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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

The Southern Gilberts Occupied

The Southern Gilberts Occupied

THE OCEAN ISLAND radio station was manned by some civilian New Zealand Post and Telegraph operators seconded for duty with the Western Pacific High Commission. The Japanese shelled the island on 8 December 1941. One of the New Zealanders, Corporal P. B. Thorburn (he was afterwards attested into the Army), was mentioned in despatches for leaving hospital during this first raid, in spite of a septic leg, and returning to duty. Thorburn was evacuated from Ocean Island with most of the other Europeans in February 1942, when his colleague, Sergeant R. Third, volunteered to remain and keep the radio station open to transmit coastwatching reports.

The final occupation of the Gilberts by the Japanese was heralded by the fall of Nauru Island on 25 August 1942 and of Ocean Island, after shelling, on 26 August. Third, who had destroyed his radio and code-books, was captured and remained a prisoner on the island, dying in captivity probably late in 1942. Abemama and Tarawa were occupied early in September 1942, and towards the end of the month Tamama, Maiana, Beru, Nonouiti, and Kuria were visited by Japanese parties.

The conduct of the coastwatchers during the invasion was altogether admirable. They coded and sent off signals giving the strength of the enemy, and on some islands signals were still being sent after the enemy had landed. All stations sent the correct distress signal ‘LLLL’ before their radio and code-books were destroyed. Some sent a last message heroic in its simplicity and understatement—‘Japs coming. Regards to all.’ or ‘Two warships visiting us. No launch yet.’ or, sticking even more closely to the business in hand, ‘Ship one mile NW of island with high superstructure forward.’

‘The Naval Board’, it is stated in a service file under a date in January 1943, ‘has been particularly impressed by the calm, unflurried manner in which messages have been coded when the enemy had already landed on the island. The correct procedure for informing us when they were about to destroy their sets has been carried out up to the last minute. In every case, it is clear that they have kept going to the end, their one aim, regardless of their own safety, being to keep us informed. It may be relevant to stress here that a wireless set is an unpleasant thing with which to be caught in war.’

The coastwatchers were not all captured immediately. They had been waiting nine months in daily expectation of the Japanese invasion, and no doubt had often considered what action they would take when the enemy arrived. Many of them escaped and hid in the bush for several days, but gave themselves up either when the Japanese threatened reprisals against the native inhabitants or when they felt that reprisals would be the result of their escape. One party had an excellent chance at least of putting to sea but were refused the use of a launch by the natives for fear of Japanese action and gave themselves up to the enemy.

There are some other indications of how well the coastwatchers bore themselves in the testimony collected afterwards from natives and other observers. (Some French Roman Catholic missionaries were left at liberty by the Japanese under close and onerous supervision.) One soldier when taken prisoner refused to allow a Japanese to lead him by the arm. When the guard presented his bayonet, the soldier imperturbably asked him for a drink. On another island, while he was collecting his belongings, a New Zealand soldier was jostled by a Japanese whom page 27 he immediately knocked down. There is no record of any Japanese reprisal for this incident.

Seventeen New Zealand coastwatchers—seven wireless operators and ten soldiers—were taken prisoner in this completion of the Japanese occupation of the Gilberts. Five civilians, including the Government wireless operator at Tarawa, were imprisoned with them. The prisoners were brought to Tarawa immediately after their capture and remained for three days tied to coconut trees in front of the Japanese commandant's house. They were then confined in the native lunatic asylum enclosure and throughout the next few weeks were intermittently put to work shifting gravel or unloading shipping at the wharf.

In the early afternoon on 15 October 1942, United States forces bombed and shelled Tarawa. During the raid one prisoner, believed to have been a civilian, escaped from the asylum enclosure and ran excitedly along the beach, waving to the American planes. Armed Korean labourers searched the village for him and, catching him in the open, shot him immediately. In the late afternoon, when most of the native population was gathered at the wharf out of sight, the Japanese killed all the prisoners. It is not known whether the dominant motive for this murder was reprisal for the raid or revenge for the escape. The Japanese who beheaded the prisoners with his sword was an official, possibly a civilian, in charge of the Korean labourers.

At an enquiry into the Tarawa murders held by an official of the Western Pacific High Commission in October 1944, one native eye-witness gave the following evidence. At about five o'clock in the evening of the day of the American raid he heard a good deal of noise from the asylum enclosure and saw the European prisoners inside sitting in a line surrounded by a number of Japanese. A dead European was dragged out from inside the asylum building and placed in front of the other prisoners. (It is conjectured that this was the man shot for escaping earlier in the afternoon.) ‘Then one Japanese started to kill the Europeans…. I did not see any more because I fainted.’

The coastwatchers who died on Tarawa (and Sergeant Third on Ocean Island) were posthumously mentioned in despatches ‘For exemplary conduct in coastwatching and communications duties in the Gilbert Islands area in the face of the enemy, despite overwhelming odds and the knowledge that relief or escape was impossible.’*

The civilian status of some of the coastwatchers, men seconded from the Post and Telegraph Department as radio operators or Public Works Department employees, had caused anxiety in New Zealand after the capture by the enemy of the first civilian wireless operators in the northern Gilberts. It was decided in January 1944 that these men should be given military rank retrospectively to the date of capture, so that their dependants should be eligible for pension rights and other privileges. The other civilian coastwatchers were enrolled in the Army from 1 December 1942, when those who had been captured in the southern Gilberts were already dead. Although the Japanese in their treatment of the prisoners on Tarawa did not take any

* The New Zealanders who died on Tarawa were Lieutenant A. L. Taylor, Corporals H. R. C. Hearn, A. C. Heenan, J. J. McCarthy, A. E. McKenna, T. C. Murray, C. A. Pearsall, Privates R. A. Ellis, R. I. Hitchon, D. H. Howe, R. Jones, C. A. Kilpin, R. M. McKenzie, J. H. Nichol, C. J. Owen, W. A. R. Parker, and L. B. Speedy. (The first seven of these were wireless operators given subsequent military rank.) The civilians who were killed at the same time were R. G. Morgan (the Tarawa wireless operator), B. Cleary, I. R. Handley, A. M. McArthur, and Rev. A. L. Sadd.

page 28 stand upon the principles of international law, it would have been possible for them to have justified the execution of the seven wireless operators (though not of the soldiers) on the ground that they had been civilians doing work of an essentially military character.*

* The position of the remaining coastwatchers in the Gilberts had obviously become desperate. They can only have been abandoned because it was considered that the information they supplied was worth the sacrifice. It must have been expected that they would be captured, and attention might have been given earlier to their status as civilians or combatants.—Note by Editor-in-Chief.