He has been described as “the last of the last”.
But on Saturday, he rose to first among the last with a significant award from the Italian Government.
For Robert (Bon) Gillies, a servicemen of humble Napier origins, was awarded the Order of Merit by Italian Ambassador Fabrizio Marcelli at the Tamatekapua meeting house on Te Papaiouru marae.
Robert Gillies, by some years, is the last surviving member of the 28th Maori Battalion Te Arawa Company B.
He has lived in Rotorua for most of his life apart from service to his country in World War 2.
In his honour, some 300 of his whanau and friends turned out for the ceremony along with VC winner Willie Apiata and new Human Rights Commissioner, Meng Foon, for many years the mayor of Gisborne.
The idea for the honour was mentioned earlier this year at the Anzac Day ceremony at Ohinemutu.
Bon accepted it as an honorary title, as it would have to reflect the wartime bravery of the entire Maori Battalion.
Bon Gillies, or Bon Bon as he was known throughout his life, is aged around 95. He thinks he was born in 1925.
He arrived as a ‘refugee’ from the Napier earthquake in 1931.
After service in North Africa – he was 17 when he enlisted – he fought at the hell hole at Monte Cassino. As a private his responsibility was to replenish ammunition supplies.
But he of course also saw action and the deaths of many of his comrades.
From digging holes during WW2, he returned to his Post and Telegraph routine of – digging holes.
In later life, he cleared rural drains for farmers, was a freezing worker and finally a hammer hand.
The citation awarded amid a rousing haka, reads: “In consideration of special merits … they have bestowed the honour of knighthood on Mr Robert Gillies”.