The remains of 27 New Zealand Defence Force personnel and one child repatriated from Malaysia and Singapore have been returned to their families at a ramp ceremony at Auckland International Airport.
CAPTION: A coffin containing the remains of a New Zealand soldier is returned to his family at Auckland International Airport. NZDF photo.
This was part of an ongoing program known as Project Te Auraki (The Return).
The New Zealand Army soldiers were serving in Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam when they died. The child was a soldier’s son.
The remains were returned on a chartered Air New Zealand flight and were received with a traditional Māori welcome, before the caskets were carried past a guard of honour and handed back to their families.
A short private family service was held, followed by an NZDF haka as the hearses left the airport.
Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern joined official guests from Malaysia and Singapore attending the ramp ceremony, along with Veterans Affairs, the Returned and Services’ Association, and Vietnam and Malayan veterans’ organisations representatives.
RNZAF Group Captain Carl Nixon said it was important to return the fallen personnel in a dignified manner, in accordance with NZDF’s contemporary cultural, religious and military protocols.
“Today we honour the memory of a child and the sacrifice of 27 soldiers who died serving their country overseas,” Group Captain Nixon said.
“We’re bringing them home to their families, who have waited more than 60 years for this moment.
“This project is about making sure the inequalities and inconsistencies of the past are put right and everyone is treated the same, regardless of wealth, rank or cause of death.”
The repatriations are part of the NZDF Te Auraki (The Return) project, under which service personnel and dependents buried overseas between 1955 and 1971 will be returned to New Zealand, following a change in government policy. Between 1955 and 1971 NZDF personnel who died while serving overseas were interred in overseas cemeteries unless their families paid repatriation costs.
The remains will be reinterred at a range of Army, public or private cemeteries, depending on family preferences and the soldiers’ qualifying service.
Memorials (headstones or plaques) will be provided and $1000 will be given towards a headstone for those who wish for their relative to be interred in a public/private cemetery.
The NZDF will not conduct military funerals because all of the deceased had military funerals before their interment.
However, families will be provided with NZDF support, such as chaplains, buglers and pall-bearers as required.
The NZDF deployed an expert disinterment team of bioarchaeologists, forensic anthropologists and NZDF odontologists (dentists) to carry out the repatriation and identification process.
The team was led by an NZDF doctor and worked alongside the Malaysian Armed Forces, who provided logistic and forensic support.
Planning is already under way for the next two tranches of project Te Auraki, under which two personnel will be repatriated from England in September and two from the Republic of Korea in October.