Almost 500 Cook Islanders eventually travelled by boat to New Zealand to train before being deployed to the battlefields of North Africa and Western Europe. Many did not see action. The Cook Islanders were used mainly to undertake physical tasks to help supply the front lines. Half a century later a group of Cook Islanders would sign up to join the New Zealand Army under slightly different circumstances in that the men were expected to return home with a trade to help contribute to the-then fledgling nation. The 30 Cook Islanders, nine who would go on to serve in South Vietnam, were the first lot of men to be directly recruited from Rarotonga by New Zealand since the First World War. They were also to be the last. ‘The Last Army Recruits’ written by Rarotonga resident Moana Moeka’a, documents the lives of the men who left in 1966 – some who would never return to their Pacific homeland. The book was launched on Wednesday of last week.
FIRST-TIME author Moana Moeka’a says his interest in the recruits was sparked by an uncle – Vaine Snowball, who was one of the men in the 1966 group.
“I got to know this uncle of mine while I was living in New Zealand in the 1980s.I knew he was in the army and served in Vietnam. But I only found out that he was one of the 30 men after I interviewed him in August 2006 here in Rarotonga. I didn’t even know that the New Zealand army had directly recruited a group of men from the homeland in 1966.”
On the day he was told about the recruits, Moeka’a went straight to the Cook Islands Library and Museum to go through old copies of CI News to see if there was anything on the recruits. There were articles spread over a two-week period leading up to their departure on May 11, 1966.
“He was spot-on with the names of all 30 recruits and even the date that they flew out of Rarotonga.”
At the time, Moeka’a felt this was an important part of history that could not be forgotten.
By August 2006, eight of the group had passed away and his uncle only knew the general whereabouts of a few of them who were living in the Auckland area. Three of the men were living in the Cooks.
“I just felt that if nobody did anything about these guys, things would end up like what always appears to happen in the Cooks - we end up forgetting about everything and we start telling a lot of tall stories.”
It was the lack of information that made things difficult at the start when he began researching for the book.
“I only knew my uncle and another recruit Tairea Tairea who was living on Rarotonga at the time. Alfred Morris and Geoff Kotiau Roi were also living in the Cooks so that was a start. As for the rest of the men, I did not know who they were, who their families were. The majority were living in New Zealand and I found most of them by asking around. There was one lady who told me that she wasn’t even sure if her brother had passed away. I was lucky, because a year after that, he turned up in Auckland after being “down the line” for about 20 years.”
Moeka’a says it was a bit of a fluke how he got to meet up with a couple of the men.
“Two of them I met at the Punanga Nui market. In 2006 this guy bought some cooked taro from me and told me it was his first trip back home in 40 years. I asked him what month he had left and where he was living in New Zealand. He replied and I asked, ‘are you Taiti Pokoina?’
“You should have seen the look on his face!
“The other guy, Tariau Tapuni, had emailed me that he would be coming to Rarotonga on a certain date. I was driving my truck through the market to pick up my wife from our stall and I was following this guy who was walking in front of the truck but walking away from me. I had never seen a recent photograph of him but somehow I just knew it was Tariau. I stopped the truck and ran after him, and I was right.”
In 2013, Moeka’a travelled to Wellington, New Zealand, to look for one of the recruits and another man. He says his relatives must have thought there was something wrong with him when he told them he was catching a train up to Porirua on a Sunday to find some Cook Islander living up there.
“I mean there are probably only three or four thousand Cook Islands adults living in Porirua! I rang two contacts in Porirua but while they knew of the man I was after, they could not give me an address.
“I caught a bus up to the Cannons Creek shopping centre and got talking to a couple of Cook Islanders at a laundromat. Apparently No’o’anga Tauakume (Tau) owned a house right across from the laundromat but the house appeared to have no-one living in it.
“I got the son’s street name from somebody and then I was directed to the street by a Cook Islands man who stopped while I was walking on the road. Apparently he grew up in my home village of Ruatonga and recognised me, but I couldn’t place him.
“Anyway I came up McKillop Street from one end and there was a menacing dog dragging its chain on the road, so I thought that I should walk right around the other end. I decided to ring Tairea Tairea and found I was literally standing right outside his home on Mungavin Avenue.
“As Tairea and his partner had only been in Porirua for just under a year, they did not know many people in the area. However, they said that a couple of nights a week they would hear Cook Islands drumming coming from McKillop St, which was up on a rise. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I walked straight up to house and asked the occupants if this was indeed the address. It was.
“The father was in a rest home across town in Johnsonville recovering from a stroke. I rushed down to the station to catch a bus from Porirua to Johnsonville that evening. After I left the home, I got a call from one of my contacts telling me where the old man was staying! I guess he might have spared me six hours of my time trying to look for the proverbial needle in a haystack. I tell you, it was a weird day.”
After 10 years of sporadic research between the Cooks and New Zealand, a book has finally emerged – all funded out of Moeka’s own pocket, with the support of family members.
While he is pleased with his effort, Moeka’a says the story of the last recruits is by no means complete and believes that it could have been better.
“There was one guy who had photos of the recruits during basic training at Papakura Military Camp in 1966. He told me he would make copies for me but it didn’t happen. After asking three times, I figured that he did not want to part with the photos. I actually asked him a fourth time earlier this month after the book was printed: he told me a friend had borrowed them!
“A couple of recruits were very reluctant to talk to me and without access to their service records, it was hard to get anything out of them.
“Overall though, as I pointed out in the book, it was not a happy ending for some of the 1966 army recruits. Some of them left, never to return home. A few of them never made it to their 30th birthday. And a couple of them who are still alive today have never returned home - 50 years later.”
If anything, Moeka’a says one thing that sticks out from the time he spent researching for the book, is just how people can get “lost in the system” in places like New Zealand.
“There was one Vietnam vet who was not part of the 1966 group who I was trying to locate while I was in Wellington in May 2013. I rang a cousin of his and she told me she was unsure of his whereabouts. I only found out in 2016 that he passed away about two weeks before I made that phone call!
“There were three of the recruits who I could not locate. It was quite sad because even the siblings of two of them didn’t even know where they were living. I got told by people right at the start to use the internet and Facebook to find these recruits. I only got one response from a guy who said he knew one of the recruits. Even a notice on the weekly Cook Islands radio programme broadcast throughout New Zealand – and on the internet, only generated one response.
“I guess I don’t blame people for not knowing who these guys are. But just like with the World War One soldiers, one day Cook Islanders are going to want to find out about their relatives who served in the New Zealand armed services. They weren’t the only conflicts that Cook Islanders were involved in: there’s World War Two, the Korean War…just imagine if we had all the information on these guys all documented instead of trying to find out who these guys are in the first place or relying on service records.”
So where to next for Moeka’a?
“I have been thinking about expanding on what I have done so far - on Cook Islanders who served in Malaya, Borneo and Vietnam. I’ve already interviewed a few vets, so who knows?”
The members of the intake (along with their number which was issued in May 1966 and their rank upon joining their chosen corps) who travelled to New Zealand were: Private Tinga Karika (42408); Pte Patia Tuaeu (42409); Pte Maorikava Tere (42410); Driver Emile Aua (42411); Pte Tangaroa Tangaroa (42412); Gunner Puna Dyer (42413); Pte Toka Matatia (42414); Pte Tutai Marsters (42415); Pte Taova ‘Mahana’ Ford (42416); Pte Vaine Snowball (42417); Sapper Ngaevaeva Raivaru (42418); Signaller Alfred Morris (42419); Dvr Tairea Tairea (42420); Craftsman Piti (Christmas) Rahui (42421); Dvr/Trooper Geoffrey Kotiau (Roi) (42422); Pte Tamatea Tamatea (42423); Pte Keu Tangimataiti (42424); Pte Teariki Maeva (42425); Pte Teariki Teaukura (42426); Pte Tohoa George (42427); Pte Taiti Pokoina (42428); Cfn Kau Raututi (42429); Gnr No’o’anga Tau (42430); Gnr Areti Ironui (42431); Dvr Tairi Tangi’ia (42432); Pte Iotua Kairua (42433); Pte Tariau Tapuni (42434); Pte Tere Tiarua (42435); Sig Tipokoroa Utia (42436); Pte Ka’itu Apera (42437).
Copies of the book are on sale at the Cook Islands Library & Museum.