Officially, Kepa Kepa of Mercer is almost 90 years old, but the Maori Battalion veteran could be much older. When he was born, there were no birth certificates for Maori. Kepa speaks mainly in Maori and his memories of the war years are sketchy, but several key memories tell a vivid story of ferocious close quarters fighting and comradeship, of valour and loss, of the dedication and initiative that has made the Maori Battalion legendary. Of his group of mates photographed together at the beginning of their war, Kepa is now the last man standing.
Kepa joined B Company of the 28th Maori Battalion when he was barely 18, but was quite possibly much younger. Maori did not come under the National Service Act, and like those who joined the Maori Battalion, Kepa was a volunteer and considered it an honour to serve. Until then this farmboy’s military training had been in the Home Guard at Whakatane. The four companies of the 28th Battalion were divided according to area and tribal afﬁliations – Kepa is Tuhoe, Kepa left his partner and two young daughters and embarked in 1940 for training in England. He and his surviving brothers in arms would not see Aotearoa again until 1946. “I looked after our boys. Major Tupuna told me I was a stretcher bearer, so I rushed in when someone fell and put the bandages on” says Kepa. “It was hard, because I knew these boys. One fella, his arm was off, there was nothing left. I gave him a little prayer in Maori. I said “I can’t help you, but God will look after you.’ Every night my mates and I would say prayers in Maori before we went to sleep. Another mate, he put on a German helmet for fun. Someone thought he was the enemy and he got shot. Eleven of them got hit in one place at Monte Cassino. That place was all blown up”.
The Maori Battalion went into action for the ﬁ rst time in Greece on April 15, 1941. History tells of Kepa’s Company covering gaps between A Company and the left ﬂ ank of 22 Battalion in the desperate attempt to hold back the advancing Germans in the Olympus Pass. The besieged allies were forced to withdraw in pitch dark, heavy rain and strong wind, finding their way along precipitous tracks. Stretcher cases pleaded to be left behind so the others could escape. In reply, the stretchers were dropped and the wounded carried. As the soldiers were trying to find a safe way along the cliffs, Captain Royal saw a tuatara with its head pointing down a seemingly impassable cliff. It was impossible for a tuatara to be found in Greece, but the British had seen angels at Mons and Royal took it as a sign from the Maori god of war. He led the battalion safely down the cliff and on a march uninterrupted by attack. B Company dug in at Thermopylae, naming it ‘Rotorua’ after a hasty dip in a thermal creek. With the weight of the German army bearing down on them and the capitulation of the Greek army in the north, the battalion fought its way towards Athens and the fishing village of Porto Rafti for evacuation by the British Navy – to the brief and bitter defence of Crete.
The boys of the Maori Battalion did not like the constant retreating. Cold, very tired and very hungry, two miles west of Suda Bay, they dropped into whatever shelter they could find. They thought they were behind the British brigade. In fact, there were no troops between them and the enemy. Joined by a few Aussies from 2/7 Australian Battalion and some stray Greek soldiers, and led by Captain Royal brandishing a bamboo walking pole like a taiaha in one hand and a revolver in the other, A B and C Companies jostled for a starting position to charge the enemy. Their unexpected advance drove the Germans to ground and fierce hand to hand fighting followed. Section after section fell and the surviving Germans ﬂ ed. At one point, command feared the Maori would go too far and be cut off, and ordered them back.
Their ferocity in advances and close quarter combat was a terror to any facing enemy. In a heroic stand at Xamoudhokhori in Greece, heavy ﬁ re, grenades and tracer preceded a full scale German attack. Suddenly, there were blood curdling yells from the Maori who stood up together – there were no orders – and charged forward. The Germans shrieked and bolted down the hill, through vines and over stone walls – running like terrified rabbits. Even after much of their equipment was lost in battle and so many killed, wounded or missing in action, the only thing still plentiful in the Maori Battalion was always their fighting spirit.
Companies of the Maori Battalion were also highly skilled at acquiring weapons and equipment. It was not unusual for soldiers to the battalion unique was the sheer scale of their acquisitions and the reluctance of ‘higher authorities’ to take them away. After one bad experience in handing their new toys over for ‘inventory’, Maori never again yielded up their gear.
The Maori Battalion did not like fighting on an empty stomach – Maori proverb; “A full belly makes a brave heart”. Kepa has vivd memories of finding kai in foreign lands. “We pinched German’s food. They had tins of horsemeat. In Greece we saw old men and women pulling out weeds in their crops and putting them in bags. We went over to see what it was – it was puha! We were very happy. On the coast in Greece, we were on retreat and spotted some kina in local fish shops. They were smaller than at home, but they were good! Pears grew wild in Greece too, we would pick them and cram them in our mouths. Ka Pai!”
To hungry, war weary soldiers, the big juicy oranges of Crete were also a welcome respite. In Italy, they weren’t the only ones hungry. Kepa gave a portion of his meals to the Italian girlfriend of one of his mates.
The Maori Battalion went on to Libya, Syria, and Egypt, accompanying the New Zealand Division and Eighth Army on the long and bloody desert campaign to run Rommel’s Afrika Korps out of North Africa, turning the tide at the Batt le of El Alamein. By this time, the Maori fighting reputation was a legend. Rommel described the Maori Battalion as “The greatest fighting force I’ve ever seen” To Monte Cassino in Italy, where desperate fighting over four costly battles saw 300 of the men of the 28th killed. Kepa returned home to set up a contracting business with his sergeant, Hare Reniti, Kepa and his partner, Elsie Pirihata had a son, then went on to bring up 13 foster children. Ironically, going to war was Kepa’s only overseas trip. Without a birth certificate, he could never get a passport. Of 3,500 men who joined the Maori Battalion, 655 died, 1,949 were wounded or taken prisoner. Lt-Gen Lord Freyberg said; “I believe that when this history is publicised, it will be recognised more widely that no infantry battalion had a more distinguished record, or saw more fighting, or alas, had such heavy casualties as the Maori Battalion.”
UPDATE: It is with regret that we report Mr Kepa Kepa, the last survivor of the Tuhoe 28th Maori Battalion soldiers, passed away on the 11th November, 2012. Mr Kepa was 95 years old at the time of his passing. We at elocal are honoured to have had the opportunity to have met Mr Kepa and to have been the recorders of his story for posterity.