In March this year, Collection Manager Victoria Passau and I sat down with Murray Watene (Ngāti Kahungunu) in his home in Torbay. Murray is a familiar face to us, having been involved in planning and organising commemorative events at Tāmaki Paenga Hira. It was a pleasure to learn more about Murray as he shared stories of his time in Malaya and Vietnam along with his poems, and family scrapbooks.
Murray Watene is from the small village of Waimarama on the East Coast. He is the second eldest of eight children from parents Leona Odelia Takerei and William Aniheta Watene. Murray and his siblings remain close, though they have now spread out across the world. Murray and his eldest sister still live here in New Zealand, and the rest of his siblings live in Australia and the United States.
He fondly recalls growing up in Waimarama: “I loved my childhood, even though we didn’t have much we didn’t really know - we’d go to the beach and collect seafood, plenty of seafood in those days.” An avid poet, Murray wrote about his memories of growing up in Waimarama:
I round the bend atop the hill,
‘Tis many years I’ve been,
This stupendous scene of country sea and sky,
The stark stone-grey-white of Motu-okura,
Island in the sun,
The wind is warm across my face,
I hear the rustle of cabbage trees,
Nostalgia overwhelms me,
I look, down the valley and see,
The tops of trees,
Our old house barely stands,
The possums stake their claim,
I think of young boys in their teens,
Of mischief (Tehianga) long ago,
The whanau now is worlds apart,
I wish this wasn’t so.
Murray played a lot of rugby during his childhood, and in 1959 he was recruited into the New Zealand Police. “I wasn’t a very good scholar,” he recalled, “but I was a good rugby player.” Murray toured New Zealand with the police rugby team, eventually deciding he wanted to go overseas, and joined the New Zealand Army to serve in Malaya.
Malaya New Zealand’s post-1945 military history in Malaya began in 1948, when the Malayan Emergency was declared. Between then and 1966, approximately 4,000 New Zealanders served in Malaya/Malaysia as part of our commitment to the British Commonwealth Far East Reserve.1 The New Zealand Infantry served as part of the 28th Commonwealth Infantry Brigade Group, which was made up of forces from the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia.2 During this time, the New Zealand Infantry Regiment committed three battalions to the brigade, with each battalion serving in a two-year rotation.
Murray served as part of the Headquarters of 1st Battalion, New Zealand Regiment from 1961 to 1963, where he was part of the Regimental Police Section based at Terendak Camp, Malacca. The camp housed the entire 28 Commonwealth Infantry Brigade Group, covering an area of close to 1,500 acres, with an additional 3,500 acres dedicated to training purposes.3 Murray’s role with the police was to patrol the camp, and ensure curfew times; he also took part in sports activities around the camp such as shot put and running, and was involved with singing and kapa haka groups.
Service in Malaya was unique as it was the first time families were able to accompany servicepeople overseas. As a result, there were around 10,000 inhabitants of the Terendak Camp.4 It was while serving in Malaya that Murray met his future wife, Carol Theresa Ann Wicks, the daughter of a British Senior Officer. The couple were married in October 1963 by Reverend Whakahuihui Vercoe, and honeymooned in the Cameron Highlands. Their wedding was announced in the Terendak Camp newsletter The Bukit Bulletin. Since his family weren’t able to join them, they sent the couple telegrams with well-wishes and congratulations.
In 1971, Murray was deployed to Vietnam as part of the Victor 6 Company of the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment. The Victor 6 Company (V6 Coy) was integrated with companies from 4 Royal Australian Regiment (4 RAR) and became 4th Royal Australian Regiment / New Zealand (ANZAC) Battalion, the final Anzac Battalion to serve in Vietnam. In December 1969, the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment relocated from Terendak Military Camp in Malaysia to Singapore, and from June 1971 they were stationed at Dieppe Barracks in Singapore.
Murray served as a Section Commander, commanding a platoon of about 35 men. Again he involved himself in kapa haka, and was a part of a team that performed for Australian and American troops. Murray’s family joined him in Singapore. He described his time in the country as a “delightful experience”; later, the family, who loved to travel, made an effort to go overseas every year, and would often return to Singapore.
Murray found Vietnam very different from Malaya. “We were professional soldiers - always the point company - always the leaders ... and we were incredibly well trained … we knew exactly what to do - silent signals …”, he said. The company was only in Vietnam from May to December 1971: “Last company there, and then we were pulled out, helicopters came to get us - for about 4 to 5 months. Supposed to be there for a year.”
In August 1971, New Zealand and Australia announced they would withdraw combat troops from Vietnam. Australia had about 6,000 troops there, down from a peak of 8,000. New Zealand had about 260; half of their peak strength.5 The decision to withdraw troops was part of a policy shift by the United States from direct military intervention to “strategic Vietnamisation”—a handover of responsibility to local forces. Instead of troops, training teams would be sent to train the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).6
Following his service in Vietnam, Murray returned home and was posted to Burnham Military Camp. At first, he was training soldiers, but was then moved into the Defence Travel Center, where he was a movements NCO (Non-Commissioned Officer), in charge of arranging all the travel for the Defence Force. It was while he was working in the Center that he was offered the opportunity to go to Antarctica.
Murray spent about three months in Antarctica, working with the New Zealand Army helping with the upkeep of Scott Base. He was there when Air New Zealand Flight TE901 crashed into the lower slopes of Mt Erebus on 28 November 1979. He vividly recalls the moment the aircraft disappeared from the watchtower radar. Because of his police experience, Murray was asked to help with the recovery operation.
While his time in Antarctica ended with immense sadness, he has happy memories too. He recalled how they hosted the first hangi in Antarctica at McMurdo Base: “The Americans loved it,” he said. They had pork, chicken, pumpkin, kūmara, puha, taro, eel, and watercress—flown down from Christchurch for the occasion.
After three months in Antarctica, Murray returned to New Zealand and was asked to be a Warrant Officer at the Defence Travel Centre in Auckland, based at the recruiting offices. The family relocated from Christchurch to Auckland in 1980, and four years later Murray retired from the New Zealand Army after nearly 25 years’ service. At the time the family had settled in Auckland. After stints in Christchurch, Malaya, and Singapore, Murray had been offered a promotion based at Waiouru, but his wife told him in no uncertain terms, “you can go - I’m staying here, you can go on your own, I’m not going.”
AFTER THE ARMY
Following his retirement from the Army, his next career move was already lined up. A friend who’d worked for the courts had been asking what Murray was going to do when he got out of the army. “You got a job for me?” Murray asked. His friend wanted him to be a bailiff. Murray agreed on the basis that it was only going to be temporary. He ended up staying for thirteen years, he said. “Quite a good job, I really enjoyed it. I only stayed there because it was a job, and then I ended up being there for 13 years, and they were going to have a [restructure].”
He put his hand up for retirement, but had no plans to actually retire. While he was working with the courts, he also had a Saturday job where he worked as a warden, so after leaving his role as a bailiff he became head warden at the Community Work Centre. He was based at the courthouse in Warkworth, which was open two days a week, and on the off days it was Murray’s Headquarters. He proved to be quite good at convincing people to pay their fines, often visiting local maraes and talking to kaumātua.
At 83, Murray is still serving the community. His beloved wife Carol passed away 8 years ago. He is still very much a family man, and he has increasingly become involved with the Auckland RSA, and Veterans’ Affairs. He first joined the RSA a decade ago, when current president Graham Gibson asked him to read the Ode of Remembrance in te reo Māori. Murray also worked very closely with Sam Noon, supporting Vanguard Military School and their fellow veterans. Murray still does a lot of work with Veterans’ Affairs, sharing their work and promoting the benefits veterans are eligible for. He encourages fellow veterans to receive the benefits they are entitled to.
As part of the executive team of the Auckland RSA, Murray helped plan the Anzac Day ceremony at Tāmaki Paenga Hira. This year, Murray wrote and recited a poem called “Stand To”.
“STAND TO” (FIRST LIGHT ANZAC)
With my heels together, standing tall,
As the Dawn breaks on this Anzac Morn,
It has been written,
We warriors of yesteryear will once again,
This day of remembrance went,
A time to greet old mates,
So many they rest in peace,
Their service with honours given,
We set the trend when we were young,
Still wet behind the ears,
To some whose health is not the best,
To some whose wit sharp as a tack,
The mind is willing, the body spent,
This life's journey will again bring forth,
Sweet memories of time last seen,
We see the ghost of faces past,
I feel their presence near,
We salute their courage, we honour their sacrifice,
To all veterans here,
To the souls of brave men and women,
A toast to country, loyalty, honour and mates,
Drink to these precious moments in time,
Still, we are warriors
We must, we will remember them,
Lest we forget,
Tēnā Koutou, Tēnā Koutou,
Tēnā Tatou, Katoa,
Tēnā rawa atu koe, Murray for sitting down and sharing his memories and experiences with us.
1 New Zealand and the Malaya Emergency, NZ History.
2 28 Commonwealth Infantry Brigade Group, Wikipedia
3 Terendak Camp, Wikipedia
4 New Zealand Army families in Malaya, 1961. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand.
5 Australia and New Zealand to quit Vietnam this year, New York Times, published August 19, 1971.
6 Deadline for Vietnam pull-out announced. NZ History.
Cite this article
Murray Watene. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 14 July 2021. Updated: 28 July 2021.