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Private Petera's war

War heroes win VCs: we know their stories, and are reminded of them by the shocking theft of their medals from the army museum. But there are other powerful war stories, too. This is one of them.

He was 20 when he was asked to kill a man. It was the hardest thing he'd ever had to do.

"It was midnight, but there were searchlights over the front. I could see him quite clearly. He was unarmed, he'd given up. He was as young as I was, and I saw tears running from his eyes.

"The order that night was shoot to kill, but I couldn't do it. Kill a defenceless man? I could not. He was taken away and the order was carried out by someone else.

"That's the face that haunts me the most. That's the face that I see before me, all the time. And that is war."

When Private Charlie Petera went to fight, he was high-spirited, handsome and 19: he lied about his age so that the army would take him.

He came back a different man. No longer the "gay fellow" his family remembered, he didn't fit in.

Until now, Charlie hasn't talked about it. For more than 60 years he has tried to bury his memories in the iron-rich sand of the north. They never stayed down.

When he does talk about it, he is staunch, slow and clear, like an aged actor giving a sad, understated soliloquy. He has to stop every now and then; curtains come down over his eyes and he looks away.

"When you see your friends getting killed and maimed and blown to bits, it's rather painful. When you've been through that, you just wished you would die. You're numb, you don't care any more. You've just had enough.

"Memories and faces flood back when you start talking about these things. For me, I'm living it again, and it's hard. You never forget, you live with it every day. Sometimes during the day and at night it comes back, particularly when you're lying in bed or you're on your own."

The northern settlement of Ngataki is a scratch on the narrow land, the kind of place you drive past without realising it's where you're supposed to be. There's a school, a marae, a cemetery and roads that turn to gravel as soon as they're out of sight.

The Peteras live in a shy, yellow house set well back from one of these roads. It's a languid spot, 10 minutes' drive to either edge of the country. When they first moved here, the sand dunes came up to the doorstep.

An intimidating mob of pines brightened by fishing buoys look like giant Christmas trees; a rusty bathtub, boat and other flotsam lie lazily around the yard.

Charlie and his wife, Cath, live here a few months a year; the rest of the time his sons are here. It's a "typical" Maori Affairs house: healthy bones, rotten design. You go out the back door and step over the dog to get to the toilet, but the bathroom is back down the hall.

Inside, Cath is cleaning what's already spotless for the visitors. There are plates full of sandwiches, fruit and three types of cake. It's 10 in the morning.

The walls are the spearmint colour of the 50s, the curtains anorexic with age. A happy, once-majestic red velvet couch elbows the totara bench. The kauri clock on the wall is missing half its digits: the children have literally disfigured it, says Charlie.

Time has in turn tugged at Charlie. Slumped on the couch like sunken treasure, his eyes are milky and he needs a magnifying glass to read, but he still chops wood and takes the boat across the harbour.

The affairs of the tribe bring them back, but usually they live on the edge of the Parengarenga Harbour, a pinched range of land just south of Cape Reinga. They have a generator, a television and a cellphone - better reception than in the city - and no power bills.

Accessible by boat or four-wheel-drive, this place makes Ngataki seem positively urban.

Charlie grew up here, one of 10 children and the last of five boys, to gum-digging parents.

Life was transient: they lived in houses made out of tin and sacks. They learnt to look after themselves from an early age: housekeeping, cooking, survival. But the women, says Charlie, were the ones who kept them together.

"They never stopped working, or we'd starve. I can still see my mother bending over the open fire, lifting heavy camp ovens, holding kids and cooking as well. It was not uncommon to have one on the back and one in the stomach."

Charlie and his brothers would go out to kill sharks - a sharp tap on the nose subdued them. It was his job to scale the pohutukawa trees and look after the drying fish fillets. The smell of the parched hapuku was the "most putrid of any", says Charlie. "It was like ammonia. I can tell you, the first mouthful used to bring tears to my eyes."

Fish jerky, kumara and little else kept them going during the Depression. They strained the milk out of kumara, pipi were plentiful, and they had watermelon, pumpkins, maize and kerosene cans full of figs from a 100-year-old plantation across the water. Shells were their cutlery - it's amazing how much you could fit on a toheroa. It was monotonous, he says, but filling. "We were pretty close to starving, but we did quite well compared to the city dwellers."

They walked five kilometres to the other side of the harbour to school; when the tide was high, they would put their clothes on top of their heads and swim.

It was a tough life by today's standards, says Charlie, but a good one.

But in 1937, things began to change. The gum industry collapsed and the family left the cape. With bullocks and horse carts, they travelled down the main highway - 90 Mile Beach - and came to Ngataki. Two years later, on the other side of the world, the war began.

Charlie volunteered for the army. He was the youngest, but his brothers had families. Travel was a drawcard, but choice was a line call back then.

"Among Maori there is a tradition and expectation that each family had to provide a warrior, and I suppose that was in the back of my mind," says Charlie. "My father also served in World War I; to continue the tradition, I went."

He wasn't put off by the controversial separation of Maori from Pakeha troops. Nothing to cackle about, he says, it was no different to the likes of the Welsh, Scottish and Irish guards, and the 23rd Battalion here (restricted to South Islanders). The skin colour was different, but the principle the same. Proud of their regime, Maori wanted to be on their own.

Fluent in te reo - one code that the Nazis couldn't crack - Charlie became a signaller on the front line, spending most of his time in Italy.

He acclimatised himself to the possibility of death.

"The moment I got started, I lost all sense of fear. My mates said the same: you stopped being frightened, you just became a fighting machine. We were all prepared for death."

Charlie was lucky. Injured three times, he calls a shrapnel scar above his elbow "Hitler's 21st birthday present."

The Maori Battalion quickly earned their reputation as good warriors, especially in what Charlie calls "close-quarter fighting": "We were not only fighting each other all the time back home, we were eating each other," he deadpans.

They once captured a German soldier and found on him a letter he'd written to his mother. The soldier described the Maori as "their worst, most-dreaded enemies", says Charlie with sour-tasting pride.

But their rural upbringing did not prepare them for the violence. And so he usually only talks about the happy times, the time they rode bareback with sabres on draught-horses across the front line in Italy.

He tells war jokes, sings in Italian and remembers the beaches in Capri and the squares in Rome. Charlie has been around the world, across seven seas, but never to the South Island.

But in the end, he says, there's no bright side to war.

He recalls the time they captured a German soldier and demanded that he tell them where the others were; as he raised his arm to point, his own mates shot him.

He stops: "I don't know whether I'd condemn them for that. In the same situation, we might have done the same thing. There's nothing nice about war. And yet we're still doing it. I think William James wrote that man, biologically considered, is the most formidable beast of prey, and indeed the only one who preys systematically on its own species. And that sums man up."

Charlie stops; the curtains fall. Time for a cuppa, he says. He goes outside, takes out his handkerchief and sings while the kettle boils.

When he returned from the war, the battle wasn't over. Charlie's daughter, Tessa, recalls hearing him yelling in the middle of the night when she was a child. She thought he'd had too much to drink and was having a go at her mum. But Charlie never drank: he was seeing the dead in his sleep.

Some of his colleagues, good men who had to do terrible things, didn't survive when they returned. Many became recluses. Like Charlie, a lot threw themselves into self-improvement, through religion, through iwi, through education.

Charlie's fight became one to put a meal on the table and to do his best by his family. He never went to high school, but quotes Rochefoucauld and the Bible. His mother taught him to play the piano; he plays the piano accordion by ear.

Tessa cries when she talks about the government's treatment of the boys: the war pension is no more than the dole, she says.

But Charlie holds few grudges. Perhaps the government could have offered educational scholarships to the children of veterans, he says, but that's the right of every child.

And even the war was good. It gave him purpose, he says. Many leaders were lost over there, but many new ones were made.

"I think it gave Maori a greater sense of responsible citizenship. Having fought in the war and stood up to the enemy, Maori had shown that they were equal citizens, capable of running our own affairs. I wouldn't have survived in this life without that discipline."

If democracy were at stake, he would fight again. But he wished that he hadn't had to in the first place.

"I reject the folly of it. It was folly. The misery it caused, I regret. But you were in a position where you had to fight back. The war was forced upon us. We did not want to fight."

Although it wasn't his first choice, he enjoyed farming. Cows don't care about pedigree.

Charlie found a solitary salvation in the logical commotion of nature. He has never wanted material luxuries: a good soul is all a man needs. A lot of useful things float off the sea, he says. Most of them have washed up in to his lounge. A vertebrae from a pilot whale, honeycombed but heavy, has been modified into a candlestick. Another bone, owner unknown, lies under the couch, slowly petrifying. "It could be an old sea mammal," says Charlie. "Or it could be one of my ancestors.

"Life all round me is interesting. The closer you live to the earth, the better appreciation you have of life and death. I look at growth, and marvel. The longer you look at something man-made, the uglier it gets. The longer you look at something nature made, the more beautiful."

Since he stopped farming, he has had time to work in the community: he helped to dig a school swimming pool, demolish buildings and build marae.

He is helping the iwi build a local economy to bring more people back: they are putting in hives in the region, hoping manuka honey will become a major money-maker. Retire? He says he doesn't know the meaning of the word.

Cath, one of life's great talkers, keeps him fed and grounded. They met in the Greek Isles in the 1970s. She had long legs and hair that jumped out of her head; he was the tour guide. She adores him; he calls her "Mum".

He likes what he sees happening on the marae and in society: the blending of Maori and European, the slow relaxation of tikanga. It bodes well for the country's future, he says.

Despite the horrors he has seen, Charlie looks for the good in man and everything. The worst criminals can change with time and education. Even the moon has a dark side, he says.

It is the sun leaning hard on his face now: the Maori gods are being kind today, he says.

Cath has found his war medals. He didn't want her to. He deserved every one of them, he says, but he's never been one for the limelight.

For the first time, Charlie leaves the sun to sit for photos, until he decides that the camera has had enough, takes out his handkerchief and stares through the threadbare curtains.

"I am the last Ngati Kuri soldier left. War is history, and it needs to be told. It enriches our country."