MATEKAIROA NICHOLAS BAKER – Medal found for service in Malaya with Fiji Infantry reaps two more for Gisborne family.

34042 – TE HOANI MATEKAIROA NICHOLAS BAKER       

34042 Cpl. M.N. Baker – 1 NZ (Inf) Regiment

In July 2016 I received an email from Greg S. of Auckland who told me that as a Hamilton schoolboy some 25 years ago, he had found what he thought was a coin in McCracken Street, Hillview on his way to school.  Greg had held onto the ‘coin’ as a curiosity and only recently re-discovered it after being in storage with personal effects for some years.  He took another look at the ‘coin’ and noticed the following inscription on the edge: 34042  S/SGT M. N. BAKER . FIJI INF. REGT.  Greg immediately recognized it to be a military medal and contacted me for help to find a family descendant to return it to.   

Quite a few medals sent to us have the ribbon suspender bar and claw missing and so, particularly with a tarnished surface, would have had all the appearances of a large coin to a schoolboy. 

The medal was in fact a General Service Medal, 1918-62 which I guessed by the inscription was probably awarded for service in Malaya.  Had the suspender and ribbon been in tact the medal would have had the claspMalaya’  also affixed to it.  The Malaya clasp was issued predominantly to Commonwealth soldiers who had been engaged in anti communist operations on the Malay Peninsula  between 1948 – 1960.

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My first task was to identify the recipient and his country of origin.  The name ‘Baker’ and ‘Fiji Inf. Regt’ could mean one of two things:  the recipient was a Fijian soldier who had lost the medal after having either served/visited/retired in NZ, or given it away to a relative in NZ, or …. the recipient was a Kiwi soldier who had served with the Fiji Infantry Regiment, returned to NZ and had lost/had the medal stolen at some point ?

S/Sgt. Mate Baker and a Fijian soldier – c1954

The name BAKER could just as easily apply to a Fijian as a New Zealand soldier so that was not necessary a key point.  My gut feeling and knowledge from my own service was that the medal was likely awarded to a Kiwi soldier as I knew that during the formative years of the Fiji Military Forces, selected New Zealand officers held key command appointments and selected senior NCOs mainly from the NZ (Infantry) Regiment, were regularly attached to assist with the operational training and leadership of the Fijian Army NCOs and soldiers.

I quickly scanned the web for any relevant information that may have contained S/Sgt. Baker’s name but drew a blank.  My next port of call was the NZDF Medal Policy Adviser, Mr Jack Hayes, whom I hoped would tell me that the NZDF had been the source of supply for the any General Service Medals awarded to Fijian Army soldiers and so may have had a register of the recipients.  Jack advised me the Fiji Army in fact acquired all of its medals direct from the UK.  I then outlined my thoughts re S/Sgt. Baker’s identity and within a few hours Jack was back to me and confirmed 34042 Sgt. Matthew Nicholas BAKER (known as ‘Mate’ or ‘Nick’) was a New Zealand soldier from Gisborne whom had been attached to the 1st Fiji Infantry Regiment for active service in Malaya from 1953-55; he had also served with 1 NZ (Infantry) Regiment from 1955-59.

Now that I had Sgt. Baker’s first names I thought it would be relatively easy to trace his movements in New Zealand through the Electoral Rolls.  Anyone who has attempted to research a person with a mix of Maori and anglicised names, particularly one who comes from the East Coast of the North Island, will know what a minefield it can be – which I was about to discover – without sound local relationship knowledge.

I started with ‘BAKER’ – there are hundreds in the Gisborne area, and spread far and wide across the Hawkes and Poverty Bays, from the early 1880s.  I tried combinations of Sgt. Baker’s initials, forenames and whilst I came close to a match, did not find anything substantial.  White Pages – none with initials ‘M.N.’   Ancestry message Boards and Family Trees also drew a blank.  Obituaries – Nil; Gisborne cemeteries – success at last! 

I had stumbled on a private list of persons named ‘Baker’ who had been buried in all East Cape & Hawkes Bay cemeteries from the mid 1800s.  These records also indicated strong links to Ngati Porou for which a large part of the East Coast is an historical stronghold.

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As I went through these I came up with the name ‘NICHOLAS MATEKAIROA BAKER’ – this was close but the initials were reversed ?  Ok, this was probably completely normal within Sgt. Baker’s family.  I then found another reference to ‘MATEKAIROA NICHOLAS BAKER’ – was this the same person?  Then another reference which confirmed I was on the right track – a photo of the RSA plaque (below) that bore the inscription:  34042 SGT TE HOANI M. BAKER – MALAYA – NZ REGT – DIED 10.1.2002 – AGED 70YRS.

The confusion factor up to this point had been the variety of names by which Sgt. Baker had apparently been known since discharging from the NZ Army and returning to the Gisborne area in 1959 – NM Baker, MN Baker, Matthew Nicholas Baker, Mate Nicholas Baker, Te Hoani Matekairoa Baker – all similar but which was the correct one?  another factor also came into play – the medal was impressed to S/SGT.* Baker, yet the grave plaque stated SGT. Baker.  The service number on the plaque clearly confirmed I had the right man but unravelling exactly what name he was known by (clearly different from his Army days) in order to trace descendants still presented me a number of questions that needed answers before I could proceed.

Note: * NZDF inquiries indicated Sgt. Baker had been appointed a temporary Staff Sergeant for the purposes of his tour of duty with the Fiji Infantry Regiment including their subsequent operations in Malaya.  On his return to NZ and his home unit, the NZ Regiment at Burnham, he reverted to his substantive rank of Sergeant. 

My research of Sgt. Baker’s family indicated that a number of his children and whanau had passed away or were unknown to me from the list I had compiled.  I had however managed to clarify some of the cemetery naming mysteries: “M.N. Baker” as was impressed on the medal, Sgt. Bakers RSA plaque and another name I had found on a headstone in the Taruheru Cemetery, all seemed to be the same person.  The dates however and references on the headstone showed “Matekairoa Nicholas Baker” was the name of one of Sgt. Baker’s son (aka ‘Nigger’ – 1991-1992).  Nearby I also located Sgt. Bakers wife, Kata Te Rangi Baker (1933-1994) buried with their son Jason Samuel Baker (1971-2004).

Electoral Rolls and census records had referenced both Matekairoa Nicholas Baker, Nicholas Mate Baker, and Te Hoani Baker, often of the same address – I was getting very confused so decided at this point to seek some guidance from someone who was knowledgeable regarding his own Ngati Porou genealogy – my son Bryan.  His network of Gisborne hapu contacts hopefully would help to confirm Sgt. Baker’s recognized name(s) and identity, who was who in the Baker family, and a lineage to Sgt Baker’s immediate descendant kin.

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Bryan swung into action and within the hour was back with a name and telephone number: the grand nephew of Sgt. Baker, Guy Baker of Gisborne.  Several calls to Guy eventually confirmed the Bakers were a very large (extended) family whom were spread far and wide however extended descendent lines of Sgt. Baker’s family were still very strong in Gisborne.  Guy also confirmed that “M.N., N.M., Mate, Nick, Matekairoa and Te Hoani Baker” were all one in the same person …. phew!  Guy however was unsure who was the best point of contact as he was living in Australia.  I went back to Bryan who again came through with a Facebook contact – Pimia Baker, a Perth resident, was the youngest daughter of Sgt. Baker and Kata Te Rangi’s nine surviving children of eleven.  Pimia in turn put me in contact Oriwia (Kata) Baker who was living in Gisborne and daughter of Sgt. Baker’s eldest son, John Malcolm Baker.  

The NZDF Medals Policy Advisor, Jack Hayes, also has advised that since Sgt Baker’s death two additional medals have been issued to which his next of kin were also entitled but to date had remained unclaimed – the NZ Operational Service Medal and the NZ Defence Service Medal, Clasp: Regular.

Sgt. Baker’ complete medal entitlement mounted for wearing: L-R  NZ Operational Service Medal,  General Service Medal 1918-62, Malaya (the medal found by Greg), NZ Defence Service Medal (Regular)

Eldest son and tuakana, John Baker received an early Christmas on 19 December when the medals were finally delivered to the Baker family home.  E kore e ngaro he takere waka nui.

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My thanks to Greg for sending the medal to MRNZ, to Bryan for providing some critical hapu information and contacts, and to Tim Clyne of New Zealand Collector Services, Christchurch for his invaluable assistance in restoring the General Service Medal.

Thanks also to Bryan Martyn and Kata (Oriwia) Baker without whose assistance and co-ordination would have made the task of verification and return of these medals substantially more difficult. 

Special thanks to Mr Jack Hayes (NZDF Medals Policy Advisor) and to Major (Rtd.) Peter Stitt, a medal mounting expert, for their invaluable assistance in identifying Sgt. Baker’s full entitlement and having the revised medal group and a set of matching miniature medals mounted for the Baker family. 

The reunited medal tally is now 182. 

 

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