Private Robert Caffery, a New Zealander of Cook Islands descent, finally received a military headstone at the ceremony. Caffery served at Gallipoli in one of the most horrific theatres of war and was made a prisoner in Germany. He returned from the war and set up home in Brisbane, where he eventually passed away at the age of 49.
Caffery’s headstone is a result of the efforts of Cate Walker, an Australian national who has been working tirelessly to restore headstones at Nikao Cemetery. Walker’s mother Gloria was one of 65 cancer patients buried at Nikao cemetery, after seeking treatment from Milan Brych.
Brych was convicted of practicing medicine without a licence in California and relocated to the Cook Islands after being removed from the New Zealand medical register in the 1970s.
“He basically lured people over there with the false hope of a miracle cancer cure,” said Walker.
“There were no regular flights and no morgue facilities, so they had to be buried within 24 hours.”
When Walker visited Nikao cemetery in 2014, she set about restoring crumbling graves which had suffered years of neglect.
“There was so much damage in the cemetery. There were headstones down on the shoreline and it was just a terrible mess,” she said.
It was during this time that Walker found out about Private Caffery.
“Two of his brothers were killed in action in France and their bodies were never found,” she said.
“I mean, there’s just no way I was ever going to leave him in an unmarked grave. I was going to do everything I could to get this soldier a memorial and have him remembered forever.”
The service was attended by a New Zealand Defence Force representative, extended family, and Wellington’s Mauke Enua cultural group.