Thousands of WWII medals never claimed by veterans, research shows

8:56 pm on 7 April 2023

First published on Stuff

A set of World War II medals, original issue with original ribbons, claimed by the recipient but never worn.

A set of World War II medals, original issue with original ribbons, claimed by the recipient but never worn. Photo: Supplied / Stuff

Families are encouraged to check whether medals were issued for relatives who served in World War II after new research revealed many were never claimed.

New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) historian Matthew Buck found there was a low rate of uptake of medals by Army and Air Force veterans from across the New Zealand armed forces after distribution began in 1950.

"Given the importance placed on medals today, it's hard to fathom that only around a quarter of New Zealand Army and Royal New Zealand Air Force veterans claimed their medals by 1960," Buck said.

"After that, the take-up appears to have been nothing more than a dribble - less than a third of a percent annually."

There were only two exceptions to this pattern.

The uptake was higher for Royal New Zealand Navy veterans, who received a special "Naval Prize Money" payment of £5 if they applied for their medals.

While the families of the nearly 12,000 New Zealanders who died in the war received their medals automatically in the mail.

"We don't know exactly how many army and air force medals remain unissued because there were no general surveys of the rate of uptake after 1960," Buck said.

"If this rate was similar to that of the 28 (Maori) Battalion, however, we estimate around 22,000 New Zealanders who served overseas during the war may never have been issued their medals."

US soldiers and members of the public watch paratroopers taking part in a parachute drop over Carentan, Normandy, north-western France, on 5 June 2019, as part of D-Day commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of the World War II Allied landings in Normandy.

Photo: AFP

Defence Historian John Crawford said the response, or lack thereof, should not be seen as surprising.

"For many of these men there had been no glamour in what they had been through, with horrific and brutal memories and lost friends," he said.

"Moreover, everyone had served. They knew what their neighbours and friends had done in the war and they didn't need medals to know that."

By comparison, there was an almost 100 percent uptake of war service gratuity payments, which in some cases could amount to the money needed for a house deposit.

Crawford said three generations later, perceptions around the medals had changed and it was important they were claimed.

"They are no longer a statement of service to their peers, but rather a tangible connection to a group of men and women who have all but passed.

"The medals help keep alive their memory, encourage families to learn more, share their stories and wear the medals with pride."

Medal applications can be found here.

* This story originally appeared on Stuff

**This article was updated on 10 April. An earlier version of this story said the vast majority of WWII medals were never claimed. It’s estimated about 15 percent of these medals were not claimed. 

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