ROBERT MERVYN CLEMENT NEWSON
Tao Maui te Hapu
Te Rarawa te Iwi
Robert Mervyn Clement Newson, best known as Bobby, is one of the most beloved people at Tāmaki Paenga Hira. Late last year, Victoria and I had the immense privilege of chatting with Bobby about his time with the New Zealand Army in Vietnam, and his many other careers.
Bobby was born in Auckland and was brought up (whāngai) by his maternal grandparents Karu and Katarina Kāmira – the two “most wonderful people in his life” - in a place he calls “Paradise” - Mitimiti Hokianga. Keni Kamira, older brother to Bobby’s mother Neta Kāmira served with the 28 Māori Battalion A Company during the Second World War. He was killed in action on May 25, 1941 during the Battle of Crete.
Uncle Keni was an inspiration for Bobby; his medals hung proudly in the family lounge. “I remember saying to my brothers, that one day I’m going to get medals like uncle Keni.” Keni’s belongings, and the remainder of his pay, were returned to his whānau. His grandparents called it “blood money” and donated the money to Hato Heemi (St James) Catholic Church in Mitimiti. The money was used to purchase a life-sized Statue of Jesus on a wooden cross – the Crucifixion. It still proudly stands in the church today in memory of Keni and all those who lost their lives in First and Second World Wars. Keni’s younger brother organised to get the medals framed and hung in the family home. Many of those who served in the 28 Māori Battalion did not receive their medals. It was the policy of the New Zealand Defence Force at the time for medals to be requested in writing, and then sent in the mail. Many in the battalion believed that there was no mana in receiving the medals in the post and thought that they should instead be received kanohi-ki-te-kanohi.1
There were many veterans from Mitimiti, and the surrounding areas of Hokianga. Anzac Day Commemorations Services are well attended every year to remember all those who had served.
There were two things Bobby wanted to be when he was growing up: a bus driver or to join the Army—to get his medals like Uncle Keni. “I was fascinated by the bus driver, and how he would chat and manoeuvre that bus on the narrow metal roads of Mitimiti.” At secondary School, St Peters Māori College in Auckland, Bobby joined the Army Cadet Unit. He learnt about discipline, about marching in unison, weapon training and Army life. It was a few years later, after leaving school, that he thought about joining the army. Bobby left school in 1965 and was working at the Māori Affairs Department in Auckland studying Anthropology, Psychology, and Māori Studies at Auckland University. The following year he joined the Army as “Vietnam was calling”.
Bobby’s story of enlisting is a colourful one. After his first set of papers were thrown in a fire by a well-meaning friend, Bobby found his father in a pub in Auckland, and asked him to sign the papers. His father had served with the US Army during the Second World War and because he was 19, Bobby needed a parent’s signature to enlist. The publican was asked to sign as a witness, and had a moment of pause when he asked, “If you’re under 21, what are you doing in my pub?”.
Bobby commenced training at Waiouru Military Camp and then transferred to Burnham for a year for corps training. He recalls spending a lot of time playing rugby and participating in kapa haka groups. He remembers how, growing up, everything was based around the church and the marae. He spoke te reo Māori before he spoke English, and when he joined the Army, he brought his world with him. “You come into the Army and there are two things that will get you off training - kapa haka and rugby, so I did both.”
After training in New Zealand, with the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment, 1st Battalion, he was posted to Terendak Military Camp in Malaya, where they underwent more training. While in camp, they did jungle exercises and worked very closely with Gurkhas. “I have the utmost respect for the Gurkha soldiers … they are the best,” Bobby recalls. During a training exercise in dense jungle and swamp area they were told ahead of time that the Gurkhas would come to visit, but they wouldn’t know when, it could be day or night, and they would be the acting like the enemy. One morning after sunrise they were all told “The Gurkhas came last night”. Everyone was puzzled, having not heard a thing. “Look at your boot laces” someone said ... “the Gurkhas had cut our bootlaces in the night. In the bush [jungle] you sleep with your boots on and your rifle beside you.”
“Having qualified with the required training, I was trained as a Lead Scout in a fighting Unit - it was time to head up to Vietnam,” said Bobby. In November 1969, Whisky 2 Company was withdrawn from Vietnam and replaced with Whisky 3 Company, of the Royal New Zealand Infantry Battalion. Whiskey 3 Company and Victor 4 Company were the two Infantry Companies with 161 NZ Artillery Battery - New Zealand's commitment to the SEATO Treaty - with the Australian Regiment 2 RAR.
The New Zealand Contingent in Vietnam, including Whiskey 3 Company, was based at Nui Dat, an air base for air support and helicopter operations. They would helicopter troops and supplies in and out of operations. Operations were three to five weeks in duration, patrolling, fighting, and surviving in the jungles of Vietnam. “It was an impressive site, Iroquois helicopters would come in, everyone would run out and roll on the chopper—seven people per chopper—and then be taken to wherever they were needed,” said Bobby. Helicopter gunships would be loaded up with rockets. They would lead the escort. Before landing, the gunships would fire their rockets and physically clear the space for the troops (infantry) to land in.
Bobby recalls having been quite nervous before heading in on the helicopter the first few times, “but after a few months you would get used to it,” he said. He remembers the dangers of snakes, scorpions, and huge rats; the humid and hot weather; having to wear all their gear, and hardly ever talking. “The time spent out in the jungle bonds you with your platoon,” he recalled. “You became incredibly close with your mates. You go into an operation not knowing that you will come back alive or dead, we suffered many casualties and lost many friends.”
Two of Bobby’s closest friends were Private Greg Taukiri and Private Tommy Cooper. They served in Whisky 3 Company, 3 Platoon, 3 Section together. Tommy Cooper was killed in active service - on 11th October 1970 during an operation. Bobby and Tommy had known each other before the Army. Bobby remembers Tommy fondly, as a jovial character, with the biggest smile you’ve ever seen. While overseas, the pair had celebrated their 21st birthdays together. Tommy had grown up in the Waikato. Tommy Cooper body was returned to his whānau in Waikato and buried in his urupā amongst his tūpuna. Shortly after Tommy died, Whisky 3 Company withdrew from Vietnam. They were the last Whisky Company to serve in Vietnam. By December 1971, New Zealand had withdrawn all combat troops.
Bobby credits his wife Gemma with helping get him get through life with the loss of his incredibly dear friends, and his experiences in Vietnam. Bobby and Gemma were good friends prior to Bobby joining the Army. They kept in touch with each other writing letters and sharing good and sad news. When he returned to New Zealand, Gemma came to Whenuapai air base to welcome him home.
Bobby and Gemma have been together for 49 years. They married shortly after Bobby left the Army, when Gemma declared that she wasn’t going to marry anyone in the army. They bought a house in Te Atatū and raised their family. It is still their family home today.
During the 2020 Level 4 nationwide lockdown, Bobby’s son returned from Australia with his two children. They all currently live with Gemma and Bobby, “Whānau living is the best,” says Bobby. He and Gemma have three boys and eight mokopuna [grandchildren]. “I live for them. They are my pride and joy. I wouldn’t be where I am today without Gemma and my whānau,” he adds.
After his service, Bobby had numerous roles. “I went driving trucks for a while and got all my licenses." Bobby joined the Police in 1974 and was stationed at Auckland Central Police. In 1978 at Bastion Point (Takaparawhau) he served with the New Zealand Police to evict Ngāti Whātua and the protestors off their land. He knew many of the Ngāti Whātua people in whanaungatanga and socially. A sad time in history – to Ngāti Whātua leaders he apologises.
In 1981 the Springbok rugby team toured Aotearoa - a team that was selected based on racial criteria. Protests against racism in South Africa became world news. Once again, Bobby found himself on the front line – one of many scars in his life, he says.
Bobby moved his family from Auckland to Kaitaia in search of a more peaceful life. He rented their family home out and moved up north. At the welcome, the sergeant let the cat out of the bag by telling Bobby and his family that he was the top applicant, while the family was led to believe he was being posted to Kaitaia!
Kaitaia was close to Bobby’s home in Mitimiti, so he was able to visit frequently often he would get a phone call from Mitimiti aunties “Oh, so-and-so is in town, can you find them for us?” or “Can you pick up some bread and milk for us, I will pay you later?” Mitimiti is approximately one hour's drive west of Kaitaia. The family lived in Kaitaia for six years and rented a house with a couple of acres. They had a dog, horse, and calves. It was close to the sea with good fishing. If it was too rough to go fishing on the east side, it would only take them 20 minutes to get to the west side and vice versa. Eventually the family returned to Auckland, with Bobby leaving the police in 1990.
Bobby then switched lanes, somewhat fulfilling his childhood dream of becoming a bus driver, by starting his own taxi business. He had regular customers who would hire him for a full day. He loved to talk to everyone, and often drove Members of Parliament and people who flew into Auckland for a day before returning to Wellington. One of the people Bobby drove worked for the Human Rights Commission, and he suggested that Bobby apply for a job with them.
Bobby worked for the Human Rights Commission for ten years, and in that time, he worked with the Race Relations Office, the Children’s Commission, the Health and Disability Commission, and the Māori Language Commission. Whilst working with the Māori Language Commission, Bobby also did some contract work with Auckland Council, helping write speeches for the mayor, keeping up iwi relations, attending council functions with iwi, and travelling around Auckland with the Council. Bobby credits his experience as a taxi driver for teaching him diplomatic skills, and I would add his innate ability to bring joy, love, and kindness to every situation helps as well.
In 1995, Bobby was part of the group who helped repatriate Bishop Pompallier to Aotearoa New Zealand. Born in Lyons, France in 1801, Jean-Baptise François Pompallier was ordained as a priest in 1829 and in 1836 was appointed Vicar Apostolic of Western Oceania. Pompallier arrived at the Hokianga Harbour in January 1838, on the schooner Raiatea and travelled extensively around both the North and South Islands, setting up sixteen mission stations by 1844. In 1840 at Waitangi, when the Treaty was being discussed, he asked Lieutenant Governor Hobson to guarantee “religious freedom for all beliefs in New Zealand”. This pledge became known as the unwritten fourth article. Pompallier left New Zealand in February 1868 to try to raise more funds for his church, however he was unsuccessful and presented his resignation to the Pope in 1869.2
Pompallier died in Puteaux, France, in December 1871, and was buried in a pauper’s grave as he was not well known in his own country, having spent most of his life in New Zealand. New Zealanders remembered him well and while in France would often visit and tidy his grave. In the early 1990s, discussions to return Pompallier to New Zealand gained momentum.3 In December 2001, a delegation left New Zealand to accompany the remains of Bishop Pompallier. Bobby was on the interim committee to arrange the repatriation, and accompanied the delegation. The hīkoi returned in January 2002, and Pompallier was reinterred at Motuti, Hokianga. A year later, Bobby returned to France to place a kahotu (taonga) on Pompallier’s grave.
TAMAKI PAENGA HIRA | AUCKLAND MUSEUM
While Bobby was at Auckland Council, a role as Tumu Here Iwi Relationships Manager at Tāmaki Paenga Hira was advertised. The role was almost made for Bobby, combining as it does his warmth, kindness, diplomatic nature, and experience in repatriation.4
Bobby plays an enormous part in fulfilling Tāmaki Paenga Hira’s function as a war memorial. He is often involved in reciting the Ode at commemorative events, where he plays a dual role as a veteran and as a representative of the Museum. Just like his Uncle Keni, Bobby received his medals, and proudly wears them to events. “I got my medals, but it was at a cost: I feel as though I represent those who didn’t come home.” Bobby also ensures that we know who we are remembering.
While we were talking, he told me about Anzac Day 2017. Francis Toko, a fellow Vietnam veteran, had served with the 161 Battery. He had planned to attend the dawn service that year, but passed away on April 24. His daughter called Bobby and said, “We want to bring Dad to the Anzac Day parade.” Bobby helped to ensure that Toko’s final wishes were respected: Toko’s family followed the parade and carried his casket to a bench in front of the Weeping Wall. He stayed for the dawn service and went to the RSA where they had one last farewell service with his friends before taking him to his final resting place in Kaihū, Northland.5 Everything was very last-minute, but it was about Francis. On Anzac Day, when we come together to remember those who served, Bobby said, “This is who we are here to remember.”
Bobby is a beloved member of Tāmaki Paenga Hira. We are incredibly fortunate to know him and have his guidance. I asked him what his favourite thing about working at the Museum was, and he replied, “We celebrate each event and each other — the opening of Te Ao Mārama ... everything is an achievement I think—standing up on Anzac Day, and seeing all those people, whānau, veterans’ mothers, fathers, young people, children… what a place to work! I have never worked in a place where I have been so inspired and satisfied.” He concluded, “The world my grandparents gave me, that I believe in, I’ve been able to share and stand proudly here at Tāmaki Paenga Hira on Pukekawa, Tāmaki Makaurau. Kia ora.”
Ka nui te mihi ki a koe, Bobby.
 In April 2021, the medals of 66 members of C Company, 28 Maori Battalion were presented to their descendants in a powhiri. Lawyer David Stone, began researching his great uncle who died in Italy, but never received his medals because of the policy at the time. https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/te-manu-korihi/440660/maori-battalion-whanau-set-to-receive-medals-75-years-on
 Pompallier Hokianga Trust - https://hokiangapompallier.org.nz/pompallier-history/
 Return of Bishop Pompallier to New Zealand https://teara.govt.nz/en/photograph/46765/the-return-of-bishop-pompallier-to-new-zealand
 Repatriation case study: Auckland Museum | Tāmaki Paenga Hira
 Vietnam War veteran Francis Toko attends last dawn parade in casket, New Zealand Herald, 25 April 2017.
Hauraki Gulf Kōrero, Interview with Bobby Newson
Cite this article
Bobby Newson. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 29 October 2021. Updated: 11 November 2021.