When Sir Robert Gillies found out he’d been given a knighthood, the 96-year-old promptly got his grandson around to write a reply email on the same day to say “no thanks”.
It’s the second time the only surviving member of the 28th Māori Battalion has been considered for a New Zealand Honour after a previous nomination didn’t go ahead when it was learned he would refuse it.
“Koro Bom”, as he’s affectionately called, turned down the offers because he reckons there are plenty of others who have since died who deserve it more.
It took some convincing, but this time Gillies agreed. But there is a catch.
He’s only willing to accept the knight’s companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit – the highest honour given – if it’s on behalf of every battalion member and their families.
The reluctant war hero wasn’t too keen on the fanfare that goes with receiving a knighthood as well – insisting on just one brief media interview with a handful of selected journalists.
When asked how he felt he replied: “It’s very frightening for me because I’m not used to all this public stuff.”
So now he’s got his terms of the honour straight, he told the Rotorua Daily Post he felt a huge sense of pride.
“I feel I have to front up for the 3600 men who served in that wonderful fighting unit.
“I feel that the true people who need this honour have all passed on.”
Born in Napier, Gillies (Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Kahungunu) arrived in Ōhinemutu, Rotorua, with his family at the age of 4.
He tried twice to go to war but was turned down for being too young. Finally, at the age of 17 he learned to give a false birth date and off he went.
After initially digging in at Paihia to prepare for the arrival of the Japanese, he left for the northern hemisphere in 1943 with the 10th Reinforcements.
They arrived in North Africa, he was injured at Orsogna late in 1943 but returned to fight with the battalion until the end of the war, including surviving the gruelling Battle of Monte Cassino early in 1944.
The shrapnel that lingers in his arms is a lasting reminder of his two years at war.
“I had never even been as far as Mamaku before I joined the army. But sometimes I wonder now what it was all for. We stopped the tyranny of Hitler at the time, I suppose. But I wonder if the world is really a better place for the cost of all our boys.”
Now he is a Sir, he was asked what his message for the nation would be.
“In the first place, they better start looking after the ordinary people instead of the rich. It is harder now for people to get a house. In our days you got one for £2000. It’s all about money, it’s not about people. That’s the trouble, we follow America too much.”
His leadership is such he’s spent the last two decades representing the battalion at events.
He’s attended annual dawn and civic Anzac ceremonies, presented awards and laid a wreath at the ceremony in Italy in 2019 to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the Battles of Cassino.
He was recognised as a knight of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in 2019 – another award he reluctantly received if only it were to be on behalf of his fellow men.
He has been 28th Māori Battalion B Company History Trust trustee, an active member of the Te Arawa Returned Services Association and recently led the 75th-anniversary celebration of the return of the B company to Tamatekapua at Ohinemutu in Rotorua.
He doesn’t just wear a war hero hat. He’s been active with his iwi and continues to work on the marae, maintain the war memorial, participate in iwi affairs and it’s not uncommon to see him up a ladder or painting a gravestone.
He wears his yellow and black Waikite Rugby Club colours with pride and was instrumental early on in establishing the current clubrooms.
Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson said the Government was proud to “tautoko”such a special man.
“He has been an inspiration for us in Government. He took some convincing. He is such a special koroua and I think the iwi should be proud.”
Ngāti Whakaue kaumātua Monty Morrison said it was a proud year with Dame Ruia Mereana Morrison also being made a dame in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in June.
“It’s a massive honour and delight to be able to share in having two of our own honoured in this way.”
Morrison said for Gillies it was an honour long time coming and one which he knew he would accept with reluctance.
“Bom is known for his humility and his reluctance doesn’t surprise me but it is a fitting tribute.”
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