Bunty Preece, the last surviving officer of the Maori Battalion, was buried on Sunday on Chatham Island. Thomas Coughlan was there for a day of remembrance that bought together Italy and New Zealand.
The windswept urupa at Owenga on the
West East Coast of Rekohu or Chatham Island is about as far away from the battlefields of Italy as its possible to imagine.
Resting upon a low promontory of rock jutting out into the wild Pacific Ocean and surrounded by tall harakeke, the urupa is in every way the antipode of the dry war-ravaged Italy. But the two distant lands were brought together on Sunday when Alfred “Bunty” Preece, the last surviving officer of the Maori Battalion was laid to rest.
Over 150 of the Chathams’ six hundred residents turned out to farewell Preece. Ron Mark, Minister of Defence and an honour guard from the army, performed the first tangi with military honours ever to be held on the Chatham Islands. The day was long — ironically.
Alfred Preece junior, Preece Snr.’s eldest son, told assembled media that the one lesson he would take from his father was the virtue of punctuality and the theme of Preece’s military timekeeping was repeated throughout the tangi.
But as the day wore on, one korero would spark another, as islander after islander took to the microphone to pay their own tribute to “Bunty”. The day ran so late, the Defence Force contingent nearly missed its flight home.
As guests arrived, Preece’s coffin, draped in the New Zealand flag weighed down by medals, was brought out of his home and placed before an honour guard of his large whanau. A Defence Force chaplain opened proceedings, there were songs and karakia, before a long series of korero, as islanders young and old paid their respects.
There’s a large amount of local shorthand on communities at tight knit as the Chathams. Well-known guests from the mainland, Mark and fellow MPs Willie Jackson and Rino Tirikatene all introduced themselves, but islanders generally didn’t — they were well-known enough on the Chatham's anyway.
Each speaker took to the microphone and launched into their reminiscences, usually in te reo, sometimes in English, and once in Italian. Each remembered their own “Bunty,” but nearly every speaker drew out Preece’s commitment to manaakitanga — the spirit of welcoming and hospitality. He would prepare meals for visits days in advance, and would never be caught short of food.
Guests nodded, and laughed at memories of meals gone by. Preece Jnr joked that his father’s “dreadful” diet of fatty salted meats had surprised everyone by yielding such long life.
Tirikatene, who had spent many evenings feasting with Preece, called him “the original Masterchef” and praised his stew. When another speaker mentioned the generous portions offered at the Preece household Tirikatene laughed heartily and rubbed his belly in agreement. This prompted other guests to discuss favourite Preece recipes in their korero. Another speaker remembered his fondness for limpets, remarking that it was impossible not to think of Bunty when he tasted limpet.
There was, of course, talk of the war. Preece never really talked about it, his son said. Instead, like many children of his generation, he learnt about the battalion in snatches of overhead conversations in the wool shed — shearers' talk. Preece did eventually talk, setting down his life in memoir, Bunty Price: Soldier of the 28th Maori Battalion. It was cowritten with journalist, Tom O’Connor. There, he set out the pain and pride of his war years.
Preece was deployed to Egypt and Italy. At the end of the war, he was sent to Japan as part of J-Force, New Zealand’s contribution to the occupation of Japan. On the release of his book, he recalled with pride, comments by General Freyberg, the commander of New Zealand’s forces:
"No infantry had a more distinguished record, or saw more fighting, or, alas, had such heavy casualties . . ."
Mark took time to remember the history and sacrifice of the Maori battalion.
“The Chatham Islands are about as far away from the horrors of Europe as you could imagine, but like so many Bunty, you answered the call and volunteered,” he said.
Unlike the rest of New Zealand’s armed forces, the Maori Battalion was made up entirely of volunteers. Sir Apirana Ngata and other rangatira urged young Maori to enlist as sacrifice was ‘the price of citizenship’. There was even talk of naming the Battalion the Treaty of Waitangi battalion as a subtle reminder to Pakeha about their own obligations.
But from the outset, the abiding impetus behind the Battalion was of shared sacrifice and brotherhood, even with colonist Pakeha.
“We are of one house, and if our Pakeha brothers fall, we fall with them,” said Ngata. “How can we ever hold up our heads, when the struggle is over, to answer the question, ‘Where were you when New Zealand was at war?”
In Egypt, Preece became a member of D company, which became affectionately known as Ngati Walkabout, for its inclusion of Iwi from around the country, as well as the Pacific. It was in Italy that Preece saw combat. He was wounded at Monte Cassino, but managed to heal and was sent back to the front for further combat. He was wounded twice more before the war ended.
Preece said later that Italy was where he truly understood what it was to be afraid.
But he acquitted himself well, earning a mention in dispatches.
“People don’t get that for turning up,” said Mark.
An Italian theme ran through the day. The Island’s only Italian inhabitant took to the microphone to thank Preece for his legacy to her country.
“His story is my country’s story,” she said.
Elizabeth Cunningham, who had recently visited Italy to see the graves of the fallen, laid her hand on Preece’s coffin and launched into a verse of the Italian song Buona Notte mi Amore, a favourite of the Maori Battalion.
I was told later that Italians enjoyed teaching Maori local songs because the long vowels and rolling ‘r’s of te reo are perfect for Italian. There are few sights that sum up the absurd consequences of global war quite as perfectly as the sound of Maori accented Italian ringing out on the Chatham Island breeze.
After the War, Preece returned to the Chatham Islands and started a family. He was a key figure in local politics and an advocate for the Chathams, particularly in the face of ministers who were sometimes less than willing to front up with support for infrastructure and investment on the island.
But the day had wider significance too, signifying the passing of the Maori Battalion, their sacrifice, and what their legacy means for Maori living in contemporary New Zealand.
An emotional Mark, pausing to control himself, shared a personal insight.
“As a Maori child growing up around Pakeha foster families, I didn’t have much contact with my whanaunga, but Uncle Lou was someone who spent time with me. In one of those quiet moments we would sit and talk. He never spoke of the war, but one day he said to me on the porch, ‘you know Ronnie, if you had seen what I have seen the soldiers of the 28th Maori Battalion do, you would forever be proud you are a Maori, never forget that”.
(Corrected second paragraph to East from West Coast)