The Pacific Coast Watchers
Post Office coastwatcher JJ McCarthy (left) in New Zealand. He was among 22 New Zealanders executed by the Japanese on Tarawa on 15 October 1942.
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The Pacific Coast Watchers
by Alan McCarthy
After a short flight from Nauru to Tarawa, I was on this small island. What on earth was I doing here? The humidity and the downpours of rain covering the island. Two days before Anzac Day in 1997, I rushed from the airport to catch a bus to take me to Betio, with two of my friends from New Zealand, Tim and Grant. The bus ride to Betio was memorable as the rain came through the windows of the bus totally saturating us, and the speed we were going even the great horse Pharlap would have had trouble keeping up with us, the bus dropped us off soaking wet and safe with smiles and laughing and waving of hands.
Our first greeting was from an expatriate New Zealander Collin, who works as a builder on Tarawa. Who knew that we were coming as it had been broadcast on the radio for a number of days of our impending arrival. Later on in the afternoon, my friends and I went for a walk enjoying the scenery, but I was here on this island for a reason. With the help of Romatoa a policeman, on Betio, he took me to the New Zealand High Commission to introduce myself, as they knew the reason why I was here in Tarawa.
This year's Anzac Day was being organised by the Australian High Commissioner. As each year they have alternative turns of preparing the Anzac Ceremony. With me I had the New Zealand colours of the 34th Battalion, which was given to me to take to Tawara to make sure it would be hoisted at the dawn service, also I had two wreaths, one from the 34th Battalion and one from my family. I passed the flag to the Australian High Commissioner and wreaths and said, ‘I shall see them at the dawn service.’
I woke up early on Anzac morning thinking of the day ahead of me. There was a knock at my door I stumbled to the door in the dark opened it Tim and Grant bounced into the room with three cans of beer Tim said, 'We know what you are thinking mate and don't feel alone because we are your buddies and we will be with you.’ We opened the cans and toasted to the Anzacs, the 34th Battalion, and the ones who never came home. After we all got dressed we headed towards the Betio Cemetery in our hire car that we got off Norm at Toyota.
In the distance I could see this white cross with people everywhere, we parked our car with an Australian Official who was helping, opened our door and telling Tim he had made a pole to fly the 34th flag and that Tim had to hold it by Kiribati, New Zealand, and Australian flags.
Tim was dashed away, Grant had to set up the video camera and he was gone, Colin came up and said it was going to be the biggest gathering on Anzac Day at Betio and he was gone. I sat in the car on my own looking at this white cross and a green base down below. It was getting close to 7 am when the service would begin. I got out unwillingly and walked towards the Tablet with tears in my eyes.
I became conscious of people looking at me, knowing why I was here and for a good reason. One of the organisers said that I would be standing in the front line with the representatives of the Kiribati Government, New Zealand and Australian High Commissioner, and the newly elected Commissioner of Police. The Police band was getting ready tunning all their instruments, people talking among themselves.
I felt a bit awkward and went to the tablet and looked at the names and one of many was my uncle, J.J. McCarthy. My father's brother of Point Chevalier Auckland, who was murdered by the Japanese on the 15th of October 1942 at 5:00 pm with twenty-one other men. Seventeen of whom were New Zealanders and Five Europeans. My mind wandered back when I asked my father, ‘which island his brother was killed?’ He was a returned serviceman himself who was in the middle-east at the time and he was not sure which island he was killed on. He knew it was somewhere up near the equator. I said to him, ‘Would you like me to find out?’ He answered, ‘Yes I would.’
One of my first letters was sent to the internal affairs in New Zealand, I received a reply which stated and I quote (I did check a number of files dealing with 'Radio operations' and the 'Japanese occupation of the Gilbert Islands', but found no mention of Japanese atrocities.) end of quote.
My research told me that in 1941, a group of men from the Postal and Telegraph volunteered to become Radio Operators. These men were told that they would be in isolated areas of the Pacific looking out for German Raiders. These men left N.Z. on the ship called the ‘Matua’ and proceeded to Fiji.
In Fiji, the army was organising soldiers companions that would go with these radio operators who were in the reserve Battalion, which later became the 34th Battalion. Soldiers had to be mature, as the radio operators were quite young. When all was ready they boarded the vessel the 'Viti' and went to the Ellice, which is now named Tuvalu group of islands, dropping operators and some soldiers on different islands.
The ‘Viti’ proceeded up to the Gilbert Islands, now known as Kiribati. Also dropping the men on different islands which were: Tamana, Beru, Nonouti, Abemama, Kuria, Maiana, Abiang, Pikati, Makin. The men who went to Abemama and Kuria were sent to Tarawa first and then transferred on another boat to be taken to these islands, with radio equipment, food, and other essentials that they would need. Their initial work involved, relaying information back to their parent stations, which included weather, shipping, planes, etc.
They also sent after these men a radio operator to Banaba, which was called Ocean Island at that time. However, in December 1941 Japan came into the War and two days after Pearl Harbour they arrived at Kiribati. This was to have a great bearing on these men. The Kiwi's, Aussie, and the island people didn’t know it but the South Pacific War books chapter one had ended and chapter two was beginning to unfold.
The opening chapter had also ended for many Catholic nuns and priests scattered across the islands. For many of those apostles of the Christian faith, the end days were upon them and appropriate to revolutionary prophecy, they would prove truly apocalyptic. The barbarian swords would soon flash with heathen joy and Anzac blood and islanders would spurt and gush and flow and trickle and pulse to the last coagulating drop.
After reading many articles on the Coastwatchers, I realised that Catholic nuns kept popping up so I went to my parish priest and asked him how I could find nuns who served in the Gilberts in World War II. I discovered that there were two nuns still alive living at St Josephs nursing home in Sydney. After correspondence with these nuns, I discovered they did know Coastwatchers on the Northern and Southern Gilberts and in particular, my uncle. I immediately made plans to visit them in Sydney.
I was met at the door by sister Dolores, who was stationed at Abemama and sister Helena who was stationed at Abiang. They asked me whether I would like some lunch after my long trip and so we proceeded into a large room. Sister Dolores was 94 years old at that time, she had never spoken to anybody about what happened up in the islands in the war, but it was clear in her mind, as though it was yesterday. She did know my uncle, and the soldiers Howe and Hitchon, and said the nuns called them OUR radio operators as they were part of the family. You can imagine there were not many Europeans on the islands.
On Abemama, sister Dolores has fond memories of the boys especially Hitchon. She said they all got on well with the village people and were very happy together. The village the Coastwatchers were in was called Binoinang. The Coastwatchers lived on the outskirts of the village down by the water. She lived 5 miles from that village in a place called Manoka, but visited many times. My uncle had an islander helping him with his radio. Sister Dolores could remember they could not leave their radio for any great length of time.
Sister Helena was also interesting to speak to and was on the island of Abiang and can remember an operator called Sydney Wallace. He had no soldier companions with him and lived next to the nuns. Just before the Japanese arrived on Abiang, Sister Helena also explained how the community of nuns were going to be evacuated. All the nuns from the southern and northern islands were being brought to Abiang to be taken via Banaba to Australia. Sister Helena can remember going to Mr Wallaces' place where Mr Sadd (a visiting missionary) was at that time and told them that she and other nuns, did not want to leave. Mr Sadd told her that the Japanese could do what they want with him, but he would not like seeing any of the nuns being captured by the Japanese and they would have to go.
Sister Dolores and other nuns began to be evacuated from the southern islands on route to Abiang in the north in the boat that would take the nuns to Australia. The date was the 9th of December 1941 and unfortunately, the lives of the Coastwatchers and the nuns were about to change forever. On the 10th December, the Japanese arrived at Tarawa. At this time the ship with the nuns on board had reached Maiana, the last island before Tarawa where A.C. Heenan, C.J. Owen, L.B. Speedy were. The boat was turned around to go back south to Abemama due to the invasion at Tarawa.
Sister Dolores did not say if she met the Maiana Coastwatchers, but these men warned the captain of what was happening up at Tarawa due to other Coastwatchers transmitting their messages about the invasion.
On Abiang to the north, Sister Helena said that there were many warships lying offshore. Later the soldiers landed and the nuns were caught and marched down to the post office and told that they were on probation. They had to sign a piece of paper stating that they would not leave the island. Most of the officials and some nuns escaped and headed towards the southern islands. But in the next few days the Japanese had caught the Coastwatchers on Pikati, J. Jones, J. Menzies, M. Menzies and an Englishman called Williams.
On Makin M.P. Quinn, L.E. Muller, B.L. Were, and Mr Jones. Mr Jones was kind enough to tell me how they were caught. Mr Wallace on Abiang was captured on Christmas eve. All of these men were taken to Japan and were the first prisoners to be taken. They stayed in Japan until the end of the war. Fortunately, all of these men survived their 4 years of imprisonment in a horrific jail. But that is another story...
On Tarawa, there was an Australian called Mr Reg Morgan who taught at the radio school teaching the islanders how to use radio equipment. The day the Japanese came he smashed the main transmitter and took a small radio set and hid in the bush until early September 1942. Captain Handley and Mr Cleary, also stationed on the island were captured. Mr Morgan kept gathering information about sea airpower, relaying messages back down south what was happening around the immediate Islands with the help of the islanders.
Sister Helena's church on Abiang had a high tower and was used by the Japanese to see the islands of Tarawa, Marakei, and Mianana. At Abemama Sister Dolores, Sister Gregory (Australian), Sister Juliane (French) thought they were going to be the next island to be taken but nothing happened for nine months, they would see ships out to sea but they never stopped. Sister Juliane died during the Japanese occupation. The nuns visited the boys many times after they got back from Maianna. My uncle would stay by his radio all the time now.
Sister Dolores remembers asking him and the boys if they would like to come to a feast with the nuns and the island people. They said that they had already been asked but it seemed like there was a lot of traffic on the radio and Sister Dolores said, they looked concerned. There was also a priest on the Island who visited the boys many times.
In late February 1942, the boat ‘Degi’ left Fiji to take supplies to the Coastwatchers stationed in the Tuvalu Islands and southern Kiribati. However, it would not go any further than Nonouti as Japanese planes warships were close by. One night early in March 1942 a launch towing a lifeboat came to Abemama to bring the Coastwatchers supplies, guns and ammunition for the soldiers. the men had requested guns when the northern islands were taken but they were denied at that time by the army.
Earlier before this, they were asked whether they would do another term. The government had no trained men to take their place and they agreed to stay - what else could they of said! The boys wrote letters and asked the man on the launch if he could make sure their families in NZ got them, which they did. The boat did not stay for very long that night because of the danger of being detected. It would hide in the lagoons when it was daylight and moved around at night. Upon receipt of supplies, the Coastwatchers would always share their food with the island people.
In August 1942 the Americans raided the island of Makin. In Japan, they reacted and sent the sixth special landing force to Tawara which landed on the 15th September. Then in late September 1942, Sister Dolores said she saw a huge ship out on the horizon with Japanese on smaller vessels coming towards Abemama. She can remember the red and white flag that was on the boat and the Japanese coming straight towards the church.
As they landed they charged up to her church with their flag. It was early morning and the nuns were surrounded with bayonets screaming at them 'Radio! Radio!' Sister Dolores said there was an interpreter with them, she did not tell me his name but after a lot of research, his name would have been Tiriata, a Japanese who had lived at the Gilberts before the war. The Nuns tried to explain that they had no radio but they pushed the nuns into the church smashing and ransacking everything still screaming 'Radio! Radio!'
They took them outside the church screaming 'Die!' At that moment Sister Dolores thought that they were about to be killed. She was not frightened because of her faith. They then screamed 'Village!' The nuns pointed to a path,the Japanese soldiers ran off towards the village where the Coastwatchers were. The nuns were guarded at the church with pointed bayonets screaming at them 'you die'. When the Japanese got to the village of Binonangi, the Coastwatchers were nowhere to be seen.
They had all that time earlier to organise an escape plan which they now put into action. When the Japanese arrived at the village, they searched every house, rounded up the Gilbertese people and threatened to burn their village and bush. The Coastwatchers had gone bush and remained hiding for nearly a week. The Gilbertese were loyal to the Coastwatchers and would not tell their location. The priest on Abemama, Father Sabalier sneaked out to the Coastwatchers one night and told them what was happening to the Gilbertese. They had lived there for nearly fifteen months and had made some good friends with the villages, so the boys talked amongst themselves and all agreed that they would surrender.
Father Sabalier got their addresses in N.Z. before they went to the Japanese, Sister Dolores also said my Uncle John had smashed or buried his radio at that time.
The Japanese were not impressed with the Coastwatchers, for taking so long to surrender, as the ship that was out to sea had to leave and then come back to pick them up. They were beaten and were not allowed to take any possessions. This happened on most islands when the Japanese had to come back to get the Coastwatchers.
The next day the boys were brought up to the church, no torture or beatings took place here and were put into a hut and guarded like the nuns. They were tired and hungry from hiding in the bush. Father asked if he could talk to them, he was allowed. One of the boys yelled out, ‘Have you got any mosquito nets, Father?’ A couple of days later the ship arrived and they never saw their radio operators again.
An islander in a canoe left Abemama to go to Kuria where H.R. Hearn, R. Jones, R.A. Ellis were, to let them know that Abemama had fallen, and there were Japanese ships in the lagoon. These men on Kuria carried on sending information until they were caught about ten days later. At this stage of our discussion Sister Dolores said the Coastwatchers were loyal to their country, I asked her whether the boys country was loyal to them and her eyes met mine and nothing was said. We both knew the answer. Sister Dolores stayed on the island through the war. When the Americans came to Abemama no Japanese were taken, they were either killed or they suicided. After the war, Sister Dolores wrote letters to their parents.
On other islands, the Coastwatchers were caught in very similar circumstances relaying messages as the Japanese were landing and smashing their radios. On the Island of Beru, A.L. Taylor, and T.C. Murray were going to escape by canoe but after hearing what reprisals the Gilbertese would get, they surrendered and were put on a ship. Mr Sadd and Pastor Lupeli was allowed to stay with a local family at Betio. On the island of Nonouti, Coastwatchers Mckenna, Kilpin, and Nichol smashed their radios and hid.
The Japanese had to come back to get them, also a retired trader Mr Mcarthur was captured on this island. At Tamana, Private Parker, and McKenzie with Pearsall the radio operator were still sending messages as the Japanese came to their hut, he did not stop until he was struck by a butt of a gun. Many of these Coastwatchers last message was ‘warships arriving, Japanese landing regards to all, Got to go now, to smash radio, bye...’
On the October the 6th, the Japanese reported to Japan that all radio communications in the Gilberts had been destroyed. When all the southern Gilberts were taken. The next of kin were told that their sons were missing and believed to be prisoners of war, held by the Japanese.
When these Coastwatchers got to Betio they were tied up with wire to coconut trees for up to four days waiting for inspection by the commander Shosua. It was rumoured that while these men were tied to the coconut trees they were stoned by the Japanese. You could imagine the mosquitoes, hunger, thirst, and the heat beating down on them as the Island is close to the equator.
They were given a little bit of rice in a tin. Sister Apoline said in a newspaper that they were treated like beasts of burden and the worst of it was that they must have known there was hope or rescue for them. After they were inspected they were taken and put into a lunatic asylum which was their prison. They then worked on the wharf at Betio with islanders dragging big stones and treated like vermin.
The Japanese enjoyed making fun out of them in front of the Gilbertese. In particular, they had a grudge on two members of the group, Captain Handley who was a retired trader and Mr Sadd whom they suspected was the chief Radio Operator of the Gilberts which was not true. Sister Helena said that they were very racial and would differentiate according to nationality. The Gilbertese would sneak food to the Coastwatchers when they could. What a great race of people the Gilbertese were.
Then came the fatal day, October the 15th 1942, a United States warship fired Betio. Two aircraft came low along the beach. This is where Sister Helena says that people think that two soldiers ran along the beach, some say a priest, but it was Mr Cleary the chemist waving his shirt, who used to work in the hospital. The Japanese ran after him and shot him.
Let's think about this before we carry on. These boys were locked up in the Lunatic Asylum and all of a sudden ships and planes were bombing, you could imagine the excitement from these boys, thinking there might be a chance of being freed and not being abandoned. I bet when those planes left, their hearts would have sunk, mine would have. Mr Cleary was then dragged from the beach back to the enclosure and thrown to the ground in front of the boys. They had been brought into the middle of the compound with their filthy rags on hanging to their skinny bodies.
There are a few articles which have been written which document the events of this day which state that the New Zealanders clothes were torn, their hair and beards were filthy and starved from lack of food. The Japanese coolies started cutting them with their bayonets just enough not to kill them. The Japanese laughed and insulted them in front of the islanders how weak the white race were and how great the Imperial Japanese were.
Then things got out of hand. Mr Sadd was told to walk over the union jack he refused and was knocked to the ground and beheaded. Mr Handley yelled they are going to kill us be brave lads, he was knocked to the ground and beheaded then... total chaos followed. The other two Europeans and 17 New Zealanders whose hands were tied behind their backs, in total 21 men, screaming for pity and cursing at their murderers were beheaded. Mr Cleary was shot about 3pm so we are looking at two hours of sheer hell.
These men were murdered about 5pm. Their heads were put in one pit and bodies in another, then they tried to burn them. They then put palm leaves and roofing iron over the bodies in an attempt to try to hide the crimes that they had committed. There was no need for this carnage, these men were unarmed and prisoners of war.
Sister Dolores said that on the day that the boys got murdered her Bishop went to Matuza Shosua and asked permission to visit the Coastwatchers as a minister of religion. He was refused, he asked again only to be refused again, he tried a third time, this time Matuza Shosua threatened to kill him if he carried on.
It is believed that these men were killed because Japanese ships in the harbour were hit by bombs on that day, and that made the Japanese coolies behead the NZ Coastwatchers. In my view even if the Americans did not bomb Tarawa, the Gilbertese told the Americans about the atrocities that had taken place on the 15th October 1942. Sister Helena told me that the marines still had to take Abiang where Japanese were. When they got there the Japanese surrendered and they were put on a boat to be brought back to Tarawa.
It is believed that at this point Matuza Shosua was killed in a bunker, so it is believed. When the boat arrived there were no Japanese prisoners. Some people said they were shot and thrown overboard.
The Americans made a memorial on Betio for the Coastwatchers and here I was, standing at the tablet. I was ushered to my line as I wondered how many people knew what these men went through. The Kiribati representative Mr Schults spoke, the New Zealand and Australian High Commissioners spoke and the laying of wreaths. My turn came when I walked up and was past the 34th Battalions wreath. I placed it at the tablet there was not a murmur from the gathering I looked at Tim holding the colours. I said your buddies have not forgotten you I turned and was past my families wreath. I kissed it, and placed it on the tablet. I said, ‘ we love you uncle John and I kept my promise Dad.’ My father had died a couple of years before.
I turned with tears streaming down my eyes - Lest we Forget!
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