Māori in the fighting forces
We’ll fight right to the end. For God! For King! And for Country! Ake, ake, kia kaha e!1
Māori made a sustained and valuable contribution to the armed forces during the Second World War. When war was declared many volunteered immediately for the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF), and some left New Zealand with the 1st Echelon in January 1940.
There would be men of Māori descent in all of the infantry battalions throughout the war, while numerous Māori volunteers were spread throughout the other services. They were in air crew serving with Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) in both Europe and the Far East. Sergeant Bert Wipiti shared the distinction of shooting down the first Japanese bomber over Singapore in 1941. Flying Officer Porokoru (John) Pohe was the first Māori pilot to arrive in England after passing through the Empire Air Training Scheme. He flew bombers over Germany until shot down. Pohe was executed on recapture after escaping with 76 other prisoners in the ‘Great Escape’ from the prisoner-of-war camp Stalag Luft III.
A handful of Māori women went abroad with the New Zealand Army Nursing Service or as voluntary aids (VAs) with the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), while many younger men served in the Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) and Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF). The major contribution to the war was, however, the all-Māori infantry unit, the 28th (Māori) Battalion.
Defending the home front
In addition to the 28th (Māori) Battalion many Māori also served at home in territorial units and in the Home Guard. In May 1941 a move began to recruit Māori into the Territorials, with some of the northern regiments forming Māori sub-units. With the threat of a Japanese invasion in January 1942, all Māori registered for overseas service or for the Territorials were called up and posted to units stationed near their homes. Māori also served in considerable numbers in the Home Guard. Ngāti Porou formed a mounted Home Guard regiment to patrol the East Coast.
The Māori war effort at home
Māori were productive on the home front, involving themselves in the huge fundraising and production drive that New Zealanders undertook during the 1940s. They were active in the munitions factories in the cities – the start of the Māori urban migration from rural areas. In June 1942 the government established the Māori War Effort Organisation responsible to Paraire Paikea, the minister in charge of the Māori war effort. The country was divided into 21 administrative zones. and 315 tribal committees were formed to assist with recruiting and primary production, and cooperate in directing Māori manpower.
Māori women’s war effort
For some Māori women the war opened up opportunities to enter war-related industries, and some moved to the cities in the process. Others supported the war effort through voluntary work and fundraising, along with baking and knitting for the troops. A particularly important job was preparing and sending traditional foods to the Māori Battalion. Pipi and pūpū (shellfish), karengo (edible seaweed), tuna (eel), mangō (shark), kōura (crayfish tails), kūmara (sweet potatoes) and karaka berries were dehydrated. Other foods, including tītī (muttonbirds), were tinned or preserved in barrels for shipping to the front.
The anti-British sentiment in some Māori communities remained strong in 1939 although it was masked by the swift response by many tribes to the declaration of war. Te Puea Hērangi reaffirmed the unwavering opposition of Waikato and the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement) to taking part in the war overseas while the government ignored their land grievances. They would instead expend their efforts raising funds, growing food, caring for the sick and wounded and training to guard the country from invasion.
Other leaders, such as politician Sir Apirana Ngata, believed that if Māori wanted to have a say in shaping the future of the nation after the war, they needed to participate fully during it. He stated, ‘We are of one house, and if our Pakeha brothers fall, we fall with them. How can we ever hold up our heads, when the struggle is over, to the question, “Where were you when New Zealand was at war?”’ 2