Should we bring our fallen soldiers home?

by Fiona Rae / 25 April, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - In Foreign Fields Witi Ihimaera

In Foreign Fields, Anzac Day.

For documentary In Foreign Fields, one of our most successful writers visited six countries to speak to the families of those buried in Commonwealth war graves.

Author Witi Ihimaera asks an important question in a new documentary screening on Anzac Day: should we bring our world-war dead home?

The journey is both personal and political for Ihimaera, whose uncle lies in a Tunisian cemetery. In In Foreign Fields (Māori TV, Anzac Day, 10.00am), he meets a number of people who want to bring their relatives back from faraway lands.

As he sets out, Ihimaera is not sure. His mother’s lifelong wish was that her brother, Rangiora Keelan, an infantry officer who died in 1943, should rest in the family urupa; he has been lying in Sfax Cemetery, south of Tunis, for 75 years. But, Ihimaera asks, if Keelan’s remains are to be repatriated, “should it be one or should it be all?”

One woman in no doubt is Sherrol Manton, whose brother Morrie died in Vietnam. The family was told in 1967 it would cost $10,000 to bring his body home and he would be buried in Malaya. Morrie was eventually brought back to New Zealand by the Americans, but a bitter taste remained.

Bringing soldiers’ bodies home is now an accepted practice, but it wasn’t always. The programme contains some fascinating history of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, founded in 1917 by Fabian Ware. Rudyard Kipling was also heavily involved and was responsible for much of the wording on monuments and gravestones, including the famous inscription for unknown soldiers, Known Unto God.

When we think of our war dead, we usually think of France or Gallipoli, but there are Kiwis in cemeteries around the globe. Paul Thomas’s brother, Adrian, died in 1956 during the Malay conflict and is buried at Cheras War Cemetery in Kuala Lumpur.

Thomas, a former soldier, is the founder of Families of the Forgotten Fallen, which successfully petitioned the Government to have the soldiers buried in Malaysia brought home.

Māori Television is once again devoting the day to Anzac-appropriate programming, beginning with the Auckland Dawn Service at 5.20am. Julian Wilcox and Alison Mau host.

Another new documentary, Kiwi Service Women of WWII (9.00am), features the stories of five female veterans: a former WAAF aircraftwoman, two Wrens, a land girl and a New Zealand Army nurse who went to the Middle East.

There’s also another chance to see Sam Neill’s excellent documentary Tides of Blood (3.55pm) and Taika Waititi’s short film Tama Tū (3.35pm).

This article was first published in the April 21, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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