New Zealand’s Ministry of Culture and Heritage has pledged to restore the final resting places of six Cook Islands WW1 soldiers as Commonwealth War Graves.
These will be the first war graves located in the Cook Islands, after the six men’s names were this month added to those 30,000 on the New Zealand Roll of Honour – 100 years later.
Privates Nga Naeiti, Taria Tearii, Rangi Tiaure, Mareto Tima, Banaba Tipe and Terongo Tuakeo’s graves are to be identified, inspected, restored, and maintained in perpetuity.
Three graves have been found by researches in Rarotonga. Terongo Tuakeo’s grave has been located in Atiu. But Taria Tearii and Banaba Tipe’s graves are yet to be located in Aitutaki.
Most of the men died young and without children; none of their surviving families have yet been traced, even though at least one grave is on family land.
Sam Puati Samuel, 67, of Tikioki in Rarotonga, is tracing his family’s genealogy to confirm that Banaba Tipe was the brother of his great-grandfather, Nooroa Tipe of Aitutaki.
A group who have been researching war veterans’ graves will next month visit Aitutaki, and they hope to locate both Tearii and Tipe. “It would be emotional and exciting to find his grave,” says Samuel.
Two more of Samuel’s great-grand-uncles served in World War I; they are buried on Rarotonga.
“I served in the New Zealand Army for 25 years, so this means a lot. My three sons were all in the army – they served in Afghanistan, in East Timor, in Somalia. One is still at Waiouru Army Camp.
“But most of us didn’t know anything about our family who served in the First World War. Now, it is time for them to be remembered.”
A New Zealand Defence Force report has highlighted the differences in headstones for war graves and veteran graves, and the need to properly acknowledge these soldiers with the appropriate headstones in the same way their New Zealand comrades were honoured.
Brodie Stubbs, Te Pae Mahara manager for the Ministry for Culture and Heritage in New Zealand, said the vast majority of war graves and veteran’s graves from the First World War were marked with standard upright granite headstones but some families chose to mark the graves of their loved one with different headstones.
“We are honoured to be taking care of these men’s graves in recognition of their service and sacrifice in the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces,” Stubbs said.
Cook Islands chief archivist Paula Paniani, one of the lead researchers, was moved to tears that young forgotten Cook Islands men who served in WW1 have at last received the recognition they deserve.
Paniani said the late nights started back in 2016, researching with the Cate Walker, Bobby Nicholas and Howard Weddell. Now, it was all worth the effort, she said.
Next month, Paniani will travel to Aitutaki to look for the graves of a further 55 soldiers – including Tipe and Tearii.
Her colleague Cate Walker, who first began investigating Cook Islands graves after visiting Rarotonga to restore the grave of her mother, said they had new information from the Aitutaki community to help them find the graves. “The satisfaction in finding and documenting these soldiers’ graves far outweighs the effort involved,” she said.
The team has received sponsorship from Tata Crocombe for accommodation at The Aitutaki Lagoon Resort and Spa, Air Rarotonga flights from Ewan Smith and Tokoa Pera sponsoring a vehicle in Aitutaki.