10 Apr 2017

Govt to bring home bodies of dead soldiers

9:48 pm on 10 April 2017

In an about-turn, the government has promised to bring home the bodies of soldiers who died overseas and were buried in Southeast Asia.

Paul Thomas' brother Adrian Raymond Thomas, who was killed in action in 1956 while serving in the NZSAS in Malaya.

Adrian Raymond Thomas, who was killed in action in 1956 while serving in the NZSAS in Malaya, is one of those whom their families want brought home. Photo: Supplied

The offer applies to 36 servicemen and their dependants buried in Singapore and Malaysia between 1955 and 1971.

The change of heart ends a decades-long battle by their families to have their loved ones returned and buried in New Zealand.

Veterans' Affairs Minister David Bennett said the repatriation policy had been "inconsistent".

"We're sorry for any families that have been through this process and we're righting a wrong now and making it possible for them to have their loved ones back home."

The government had set down a year for discussion with the families before the repatriation began, Mr Bennett said.

It estimated each repatriation would cost up to $200,000 and had set aside an additional $750,000 for the Defence Force to set up a group to oversee the process.

But Paul Thomas, the co-founder of a group, Families of the Forgotten Fallen, said he was "more angry than happy" at the outcome because it had taken so long.

Mr Thomas' brother, Adrian, was buried in Kuala Lumpur after being killed while fighting with his NZSAS unit in Malaya in 1956.

"It's taken up half of my life... it's all we've waited 60 years for - just for one person to say yes," he said.

And he was upset the government did not speak to the families first before making the public announcement.

"It's deplorable that such an important decision is just flicked out over the media and we weren't given the opportunity to be part of that."

The government said it did not inform family members first due to the difficulty of contacting them all.

'It's going to be great to have that closure'

Angela Hayden's father, Hoani Hapeta, died in Thailand in 1969 and was buried in Malaysia.

She said her whānau had been waiting for this day for a long time.

"My mother never grieved my father - and unfortunately she has dementia now - so for us, it's going to be just great for her to be able to have that closure."

Mrs Hayden said her father's return would create the "opportunity for us to come together as a family and grieve".

"My brothers never got over the shock of him dying and to not have his body brought back to New Zealand at the time has been something they've been angry about the rest of their lives."

She wanted her father returned as soon as possible, she said.

"My mother's really frail now. And I don't know how much time she has left. It would be really nice for her to be buried with Dad."

Patricia Tie's husband, Stuart, was killed in 1956 and buried in Malaysia.

She said it was a long time ago now - "a long time to be a widow with four little kids" - and she would support her husband finally coming home.

"Obviously, when my time comes - because I'm 92 now - I would like to share some sort of resting place with my husband in New Zealand."

If families decided against repatriation, the graves would continue to be cared for overseas under existing arrangements.

The Defence Force would also look into extending the offer to apply to those buried in American Samoa, Australia, Fiji, Korea and the United Kingdom over the same period.

New Zealand's policy between 1899 and 1955 was to bury all service personnel close to where they died overseas - with no exceptions.

In early 1955, the policy changed to allow families to pay themselves for their relatives to be brought home for burial.

Since 1971, the government has offered to repatriate all service personnel and their dependants who have died while serving overseas.

Mr Bennett said the government wanted to restore fairness for affected families.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs