A morning spent with an old soldier

5:07 pm on 25 April 2018

I spent the morning with one of the last three living soldiers of Te Ope Māori, the 28th Māori Battalion.

Epineha Ratapu was a soldier in Te Ope Māori, the 28th Māori Battalion.

Epineha Ratapu was a soldier in Te Ope Māori, the 28th Māori Battalion. Photo: RNZ / Te Aniwa Hurihanganui

Epineha Ratapu served in the battalion's C Company, which comprised of members from the Tairāwhiti/East Coast region.

They were also known as the Cowboys (Ngā Kaupoi), because horses were a regular mode of transport up the coast.

The 96-year-old saw action in the desert campaigns and Italy before joining J Force in Japan during the Second World War, remaining until 1948. He later returned to Masterton and raised four daughters and three whāngai sons.

He and his whānau attended the town's dawn service every year, and this year was no different.

In the morning, before dawn, crowds gathered in their hundreds at Elizabeth Park. Mr Ratapu was too old to march, but he joined the crowd on his wheel-chair and led the contingent to the cenotaph.

The old soldier watched on as some of the names of the 312 Masterton soldiers killed in action were read aloud. He watched as the wreaths were laid, and the last post Bugle call was played.

And after the national flag was raised, and the last prayer was said, he made his way to a much warmer and familiar place, at the local RSA.

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Photo: RNZ / Te Aniwa Hurihanganui

His great-niece accompanied the two of us while we spoke. She crouched down next to his wheel chair and rephrased my questions so he could understand them. On more than one occasion she had to remind him not to make too many jokes, and to take the interview seriously.

In his old age, he was not capable of giving me a history lesson or any in-depth conversation about his life. And while much of his memory was clouded, his sense of humour remained.

I asked him about his friends in the battalion. "Who were they? What were they like?" I asked.

"I don't know if there's any left," he said.

I told him there were two others alive, Watchman Waaka in Hokianga and Robert Gillies in Rotorua.

"Three left? Oh crickey...three too many aye?

"No good," he said.

His great-niece chipped in.

"She'll ask that again and you will be serious," she told him. "Sorry, he likes to have a joke."

"I am serious," Mr Ratapu laughed.

He told me the dawn service was beautiful.

"I enjoyed it. I've been to many of them and this one was lovely. I'd like to see more young people."

And when I asked about his age, he said he was probably 99. His great-niece told him he was in fact 96.

"Ninety-six?" he asked, "Crickey."

His daughter, Christine Ridell, said he was a kind-hearted dad growing up.

"As a girl, he was a cool dad, very cool dad. Very kind. He didn't yell unless mum made him yell.

"Because we were girls, he really spoilt us."

She said he rarely spoke about his time in service, but when he did, he told stories about the people he met.

"We'd ask him occasionally but he never talked about the war, that's why it's really difficult for him to tell lots of stuff now. He only told us bits and pieces.

"[he spoke about] his friends, the colonel [and] how they were to them, and he was a bit anti the British," she laughed.

When he returned home from war, the soldier in him never left, she said.

"He was very organised. When we got up in the morning everything was ready to go, food and clothes had to be ready, and you always had to polish your shoes, every day.

"It was always a regiment and that was good."

To those closest to Epineha Ratapu, he's known as Dad, Pop, or Uncle Pine. To the rest of the world and New Zealanders alike, he's known as a living veteran of one of the most formidable military units there ever was.

The legacy of the 28th Māori Battalion was perhaps best described by Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyburg when he said: No infantry had a more distinguished record, or saw more fighting, or, alas, had such heavy casualties, as the Māori Battalion.

World War II indeed came at a great cost for the battalion. Of the 3600 men who left for war, 660 men lost their lives. Epineha Ratapu was one of the lucky ones.