‘Tears always fall’ – Cook Islanders remember their fallen Anzac heroes

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Cook Islander Sergeant Alexander Brown
Cook Islander Sergeant Alexander Brown, who was killed in action over Somme, France, in World War One . . . "the boy from Mangaia". Image: Tamaiva Tuavera/RNZ Pacific

By Lydia Lewis, RNZ Pacific journalist

In the early 1940s a young Sergeant Alexander Brown from Mangaia, Cook Islands, was killed in action.

“His siblings, all my uncles and aunts all passed away without knowing where he was. He was 24,” former member of the Cook Islands Parliament Tamaiva Tuavera — affectionately known as captain Tama — said.

The “boy from Mangaia” left his home land as a teenager and went to study in New Zealand.

World War Two broke out, so he left school and signed up for the Royal Air Force.

He made his way to Canada for training and became a navigator on the bombers.

Alex became Sergeant Alexander Brown, the first Cook Islander to be enlisted in the Royal Air Force.

“Taking part in bombing missions over Germany, he was killed in action,” captain Tama said.

Burial site unknown
Nobody ever told the family where their Alex was buried, a deep pain carried for generations.

“Especially my mother, Mrs Jessie Mary Tuavera née Brown. Tears always fall when she talks about her baby brother,” He said.

Seventy four years after he was killed his great niece, Cassey Eggelton, went searching for him.

She found him in Kiel, Germany.

Cassey Eggelton
Cassey Eggelton, in Kiel, Germany, after researching and finding her uncle Sergeant Alexander Brown’s grave, 74 years after his death. Image: Tamaiva Tuavera/RNZ Pacific

They now know, thanks to the research of captain Tama’s sister, that Sergeant Alexander Brown was killed in action over Somme and then moved to the Commonwealth Military Cemetery in Kiel, Germany.

“And that’s one of my uncles during the war. I’ve got other great uncles, those in the First World War and the Second World War,” Captain Tama said.

Captain Tama wants the next generation to remember the sacrifices made by soldiers who fought for freedom, “the veterans and war heroes before us”.

‘I get a lump in the throat’
Captain Tama is a former member of the Cook Islands Parliament and soldier and Anzac Day holds some serious weight in his heart.

“It’s hard to describe at times. It’s a feeling that only comes back during Anzac when you remember the ones that have passed from your ancestors to your mate,” he said.

“See for us because we served, we know our ancestors went to war, the First World War, the Second World War, and all the conflicts in between. And so it’s always hard but Anzac always brings back, the memory keeps coming back.”

Anzac Day in the Cook Islands is to be celebrated a day after Aotearoa.

Captain Tama has organised an event where a 300 strong crowd is to be hosted the day before the official Cook Islands Dawn service, in conjunction with commemoration services in Aotearoa.

“A reunion for ex serving and currently serving soldiers, female and male,” he said.

A teary eyed Cook Islands RSA president, Thomas Annas, said the reunion was already very touching, with his old mates already arriving.

Southeast Asia reunion
“We have a reunion over here for soldiers that served in Southeast Asia, from 1974 to 1989. And they have decided that for this year’s reunion, they would hold it here in the Cook Islands,” Annas said.

He is proud it is being held at his small RSA of around 80 members.

This is personal for him too, reuniting with people he hasn’t seen for many years.

“I left Singapore in 1978 and I just lost contact with them,” he said.

One of the old comrade’s expected to attend is a long lost mate who he has not seen for 26 years.

“I get a lump in the throat, you get the odd tear in your eye now and again when you meet up with someone,” he said.

There were just under 500 soldiers from the Cook islands who volunteered in World War, they were rejected, but being ‘warriors from the Cook Islands’ they wanted to go, so raised money and eventually they did go attached to the 28th Maori Battalion.

“They said 30 of these Cook Islanders did the work of over 100 British soldiers,” Annas said.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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