Every weekend, Teremoana Hardie visits the grave of her grand-uncle Kaimanu Tepei.
Sometimes she takes flowers; sometimes she just says hello and goodbye. “Goodnight Papa Kaimanu”.
Tepei was private in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in World War 1, one of “The 500”. His brother Opura was laid to rest on the family land at Tupapa – but for some reason, Kaimanu ws buried at Nikao cemetery.
He died aged 45, no wife, no children. And sadly, he was all but forgotten.
Whn Teremoana was a little girl, her great-great-grandmother would walk her past the airport and through the overgrown cemetery to the lagoon, to collect kai moana. Never was she told that her great-grand-uncle lay there beneath the trees and bushes.
“My great-great-grandmother, she was his sister. She never told me he was buried there. She was really old but I’m sure she knew – of course she knew.”
It was just five years ago, that Australian Cate Walker visited. Her mother Gloria was one of a large number of New Zealand and Australian cancer patients buried in the Nikao Cemetery in the late 1970s, following unsuccessful cancer treatment from the infamous doctor Milan Brych.
Cate and her husband Paul Morrissey embarked on a clean-up, first of her mother’s grave, then others. They were joined by enthusiastic local volunteers including Cook Islands chief archivist Paula Paniani – and in 2016 the Cook Islands Soldiers Research Project was launched.
Now, as Cook Islands News reported yesterday, they have discovered 10 men who died within three years of the end of the WWI. Most died of tuberculosis they contracted in the trenches of France; some whose cause of death has been confirmed will this month be added to the New Zealand and Commonwealth Roll of Honour,.
Their sacrifice will be remembered.
Others lived many years beyond the war and died from other causes, or of old age. Kaimanu Tepei, or instance, died a decade after the war in 1929.
They may not be remembered on the Roll of Honour, but the work of Cate Walker and their team is ensures they will be remembered – most of all, by their own families.
Thanks in part to the work of the Cook Islands Soldiers Research Project, Nikao Cemetery is now known to contain the largest group of Cook Islands WW1 returned servicemen buried anywhere.
Though one of the smallest territories in the British Empire, the Cook Islands sent almost 500 men to serve in what was described at the time as “the war to end all wars”.
Island residents also made large contributions to a nationwide Patriotic Fund, with Mangaia alone raising the equivalent of a day’s pay for the entire population.
The 2nd and 3rd Cook Islands Contingents served in the Middle East as part of the Sinai-Palestine campaign, while others served in Europe.
But when Walker visited Rarotonga in 2014, the cemetery was in advanced disrepair, with numerous graves wrecked or hidden in a jumble of undergrowth.
Some of the headstones were lying on the beach below the cemetery and with graves crumbling into the lagoon, it wasn’t uncommon to discover human remains on the sand.
Saddened by the condition of the cemetery and intrigued by the history of the Cook Islands’ huge contribution to the Allied effort in World War 1, Walker decided to do something about it.
A social media campaign resulted in the formation of the volunteer group, finding and restoring the graves and headstones.
So far, says Walker, the project has recorded the GPS locations of around 150 soldiers’ graves on Rarotonga, with the whereabouts of a remaining 50 still unknown. It’s an ongoing operation, and Walker and Morrissey made a return visit to the island in April this year.
Following prolonged negotiations a rock seawall was built to protect the site with the aid of $50,000 from the Pacific Development and Conservation Trust, and the cemetery was slowly restored to the proud condition it is in today
In 2018 project head researcher Bobby Nicholas, the great-grandson of Private Ongokoreiti Teau who is buried at Nikao Cemetery, discovered that an Anzac of Cook Islands' descent had lain in an unmarked grave at Brisbane’s Toowong cemetery for 80 years.
Walker says she found the grave and with the help of Veterans Affairs New Zealand, bought a headstone for Private Robert Caffrey which was unveiled on Anzac Day, in a service attended by a New Zealand Defence Force representative, extended family, and Wellington's Mauke Enua cultural group.
A “Soldier Search Mission” funded by Walker and Morrissey visited Mangaia last year, successfully locating 38 of the 44 soldiers’ graves believed to be on the island.
Then, earlier this year, along with Julie Shedden of CITV and Paniani, they travelled to Atiu, where they documented and mapped the graves and headstones of 29 soldiers.
Tata Crocombe became a sponsor this year, providing accommodation, and Air Rarotonga also came aboard to sponsor the team’s visits to Aitutaki, and next April, to Mauke.
Walker and her husband will arrive on Aitutaki on November 1. They will have just one week to locate and document the graves of around 55 World War I veterans buried there.
Like a previous visit to Atiu, it will involve painstaking searches over a wide area.
“We really appreciate the help,” says Walker, whose father lived on Aituaki for a number of years. “Our trips to the Cook Islands are no holiday, believe me.
“There has been so much interest and support for what we are achieving. I hope the Cook Islands government will see the benefit and potential of their very interesting World War One story.”