Māori Battalion war medals to be claimed after 75 years

2:22 pm on 6 September 2020

The never-received war medals of soldiers in the Māori Battalion's C Company are about to be claimed for the first time in 75 years.

The 28th Maori Battalion at a transit camp in Egypt on the morning after their evacuation from Crete, June 1941.

The 28th Maori Battalion at a transit camp in Egypt on the morning after their evacuation from Crete, June 1941. Photo: DIA / Alexander Turnbull Library

Lawyer David Stone has found the names of 134 soldiers from the company who never received their medals, and has put a call out on social media, asking their descendants to come forward and claim them.

"We put the post out there because I didn't really know where to start, and the response has been really overwhelming. People are coming forward saying, 'that's my dad, that's my uncle, or that's my grandfather', or they're tagging their relations," he said.

"I met a daughter of one of those soldiers and she said her dad died in 1991 and she had no idea that he had medals. I've had fully grown men burst into tears when I've stood face to face to them and said, 'hey, did you know we're doing this kaupapa and your dad hasn't received his medals?' They just couldn't believe it."

Stone's journey to recovering the names began a year and a half ago, during the Waitangi Tribunal's Military Veterans Kaupapa Inquiry. He was there to present evidence about his great uncle, Private Dooley Swann from Manutuke, who also never received his war medal.

"I was sitting with my dad one day and I said to him, our uncle could not have been the only soldier from the whole East Coast who never got his medals," he said.

"So I wrote in to the medals department and requested the files from Muriwai and Manutuke, which is where he was from, and sure enough he wasn't."

Stone eventually found two soldiers from Manutuke and two soldiers from Muriwai who never received their medals.

He decided to search even further, and requested the files for soldiers across all four Māori Battalion Companies.

He and his team looked through 103 files before realising they wouldn't be able to look through all 3600 files on their own.

"I wrote a memorandum to the chief judge of the Waitangi Tribunal to let him know I'd looked through 103 files and found 17 soldiers who had not received their medals, but that I couldn't look at every file. I proposed that he ask the Crown to do the research," he said.

"The Crown eventually came back saying that the Māori Battalion have a huge legacy, and all that sort of stuff, but they ended off declining the request. I was flabbergasted, and massively disappointed about that."

Private Dooley Swann.

Private Dooley Swann. Photo: Supplied

But Stone didn't give up. Instead, he decided to focus on soldiers who served in the battalion's C Company.

"We went through every file, from village to village, throughout the whole of the East Coast. We literally just finished two weeks ago," he said.

"The medals department trible checked our names, and we now have 134."

Stone said there were a range of reasons soldiers never received medals.

"One of the reasons that I got from one of the children of these soldiers is that it was a tikanga issue. Soldiers felt as though the medals needed to be presented to them face to face, kanohi ki te kanohi, but the policy of the time was that you needed to write in to request your medals, and they would be sent out to you in the post.

"The attitude for a lot of the soldiers was that there was no mana in receiving a medal in the mail... those men felt so staunchly about that principle that they took it to their graves. That's one of the reasons."

Stone will be at the C Company Memorial House in Gisborne from Wednesday 9 September to Friday 11 September with forms for descendants to fill out if they wish to claim a medal.

He is working with the New Zealand Defence Force to organise a formal ceremony where the medals will be returned.