Sole survivor of Māori Battalion, Sir Bom Gillies, lays wreath for Battle of Cassino 80th anniversary commemorations in Italy

Commemorations for the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Cassino have just concluded in Italy. 

It has been an emotionally charged 24 hours for those taking part in services, including the New Zealand Defence Force and the sole survivor of the Māori Battalion - 99-year-old Sir Bom Gillies.  

Before the rain showed up at Cassino, Sir Bom took the same steps he did as a young man - this time to visit his fallen friends.

This time he was flanked by his iwi and whānau, who shed tears for the so many lost years in front of them.  

As the commemoration began, the skies wept too. 

It has been 80 years since the Battle of Cassino, but time has done little to ease the bitter cost of freedom.   

"They stand as a testament to the extraordinary feats which ordinary men are capable of under terrible circumstances," Brigadier Jim Bliss, head of New Zealand Defence Staff in London, said.

New Zealand is not alone in its losses - 54,000 of the Allied forces died here.  

Sir Bom laid a wreath on behalf of them all - but not before asking where he was allowed to place it.

"Wherever you want," Private Helena told him, knowing no one has paid a higher price for the right.  

The commemorations took place under the towering hill of Montecassino, which the abbey sits atop of - a central focus of the campaign and an ever-present reminder of what troops gave so much to capture.  

For Defence Minister Judith Collins, the privilege of this pilgrimage is personal. 

Her dad, Percy Collins, was among those who served at Cassino during World War II.  

"I've so wanted to come here on this special day," a tearful Collins said of her desire to attend.

And it surpassed expectations.

Pride and poppies were worn in abundance as Cassino once more felt the spirit of New Zealand on its land. 

"I think my dad would be so proud of them," Collins said.  

That sentiment shared by the living, as confirmed by the wide smile of Sir Bom. 

"That's a smile of happiness. All around him he has a lot of sadness with his mates and he needs that awhi, which is lifting from the whānau of the Battalion," Joseph Tuki, from the Auckland Association of the 28th NZ Māori Battalion, said.    

These new memories will be a welcome reprieve from the haunting sounds of death that consumed this town, barely a lifetime ago.