A new effort to honor the soldier who gave his life on Mount Ruapehu to save others


Private David Stewart died showing extreme bravery saving the lives of others during a storm on Mount Ruapehu. A lawyer who believes his efforts were never truly recognized hopes Stewart will now get the proper honors. Reports by George Heagney.

A 32-year push for a soldier to be properly recognized for his bravery after he died saving others on Mount Ruapehu may finally be nearing the finish line.

Private David Stewart was one of six men who died on the mountain in August 1990, after the weather rapidly deteriorated, trapping two instructors and 11 students who had taken part in a training exercise in a nightmare of snow, ice and strong winds.

It is the biggest loss of life in the New Zealand Defense Force in a single event since the Second World War.

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Kathleen Stewart, left, and Army Chief Major General Boswell unveil the plaque bearing David Stewart's name.


Kathleen Stewart, left, and Army Chief Major General Boswell unveil the plaque bearing David Stewart’s name.

Exposed on the mountain, the group sheltered in sleeping bags against a wind of more than 140 km/h, which lifted people, with visibility less than one meter.

Hypothermia set in and six members of the group died before being rescued.

In 1999 New Zealand Medals of Bravery were awarded to Privates Stewart and Sonny Tavake, known as Sonny Te Rure, for helping those suffering from hypothermia, while Brendon Burchell, one of those who went for help, received the same honor.

But retired Colonel Bernard Isherwood, who led the inquiry in the aftermath of the disaster, has worked for 32 years to ensure Stewart’s efforts are duly recognized with a New Zealand Cross.

At a memorial service held at Linton Army Camp on Saturday by the 1st Battalion, Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment (RNZIR), Stewart’s name was added to the battalion theater to honor him and a plaque was unveiled in attendance of his family and soldiers.

The second honor Isherwood, who worked on the project with Bob Davies, wants is for Stewart’s gallantry award to be elevated to the highest honor.

The New Zealand Cross is for acts of great bravery in situations of extreme danger, which he believes Stewart encountered.

Retired Colonel Bernard Isherwood lobbied for David Stewart's gallantry award to be improved.


Retired Colonel Bernard Isherwood lobbied for David Stewart’s gallantry award to be improved.

“He had no experience in alpine conditions, no experience above the snowline,” Isherwood said. Things. He was in a deadly environment that I don’t consider any different from active combat.

Stewart’s CO abandoned them, Isherwood said.

The lead instructor left the group to sound the alarm, but the remaining instructor locked himself in his sleeping bag and took no part in the proceedings, so Stewart and Tavake took over the lead.

“I always felt a moral obligation,” Isherwood says. “We put in a lot of time as an organization, putting them in a deadly environment without the means to survive, and they shouldn’t have.”

He says that the soldiers were not properly directed and that they were on the mountain through no fault of their own.

So having the memorial honoring Stewart is “fantastic.”

“It will be a permanent memorial. Every officer and soldier in this battalion, 1 RNZIR, will be aware of this, and it will be there forever.

Tavake, who left the military in 1995, says he wants Stewart’s gallantry award improved for him and his whānau.

Two of the tragedy survivors Sonny Tavake, front right, and Brendon Burchell at Stewart's memorial service.


Two of the tragedy survivors Sonny Tavake, front right, and Brendon Burchell at Stewart’s memorial service.

“At the end of the day, I was up there with David and I know what he did and the type of sacrifice, the body line, up there. That’s why he’s not here and why I’m here.

Tavake says that whenever he witnesses events related to the tragedy, he removes a tape of what happened and replaces it with a healing tape.

Stewart and Tavake’s actions were described in a 1998 letter by survivor Corporal Barry Culloty, who now lives on the Gold Coast.

Culloty says that after the weather turned, the group tried to reach the Dome Shelter cabin.

As people suffered from hypothermia, they dug a trench in the snow, battling high winds and struggling to communicate. The group was told to get their sleeping bags out.

David Stewart died after being stuck in bad weather on Mount Ruapehu in 1990.


David Stewart died after being stuck in bad weather on Mount Ruapehu in 1990.

Stewart and Tavake rounded up soldiers into a group and scavenged through the snow for sleeping bags.

Whenever they found a sleeping bag, they took it to someone and stayed away until the end.

Culloty collapsed, but Stewart dragged him into a sleeping bag, and then Stewart and Tavake later removed snow and ice from Culloty’s chest that was restricting his breathing.

A soldier’s bag had been blown away, so Culloty shared his bag with him. A young soldier lost his bag in the snow so asked the trio if they could share one of their bags.

Eventually, Stewart, who shared her bag with Tavake, offered to share it. But the bag flew away, leaving three of them homeless.

The soldier who took refuge later died, as did the soldier who took refuge in Culloty.

Eventually the weather eased slightly and the remaining group were rescued and brought to Dome Shelter.

Culloty was shocked that only five survived and Stewart died considering his “physical and moral strength, leadership and selflessness”.

“I have no doubt in my mind that if he had chosen to take care of himself, he would be here today,” Culloty wrote in his letter.

“He has instead chosen to put others before himself and again and again risk his own survival to help those unable to help themselves.

Sonny Tavake with his frozen hands wrapped in bandages.


Sonny Tavake with his frozen hands wrapped in bandages.

“All this in an extreme environment where we were novices on our own. I wouldn’t be here without his actions. He was the man he was.

At the end of the month, Isherwood meets with Defense Minister Peeni Henare to discuss upgrading the medal, where Isherwood hopes to convince him that the matter warranted further action.

“The [award Stewart has] obtained, and not to belittle anyone who has the New Zealand gallantry award, but it is the lowest possible gallantry award you can get.

“If you read the criteria for that and the criteria for the New Zealand cross, you see no reason why he shouldn’t get it. He meets all of that.

Isherwood hopes Chief of Defense Air Marshal Kevin Short will listen.

“These are your people we’re talking about, Stewart and his band. Let’s not continue to stonewall, which has poisoned this case for 32 years, no more staff advice.

“The facts are clear and detailed. Let’s show leadership on this, endorse the upgrade.

Sonny Tavake, front, and Rayner Berger recuperating at Waiouru Army Camp Hospital in 1990.


Sonny Tavake, front, and Rayner Berger recuperating at Waiouru Army Camp Hospital in 1990.

Stewart’s mother, Kathleen Stewart, says she leaves the decision up to the Army, but she can see that Stewart’s friends in the Army want it.

She says the memorial and the gallantry award are not just for Stewart, but for everyone he served with.

“All who live, his comrades. To me, they are all my sons. I know David is one of them, he fought until the end for his brothers.

As she passes Mount Ruapehu, she pays homage to the maunga for giving her son back, while other families who lost people on the mountain did not.

Stewart, who is of Ngāti Maru, Ngāti Awa and Tuhoe descent, is buried in Whakatāne RSA Cemetery. He was 23 years old.

Privates Brett Barker, Jeffrey Boult, Mark Madigan, Stuart McAlpine, Jason Menhennet and Able Rating Jeffrey Boult also died on the mountain.


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