Episodes & Studies Volume 2
Gilbert and Ellice Islands
Gilbert and Ellice Islands
THE PLAN for extending the coastwatching network to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands was formulated in May 1941 and put into operation in July. The parent stations were to be Beru and Funafuti. Initially fifteen operators* were supplied from New Zealand as well as twenty-two soldier companions. Native operators to assist them were also being trained in Fiji.
* All the operators in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands had received training in weather reporting and were equipped with a supply of weather-report forms and code-books. At Funafuti pilot balloon flights were also made in addition to the ordinary weather reports.
Ashore there were Government buildings available for use on Beru and Funafuti, but on the other islands native houses were built for the coastwatchers, a type of dwelling appropriate to the climate and preferred for their own residences by most Government officials. Some of the islands appeared idyllic, at least to the outsider. On one island in the Ellices the house in which the coastwatchers lived was sited in a beautiful position overlooking the lagoon. Cool breezes blew constantly and mosquitoes were unknown. The natives supplied fresh food, usually as a gift. The available recreations were sailing, fishing, and bathing.
One of the soldiers captured in the northern Gilberts also testified afterwards to the pleasant climate of his island. But on one occasion the island, only six feet high, was swamped in a hurricane by heavy seas. All the houses were damaged but were quickly repaired. Here, too, fresh food could be obtained locally, though the coastwatchers depended on rain water for drinking.
The men's relations with the natives were generally good, except on one of the Ellices where the two soldiers quarrelled with the inhabitants and also did not speak to each other for months. When the Degei* called at some of the islands in February 1942, her captain remarked that morale was high at most stations: ‘Their isolation appears to make them self-sufficient and they did not offer much demonstration at our arrival.’
The worst feature of this island life, no matter how attractive the climate and the setting, was that the men often did not have enough to do, and the opportunities for recreation were not varied enough to keep them happy throughout a long period of duty. The radio operators, with their weather reporting duties, equipment maintenance, and radio schedules to keep, were more fortunate than the soldier companions, but for most coastwatchers boredom was the arch-enemy. In some instances, however, the ease of tropical living did directly affect efficiency and radio schedules were laxly kept. A serious case of neglect of duty occurred in 1943 at a northern island in the Ellice Group; it was particularly grave as the Japanese advance into the Gilberts had put the Ellices in the front line. This station one day went off the air, whereupon grave fears arose at Funafuti as to whether the island had been taken by the Japanese. Arrangements were hurriedly made to send a Catalina flying boat with a spare set in case the transmitter had broken down. It was intended to land on the comparatively small lagoon, which in itself was a hazardous task, but the risk was considered necessary in view of the importance attached to the island at that time. However, a few hours before the plane was ready to depart from Funafuti, contact was established with the island. The NCO operator excused himself by saying that he had had a high fever and asked to return to New Zealand for health reasons. This was described as ‘an unfortunate occurrence’, as the Americans, who were preparing for the invasion of the Gilberts, were at that time ‘intensely interested in that island’ and had ‘expressed the wish that the coastwatching service should continue normally as any change in procedure or traffic would arouse the suspicion of the enemy’. The operator was relieved of his duties a few days later and returned to Suva.page 9 page 10
New Zealand Coastwatcherspage 11
Radar crew outside their quarters at Moko Hinau, Auckland
Visu Visu, New Georgia
LOOKING EAST FROM ESPERANCE RADAR STATION TOWARDS KOKUMBONA AND LUNGA, Guadalcanal
RNZN RADAR OPERATORS' QUARTERS, built by natives for the camp, Savo, Solomons
GOVERNMENT RADIO STATION, Rarotonga
HMFS VITI which in 1941 took men and equipment to coastwatching posts in the Pacific
METEOROLOGICAL WORK at Funafuti, in the Ellice Islands. Lieutenant D. L. Vaughan takes bearings on a pilot balloon
In December 1940 the German raider Komet shelled the Nauru fuel-oil tanks
[gap — reason: unclear]ORIAL AT TARAWA
[gap — reason: unclear]se names include those of [gap — reason: unclear]en New Zealanders
The Cape Expedition
above : A lookout hut which
replaced improvised shelters.
left : A member of the first party at his post
After Beru failed, when the Japanese occupied the southern Gilberts, precautions were taken at Funafuti to guard against the possibility of enemy attack. New watching points were established on the atoll and fuel for the radio station was stored in several places. An emergency station was established on another island of the Funafuti atoll and stocked with food. Late in 1942 United States Forces occupied Funafuti and within three months had established an airfield there; subsequently they also occupied and built airstrips on Nukufetau and Nanumea. In the prolonged air raids on Funafuti in April and September 1943 the radio station was damaged extensively and later had to be evacuated for a more substantial building—the island jail. The officer in charge of the station, Lieutenant D. L. Vaughan, extended his keying line to a slit trench, and on several occasions signalled from this shelter that raids were in progress. He was mentioned in despatches for ‘devotion to duty, initiative, and valuable service in maintaining vital communications in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands.’
The Gilbert Islands were so close to the Japanese mandated territory in the Marshalls that they were placed in a position of immediate danger by Japan's entry into the war. In December 1941 the Japanese occupied the northern islands of the Group (Makin, Little Makin, and Abaiang), apparently to secure the Marshalls bases against Allied observation or attack. The Japanese also visited Tarawa, placed the European inhabitants on parole, and left again.
On Bikati Island in the Makin (or Butaritari) atoll, the coastwatchers calmly reported the entry into the lagoon of twenty-three enemy ships. The Japanese landed next day and the following day captured the three coastwatchers, but not before a last distress signal had been sent and the radio and code-books destroyed. Seven New Zealanders were made prisoner by this time —three wireless operators and four soldier companions.* They refused to answer Japanese questions about the defences of Fiji, in spite of the flourishing of a revolver in their faces and several blows with a stick, and denied all knowledge of other coastwatching stations in the Group. They were taken to the Marshall Islands and soon afterwards to Japan, where they excited some curiosity as the first prisoners of war to appear there. All these men were later mentioned in despatches.
The remaining islands of the Gilbert Group were not occupied by the enemy until about nine months later. During this time the coastwatchers carried on as usual. They had volunteered to remain at their posts, and the information they could give of the strength of an enemy attack and even the negative information that would be provided when they became silent were equally vital to the Allies.
Towards the end of February 1942 the Degei was sent to the Ellices and southern Gilberts with stores for the coastwatchers. She was ordered to go no farther north than Nonouiti, where the supplies for Kuria, Abemama, and Maiana were put ashore. The Degei was making the voyage under difficulties as Japanese air patrols passed daily over the Gilberts. She moved only at night and did not break radio silence. It was arranged that a half-caste should use a launch towing a lifeboat to take the stores to the three northern stations. The coastwatchers at these posts, receiving their stores by this means, must have felt that they were already lost, even though not already forgotten.
* Corporals M. P. McQuinn, J. M. Jones, and S. R. Wallace, Privates J. M. Menzies, M. Menzies, L. E. H. Muller and B. Were. The first three were the wireless operators; they were given military rank retrospectively. All were repatriated at the end of the war.