62 | Sir Willie Apiata Greatest Kiwi of All Time 2023

62 | Sir Willie Apiata Greatest Kiwi of All Time 2023

Greatest Kiwi Of All Time: No. 62 - Sir Willie Apiata (Up 4 from 66 last year)

Afghanistan, 2004.  Lance Corporal Willie Apiata is asleep on the bonnet of his military vehicle.  Apiata is in the New Zealand Special Air Service - the SAS - the country’s most elite team of soldiers.  The team are holed up for the night in a rocky rural part of Afghanistan.

Suddenly, a grenade explodes.

The team is under attack.  Apiata is blown off the bonnet of the vehicle.  Two of his colleagues nearby are wounded, one seriously.  The rocket-powered grenades continue to explode around them, accompanied by sustained machine gun fire coming from the darkness beyond.

Apiata realises the peril of their position.  The three soldiers need to rejoin the rest of the unit, about 70 metres away.  His mate, seriously wounded, could not make it by himself.  Apiata, bullets flying all around him, would carry him to safety.

“In total disregard of his own safety, Lance Corporal Apiata stood up and lifted his comrade bodily.  He then carried him across the seventy metres of broken, rocky and fire swept ground, fully exposed in the glare of battle to heavy enemy fire and into the face of returning fire from the main Troop position. That neither he nor his colleague were hit is scarcely possible. Having delivered his wounded companion to relative shelter with the remainder of the patrol, Lance Corporal Apiata re-armed himself and rejoined the fight in counter-attack.”

That was the citation accompanying Lance Corporal Willie Apiata’s medal for the bravery shown on that day.  

The medal was the Victoria Cross.  Apiata had become one of its very few living holders.

Bill Henry “Willie” Apiata was born in Mangakino to a Maori father and Pakeha mother.  Early in life he moved with his mother to Northland, then to Bay of Plenty.  He first enlisted into the army in 1989, serving in East Timor in the year 2000.  When he returned from that tour of duty, he became a full-time soldier and was accepted into the SAS training programme.

War in Afghanistan was raging as Apiata arrived in the country.  After being awarded his VC, he would head back for another tour in 2009 when the Government decided to return troops once again.  The public discovered Apiata was back in combat when a French photographer took a picture of soldiers in combat and the picture was published in kiwi newspapers.  The picture was clearly Apiata.

Willie Apiata retired from the army in 2012 having reached the rank of corporal.  There are no other living New Zealand VC holders.  Nobody had been awarded one since World War 2.

Fearless, tough and never one to leave a mate in a tough position - it’s no wonder Willie Apiata replaced Sir Edmund Hillary as our most trusted New Zealander.  A true hero, he’s also right up there on our list as one of Today FM’s Greatest Kiwi’s of All Time.