Tagata Pasifika

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Tongan family remembers Grandfather who served in the Māori Battalion

Pacific Islands soldiers have served in the New Zealand armed forces for many years and continue to do so to this day.

For the families of veterans who’ve passed, this special commemoration is often a source of pride that is remembered each Anzac Day.

For Joseph Meanata Jnr, ANZAC is more than just a recognition.

“I always go and drop off poppies to my Dad, my brother-in-law, my cousin, my uncle… That day is my day, ANZAC Day, mine and all that have served, you know… The other days I can recoup, but that day I honour our dad,” says Meanata Jr.

Tongan soldier Maori Battalion story: Joseph Meanata Jnr holding the picture of his late father. Photo: Tagata Pasifika
Joseph Meanata Jnr holding the picture of his late father, Joseph Vailima Tauaika Meanata Snr. Photo: Tagata Pasifika

Joseph’s late father, Joseph Vailima Tauaika Meanata Snr, was born in Tonga and raised in the islands by his Māori grandfather.  He was working as a steward at the Nuku’alofa Club in Tonga at the outbreak of the Second World War when he was recruited by a New Zealand army officer.

“[My father], he’s a very staunch person. He’s quite disciplined, and he likes everything in order, like how all the military people are; it’s got to be in order or not at all.”

Tongan Soldier Joseph Vailima Tauaika Meanata Snr served in the 28th Māori Battalion. Photo: Supplied
Joseph Vailima Tauaika Meanata Snr. Photo: Supplied

Meanata Snr enlisted with two other men from Tonga, ‘Aleki Leger and Manoel Santos.

Meanata Snr joined B company in the famed 28th Māori Battalion and eventually saw service in Crete, North Africa, Egypt and Italy.

Tongan soldier Meanata Snr with ‘Aleki Leger and Manoel Santos. Photo: Supplied
Meanata Snr with ‘Aleki Leger and Manoel Santos. Photo: Supplied

“He didn’t talk about it; only talk with his friend. Only later when I spoke to his friends that were in the Māori Battalion with him,” Meanata Jnr says.

“Bravo company was the worst hit out of the 28th Māori battalion; they suffered a lot of deaths and wounded, especially Monte Cassino.”

After serving for nearly five years, Meanata Snr was discharged after receiving a wound to his neck. His two Tongan comrades had already earned their discharges on medical grounds, and they remained good friends.

Over the years Meanata never forgot about his Tongan roots.

“The late Queen Sālote when she was alive, we used to take the taumafa (food for royalty) to ‘Atalanga in Epsom to St Andrews Rd. Never got to see the Queen but we just [took] the food there, and that was quite humble, because she is the one that my Dad had to ask permission for him to go to war, and he was the first to be able to come from Tonga,”  Meanata Jnr says.

28th Māori Battalion
Photo: Supplied

Meanata Jnr followed in his father’s footsteps, serving in the New Zealand Army for 10 years.

Today he still takes part in Anzac Day ceremonies, and he’s done that for the last 57 years. Right beside him is his grand-nephew, Moses Henare Puru.

“I am very fortunate to have my Uncle Joe here take us, myself and my sibling, to dawn services growing up. It’s really made us appreciate the sacrifices that they did make, because without them, you know, there wouldn’t be us, and without all their sacrifice, there wouldn’t be the country that we live in as of right now. Just really grateful,” Moses says.

Meanata Snr died in 1971 aged 55. Earlier this year, 50 years after his passing, his family commemorated that milestone.

The Meanata family. Photo: Supplied

This year is also special as it marks the 75th anniversary of the return of the Māori Battalion to New Zealand.

“Lest we forget, they shall not grow old,” Meanata Jnr says.

“We should never forget our fallen soldiers.”

By John Pulu

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