TITLE: Te Auraki -The Return
SUBTITLE: Families Reunited at Last
By Rebecca Glover
INTRO: It's been a long process, but Polly King's husband Isaac is finally coming home.
BODY TEXT: Sergeant Isaac King was just short of his 30th birthday when he died in Malaysia in 1964. One of seven children, from a family which moved around North Island farms chasing work during the Depression, he became a draughtsman with the Maori Affairs department before joining the army. During tours of duty in Japan and Korea he took an interest in the local cultures and language, gaining a brown belt in martial arts in Korea and upgrading to a black belt during his time in Malaysia.
New Zealand troops were part of the Commonwealth forces supporting the British during what was dubbed the 'Malayan Emergency', which began in 1948 when the Malayan Communist Party sought to overthrow the British colonial administration of Malaya. The conflict had its roots in post-war economic and political dislocation in Malaya, in particular the disaffection of the Chinese community.
Although the emergency was declared over in 1960, for the next four years Commonwealth troops remained involved in counter-insurgency operations. As part of this, New Zealand infantrymen were periodically deployed in the border security area.
Some 4000 New Zealanders served in Malaysia between 1948 and 1966. Only a handful of deaths occurred, but their comrades and families had to leave them behind when the troops departed. However, they were far from forgotten.
For many relatives, the loss of their loved ones was made harder by New Zealand government policy, which was to leave in place the remains of those already interred overseas. Although from 1955 New Zealand families could, at their own expense, bring home the bodies of service personnel who died overseas, this proved too costly for many families.
Enter Paul Thomas, whose brother Adrian was killed in action in 1956 and buried in Cheras Road Christian Cemetery in Kuala Lumpur. Paul had been trying to have Adrian's remains repatriated for decades, but it wasn't until 2007 that he found a sympathetic ear in government. With support from other relatives of service personnel and a petition to parliament the policy was reversed. Te Auraki (The Return) swung into action in March 2018, and later this month the remains of 27 service personnel and one child from Malaysia and one service person from Singapore will arrive in New Zealand, under the auspices of the New Zealand Defence Force.
It's an event Polly King has been eagerly awaiting. Originally from Onewhero, she accompanied Isaac to Malaya, as it was then known, setting sail with the New Zealand contingent and their wives in the SS Captain Cook in 1959. It was a thirsty voyage.
“It was very hot, and by the time we got to Fremantle they'd already run out of beer!”
For Polly, pregnant with their first child, the trip by sea followed by long train journeys to Taiping and Ipo was very hard. On arrival at the army base things were not much better.
“The heat and humidity were difficult to deal with. We had to take salt tablets. We were very homesick for the first few weeks. Everything was so different - the people, the food; we had to be careful with vegetables as they were grown using human poo for fertiliser. A lot of the food was sent in from Australia, frozen, and we had Carnation milk from the UK.”
Keeping hydrated was a constant concern. Once Polly's baby was born she was advised to drink three cans of beer a day to replenish her fluids while breast feeding.
“It was a good life once I got used to it. We were well looked after by the forces. I had an amah (maid) and a gardener, we had a car and went to the seaside to picnic and swim. There was plenty of sport and I learned to play golf. Isaac was working as a clerk and used to come home for a siesta at lunchtime.”
Sadly their lifestyle was shattered one day when Isaac collapsed and died of a heart attack while on a training run. Only 24, with two small children and three weeks away from giving birth to her third, Polly's world was turned upside down. Returning to New Zealand wasn't made any easier when she discovered the children were effectively stateless as their births hadn't been registered in Malaya.
With help from relatives, the family settled in Auckland. Polly was allocated a state house in Remuera, which she eventually bought. The children were educated at Dilworth and Polly became a top sportwoman, representing Auckland in five sports. She has done plenty of travelling – her favourite place is the Chatham Islands – and loves fishing.
“Life's been good for me,” she says, but she's never given up the dream of bringing back the husband so suddenly snatched from her. So when Paul Thomas contacted her and offered her the opportunity of doing just that, she leapt at it.
Although all the deceased military personnel were originally buried with the appropriate military protocol, the repatriation will allow familes to have their own personal input into their re-interment. It means an enormous amount to Polly to lay Isaac to rest in the way she wants, and she knows exactly how she wants to go about it. She's planned his New Zealand funeral meticulously, with the help of Tuakau funeral director Mark Graham.
Isaac will share a grave with his brother Charlie in Papakura after Polly gained permission from Auckland Council and from Charlie's widow and the King family.
“Isaac and Charlie were very close, so although it's the custom for koiwi (the bones of the deceased) to be returned to their birthplace, it makes more sense for the two of them to be together in Auckland rather than where the family came from in Kaeo.”
Draped in a realistic looking 'korowai' (“from Spotlight,” grins Polly) Isaac's coffin will come to Polly's Pukekohe home before travelling to the marae. His regimental insignia and some stones will have pride of place on top.
“The stones are a Greek custom. They don't wilt like flowers.”
Polly and Isaac's children, McGuinness, Wayne and Isa, are coming from their homes in Canada and Australia, and for them the return of their father will be particularly poignant.
“The boys can barely remember him as they were so young when he died, and of course Isa never met her father. It will be a very special way for them all to connect with him.”
It will certainly be an intensely emotional time for the family, with the ceremony taking place very close to the 54th anniversary of Isaac's death on August 18, 1964.
“Am I going to laugh? Am I going to cry?” wonders Polly.
“I just know it's a dream come true to get him back.”
#58: The insignia and 'korowai' for Isaac's coffin
#59: The King family: from left, Polly, McGuinness, Wayne, Isaac with Isa
#70: Polly King