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The Arthur Mercer Mystery

Updated: Apr 21, 2021

A casualty of the Japanese Invasion Banaba WWII 1942

The tragic death of Arthur Mercer and what happened to him during WWII remains a mystery as various versions come to light. Why did Arthur ‘jump ship’ at the last moment and stay behind on Banaba? Did the Japanese execute him, did he die from their maltreatment, or did he try to escape at sea? Does this later version explain why his body was never found? Over the years, various official reports and firsthand accounts have been uncovered that has only added to the mystery.

Why did Arthur Mercer 'Jump Ship' ?

Maureen White, Banaba (1931-51) Version

Maureen was a seventeen-year-old girl growing up on Ocean Island (Banaba) and had a crush on the handsome young Arthur who was just nineteen years of age prior to the Japanese invasion of the Island. Before the Company’s main staff evacuation on February 1942, women and children were evacuated first aboard one of the BPC [1] ships. Their vessel was torpedoed and sunk during its voyage back to Australia by a German raider and Maureen, together with her mother and the other survivors aboard, were captured and taken prisoners by the Germans. They would eventually be released on an island in New Britain, Papua New Guinea. Maureen would return to Banaba post-war to work in BPC company’s office.

She stated that it was known amongst the Company staff that Arthur had a fallen in love with a young Banaban girl and could not bear to leave her behind. She was also able to provide a photograph of Arthur Mercer taken with two young Banaban girls. While Maureen was not able to provide the names of the girls in the photo, she was confident that one of them was Arthur’s Banaban girlfriend.

It was not until 1992 that local Banaban correspondent for the Banaban Heritage Society, Kaiea Bakanebo came forward with detailed information on the photograph. He stated, “on the left standing next to Arthur is Nei Kaitiro Kaibati and on the right is Nei Terenga Aneri”. Kaiea also confirmed, “Nei Terenga was Arthur’s girlfriend at the time, and the photograph was taken at Tabwewa Catholic Compound on Banaba just prior to the Japanese invasion of Banaba in 1942. Nei Terenga’s father, Aneri, used to work with Arthur’s Banaban friend, Kaintong at the British Phosphate Commission’s (BPC) Trade Store”. [1]

The Capture of Arthur Mercer

Kaitiata Takabwewe (Banaban friend of Arthur Mercer) Version A firsthand account by Kaitiata Takabwewe, Tabwewa Village, Rabi Island. Written interview on 17 October 1996 [2]:

Arthur was one of the workers of the BPC Company on Banaba. When most of the BPC workers, Chinese labourers and Australian soldiers all left Banaba, Arthur Mercer stayed back. No one really knew the reason he stayed, but he was fortunate that the remaining BPC bosses gave him food. During this time, he lived with a Banaban man called Kaintong in one of the Company houses. One day I happened to visit them, and Arthur asked me to stay with them. While staying with them, he used to take me out fishing on the reef every day.

One peaceful night, a Japanese warplane came and bombed the Company office. We were awoken by the sound of bombing and Arthur and I went to hide at the back of the big water tank. We waited for a little while, and when nothing happened, we went back home to sleep again. Early the next morning we went to investigate what had caused the loud noise of the previous evening. We found a leftover bullet lying on the ground. It was still hot when we touched it, and it was about two foot long. After a few days of bombing, the Japanese warships arrived on a Saturday afternoon. The Japanese soldiers went ashore to hold the land (Banaba). We were in the boat harbour at that time, and Arthur Mercer told me that we had to go back home to get all our clothes and then go hide in the bush. I took him to my home, but we never stayed with my families. We went and slept in a cave in the bush, and we bathed in the sea every night. The place where we bathed was near to the Japanese soldier’s camp.

I managed to get a job with the Japanese soldiers and Arthur was also lucky because we got food and cigarettes to share from work. He was still hiding in the bush, and my family brought him food in the mornings and evenings. I fed him at lunchtime, and that was my everyday job with Arthur. Thank God there was no rain from when Arthur was hiding in the caves until he was found by the Japanese.

Before the search for him was started by the Japanese soldiers, I heard rumours, and I told my family members not to say anything if they were asked about Arthur’s location. Unfortunately, the Japanese asked Kaintong about Arthur’s hiding place, and he told them where to find him. When they brought him to their camp, they came past the big water tank, and I got on top of the water tank to get a clear view of them. Arthur could see me when they came near, so he looked up at me and said goodbye to me, and I just waved my hand to him with a broken heart.

I went back home, and I was angry with my family. I asked them why they revealed his hiding place to the soldiers, but they told me back that it was Kaintong who relayed the story to the soldiers. I really felt sorry for my white friend, and I never went back to work the next day. The Japanese came and pulled me to go back to work. I lied to them that I was sick, but they did not know that I was sorry for my white friend.

When I went back to work the next day, I was told to help the Korean chap to carry food for the white men at morning, lunch and dinner. I was happy to meet Arthur again whenever we delivered food to them. One day during our routine duty, Arthur begged me to get him a lime fruit for their juice. He was happy when I bought a lime because they eat a lot of rice and it contains much starch which caused burbura [unknown in English]. At one stage he gave me a bag of rice to take home, but I told him that where I worked we ate a lot of food.

I was happy that I occasionally met him whenever I did my routine duties of delivering food to the whites. Before we left Banaba, I saw him on the motorbike, and I heard that he was going to stay back with the soldiers in their camp. I left Banaba, and he was left behind.

Kaitiata’s closing statement is interesting as it confirms that Arthur Mercer was still alive when the Japanese removed the Banabans between August 1942 and July 1943 on three separate occasions and dispersed them to Tarawa, Kosrae and Nauru. He also identifies that Arthur was given some freedom by the Japanese and he was last seen by Kaitiata riding a motorbike.

Peter Anderson Version

Peter Anderson, the Company’s draftsman/surveyor was the man responsible for locating the bodies of the Europeans left behind on Banaba and executed by the Japanese. He located and recovered all the bodies except for Mercer’s, and he is convinced that Arthur did not die on Banaba.

Peter believes that Authur had not only fallen in love with a Banaban girl but had also made good friends with various young Banaban men. Peter stated that the rumour amongst the Banabans he knew, was that during the time of the Japanese internment of the other Europeans who stayed behind, Mercer was hidden by his Banaban friends in a cave. Peter Anderson stated: “There were rumours that some Banaban friends unsuccessfully tried to help him escape by putting him to sea aboard one of their outrigger canoes. I believe he did escape. Before the War, Arthur, myself and a fellow BPC worker had discussed plans to make an escape from Banaba should the Japanese arrive. There was a large ocean-going outrigger that we planned to use it if we had to. Arthur was very experienced and skilled at sailing these outriggers. On my return to Banaba after the War, this large outrigger was missing, and the Banabans avoided discussing the canoes disappearance”. [3]

Australian Army Official Military Report

In official Australian army post-war interviews with witnesses, they stated that Arthur was one of those killed: “2. The proceedings of War Crime trials held at Rabual of Japanese accused of atrocities at Ocean Island have been carefully perused but there is no reference to the disappearance or death of Mr. Mercer in any of them.3. The only evidence of the death of Mr. Mercer held by this Department is contained in a copy statement dated 1st January 1946, by a Gilbertese labourer names n’ANTA. The relevant portion of the statement is as follows:-“MERCER was a friend of mine and came to my house. MERCER was in the military hospital at TAPIWA a week before he died. I do not know the name of the medical officer in charge of the hospital. JOHNNY OF NONUTI, formerly BPC labourer, was an orderly at the hospital when MERCER died.MERCER was practically skin and bone. I went into the hospital and saw him on the bed after he had died. The Japanese too him away the same night but I don’t know where they buried his body”.4. It is not anticipated that any further information will be available to this Department".

Supporting evidence for Anderson’s opinion is found in secret intelligence reports of Arthur’s demise:

"31/45 Australian Infantry Battalion (AIF) Nauru – Ocean Force, titled, ‘Investigation of Atrocities on Ocean Island’, dated 19 October 1945:

1. … Mr. Mercer evaded arrest for some days but eventually gave himself up due to lack of food.5. Mr. Cartwright died on Good Friday 1943, as a result, according to natives of malnutrition and indignities suffered. Mr. Mercer followed in June 1943 of similar symptoms. Natives buried Mr. Cartwright’s body in the European Cemetery; of Mr. Mercer, there are no details of interment.12. Personalities that stand out for special mention are the Japanese commanders DASNURA and DOYAMA, the number two doctor, Japanese officers ICHI, OTUKA and MIJASUKA, Corporal NISHIJIMA, and the Japanese interpreter TANINTA. Of DASNURA, witness states he was transferred to TARAWA after Mr. Mercer died and was succeeded by DOYAMA".

Is the Mystery of Arthur Mercer Finally Solved

While the official Military statements state that it was difficult to find out any information about Arthur’s actual death from interviews taken from Island labourers, while they did uncover some vague statements regarding Arthurs death, they also conflict with the firsthand account given by his Banaban friend, Kaitiata Takabwewe. He clearly stated he saw Arthur alive and in good health riding a motorbike when they were forcibly removed from the Island by the Japanese between August 1942, and July 1943. There were only one hundred and forty-three of the youngest and fittest of the Banaban and other Island workers were left behind to supply fish for the Japanese forces. Firsthand accounts provided in the official post-war interviews were obviously from informants who were taken off the island before July 1943, and only two of the young I-Kiribati fishermen survived the Japanese executions conducted two days after the official end of the war. Kabunare Koura who survived his execution and hid for months in the caves and Nabetari who escaped the island months earlier on an outrigger and survived his ordeal washing up on the shores of New Britain after seven months adrift at sea.

If Mercer did flee Banaba, his escape would never have been made general knowledge; for fear that others would try and follow. The official reports state that a Japanese officer was transferred to Tarawa just after the time of Mercer’s supposed death and disappearance. Does this support the theory that Mercer had escaped?

Mercer’s Australian family would contact the author years later with a question that the family hoped would shed more light on Arthur’s legacy. They had heard that Arthur had ‘jumped ship’ because of his love for a Banaban girl and believed over the years that the couple had a child. Sadly their hopes were dashed with confirmation that this was not the case and Nei Terenga was still alive and residing on Rabi, Fiji with her family.

Who was Nei Teranga Aneri, Arthur's Banaban Girlfriend

Nei Teranga Aneri’s Story as told by her son Fiti Kelese [4]

Nei Teranga was born on Banaba in 1922 and passed away at the age of 89 years on Rabi Island, Fiji in 2011. She was only ten years old when she lost her mother and adopted, under Banaban custom, by members of her extended family. Nei Teranga’s family has acknowledged that their mother had told them she had an I-Matang [5] boyfriend on Banaba, but they had found the story hard to believe. She did not speak English and they believed this would be a barrier for any relationship with a European. Little did they realise the full extent of the story and the photograph of the couple provided by Maureen White over 60 years later.

We know that her relationship with Arthur Mercer was between 1942 and 1943 until Arthur disappeared. By 1943 she was engaged to Terakoro of Banaba and Tabiteuea descent and married him the same year. They had one son, called Tangaroa, and due to family differences, they separated later towards the end of 1944.

She then fell in love with Antipa Kelese, a young Tuvaluan, part Samoan man with German heritage. No one knew of their relationship until he was seen running down the steps of the boat harbour as Nei Terenga and her family were boarding a ship bound for the Japanese Labour camp in Kosrae. Antipa pleaded with the Banaban elders at the wharf to please let him join Nei Terenga as she was carrying his child. They agreed, and Nei Terenga would give birth to their daughter, Nei Lise while in the labour camp on Kosrae. The couple were declared a de facto husband and wife, and after the war, they were moved to Rabi, Fiji in December 1945 as part of the original pioneering contingent. They were legally married on Rabi a few months later and would go on to have eight children leaving many descendants behind. Arthur’s Banaban friends, Kaitiata and Kaitong would all remain close friends with the couple for the rest of their lives on Rabi.

Maybe the truth surrounding Arthur Mercer can finally be found in these varying accounts of a handsome young man who fell in love with a beautiful young Island girl and gave up his life to stay behind on Banaba … this is Arthur Mercer’s legacy.


1. The British Phosphate Commissioners (BPC) was a board of Australian, British, and New Zealand representatives who managed extraction of phosphate from Christmas Island, Nauru, and Banaba Island (Ocean Island) from 1920 until 1981

2. Kaitiata Takabwewe story was published in Banaba/Ocean Island News No.25 Apr/Mar/May 1997

3. Peter Anderson interviewed June 1998 and published in Te Rii Ni Banaba, first edition 2001 and second edition 2019

4. Nei Teranga's story provided by her son Fiti Kelese, Rabi Island, Fiji and Nei Teranga's eldest daughter, Lise Kun, Nauru

5. Te I-Matang is the I-Kiribati (Gilbertese) word for a white person of European descent.


Meet the Author

Stacey M. King is a businesswoman with commercial interests in the natural health and organic industries and indigenous arts throughout Australia and the Pacific. She is an author and historian who specialises in Banaban Colonial history. Her association with the Banabans is more than a casual interest. Four generations of her family were involved with the early mining industry of Banaba (also known as Ocean Island) between 1901-1931. In 1997, Stacey formed a personal and collaborative partnership with Banaban clan spokesman, Raobeia Ken Sigrah, and they both believe that their lives and destiny were intertwined, bringing them together 100 years later to try and right the wrongs of the past. Together they continue their advocacy for the Banaban community, and with the establishment of Banaban Vision Publications, they are converting much of their writings and research findings into digital publications for future Banaban generations and for a broader audience keen to learn more about the plight of the indigenous Banaban people in the modern world. For more detailed information Stacey M. King

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