We pulled into the supermarket in a coastal village in southern Greece just as it was closing for the evening. The grandfather of the family business inquired where we were from. New Zealand we said. He immediately informed the rest of the family they must re-open for us. There was gratitude for courageous services provided by our fellow countrymen many years before.
A few days later in a mountain village in the Mani we had coffee. This time our young Greek waiter told of us of the many New Zealand soldiers who had been in the area in the 1940s. He knew more than we did about the deeds of our soldiers.
Some days later again we stopped at perhaps the most famous battle site in Greece – Thermopylae. Located on a narrow strip of land between the mountains and the coast north of Athens this was where in 480BC a tiny band of 300 Greek Spartan warriors held out against hundreds of thousands of invading Persian soldiers. Eventually they were all killed but their heroic efforts against all odds are upheld in Greece as the pinnacle of Greek courage and fighting spirit.
We were surprised to find that there was a second Battle of Thermopylae. This one was in 1941 at exactly the same location. Once again a courageous band of outnumbered soldiers stood their ground against an overwhelming force sweeping into Greece from the north. This time it was the New Zealand 5th brigade. They were tasked with holding the pass at Thermopylae against the Germans long enough for the Allies to make a strategic retreat and evacuation from Athens and other locations further south.
The New Zealanders held out bravely and the evacuation was successful. In doing so they earned immense respect from the Greeks who had already been forced to surrender. Some later confessed a sense of shame that in those crucial days at that iconic Greek location they didn’t stand with Kiwis. But we had stood for them. And they have not forgotten.
Indeed all over Europe peoples have not forgotten the contribution of New Zealanders who have fought to bring liberty to their lands and villages. It is why when we travel we sometimes find unexpected honour a long way from home. It comes from a debt of gratitude for people of conviction and courage who would come so far to help another people in their time of need.
These days the brave spirit of our land is eroded by constant voices telling us to keep our heads down and let others deal with the injustices of the world. But this is not who we are, and never has been.