PART 2 OF A HISTORICAL FEATURE BY ROD DIXON
The men from Mangaia may have served in different companies and battalions, but they all fought the same battles in Greece, Crete – and then Italy. There was Private Popoare Tangiiti, Lieutenant Colin McGruther, his elder brother Second Lieutenant Jock McGruther, and Sergeant Dick Aubin.
Four went to war; only one would return.
When Second Lieutenant Win Ryan was given command of B Company on Crete, Colin McGruther came under his direct command – and soon Ryan, too, would become part of the Mangaia crew and eventually honour his comrades by moving to Mangaia as Resident Agent for the island (1947-50).
But first, from November 1943, Ryan was promoted to Captain and second-in-command of the HQ Squadron of the 18th Regiment, and Commanding Officer of the 20th (NZ) Armoured Regiment (Oct-Dec 1945) under the command of General Sir Bernard Freyberg during the liberation of northern Italy.
And it was in Italy that the McGruthers, Aubin and Ryan found themselves once again in the same theatre of war as part of the 2nd New Zealand Division. Dick Aubin (A squadron, 18th Battalion) and Jock McGruther (C Company, 24th Battalion) were in tanks, and Colin McGruther was in charge of a reconnaissance unit for Head Quarters Squadron. Ryan was second in command of the Squadron and Colin’s immediate superior officer.
Despite being twice wounded, Colin (1918-96) survived the war, but his older brother Jock (1915-44), a temporary major commanding C Company, 24th Infantry Battalion, was killed by mortar shellfire on the morning at Monte Camurcina, south-west of Florence. Sergeant Dick Aubin was killed by shellfire on 9 April, 1944 during the battle for Monte Cassino.
Ryan ended the war as a Major and was awarded the OBE for services in Italy.
He rejoined his wife Isabel Jean Ryan, a nursing sister in the 2nd NZEF. While remaining a Major in the Reserve of Officers, Ryan found it difficult to gain a civilian posting equivalent to his wartime rank and responsibilities.
Before the war he had worked on aerodrome surveys for the Public Works Department. After the war he worked as a sub-overseer in the Public Works Department in Whangarei. In 1947, he responded to an advertisement for the Resident Agent’s position at Mangaia, Cook Islands.
Appointed to Mangaia in December 1947, Ryan’s arrival was marked in style.
Finding that his belongings had not yet arrived, and with no ship in prospect before the new fruit season five months away, Ryan arranged for a New Zealand National Airlines Corporation airliner to drop his personal effects by parachute in February 1948, an arrow of white sand pointing into the wind before the Oneroa church.
A few months later, Ryan’s former commanding officer in Egypt, Greece and Italy, Lt General Sir Bernard Freyberg VC paid an official visit to Mangaia in his new role as Governor-General of New Zealand.
Ryan asked in advance “whether it would be possible for His Excellency to invest him with the Order bestowed on him during the war.”
“It will serve to increase the mana of the Resident Agent with the people of Mangaia,” he wrote.
The investiture took place at 11.30 am on 8 July, 1948 on the sports field in front of the Post Office at Oneroa.
In his official address of welcome, translated by the wireless operator Teariki Puri, Ryan addressed Freyberg as “my General under whose command I had the honour to serve throughout the difficult years just passed.”
The ceremony was followed by a march-past of the Boys Brigade.
As the naval frigate HMNZS Bellona carrying the official party steamed past Oneroa from Atuakoro about 6pm, “a display of rockets, Verey lights and search lights was given.”
Seven tins of sweets were distributed among the children as gifts of the visiting party.
Ryan remained on Mangaia until October 1950 when, at the request of the Aronga Mana of Mangaia, he was transferred to Rarotonga as Superintendant of Works.
He returned to Mangaia, in his new capacity, to continue work on blasting the makatea access (‘The Cutting’) and reef channels.
He also completed a series of public works first sketched out in his term as Resident Agent, including construction of a new hospital on the makatea, a new administration centre and high school, improvements to water tanks around the island and the construction of a new harbour passage at Avarua.
Win Ryan remained as Superintendent of the Public Works Department in Rarotonga until his retirement. He died at Mangakino in 1979.
Colin McGruther passed away in 1996 aged 78. Jock McGregor lies in the Assisi War Cemetery and Dick Aubin in the Cassino War Cemetery, Italy. The final resting place of Private Popoare Tangiiti is so far unknown.
It is said that all people in the world are six, or fewer, degrees of separation from each other. The same can be said for places and events.
And so it was that the lives of these five men linked the island of Mangaia, to the 18, 20 and 28 Battalions of the New Zealand Army, the battle for Greece, the escape of the King from the Nazis, and the battle for Italy.