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Headstone unveiling completes long journey for WWI soldier

Wednesday 1 May 2024 | Written by Melina Etches | Published in Features, Go Local

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Headstone unveiling completes long journey for WWI soldier
A poignant unveiling ceremony was held for the military headstone of World War I soldier Private Tongia Tioni 60686 at the Panama Catholic Cemetery on Wednesday last week. MELINA ETCHES/24042411

In a moving ceremony, the final chapter of a World War I soldier’s journey was completed as his headstone, which had been uplifted from another location, was finally placed on his grave.

After years of uncertainty, the headstone of the World War I soldier Private Tongia Tioni 60686 of the 1st New Zealand Expeditionary Force from the Rarotongan Contingent, was carefully uplifted from Turangi, Ngatangiia, and finally brought to its rightful place – on his grave at the Panama Catholic Cemetery.

Private Tioni passed away in Rarotonga on January 16, 1963. He was aged 67.

His grandson and namesake, Tongia Tioni, and his granddaughter, Tepaeru, as well as their immediate families attended the private, poignant unveiling ceremony of the headstone last week.

“I feel relieved and I’m glad this has happened during my lifetime, while I am still here,” said Tioni.

“When he went away to war, he left behind his wife, my grandmother Aumatareka, and their three young girls.

“When he returned, I remember he was very good at singing ute songs, he was a good singer.”

Tioni recalled attending his grandfather’s funeral in Panama at the age of 13.

He said since then he and his family did not know that their grandfather’s headstone had been “sitting out there in Turangi” until recently.

He believes the confusion could have been that there were two “T. Tioni’s”, the other man being Tutai Tioni who passed away in Tahiti.

Tioni’s daughter Gloria Tito, visiting from Australia, was emotional and proud to be a part of her great-grandfather’s special unveiling.

“I’m honoured to be here and this is a proud moment for our family,” said Tito.

“Reflecting on what he has done representing the country is quite emotional.

“It has been such a joy to see my dad and his siblings’ wishes come to pass.”

Tito acknowledged the Cook Islands WWI NZEF ANZAC Soldier Research Project team, led by Cate Walker, Paula Paniani, Bobby Nicholas, and Paul Morrissey, for discovering the headstone.

Walker said they documented Private Tioni’s headstone in April 2019.

“We knew that he was buried in Panama and here we are five years later.

“It’s good to have him honoured and to have this done on the eve of ANZAC Day is perfect timing,” she said.

Pastor Aravei William, Orometua of the Ngatangiia CICC Church, conducted a service for the removal of the headstone in Turangi, which was done by Teariki Pirangi and his family.

Bishop Paul Donoghue of the Catholic Diocese of Rarotonga then conducted the unveiling ceremony, with Paula Paniani serving as emcee.