Dick Smith at his desk. PHOTOS/LISA URBANI
Upwards, upwards, be strong!
The 28th Māori Battalion, or the Māori Battalion, as it was more commonly known, was formed in 1939 and served during World War II as an infantry battalion of 2NZ Expeditionary Force.
Dick Smith, community stalwart of Featherston, and an army veteran, is tasked with the honour of recording the history of D Company of 28 Maori Battalion.
Consisting of a headquarters company and four rifle companies, A, B, C, and D Company, it was organised along tribal lines.
‘A’ Company (Ngā Kiri Kapia – the Gumdiggers – because of the kauri forestation of their area) was recruited from the Northland to Auckland.
‘B’ Company ( Ngā Ruku Kapa – Penny Divers – for their propensity to dive from bridges to recover pennies for tourists) covered the region from Rotorua, Bay of Plenty, Coromandel, Taupo and Tokoroa.
‘C’ Company ( Ngā kaupoi – The Cowboys – because they rode bareback) consisted of the East Coast from Gisborne to East Cape.
‘D’ Company (Ngāti Walkabout – self-explanatory) spread out from South Auckland, Waikato, Maniapoto, Taranaki, Wanganui, Hawke’s Bay, Wellington and the South Island, and included some Pacific Islands – The Cook islands, Samoa and Niue – and the Chatham and Stewart Islands.
The histories of the other companies are nearly complete, and although some of the research had been done on D Company, due to a lack of funds it was languishing in someone’s garage when Dick volunteered to try to complete this daunting project.
He is focusing on certain regions, Wellington, Horowhenua, Wairarapa, Manawatu, Tamaiti- nui A Ruha and envisaged that it would involve roughly up to 400 Māori battalion soldiers.
There are only two Maori Battalion survivors in New Zealand – 99-year-old Epineha ‘Pine’ Ratapu of ‘C’ Company, living in Masterton, and Robert Gillies, from ‘B’ Company in Rotorua.
Dick’s research requires him and his small team, to look through all the old records, watch the recorded interviews he acquired, get photographs, and contact family members, and he was hoping to finish by November 2020.
Before the lockdown he had planned to hold four one-day wanangas on marae in the areas he was concentrating on, but those had to be cancelled, and he wants to reschedule at least two of them, in order to connect with the whanau of the veterans – hoping that they can enlighten him, as to what their elders, who served in the Maori Battalion, did, before and after the war, or if they married and had children.
He has their military records, but still wants to piece together their personal stories, and weave them into the historical account of a proud and brave group of men.
Dick’s iwi is the Ngati Manaiapoto, in King Country, and also the Ngati Ranginui in Tauranga-Moana.
He was born in Walton in Waikato and his dad was a cableway driver, so the family moved about as his father worked on various dam projects such as Karapiro, Atiamuri, Maraitai, Whakamaru and Ohakuri.
Leaving school at 15, Dick worked in a mill in Tokoroa and forestry in Kaiangaroa, where he learned to drive all manner of heavy machinery, also spending two years as a deer culler.
In 1960, he joined the army in the territorial force, and later the regular force, the start of a long, distinguished career which saw him spend time in four different corps as an engineer, gunner, infantryman, and SAS.
Marrying in 1963, he then spent some years overseas with his growing family, consisting at first of two daughters.
From 1965 to 1967, his first tour of duty was in Malaya, specifically Borneo and Malaysia during what was known as the ‘Confrontation’.
This was a period when New Zealand helped Malaysia to fight Indonesia’s attempt to wrest control of the North Borneo territories.
New Zealand soldiers mounted covert cross-border raids into Indonesia, but hostilities ceased by August 1966 when representatives of Indonesia and Malaysia signed a peace treaty in Bangkok.
He was in Vietnam during the 1968 conflict – about which he wryly commented that, “the United States made too many mistakes, they still don’t learn from history”.
He also spent time in Singapore and added a son and another daughter to his family, finally ending his 27-year career as a Warrant Officer Class 1, [Regimental Sergeant Major], in 1987.
The Department of Māori Affairs set up the Māori Access Scheme in 1987, a government programme aimed at education and instruction for the 37 Access Iwi Trusts that received money to set up training schemes on the maraes, in an effort to give young Māori skills, and help them find employment.
Given his military background, Dick was appointed as a funding adviser, and later senior executive officer managing a budget of $66 million.
It was his job to allocate funds, monitor the programmes and check on the outcomes of the training provided.
He spent 20 years in this role until a new scheme was introduced called Whanau Ora, for which he also travelled around Wairarapa and north to Dannevirke, assessing applications for funding.
In between, Dick took two or three years to be involved in the founding and development of the Featherston Community Centre, as part of an initiative called ‘Wake Up Featherston’ in the early 1990s.
Writing the centre’s constitution, he was also instrumental in helping them become an incorporated society and still advises and assists there today.
Dick retired in 2012 at the age of 70, settling down in Featherston where he lives with his wife, Kiri, raising his 13-year-old great-grandson, Kingston.
His precious free time is now taken up with his research project, to ensure that the stories, memorabilia, and histories are recorded for posterity.