Willie Apiata spoke at the Auckland War Memorial Museum, saying it was important the stories of service and sacrifice be kept alive. Photo / Sarah Ivey
As a young boy Willie Apiata sat close to his grandfather on Anzac Day and was puzzled by the laughter that mixed with sadness, and eyes that “watered just a little bit”.
It was only through his own military service that New Zealand’s only living Victoria Cross recipient came to understand.
“It’s not until I became a soldier that I understood the ultimate sacrifice,” he said.
“I went away overseas seeking adventure, and I guess I found it. But I also found there is another side to what being a soldier is.
“What you hear and what you see and what travels home with you when you come home, you can never forget.”
Mr Apiata made his comments in a powerful speech to a crowded but silent World War I Sanctuary at the Auckland War Memorial Museum yesterday after the dawn service outside.
He spoke slowly and deliberately, gesturing to the gathered people as his words echoed off the walls inscribed with the names of Auckland’s war dead.
“What makes it easier for us is the love of our families when we return, the love of our people and the love of our country.
“Paying respect to us as we go away to try and make our place back here in New Zealand a little bit safer for our people to grow and to live. That is what Anzac Day means to me.”
Mr Apiata, from the eastern Bay of Plenty township of Te Kaha, told the crowd that he remembered as a 7-year-old being woken at 4am on Anzac Day by his grandfather turning on the lights and “rattling all the pots to make his cup of tea to get ready for the day”.
“Speaking grumpily to my mother, asking where all his stuff is, where all his gear is, to be prepared for the morning of Anzac Day.”
Mr Apiata said his grandfather never spoke to them about his war experiences, and as a young boy he would deliberately sit close to him at the marae’s Anzac service. “That’s the first time I saw … happiness in his face, and his eyes watered just a little bit, because he was able to talk freely with his mates that he’d served with.
“They spoke and laughed, but they also had a distant look in their eyes when they talked about certain things. And I didn’t quite understand that as a little fella.
“I left New Zealand and I’ve been around the world serving in different countries. And now I understand what that look was in their eyes. I understand how he talked with all his mates with such passion.”
The publicity-shy Mr Apiata is a former corporal in the SAS and received the VC in 2007 for bravery under fire in Afghanistan after carrying a gravely wounded comrade across a battlefield to safety.
After leaving the Defence Force, Mr Apiata took up a role with South Auckland’s High Wire Trust, which helps at-risk children.
Wearing a suit and tie with war medals yesterday, he said it was now time to give back to his family who had sacrificed a great deal during his military service.
“And it’s time to give back to the people of New Zealand the honour that has been bestowed upon me. I do my best every day. What I carry comes with the hugest responsibility that anyone could imagine.
“But I am only the person that carries it, it does not belong to me, it belongs to you, it belongs to the boys that were there that day when it all happened.”
Mr Apiata said it was important that the men and women who have served New Zealand were remembered, and their stories kept alive through the younger generations. “That is why we are here today, and will be here again next year.”
Acknowledgements: NZ Herald