I do what my heart tells me to do – archivist on mission to honour every fallen kiwi soldier buried overseas

A woman, supported by an army of volunteers, is on a mission to ensure every fallen New Zealand soldier resting on foreign soil is honoured and receives a bit of home.

In 2008 Dolores Ho was asked if anyone from New Zealand had visited the 73 Kiwi soldiers buried in a cemetery in England – she thought the likely answer was no and decided to send over hand-woven harakeke flax crosses and RSA poppies to be laid with them on Anzac Day.

Knowing that more than 30,000 New Zealand soldiers never returned home, Ho – archivist at the National Army Museum – set out to make sure every other New Zealand serviceman or woman buried overseas would receive the same honour of those 73.

“My aim is to make sure that every grave will get at least one visit from somebody who cares,” said Ho.

To date, about 15,000 graves in all corners of the world have been visited with the help of more than 200 volunteers.

Two of those volunteers are Colleen and Peter Wilson, who have visited more than 75 cemeteries and more than 1000 gravesites across the UK and Europe.

They said the work had taken them to places the normal tourist would not usually visit.

“Searching out these cemeteries was fantastic; we met some interesting people and we went to some very interesting places,” Colleen said.

Peter served with the New Zealand Army between 1966 and 1975 and Colleen’s father served during World War II with the 21st battalion.

Many families of the fallen Kiwi soldiers either don’t know where they are buried or have never been able to visit them, Ho said.

This motivated Peter and Colleen to get involved in the project as they knew the work they did would help to reconnect families.

During their trips, they were also able to find and visit the grave of Colleen’s mother’s cousin, Mervyn Leslie Ridling, who served with the 24th battalion and was 21 when he died in “fierce fighting on the Adriatic sector of the front”.

He was buried at the Sangro River War Cemetery in Italy and Colleen was the first family member to visit him.

When volunteers visit gravesites they are also asked to take a photograph.

With the photos, Ho plans to create a website so that distance would no longer be an issue for the families who have never been able to visit the graves.

“We’re talking about thousands and thousands that have never had a visit from home,” she said.

She said 16,341 New Zealand soldiers in World War I and 11,930 soldiers in World War II died while overseas. A further 1628 soldiers serving with foreign forces during these wars also died while away.

The project also visits the graves of those who served in conflicts in Vietnam, Korea and Japan.

Ho visited 30 cemeteries across Singapore, Malaysia, the UK, Belgium and France in 2011.

“It’s a calling, I believe this is what I am meant to do – I do what my heart tells me to do,” she said.

Anzac Day services will be held around the country on Monday but with tighter restrictions than usual because of the Covid pandemic.

The dawn service at the Auckland War Memorial Museum will take place as usual but will not be open to the public.

The Herald will carry live coverage of the service from Māori Television, starting from 6am.

Defence Force staff have been told they can march in uniform at parades but they must remain masked at all times and cannot attend any functions afterwards.

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