Someone’s brothers, someone’s sons


Below is the text of an address delivered by former Sergeant-Major of the New Zealand Army, Bob Davies, at the Onward Bar in Taupo on ANZAC Day 2021.

“This morning I will to relate to you an action that upheld the finest traditions of one of the New Zealand Army’s premier fighting units, the 1st Battalion, the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment, the only battalion that has added a Battle Honour to its colours since World War 2. Unlike most stories this Anzac Day though this is not one about combat in far-flung fields. It is a story that played out very close to here some thirty years ago. A story as epic as any that will be told this Anzac Day and unfortunately a story too few in New Zealand know much about. It is a story about two senior soldiers and another young man who demonstrated they are cut from the same cloth that the finest of this Regiment has seen. These soldiers were involved in an incident that claimed more lives than any other single action since WW2.

On the morning of Thursday 9 August 1990, 10 soldiers from B Company, 1 RNZIR, together with a Naval rating and two instructors from the Army Adventurous Training Centre, commenced a mountaineering course on Mount Ruapehu. 13 personnel departed Waiouru Camp that morning. Only seven returned.

The weather on the 9th of August was very good, with clear skies and light winds. The group spent the first day, a Thursday, climbing to the summit and conducted some practical training.On Friday, the group spent the day constructing two snow caves and a snow dome and then slept that night in those shelters. The next morning, Saturday, the weather deteriorated significantly, with very strong northerly winds and very low visibility. The group remained sheltering in their snow caves for a second night. On the following day (Sunday), the decision was made by the instructors to move back to the Dome Shelter. It was from then on that serious difficulties began to develop.

On leaving the shelter of their snow caves, the group was exposed to the full force of the storm that had now developed. Visibility was reduced to a few meters and the wind had significantly increased to an estimated strength of around 150kph; strong enough to lift members of the group off the ground. The decision was made to halt and attempts made to dig trenches and use the packs to provide some shelter from the wind. The group was now on the flat Col, approximately 200 meters from the Dome Shelter; probably the most exposed position on the mountain at that time.

After remaining in this location for two to three hours, a second, unsuccessful attempt was made to find the Dome Shelter. It was then that the first hypothermic cases became apparent. The group stopped whilst casualties were attended to and attempts were made to construct a snow shelter. This proved impossible due to the ferocity of the storm. The group then attempted to “dig in” in that location. At this point, two members of the group were hypothermic, one was suffering from frost bite and a number of others close to exhaustion. A decision was made to seek assistance and the senior instructor, Sgt Snowden, together with Pte Brendon Burchell, departed down the mountain. The time was now approximately 1630hrs.

Throughout that night, the storm continued with the same ferocious intensity. By this time, the soldiers were without any experienced leadership, as the lone instructor left on the mountain had become non-effective. Ptes David Stewart and Sonny Te Rure (now known as Sonny Tavake) constantly moved about the group, offering encouragement and attempting to alleviate the suffering by giving over some of their own clothing and equipment. They were assisted in their efforts by LCpl Culloty and Pte Berger.

In the words of LCpl Culloty “….word filtered back that an instructor had gone for help and for the remainder to break out their sleeping bags. By the time this reached Pte’s Stewart, Tavake, and myself, those that were able had done so, however 3 – 4 soldiers displaying signs of hypothermia, were incapable of this. We gathered them into a group and Ptes Stewart and Tavake went in search of packs to get the sleeping bags out. This was no easy task as visibility was near zero and many packs were buried in snow that became ice in a very short period or had blown away. Each time a sleeping bag was found, they came back to the group and took one away and put him in a sleeping bag as best they could.

They left finding sleeping bags for themselves until last. They came back to find the last person there (myself) had collapsed. Pte Stewart dragged me to a bag and managed to get my legs and lower torso into it. He then put a survival bag around my upper body. There was by then only one sleeping bag for Ptes Stewart and Tavake as no other packs could be found. They covered themselves as best they could.As the night progressed the direction of the wind changed constantly, resulting in large amounts of snow building up on my chest then freezing solid. As the weight increased, I began to have difficulties breathing and called for help. Pte Stewart leaned over and eventually was able to clear the snow and ice off my chest allowing me to breathe normally. He did this approximately six times during the night. Later, a soldier not far from me had his bag blown away and I got him to join me, and in doing so, my survival bag blew away, so we used the remainder of my sleeping bag to cover our heads and shoulders.

Later a soldier from the end of the group crawled over and said that the person he had been sharing a bag with had died. We told him to go back, remove the body from the bag, and get in, and he left to do so. He then came back and said that he could not find his sleeping bag (I assume it had already been covered with snow). He asked if he could join me and the soldier with me, and I told him no, as there was no room and that he should find somebody with a bag to themselves. He returned a short time later having found no shelter, and again asked for help. At this point, Pte Stewart told him to join him and Pte Tavake in their single sleeping bag. In doing this, their sleeping bag was blown away and the three of them were without any shelter whatsoever.

After this, we began to grow weaker and weaker. The soldier who had been with Ptes Stewart and Tavake crawled over beside my head and began talking incoherently and died. Some hours later the soldier who was sheltering with me became delirious and died also.After many hours, when I occasionally called out and received no reply, I assumed that all but myself had perished. Later the weather, though still extreme, lessened in intensity for a while and I made contact with others and we were subsequently rescued. As we were brought into the Dome Shelter, I was surprised and pleased to see Pte Tavake, and we were both shocked that only five of us had survived. It seemed impossible that Pte Stewart, given his physical and moral strength, leadership and selflessness, should have died.

I have no doubt in my mind that if he had chosen to take care of himself he would be here today. He chose instead to put others before himself and to risk time and again, his own survival to help those unable to help themselves. All this in an extreme environment where we novices were left to our own devices. I would not be here today but for his actions. That is the man he was.

Around 0530hrs on Monday Sgt Snowden and Pte Burchell having walked some 13 hours through the night, made physical contact with an Alpine Lift staff member who contacted the Duty DOC Ranger. The search and recovery then commenced. The first recovery team reached the Dome Shelter at approximately 1300hrs, and on finding nobody there, descended to the Col where they located the group. They found only 5 survivors who were then moved to the Dome Shelter.

In due course a Court of Inquiry was established to investigate the loss of life. Among other findings, the Court noted the “outstanding courage and bravery” shown by a number of the group, namely Ptes Stewart, Tavake and Burchell. In the case of Pte Burchell, the Citation noted that “..Private Burchell not only had to cope with the most extreme conditions but, because of his lack of experience, he had no knowledge of how to overcome them. His courage and determination and perseverance to continue in the face of extraordinary adversity not only brought great credit on himself, but certainly assisted in the rescue of the survivors…” The Court recommended they be formally recognised with an appropriate bravery award. In the case of Stewart that was to be with the award of the George Cross. Under the imperial honours system then extant, the level one award, and now the New Zealand Cross. Some nine years later Ptes Stewart, Tavake and Burchell were finally awarded the New Zealand Bravery Medal, a level 4 award, the lowest that recognises bravery. Of significance, the Citation noted that, despite the dreadful conditions, “…Privates Stewart and Tavake maintained a continual vigil over their companions throughout most of the night, providing what assistance they could.” The Citation further noted that “.. Private Stewart would have been fully aware that his actions in continually moving out of shelter and the warmth of his sleeping bag to assist those with hypothermia, meant he had an increased chance of also becoming a casualty. He was also aware that he was becoming increasingly exhausted by continually battling the elements.” It added that “Privates Stewart and Tavake displayed selfless care of the casualties and their sense of responsibility to their companions testify to their bravery”.

It is also worthy of note that both Stewart and Tavake had spent most of their soldiering in the tropical conditions of SEA from which they had only relatively recently returned. Moreover, these soldiers battled the life-threatening conditions for almost two days without concern for their own safety. In doing so Stewart died and Tavake still suffers from the effects of severe frost bite.

The following are so far the only two recipients of the New Zealand Cross:

On 24 April 1992 Jacinda Margaret Amey was one of five members of a Meteorological Service team, stationed on the remote sub-Antarctic Campbell Island, who were snorkelling when one of them, Mr Mike Fraser, was attacked by a shark, believed to be a white pointer. The other swimmers, apart from Ms Amey, swam to shore. Ms Amey waited until the shark moved away from Mr Fraser and then went to his aid and towed him to shore. Mr Fraser had lost his right forearm and his left forearm was severely lacerated and appeared to be broken. He was having trouble breathing and required urgent medical treatment. Having got him to shore, Ms Amey then joined the rest of the team in doing what they could for Mr Fraser until he could be flown to New Zealand. Ms Amey displayed great courage and bravery with complete disregard for her own safety in going to Mr Fraser’s assistance.

And the second recipient:

On 9 June 1995, Reginal John Dixon, aged 47, and his wife were passengers on Ansett New Zealand Flight 703 when the aircraft crashed in the Tararua Ranges near Palmerston North. Mr Dixon escaped from the wreckage with fractures. However, despite his injuries, he returned to the aircraft to help other passengers trapped in the wreckage. As a result of this selfless action, he was critically burned when a flash fire broke out on the left wing of the aircraft near a hole in the fuselage from which he was helping passengers escape. He was hospitalised and underwent surgery and skin grafts. Mr Dixon remained in a coma, and although he made some initial improvement, his condition worsened and he died two weeks later, the fourth victim of the crash. The situation in which Mr Dixon found himself was extremely dangerous and he displayed great bravery in returning to the aircraft, although injured, to help other passengers which subsequently resulted in the loss of his own life. His bravery undoubtedly ensured that the loss of life was not greater.I ask you were David Stewart’s actions over almost two days not equally as heroic as these two New Zealand Cross recipients? If so why then was he not appropriately recognised with a level one award.

There was another climber on the mountain that day, a Japanese George Iwama, who remained there for 5 days during the same blizzard. He related: ‘There was a white-out and terrible freezing conditions 20 or 35 minutes after I left the snow cave… ‘I couldn’t locate where I was walking and I decided to dig another snow cave.’ He of course survived.

I ask you: was it that the award of the New Zealand Cross would have brought undue attention to the very real shortcomings of the New Zealand Army and its Army Adventurous Training Centre?

I’ll let you decide.

The latest Listener has an excellent 5 page article on this tragedy by Karl Du Fresne.

More to follow…

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