Te Tohara Mohi is interviewed by Pou Temara .
He was 21 yrs old when he went to war, however he was only 18 years old when he enlisted in the Territorials. Those members [Māori Battalion] in the Hawkes Bay, were the first group to operate the Vickers [?] machine gun in New Zealand, of which Māori didn’t normally perform that type of task. We were stationed at Trentham Camp at the time the war started. The first echelon were sent off to war and we returned home and graduated from the Territorials and the majority of those from his home of Pakipaki signed up to go.
When the time came to choose those who had registered, I was omitted from being eligible because of his age. There were many from Pakipaki that went, his elder brother being one of those that were selected. In 1939, at the beginning of the war, he first decided to sign up as a soldier but didn't go overseas until 1941. He didn’t even think of his own safety or whether he would survive or return home alive. No thought was given to the drawbacks of war. He only thought of his two of my uncles had previously gone to World War II. When his uncles returned from the war, there was only talk of family, wives, girlfriends, the camaraderie, the games they played were all that were spoken about. The subject of death, injury of soldiers enduring wounds and such bad things were never discussed. Instead, it centred on the countries, people and places they had visited and the good times they shared.
Those at home had been training for such a long time; they were ready to go to war. Only then did he consider who would look after his mother, who was a widow at the time. He spoke with his older brother who went with the first echelon, his brother told him to stay home and look after their mother. When it came time for him to leave, he spoke with his younger brother (16yrs) who was still attending Te Aute College at the time that to care for their mother. We left from Wellington by ship, only then was he saddened by what he was leaving behind. They looked forward to visiting new countries and people. They prayed to God to return them safely home. They landed in Australia; they were formed in to groups. He speaks of his time in Australia, how they entertained themselves on their ship, teasing and looking after each other. He speaks of their arrival in Egypt and how he was hospitalised in Suez. They were confused with his race, not sure if he was African or something else. He didn’t think those people liked dark-skinned people like the Māori. He was eventually hospitalised with the South Africans. He spent 3 weeks in that institution recovering before being returned to his group. They were training in Maadi upon his return. Some of friends had already gone to into the battalion and then some of them in the first company had just returned from Crete, Greece. Their company was repelled back by the Germans at that time. He went to see his family members of the first company which included his brother. Upon his arrival they were put to work, they were the reinforcements. He entered C Company where they used ‘Bren Gun Carriers’.
The worst thing for him was his friends, there one minute and gone the next - these are childhood friends he had grown up with in Pakipaki. He recalls seeing another of his friends from Pakipaki, he had been injured in a bomb, and he was holding his own severed arm. The friend used to be an accomplished pianist and could play just like Charlie Kunz the pianist. He looked upon him in the ambulance, and his friend died shortly after, and then rang home to let them know that he had died. There were many close friends and friendships that were formed in C Company, the senior ranking members treated him well. Their first Christmas overseas was held in Maadi. My elder brother arrived, and the entire platoon set off to look around Maadi – we had no money. They decided they would play a game of housie. It happened that I won a house, £20 the prize, my brother bought all the beers for our table and we began drinking.
He recounts the night he won money from a game of housie, and they bought beer for the entire platoon. After a time, they became drunk and started toasting each other before taking a drink. The smallest guy in the platoon responded to best friends' toast with, ‘Merry Xmas’ and then immediately punched his drinking companion in the eye announcing, “That’s my Christmas gift to you.” The entire platoon received Christmas presents from each other that evening, and had to return to camp. The following morning, they all woke with swollen black eyes of which they had to rush to the church parade. The Minister Rangi (from Tokomaru) mentioned their exploits in his sermon that morning.
He talks about their time spent in Lebanon a total of two months in Beirut. There, they were allowed to holiday for one week. Germany had broken through Syria, then, the entire contingent was shipped via train to Minqar Qaim their first taste of battle. There he spent one night as a driver for the Bren Carriers, he could hear bomb explosions in the distance, there they placed mine fields in wait for the marauding Germans. His brother unknowingly rode his motorbike through their freshly laid minefield, they were all alarmed to see him driving through the minefield, they screamed, “Go, go, go!” in alarm. They then demonstrated the purpose of their work with mines which frightened his brother when he realised how close he came to being blown to pieces.
He remembers how tired they all were. The guns of the Germans could be heard, while he slept next to the Bren Carrier. He was exhausted, when his Sergeant approached as he had heard the loud snoring emanating from his vehicle. His snoring was louder than anything on that battlefield. Later, he recalls watching some of his comrades digging trenches (approximately 20 yards in length) in wait for the Germans, while they waited on a small hill behind the trenches with their guns. That was the first time they set eyes on the enemy. They fired their guns, still the Germans advanced, 20 yards away when the haka began. Tohara and the Bren Carriers were some 200 yards behind the trenches. Men climbed out of the trenches to join in with the haka, and then the Bren Carriers joined in. He laughingly recalls how their gesticulating and pukana frightened the Germans and they turned and ran at the sight of these Māori performing a haka on the battlefield. They began to chase them down, but their senior officers (sergeants) called out for them to return. It was decided that they would advance at 02:00 hrs, the Germans had circled back and the Māori soldiers were caught in between. Freyberg had been captured, due to the injuries he sustained while leaping from an airplane, so it was decided to form a spearhead position to break through the enemy lines to escape. His cousin from Te Wairoa and he were sitting on the Bren Carrier chatting and smoking when they were surprised by an incoming missile/explosion. Their gun sat in the small space in front of the Bren Carrier and was targeted by enemy fire – at this point, he began mourning his cousin's death. His cousin was fatally injured in the explosion, his comrades arrived and they lifted him on a blanket and buried him while Te Tohara tried to start the Bren Carrier to no avail. He utilised 3 grenades of which he extracted the pins and carefully placed some branches on the pins to set the grenades to surprise the enemy (?) and avenge the death of his relative.
At 03:00 hrs, they began taking their positions/forming lines, the Bren Carriers, [anti-tank vehicles] and troop carriers were positioned on the flanks/on the outsides. The soldiers spearheaded the convoy and set off ahead to clear the roads for the ensuing vehicles. After a while, the rest of the convoy and trucks caught up, and one would hop from one truck to the next without waiting lest you be making the mistake of being left behind. They could hear the cheers of the first wave of soldiers that had gone ahead in front in the throes of a haka. His friend from Te Whānau a Apanui [Dell Acroft?] was his sergeant at the time. The vehicle we had was tragic, the tracks were treacherous and it was an arduous, slow journey. The officers told you, should you be left behind to utilise the compasses they were given to get your bearings. The vehicle they had became stuck in a trench, they tried to free it. The journey was very similar, stopping and starting due to the poor state of our vehicle – they ended up abandoning the decrepit vehicle and hopped on another. They weren’t scared at all, they knew where they were going as they had a map in their possession for directions, plenty of water and rations and benzene for the vehicle which we salvaged from abandoned vehicles. They travelled for two days in that manner before arriving at their destination. Before they got to their destination, they saw a vehicle which they filled with benzene and drove off in it. They arrived at [unknown destination “Kapona Box”] where the rest of their convoy was digging trenches/foxholes. Te Tohara was starving by that time, unwashed for three days and he was scared to take his boots off lest his feet be in a hideous condition. They arrived and went immediately to eat. There, some of their friends asked why they were heading to Derna (?). The responded that the town had been abandoned.Comments were made by other soldiers that they were only going there to seek beer. His friends arrived in the abandoned town of Derna; they went directly to the hotel in search of beer. They went no more than three yards in distance before they were shelled by German fire. They immediately turned their vehicle around and headed for home. Hori Ellison was one of the chaps who welcomed us back.
At the time, our task was to chase the enemy after the taking of El Alamein. There were many of our soldiers that were killed at El Alamein, there was no opportunity to bury the corpses (Pākehā
and Germans alike), only our Māori compatriots - we never left our own behind or without burial. That one thing amazed Te Tohara about Padre Wi Huata he was everywhere that our soldiers were. He was a champion minister, he made it his mission to bury his flock. He performed the rituals over the corpses and ensured they were buried, he administered to the injured that were close to death and suffering from dysentery – they were covered in flies due to the heat. There were many unburied corpses, which attracted the flies and subsequently dysentery. That disease decimated our soldiers – even the healthy ones. The soldiers had to be careful when eating their rations, lest the flies that were swarming around flew into your mouth and on to your food. The flies bought dysentery to the troops. Dysentery was a terrible illness that affected even the strongest of us. Bully was a large chap, once he succumbed to dysentery he became a shell of his former self.
However, when we broke through the German lines at El Alamein, the Germans ran and we pursued them with vigour. He was amazed at the Italian and German soldiers that were left behind at El Alamein, those that were lucky enough to survive the shelling of our large guns were running aimlessly, crazily all over the battlefield with no purpose – it was terrible. They had gone mad and they were left there. The soldiers stayed there for quite a while; soldiers were searching the corpses for watches, cameras and guns that they could use. They didn’t really approve of that sort of behaviour. One of their exceptionally skilled and crazy friends [Pera Thompson?] - you wouldn’t believe. They (soldiers) were there to seek out the booby traps located in the area. He was without fear – bullet-proof. One time he had jumped into a spring and wouldn’t get out. Pera called out to his comrades that he was stuck in a booby-trapped spring with a Tella (?) mine. He was told not to move his legs until they sought a rope to lift him from the booby-trapped spring – he emerged white as a ghost.
At the end of that battle, the Battalion and NZ soldiers brought the large trucks from Egypt to transport the Bren Carriers. While they waited, they went in search of wine and beer and got drunk. Pera suggested to Te Tohara to go to Tunis to seek more alcohol. They weren’t sure how they were going to get there. Across the road from their camp were German vehicles, they all took the vehicles and set off to Tunis. When they arrived there, it was full of French (Wiwi) people. They sold the vehicles they had found to the French people so they could buy alcohol. Herbie Marsden was worse than the rest of the boys. This was their third trip to Tunis by this time and they gained a lot of money. They went on to another town, when they entered the town it was full of Americans, they were thrown out of the town. They decided to return and took an officers vehicle so they could return to camp. However, the gates were closed. This didn’t deter the two; they burst through the locked gates and returned to their camp. One mile outside of their camp, they abandoned the vehicle and returned in to camp. American soldiers arrived and spoke to their officers about two Māori soldiers that had stolen an officer’s vehicle. Their officers disagreed saying that all their men were accounted for. The Americans were told to look around to identify the two soldiers in question. Unfortunately for the Americans and fortunately for the Māori soldiers – all the Māori looked the same. We were made to parade in front of the American soldiers. They didn’t catch us and had to return to their own camp empty-handed. That didn’t stop the two, and they returned to the same town. That was how they entertained themselves.
In Egypt, gambling was a big past time for the soldiers. They spend twelve months in the desert. There weren’t any shops, no place to buy food so they entertained themselves with gambling. Billy Maha was a good friend of Te Tohara’s at the time and an avid gambler. He would get Te Tohara to look after his winnings which Te Tohara would place in his bag to keep safe. When they returned from fighting Te Tohara had three bags of which one and a half of those bags were filled with Billy’s winnings. Te Tohara had no idea how much money Billy had in those bags. However, they had only been home in camp for one day when all of his winnings were stolen. That hurt Billy very much to have his winnings stolen.
One day we had to teach the soldiers who had just arrived from home. One group arrived that were particularly close relatives of Te Tohara’s. The first task was to teach the new recruits the rules of the Battalion such as no shooting of birds as they were considered sacred to the tangata whenua of this land. Just as Te Tohara had just finished relaying the rules, one of the new arrivals shot a bird, it fell to the ground. Te Tohara reproached him about the rules, and the new recruit just laughed. An officer was called in, and the new soldier was told to dress in his winter uniform, his gun, knapsack and coat and was taken to the playing field. For an hour and a half, he was made to work in that heavy gear in the scorching sun of the desert. He began crying. This was the punishment for breaking the rules. Not less than two weeks later, he shot another bird. Te Tohara disciplined the new soldier again by getting him to dress in his winter uniform, filling his knapsack with shingle and stones and he was forced to run in his coat and carrying his kit and gun in the heat for two hours. He began crying due to sheer exhaustion, the officer returned and kicked him in the buttocks; he was made to get up and continue running telling him that this is the punishment for shooting birds here. He was allowed to return to his tent. Te Tohara went to see how the new soldier was faring he was completely exhausted. Tohara went to get him some water to quench his thirst – he was much better after that and never shot the birds ever again. The quibbles and playful fighting that took place between the men were common and often. This was the only form of news that was heard from home when relatives who were new recruits arrived.
When Te Tohara left home, he left his youngest sister 12 years old, with instructions to stay in school until he returned from war. When he returned home one night, he saw his future wife. He said to his friend, “Do you see her? She’s mine, don’t go anywhere near here”. They asked me, “What’s her name?” He responded, “How would I know? But she’s mine”. Eventually she did come around to liking him, although she was a bit hesitant at first.
Te Tohara concludes, “These are the funny stories that I can share with you. There are many horrible stories that I wish to remain sacred to me and not to be shared in public. I have witnessed many terrible deaths, but the memories still haunt me occasionally when I think of those deceased comrades, friends, relatives who fell in those battles. I still have those horrid memories, but I treasure the happy ones more. I would prefer to leave those stories of death. My friends of Ngāti Porou who returned home have all since died. Some have only just passed on during last year. These are my closest friends I had during the war.”