Story of the 34th
Chapter Four — Death With Fortitude
Death With Fortitude
The first members of New Zealand's Pacific forces to come in contact with the Japanese were a number of men from the Reserve Battalion who, early in 1941, volunteered for special duty as coast-watchers in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. These men, all volunteers and specially selected for their qualities of self-reliance and intelligence, left Suva on 19 July 1941, and were stationed on the islands in the Gilbert and Ellice groups later overrun by the enemy in his initial drive southwards. Along with the men from the battalion were ten officers of the New Zealand Post and Telegraph Department who had also volunteered for service in the coast-watching organisation in the Pacific Islands. The job of our men was to assist the post and telegraph operators, and also to keep them company on the remote islands, very few of which had any regular white inhabitants.
The fate of all these men was unknown until late in 1944 when an official statement by the Prime Minister, the Right Hon. P. Fraser disclosed that seven of the operators and ten soldiers had been massacred, along with other Europeans, at Betio Island, Tarawa, on 15 October, 1942. The occupation of the Gilbert group by the enemy began in December 1941, immediately following the outbreak of war in the Pacific. The three northern islands of the group were seized by the Japanese and the three post and telegraph men and the four soldiers had been massacred, along with other Europeans, at Betio Island, Tarawa, on 15 October, 1942. The occupation of the Gilbert group by the enemy began in December 1941, immediately following the outbreak of war in the Pacific. The three northern islands of the group were seized by the Japanese and the three post and telegraph men and the four soldiers serving there captured, and removed from the colony.page 34
The Prime Minister's statement added that the remaining 17 personnel (ten soldiers and seven operators) were serving in the lower islands of the Gilbert group, which were not occupied by the Japanese until September 1942. Investigations made by the Resident Commissioner, following the recapture of the Gilberts by United States forces over a year later, disclose that, after their capture in September, the Europeans were all removed to Tarawa. There they were kept outside the quarters occupied by the Japanese commander, with their hands tied and secured to coconut trees for several days, awaiting examination by the commander. They were then confined at the Tarawa central hospital in the enclosure previously used for the detention of lunatics. While prisoners, they were required to work on the construction of a wharf at Betio. On the afternoon of 15 October 1942, the island was bombarded by American ships and planes. That evening, the 17 New Zealanders were beheaded or otherwise killed by the enemy. Five other Europeans suffered the same fate.
'I am sure' said the Prime Minister, 'that every citizen of this Dominion will join with the Government in expressing sincere sympathy to the relatives of those men who were so foully murdered by the Japanese. No tribute to their courage and devotion is too high. Notwithstanding the danger to which they were exposed following the outbreak of the war with Japan, they all remained at their posts and continued to send reports of enemy movements up till the time they were captured. The information which they gave of enemy activities in the group was of the utmost value, since it enabled the service authorities to dispose to best advantage the naval and air forces available in the Pacific in 1942 to arrest the progress of the Japanese, who were then moving south. The evidence of the natives and others, gathered since the reoccupation of the group, pays eloquent tribute to the bravery of all of the coast-watchers. They all discharged their duties with courage, and met an untimely death with fortitude.'
On a memorial tablet erected by British and American officials on on the site of the massacre is inscribed:
In memory of 22 British subjects murdered by the Japanese at Betio on the 15th October, 1942. Standing unarmed to their posts, they matched brutality with gallantry and met death with fortitude.'page 35
|Raymond Arthur Ellis||Roderick Murdoch McKenzie|
|Robert Irwin Hitchon||John Hugh Nichol|
|Dallas Hillman Howe||Charles James Owen|
|Reginald Jones||Wilfred Athol Rolf Parker|
|Claude Andrew Kilpin||Leslie Bruce Speedy|