Apiata a truly courageous man

A fine account of the life of war hero Willie Apiata.

WILLIE APIATA VC The Reluctant Hero
Paul Little
Viking, $50, $hbk

Review by Clarke Isaacs

"People are calling you a hero. Are you a hero?"

"I'm Willie Apiata."

That's Willie Apiata, the first New Zealander to be awarded the Victoria Cross since the end of World War 2.

Lance Corporal (now Corporal) Apiata, a New Zealand Special Air Service trooper, in Afghanistan in 2004 picked up a critically wounded comrade and carried him uphill for 70m under heavy fire to medical aid.

He then rearmed himself and returned to the conflict.

In this book about Willie's life we read not only the manicured prose of the author but also the verbatim words of Willie himself.

Make no mistake, Willie possesses an impressive intellect and great power of recall.

The walls of the family home - not a state house - in which Willie lived were lined with newspaper. It was kept spotless.

The bush, where Willie is still happiest, was the playground for him and his sister.

It was also their pantry.

Willie left school at 15. He was selling vacuum cleaners around Tauranga when he was 18, spent a period selling books, and went crayfishing.

As a truck driver, his hours were often well over the maximum permitted.

A petrol head, he had fun driving and demolishing old cars.

Joining the territorials when he was 17, Willie found the discipline really tough.

Two short of the 30 press-ups required, he failed his first selection course for the SAS.

Second time round, although he forgot his rifle through uncharacteristic absent-mindedness and had to add several kilometres to an already gruelling exercise, he passed selection.

Willie, a humble but proud soldier, confesses: "I hate drill. I'm no good at marching and I can't salute to this day."

This is a fine, candid account about the life of a truly courageous man, completely without airs, contemptuous of monetary rewards, and at his happiest when hunting in the outdoors.

"There's a piece of land there [at Te Kaha, near East Cape] I have my eye on, near where I go hunting all the time.

"I know I'll be able to accomplish anything else I want to do in life from there, even though it's remote."

The books contains 50 or so colour photographs.

- Clarke Isaacs is a former chief of staff of the Otago Daily Times.

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