Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngarimu was born into Te Aitanga-a-Mate of Ngati Porou at Whareponga, on the East Coast, on 7 April 1919, the son of Hamuera Meketu Ngarimu, and his wife Maraea. He had strong connections to Te Whanau-a-Rakairoa, Te Aowera and Ngati Horowai. His mother was of Te Whanau-a-Apanui and was connected to Te Whakatohea. Through her, Moana’s ancestry is traced to the Mataatua canoe, and through an ancestor, Te Aomoengariki, to Te Arawa. Moana was a nephew of the well-known Ngati Porou woman of mana Materoa Reedy. Maraeake, the family home where he was born, is a short distance from Kirikiri-tatangi, on the foreshore, where young warriors of the area were trained in the art of warfare.
Moana Ngarimu attended Whareponga Native School from 1924. When the family moved to Pohatukura, 2½ miles from the small township of Ruatoria, he was enrolled at Hiruharama Native School from 15 July 1929. He later spent 1933–34 at Te Aute College, where he was outstanding at rugby. After leaving school he worked on the family farm and was a member of the Hikurangi Choir. He was developing his skills as a sheepfarmer, and was engaged to Hiria Walker, when the Second World War began in 1939. Maori MPs requested that the government allow Maori to volunteer for military service overseas. On 4 October the government announced the decision to establish the 28th New Zealand (Maori) Battalion, which was organised on a tribal basis. Ngarimu signed up for the army at Ruatoria on 11 February 1940.
On 1 May 1940 the main body of the Maori Battalion left the showgrounds in Palmerston North, where they had been training, and marched to the railway station and travelled to Wellington. At Aotea Quay they boarded the Aquitania , and the next day sailed for England, where Ngarimu was chosen for intelligence duties. He later became a second lieutenant and a platoon leader in the battalion’s C Company.
The men of the Maori Battalion were embroiled in much of the heavy fighting in Greece, Crete and Libya. During the retreat from Tobruk (Tubruq) it took part in the breakout from encirclement at Minqâr Qaim. In February 1943, following the battle of El Alamein and the advance to Tripoli, eight C Company officers, including Ngarimu, wrote to Sir Apirana Ngata describing the battalion’s casualties: two commanders had been wounded and some men had been wounded two or three times. The fittest of the wounded were being used to reinforce the front lines. The officers suggested to Ngata that it was time their men were taken out to rest.
Shortly after they were involved in the action at Tebaga Gap in Tunisia. The battalion was on the right of the attack and its objective was a hill known as Point 209. It was found to be strongly held by Germans and heavy fire held down the battalion. C Company, under Colonel Peta Awatere, was sent to attack the position. To do this he had to first order an attack on high ground in front of Point 209. The Ngati Porou soldiers called it Hikurangi, after their mountain at home. Ngarimu was one of the platoon leaders given the job of attacking the hill, which was held in considerable strength by the enemy and defended with intense mortar and machine-gun fire from Point 209.
Lieutenant Colonel Charles Bennett, the commander of the battalion, wrote of Ngarimu: ‘Displaying courage and leadership of the highest order, he was himself first on the hill crest, personally annihilating at least two enemy machine gun posts’. Two other witnesses attested to his bravery in leading the charge up the hill. Although wounded in the shoulder and one leg, he insisted on staying with his men. Hikurangi was attacked many times during the night but Ngarimu led the defence, driving the attackers back by shooting some with his machine-gun and throwing stones in hand-to-hand combat when weapons were disabled and grenades had run out, and the position was held.
On the morning of 27 March 1943 the enemy again counter-attacked and Moana Ngarimu was killed. ‘He was killed on his feet defiantly facing the enemy with his tommy-gun at his hip. As he fell, he came to rest almost on the top of those of the enemy who had fallen, the number of whom testified to his outstanding courage’. The Germans on Point 209 surrendered later that day. A few weeks before he was killed he had written to his parents that he had dreamed of his great grandmother Hana Maraea. She was beckoning to him in the dream.
Ngarimu was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery, determination and outstanding leadership. It was presented to his parents by the governor general, Sir Cyril Newall, at a hui at Ruatoria on 6 October 1943 attended by government leaders, diplomatic representatives and 7,000 Maori. The occasion was recorded by the National Film Unit and the films shown to Maori Battalion soldiers in Italy. His grandmother, Makere Ngarimu, died the night his Victoria Cross was presented.
Ngarimu’s Victoria Cross citation was published in English and Maori in a booklet by Sir Apirana Ngata entitled The price of citizenship. He is commemorated in the Ngarimu VC and 28th (Maori) Battalion Memorial Scholarship Fund, which was set up in 1945 to promote Maori education and the maintenance of Maori language and culture. Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngarimu is buried in the Sfax War Cemetery in Tunisia.