the thousands of others we passed. Each time, I’d ask Bully: “Does that look like Pt209?” Each time, his gravel voice murmured: “I don’t know.”
As we lurched up and down treacherous tracks, Lieutenant Salahuddin would yell at the hapless driver and slap him about the head.
While we looked for Pt209, we interviewed Bully and Don about their time fighting in the desert. Bully remembered the enormous scale of the battles. Vast numbers of tanks and artillery. Huge divisions of fighting men in deadly combat. Don recalled discovering an enemy bunker and shooting the Germans inside. Inside a pocket of one of the dead, he discovered a photo of the man’s wife and children. It devastated him.
The next day, I went to the Tunisian Air Force to ask for better maps to locate Pt209. They were happy to learn of the Māori veterans in their country and knew Pt209 well because they used the terrain in their strategy training. Tebaga Gap had been a pivot point for wars since the time of the Roman Empire. They offered an Iroquois helicopter and crew to fly us there. I couldn’t believe our luck.
At Pt209, we filmed a memorable sequence of Wī delivering a formal poroporoaki to the dead of Tebaga and of all the theatres where the battalion had fought. In the documentary, you’d think he was in the middle of the desert by himself. In reality, he was standing right in front of our helicopter, speaking directly to the Tunisian pilots. They went very quiet before the force of Wī’s oratory and shrank into their helmets.
Our next location was the enormous rocky peak where the 1943 battle for Takrouna took place, and where Berber kūia still remembered the conflict. But a local farmer thought we were up to no good and complained about our presence. The police duly arrived and were suspicious of our filmmaking story. I showed them a photo of Bully from the time of the battle, lifting out the wounded, but they insisted the soldiers accompany them to the police station.
They were away for hours. I’ve no idea how many karakia I blurted out into the sullen African sky to make sure the kaumātua returned safely. I worried about Don. He didn’t have his blood-pressure pills.
The old soldiers eventually turned up safe and happy. They’d enjoyed themselves playing cards in the police station. They were a hit with the locals, yet again.
At every Commonwealth war graves cemetery worldwide, the graves and gardens are meticulous and heighten the feeling of respect for the war dead. In the middle of such a dry country as Tunisia, a Commonwealth cemetery is an oasis of green, as it is at Sfax, where Moana Ngarimu lies. As we entered the cemetery with our usual karakia and waiata, I noticed there were German war graves nearby, all sand and weeds.
Our filming ended in Crete. The conclusion of our documentary would be the moment Don stood before Horton’s grave.
We assembled our soldiers at the gate to the Souda Bay cemetery. Our camera crew was set up beside Horton. Wī would lead the group into the cemetery. I asked him to turn right at a red rose I left on the grass. It marked the row of graves where Horton lay.
We had one chance to film the sequence. We couldn’t make Don repeat how he felt when he was first in his brother’s presence after such a long absence.
We got into position and I gave the signal for our veterans to come in. It went beautifully. They all turned right at the rose and went into the correct row. Don walked up to come face to face with his brother. And he wept.
Perhaps in that shedding of tears, Don finally absorbed the death of his childhood hero. Perhaps he assuaged the guilt he felt for not having prevented Robert’s death. Perhaps he accepted the facts of a combat soldier’s physical and emotional wounds. Perhaps he grieved for the young men he had trained for war. Perhaps he wept for the lives he himself had taken. I am certain he wept as penance for surviving.
As we regard from a distance the pain of those who knew the white heat of battle, we know there is war in Myanmar, Yemen, Somalia, and Ukraine. Right now, people like us suffer the folly of leaders who seek redemption in violence. War fascinates us because most of us haven’t been there. The lessons of hatred and courage remain written in blood and washed away by tears, to be forgotten once again.
Ka tuwhera te tāwaha o te riri, kāore e titiro ki te ao mārama. When the gates of war are flung open, we are blind to the light of reason.
After the documentary had been made and screened on television, Don and I kept in regular contact. Sometimes I’d swing by his home with a bottle of whiskey and he would give me a sack of corn.
In 1993, he asked me to join him at the Anzac Day dawn parade in Whakatāne. He’d been in charge of rallying the troops for decades, and this was to be his last day on the job. He picked me up at the airport and we had a lovely night catching up. I hit the sack knowing we had an early start before dawn.
About 2am, I arose to go to the toilet. As I passed through the darkened lounge, I could see that Don was up and dressed already, down to the array of medals sparkling on his formal jacket. He was standing at the window. The moonlight shone on his face and I could see him staring out at nothing in particular but at the same time, everything. At dawn, his final formal role as a soldier would cease. I left him to his reverie.
In the morning, we travelled to the parade. Not much was said. Don met his comrades and discharged his various duties, all of which would pass to younger soldiers on the next Anzac Day.
We started the march to the Wairaka marae for the service. I was on my own and walked slowly with the crowd. Before we reached the marae there was a buzz of activity up ahead.
The word travelled quickly that one of the old soldiers had fainted. I ran to look for Don, fearing the worst — and it was the worst. Don had had a heart attack.
I rushed with him and the family to the hospital. My last sight of him was lying cold and still on a gurney surrounded by tears and mihi. The proud chest that had borne medals just minutes before was now clad only in an old man’s white singlet.
At the call of his Last Post, Don returned to his place of belonging and safety, and to the embrace of his brothers in arms.
Oki mai rā e Don.
Nāku te tangi ake nei.
The documentary Māori Battalion March To Victory (1990) can be viewed here.
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