In May this year, cousins Colenso Eramiha and May Lloyd went to Crete on a mission. Their Uncle Sonny had died there in 1941, at the Battle of Crete in the Second World War. But, for more than 70 years, his whānau hadn’t known where he had fallen or where he’d been buried. Here Colenso tells Lloyd Ashton about that trip — and why he’s going back there next month.
The nearer Ani Eramiha got to her own death, the more she became gripped by the death of her younger brother, nearly 70 years earlier, in the Battle of Crete.
Hani Reihana “Sonny” Poa was an A Company man who had “died of wounds” in Crete on May 23, 1941, aged 19.
For decades, those three words were pretty much all the whānau knew about Sonny’s fate.
They didn’t know how he’d died, where he had fallen — nor where he lay. There was no gravestone for Sonny. No place to visit. No place to mourn.
Actually, May 23, 1941, was a grim day for the Poa whānau. Because Sonny’s cousin Tokararangi Poa — a C Company man who’d grown up in Tikitiki on the East Coast — was also killed in Crete that same day.
But, at least in Toka’s case, the family knew where he was. He’s one of 1502 Commonwealth servicemen buried in Crete’s Souda Bay War Cemetery.
. . .
Ani and Mana Eramiha had 11 kids, and Colenso is the pōtiki of that brood.
Most of Colenso’s growing-up years were spent in Kaikohe. But the Eramiha clan were always heading to Awarua, which is 20 kilometres south of Kaikohe.
For one thing, Ani’s parents, Kapuatere and Reihana Poa, lived there. In fact, Colenso spent much of his growing running in and around their little whare, out in the paddocks at Awarua.
Then, there was Te Huruhi, their marae — and their urupā, where they’d erected a memorial to Colenso’s Uncle Sonny.
Colenso’s mum Ani had been especially close to her brother Sonny.
He was the next born after Ani, and, as her own life wound down — she died in October 2009 — Ani became preoccupied with Sonny’s memory.
By that stage, Colenso and his wife Rona had been living in Auckland for years — he’s the Kaiwhakamana at the John Kinder Theological Library, at St John’s College, where they train Anglican priests.
But they didn’t escape hearing about Sonny.
“Mum used to ring us up,” says Colenso, “and ask us to come back. And she would just talk, from when we arrived on Friday night until we left on Sunday.”
Her kōrero would always circle back to Sonny. She’d fret that no one had ever been to Crete to find him. And how they ought to do that.
During those many trips north to Kaikohe, Colenso picked up the whānau whakapapa. That knowledge, and his research skills, have equipped him to become his family’s genealogist and historian.
He’s grateful for that. But as for all that talk about Sonny? Well, not so much. Not at the time, anyway.
. . .
After Ani died, Colenso “put Mum’s thing about Uncle Sonny on the backburner”.
But, in April 2014, he began to change his thinking.
In the run-up to Anzac Day, the dean of the Māori students at St John’s, Katene Eruera — he’s an ex-Air Force chaplain himself — had presented military medals to three Māori ex-service people at the college.
Colenso, who is a former Territorial soldier, was one of them.
That set him thinking again about his Uncle Sonny.
“I thought: ‘I’ll just have a little look into it. Have a jack.’ So, I just wrote off to the Defence Force, to see if there’s any records.”
He drew a blank. The Defence Force had no records which corresponded to Hani Reihana Poa, born on September 9, 1921.
After a few months, though, the penny dropped. Colenso realised that, like so many of the young bucks in the 28th Battalion, Sonny had lied about his age, so he could sign up.
So, where the official record shows that Sonny died at the ripe old age of 22, he was, in fact, just 19.
And, probably so his mother couldn’t dob him in, he’d tutu’ed with his name. Hani Reihana Poa had become, in the army records, Honi Reihona Poa.
Once Colenso had shunted those roadblocks aside, he made some significant discoveries.
He learned, for example, about Sonny’s last pay — thanks to seeing a letter that his grandmother Kapuatere had written to PK Paikea, the Northern Māori MP and wartime cabinet minister:
“It is with a heavy heart that I write … As his mother, I wish that the amount so held by the Army Department, should be paid to me, so that I may be able to erect a Tomb Stone to his memory.”
Colenso also received a copy of an affidavit, sworn by Kapuatere, and witnessed by his grandfather Reihana Poa, asking for the gratuity paid out on a soldier’s death to be paid to them — so they could put a deposit on a house.
In other words, that humble little whare in Awarua where his grandparents lived, and where Colenso had spent so much time as a kid, had been bought with Sonny’s blood.
That home took on new meaning at that point.
Colenso learned too, from those war records, where Sonny lay. He’d been buried at Chalepa School, in Chania.
“You never know what you find out when you ask for things.”
At that point, Colenso made up his mind. He had to go to Crete.
“For about two years, I did a lot of planning in my head: ‘What would this look like?’ I started to vocalise it to my wife, and then I decided: ‘I’m going to sit down and write me a plan.’
“I’m also part of this Ngāpuhi wānanga. So, we talk about Ngāpuhi history, farewells, poroporoaki, tauparapara and waiata. And I happened to say to our kaumātua: ‘This is what I’ve got planned.’
“And he says: ‘Anybody been over to see Uncle?’
“’Oh well, you better send your uncle home.’
“Oh, what do you mean?
“’Well, when you get over there, you send him home.
“’And you need to know all the ways to send him back. Because everything’s changed, from way back in the ‘40s. And you don’t want him to get lost, finding his way back to your place!’”
Send your uncle home?
Make sure he doesn’t get lost on the way?
The kaumātua’s point was that Sonny Poa would have died in battle and been hastily buried. There’d have been no tangi for Sonny. No poroporoaki. No releasing his spirit to return to his tūrangawaewae — and from there, to journey to Hawaiki, from where his ancestors had come, and to which he should return.
Sonny was, therefore, in limbo.
That was what had been troubling Ani, his sister, as she neared her end.
And that was what Colenso committed himself to putting right.
So, Colenso committed to learning a poroporoaki that he could chant to his uncle. A spiritual roadmap for his return home, that would give his Uncle Sonny the waypoints he would need to know, the rivers and creeks and marae he would need to pass. That would get him back “to our river, and to our marae.”
Colenso took his opening stanza from Rukuhia, which is a waiata the 28th Māori Battalion composed to pay homage to Lieutenant Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngarimu, VC.
Rukuhia rā e hoa mā te Moana
Haria te mana o te motu
“Rukuhia rā means to dive, and travel — mā te Moana — under the sea. Haria te mana o te motu — carry the mana of your people.
“That’s what I used to get him into the ocean, and back into the Kaipara harbour.
“I told him to look to the left at Pouto, at the marae there, as you go into that harbour — and to greet our ancestors there. That’s his people. Our people.
“And then follow the Wairoa River, until he gets to the fork where the Mangakahia River comes in. Take the Mangakahia River.
“Then, when he gets to the fork at the Twin Bridges, take the Awarua River.
“When he gets to Pakotai, he’ll salute our ancestors on our grandfather’s side. Because there’s a marae there called Te Hepara Pai.
“When he looks at those cemeteries, those places where Rahiri (our Ngāpuhi tupuna) was, and when he sees Pakotai, he’ll say: Oh yes. I know the way now.
“Then carry on. Carry on. Take the Otaenga Stream — and that stream leads to our marae.”
Getting that roadmap ready, says Colenso, wasn’t something he took lightly.
“A lot of prayer went into that, mate. It’s not just something where you go: ‘Oh yeah. I’ll plan a trip!’ I had to be prepared spiritually. I was very focused.”
Colenso wanted to go to Crete in May, in time for the commemorations of the Battle of Crete.
That meant Colenso’s wife, Rona, couldn’t join him. She’s a schoolteacher, and she couldn’t get away then.
Colenso still had an ally, though. His cousin, May.
May Lloyd, who is 73 now, is living in Perth. Sonny was her Uncle Sonny, too. And May’s full name is a lasting reminder of the mamae of May 23, 1941. She was born May Crete Poa.
“I just rang her,” says Colenso, “and said: ‘This is what’s up, cuz.’
“I said to her: ‘Me haere taua. Which is: ‘You and I — let’s go.’ And she just said: ‘Okay.’ Straight away.”
. . .
During the nine months or so before they travelled to Crete, May also had lots to think about, says Colenso.
“Our grandmother would visit her, if you know what I mean. So, she would ring me in tears, because she starts to remember things.
“And I had said to her: ‘Mau te taha wāhine a, maku te taha tāne, nē?’ You do the woman’s side — and I’ll do the male side. Yes?
“She knew what I was talking about. She said: ‘Okay.’”
. . .
Colenso and May met in Doha, and then flew to Athens. But, instead of flying the 325km south to Crete, they boarded an overnight ferry, because they wanted to approach the island the way the 28th Battalion soldiers had done.
That ferry docked at Chania, Crete’s second biggest town, at dawn on May 18.
Colenso and May had organised their own itinerary. They didn’t know that this year, the annual commemorations of the Battle of Crete had been brought forward a week — and started the morning they arrived.
Colenso and May had arrived too early to be let into their hotel room, so they wandered around the dockside. That’s when they heard something they hadn’t expected.
“Hey! Tēnā koe!”
“It’s this Pākehā fulla, who’s the go-to guy in Melbourne for things on Crete. He asked what we were doing. We told him. He said: ‘Come with us. We’ll look after you.’”
The next day, Colenso and May found themselves laying a wreath in honour of the 28th Māori Battalion at the Souda Bay War Cemetery commemoration service.
“In my own little plan,” says Colenso, “we were going to go and farewell Uncle as a soldier, so I’d taken my Territorial beret.”
He was grateful, too, that he’d packed his suit. Even after 77 years, you wouldn’t want to be casual at a solemn event like that.
“I’m sitting next to this 97-year-old gentleman, Tony Madden, who was one of the few surviving Kiwis from the Battle of Crete. When we stood up to attention, he got out of his wheelchair to do that. And when everyone else sat down, he stayed standing.
“I felt embarrassed, so I stood back up with him.”
After the ceremony had ended, they found Tokararangi’s tombstone and paid their tributes to him.
The next day, Colenso and May took part in another solemn remembrance service, this time at Maleme Airfield, which had been the scene of one of the most dramatic battles of the Second World War.
That Maleme service is where May first gave her karanga. Tony Madden laid the wreath to the fallen at Maleme — and he asked May to call him on.
There wasn’t a dry eye around the airfield after that.
(It was Tony Madden’s last trip to Crete. He died last Tuesday, aged 98, in Havelock North, Hawke’s Bay.)
The next day was Colenso and May’s last in Crete — and that was the day they hitched a ride to Chalepa School.
In fact, that place hasn’t functioned as a school since the Battle of Crete. From the street, the building looks intact. But it’s gated and locked, and behind that façade, it’s a wreck, with masonry toppled and pockmarked by bombs and shellfire.
So, Colenso and May had to slip down a side road, and scramble into the school grounds through rubble, overgrown bush, and matted, knee-high grass.
“As we walked in there, I had to figure out how they might have been thinking 77 years ago — where would I bury my dead?”
To the naked eye, there were no clues.
Nonetheless, says Colenso, “I’m quietly confident that this is where Uncle is because … because I have feelings. I don’t know how to explain those feelings.
“And when you looked at the layout of the land, there was one place that stood out for me. It was scorching hot — and almost all the grass was burnt brown. Except for this one spot that was absolutely shining green, like it had been washed.
“After we’d wandered around for a bit, I said: ‘You know, cuz, I think Uncle is over there. I’m going back to that place.'”
So, they had their karakia there.
“And after we’d said ‘Amine,’ I said, out loud: Mehemea kei konei koe, Uncle, hena whakaatu mai he tohu. If this is you, Uncle, right here, send us a sign.”
At that precise moment, a flock of swallows soared over the top of the derelict buildings — and swooped down over where Colenso and May were standing.
As he recalls that moment, Colenso laughs: “Yeah. People don’t believe in that sort of stuff. But I don’t care. That’s what happened.”
May and Colenso didn’t say much after that.
“We just looked at one another. And then … we were happy, so we walked out.”
Colenso and May flew to Athens the next day. The following morning, long before dawn, they made their way to Phaleron War Cemetery, where Sonny’s name is one of thousands etched in stone memorials there.
This was where Colenso had decided to do his poroporoaki for Sonny, in the pre-dawn peace and quiet of this hallowed ground, with only him and May there.
They set up a simple tableau before Sonny’s name. Black shawl draped over a chair, on which they placed the only photo they possess of Uncle Sonny, flanked by two photos of his parents — their grandparents — Kapuatere and Reihana. They dressed that little tableau with scarlet poppies.
And, as dawn was breaking on May 23, on the 77th anniversary of the day Sonny died, May said her karanga again and Colenso began his poroporoaki, releasing their Uncle Sonny’s spirit to begin its long journey home.
So, mission complete, then.
Well, not quite. In fact, Colenso is heading back to Crete in January 2019, this time with his wife Rona. It’ll be school holidays, so she’s free to go this time.
Yes — but why go again?
Well, last trip, May and Colenso were in Crete for only four days.
On the evening of the day they’d laid that wreath at Souda Bay, they were invited to a village high in the Cretan mountains, where they were guests of honour at a village feast.
They met an older Greek man there, who told them: “You come to my place … And look at photos. Maybe your uncle is there. These are photos from my father. Māori soldiers everywhere. You come to my place.”
. . .
They just didn’t have time to make that side trip. So that’s the plan this time. When Colenso and Rona get to Chania, Nick Plomistakis will be waiting for them.
With any luck, says Colenso, they’ll be able to scan his photos — and then set up a database for whānau who might want to check whether their father, uncle, or grandfather is among those shots.
Colenso’s duty last time was to bring the spirit of one of those warriors home.
This time, he’ll be aiming to bring memories of dozens more of those old soldiers home.
Lloyd Ashton is a former Mana magazine writer and media officer for the Anglican Church. This is an edited version of a story that was first published in Anglican Taonga.
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