Porirua-born Navy sailor, Thomas Katu, says he is proud to support his Pacific “motherland” as part of the NZ Government’s vaccine assistance to Tokelau and the Cook Islands region.
Petty Officer Seamanship Combat Specialist (POSCS) Katu departed Devonport Naval Base on Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) vessel HMNZS Wellington earlier this month, to assist in the delivery of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine supplies on behalf of the Ministry of Health.
The 5,000 nautical mile trip covered the Fakaofo, Nukunonu and Atafu atolls of Tokelau, as well as Palmerston Island in the Cook Islands.
POSCS “Kutz” Katu, who is of Cook Islands heritage, is the ship’s Chief Bosun’s Mate, generically known as the ‘buffer’ and responsible for the seamanship and procedures involved when the ship undertakes gunnery, ship recovery, boating operations and boarding activities.
It was his job to ensure the ship’s sea boats and zodiacs were prepared for the ship-to-shore delivery of the vaccines.
Despite almost 20 years in the Navy, this is POSCS Katu’s first deployment to the Cook Islands.
“I’ve done plenty of trips overseas, but when ships were going to the Cooks, I’d be somewhere else, like Australia, Singapore, South East Asia or other Pacific nations. It’s hard case.”
There are three other sailors of Cook Islands heritage on board in the same position. POSCS Katu’s parents Ioteva and Pokoina are from Aitutaki, Mitiaro, Atiu and Rarotonga, and immigrated to New Zealand from the Cook Islands in the sixties, settling in Porirua. He attended Cannons Creek Primary, Brandon Intermediate and Porirua College, then worked as a labourer before his sights turned towards a career in the Navy.
“I was on the end of a concrete pump up on Mt Victoria, and we were working on a development site up there as we waited for the next concrete truck to arrive. I looked down and HMNZS Te Kaha came into the harbour.Everyone was dressed in their full white ceremonial rig, they fired a gun salute and looked the part, and I was sold. That same night I called the 0800 NZ NAVY recruiting number. They were recruiting pretty hard in the early 2000s and six months later, I was walking through the gates.”
His extended family on both sides currently live in Rarotonga, where the ship visited near the end of its mission. His nieces got behind their uncle in planning activities for the crew.
“There will be those fitness junkies who want to hike across the island or climb Te Rua Manga (the needle). Others just want to relax and enjoy recreation, like a fishing charter or evening events. I manage the ship’s cultural group on board, and we’ll be teaching some easy-to-learn Cook Island songs and items for our trip.”
He says the most rewarding aspect of this trip is being able to help the Pacific Islands.
“With us Pacific Islanders serving in uniform, it means a lot to us. My wife and children are of Tokelauan descent. The Northern group of the Cook Islands don’t have much access. It’s about going back home, giving back to our people, representing the Royal New Zealand Navy, and making our families proud. Any rest, recreation and reconnecting with family is always a highlight, and more rewarding when it’s a work trip.”
HMNZS Wellington is set to return to New Zealand in August.