Sonny was born in Rotorua on the 28th of May 1923. He was educated in Auckland.
“My parents split up before I was born. My father left the district. My mother died when I was about 18 months old, and I was brought up by my grandparents, adopted legally by them. He (grandfather) was one of the gardeners of the then Auckland City Council. I did part of my secondary education in Auckland, then he retired, and we came back here to Rotorua to live.”
He remembers growing up in the shadow of the First World War, during the time when military matters were far more top-of-mind and part of everyday life.
“We knew all about it of course. From ANZAC Day. I understand my father was a returned man from WWI. I had uncles in the First World War. When you think about it, it was only 20 years after the first one finished that the second one started. The First World War was very much on our minds. I remember at school; we made paper mache (models) of the WWI trenches.”
“English is the second language to us. In those days, at home, we spoke Maori. At school, Maori was forbidden in the school-ground. Culturally and spiritually, our Maori side of things came first… We were quite aware of the lead up to the war. With Munich (Crisis) and all it was quite obvious, there was going to be a war. And we had school cadets.”
“The Maori, he’s a martial (military) type of person. They’ve been fighting wars all their lives (history) – there were inter-tribal wars, they fought the British, you name it.”
After war broke out, Sonny enlisted aged 16 under the name Rangitepuru Waretini. His first attempt was unsuccessful, as the recruiting officer in charge knew him and the fact we were so young. But soon after, he discovered that officer was away for a while and re-enlisted successfully.
“In January (1940) we were all called-up, the ones who were waiting, and we all went into Palmerston North. That was where our training camp was. And that’s where we stayed and did all our training until we embarked for the Middle East, we thought, on May 1 1940.”
Before going overseas, the Maori Battalion men often attended farewell ceremonies at their maraes.
“When we came back on final leave, there was a ceremony for us – just like the way visiting tribes are greeted. There’s an underlying purpose – the whole emphasis was they knew we were coming home, only to go. To go away again. Going to war.”
“The old Maori, when they sent their sons to war, they said ‘we won’t see you again’. That’s a funny feeling. In other words, there was a feeling that if you come home, you haven’t done the job properly. You go there to die. Of course, this evokes a few funny feelings within oneself. What they were saying is we don’t expect you to come back, but if you do come back, well that is a blessing as far as we’re concerned. Once you go, we are prepared never to see you again, because – we Maoris knew, when you go to war, there’s no certain return ticket “
The Maori Battalion sailed with the Second (2nd) Echelon, being diverted mid-way into their voyage, to the UK to help with defence in the face of a potential German invasion.
“We went to England from NZ in June 1940 when Dunkirk had occurred, and they were bringing all their troops back. England was under siege virtually. Our training was all taken up with repelling an invasion. Fortunately for us, it didn’t happen because they couldn’t get command of the air (Battle of Britain) – they did get very close there!”
When the threat had subsided sufficiently, the 2nd Echelon were released to join the 1st and 3rd Echelons waiting in the Middle East. After a period of the training and acclimatising in the desert, Sonny found himself on route with the rest of the 28th Maori Battalion Main Body and NZ Division to Greece. After entraining to the north of the country, then rapid retreat southwards and eventually evacuation, Sonny served in the Battle for Crete.
In an interview with Monty Souter in 2001, Sonny recalled the well-known charge at 42nd Street, on Crete:
“The Germans must have been following us through the night. I think they were into the 19th Battalion on our left… on our right was C-Company… 42nd Street was an old road, about 5 or 6 metres wide – like you’d see on a farm. It was sunken with a bank on one side. About 10 o’clock, after they’d eaten breakfast, we were told to stand to, and were expecting something would be happening as we could hear firing. We couldn’t see the enemy at that point but could see the direction the gunfire was coming from. Rangi Royal, the B-Company C/O said “fix bayonets”, then blew his whistle. No one moved. It was only on the second blow that the first man, Sam O’Brien from Te Puke, started to ‘mea’ with his rifle, then everyone stirred. The whole battalion went forward, firing as they did. Seeing the bayonets, the Germans turned and ran…”
“It was all unreal until you see men getting bayoneted and shot… I tell you I couldn’t look at food for a long time after that. I’d get a bit of a nightmare. Especially when you hear these… they weren’t yelling, they were squealing. Poor buggers. I thought well we’re as good as those guys any day. You know all things being equal we can beat these guys…”
Sonny served through the desert campaign, returning to New Zealand on furlough. He lived in Rotorua.
(Interview by Patrick Bronte)