The following article was originally published in the October 1999 Edition of Nati Link.
On his return from the recent tour of Italy with the C Company veterans group Returned Serviceman Nolan Raihania took time to speak with Nati Link about the experience.
Paying Respects to Fallen Comrades
Nolan says the purpose of the trip was to revisit the World War ll battle grounds in Italy and to pay their respects to their fallen comrades lying in Italian cemeteries. For the remaining C Company veterans this was possibly their last opportunity to undertake a trip like this. He says there had been a desire to have the remains of the soldiers brought home for reburial.
However, once the group discovered the obvious pride and appreciation shown by the Italian people in tending the war graves, they realised that it would be 'sacrilege' to contemplate moving the soldiers. "The cemeteries were beautifully kept - the headstones, lawns and flower beds" says Nolan, "It would break the Italians' hearts to move our boys."
There were some 158 tour members, 18 of whom were C Company veterans. Family of both the veterans and the dead joined the tour. The group visited five or six principle cemeteries. "We were just like one big happy family. When we got to the different urupa we were one solid unit. After that everyone would go to visit their own relatives."
When asked what the response of the Italians was, Nolan said "They were overjoyed. The older generation still remember the Maori Battalion.There were great numbers present and they were very respectful of what we were doing."
At each visit to a cemetery the group would be accompanied by the mayor of that particular place. "At Faenza we had lost a lot of our troops. The Italians took us to the place where Sam Paniora was killed. Sam was the uncle of the Soutar boys who were with us on tour and we were taken to the actual house where he was killed. That was very touching. Very sad"
Apart from being able to visit the graves of comrades, one of the high lights for Nolan was a visit to a winery that had been New Zealand Army Headquarters during the war. "Of course our top Battalion officers and C Company commanders had gone there to discuss strategy for the military attacks with General Fryberg and other officers.
Nolan says the Italians remembered them well. They knew the names of Peta Awatere, Bully Jackson and others because the Battalion officers had signed their names in a book at the winery which the Italians still kept. They asked the veterans to sign their names on this visit. "They looked after us well with good food and wine. They brought out special wines for us that they had kept for years."
At one visit the Italians showed film from the time of the war. In one snippet of film Nolan recognised a 17 year old boy with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. "Everyone gave a cheer when they realised that it was me.” In the evenings the tour party would sometimes go to restaurants ("different from going to the pub!").
"We went to a special restaurant once where the entertainment was mostly opera songs. Of course once the entertainment was finished our group clamoured for their own opera singer to get up and sing. Naturally I sang the popular wartime song 'Mama' which was composed in Italy. The Italians really enjoyed it. They didn't think we could sing Italian songs."
According to Nolan the veterans still speak some Italian, "enough to get by." ''At every place there was a demand for 'Mama', even from our own group. In Rome some partisan leaders were present. They joined in and really enjoyed it. The old fellows had tears coming down their eyes."
Nolan said the group was fortunate to have amongst their number a fine kapa haka party led by Rawiri Matahiki. He recalls that during the war Colonel Peta Awatere had made it compulsory for Ngati Porou soldiers to attend regular haka practice. When the soldiers pulled back from the front line at one point they put on a concert for the local people.
The venue was an auditorium, "an opera theatre complete with corporate boxes" says Nolan. "This time, at a mayoral reception, our tour party's kapa haka group was able to perform at the very same theatre. The haka was performed exceptionally and the group commented that they could feel the spirit of their kaumatuas."
Audience With Pope
Another highlight for Nolan was being able to have an audience with the Pope at St. Peters in the Vatican City, Rome. While it was not a private audience their group was escorted right up towards the front of a crowd numbering thousands. For safety reasons, however, they were not able to present their taonga- a picture of Mt. Hikurangi - in person to the Pope. At each mayoral reception different taonga were presented to the hosts and others were received in return.
Nolan is full of praise for the young people who went on the tour. "We had a wheelchair brigade there and our young people were just terrific in looking after our old veterans". Nolan says the trip was just long enough. Everyone was getting tired. "If we missed anything it was our own kai, a good boil up. Meals in Italy are pasta presented in different forms.When we got to Rome on our way home some of the women went out and bought frypans, steak and eggs and we had a good cook up."
During the whole time the group was away a film unit recorded the events of the trip. "This whole thing culminates in the kawemate we are having on the 19th November at Uepohatu.", says Nolan. The film crew will be there again to complete filming for a documentary to be made of the tour.
In Nolan's opinion it was a wonderful trip. "The kaupapa we went with was completed to our satisfaction. We feel much happier that our whanau and comrades have now been laid to rest. It would be a shame to bring them home, they are a reminder of our effort for peace, especially for the younger ones who may want to go over to Italy. Maybe if there is a next time we may be able to travel further up the country."