Brave bid saved Kiwi escapers
Wellington politicians said their rescue mission was too dangerous to try but a captain and his volunteer crew ignored them and risked their lives to save others.
Little-known facts in this column about the Japanese beheading of young New Zealand volunteer Coastwatchers and their escorts who were left to their fate by the wartime New Zealand government were a reminder of the crew’s bravery. I heard from escapers’ plight and position. But no rescue was launched, deemed too dangerous for an Allied ship to approach Tarawa, particularly since the escapers were being hunted. Disgusted, Captain G J Webster and his crew of volunteers decided to sail the motor vessel Degei from Suva to the Gilberts to attempt a dangerous rescue regardless.
They did, evading Japanese air and sea patrols in their successful highrisk mission. On the voyage back, Doug Hunt’s father was one of the rescued who signed a thank you to their rescuers.
Doug sent me a copy of that yellowing, historic letter. It talks in oldfashioned, understated style of “our safety and comfort on the hazardous voyage now happily ending”.
Doug contrasts the bravery of Captain Webster and his crew with the inaction of the New Zealand government who left the Coastwatchers to their fate – 15 of them executed. Later Wellington covered up their capture and deaths.
Doug writes: “Many Coastwatcher family members suffered in silence the humiliation of having their sons and brothers labelled as cowards and disparaged for spending the war on some Pacific Island paradise while other young men were going off to fight.”
He says it’s possible the Japanese rounded up and executed the Coastwatchers as retaliation for them helping the escapers by radioing their request for help and pinpointing their location which led to the Webster rescue.
“It seems inevitable that they would be captured, although the men were hidden and protected by the local Gilbertese. It’s said most of th Coastwatchers voluntarily surrendered because of threats – some carried out – to kill Gilbertese until all the Coastwatchers were captured.”
His research shows the New Zealand government – at the request of the UK Command, according to National Archives – refused to tell the families of their sons’ fate. However, unofficial news leaked out, possibly from the crew of the inter-island vessel Viti who sailed to Betio within days of its recapture by the US forces in 1943.
The persistence of the mother of one of those killed forced a breakthrough. She pressed many times for official news on their fate and after a personal request direct to Prime Minister Peter Fraser their murder was confirmed.
Doug also writes: “It would also seem that such was the feeling at the time among the US forces that the few Japanese on Tarawa alive after its recapture were ‘lost overboard’ from the US ship they were on during their journey to detention.”
Same war, different theatre: Just a few letters from The Last Post on Sir Keith Park. ply. Your quote from Lord Tedder confirms this status. Thank you for bringing this great man to our attention.”
“Congratulations on highlighting his wartime achievements. He is the greatest New Zealander who ever lived. As a child, I was brought up not far from his Uxbridge Battle of Britain headquarters and therefore under the protection of No 11 fighter group. Early in 2008, I wrote to Helen Clark asking if New Zealand could recognise Sir Keith Park in a permanent form. Her reply – the government thought his name on the Motat hangar was sufficient. A sad New Zealand ending for a great man.”
“As someone who as a child lived in England during World War Two, I’m among his most ardent admirers and when Greatest Ever New Zealander polls “Your column on Sir come around, he tops my Keith was highly approlist priate in light of the deYet oddly –and certaincision in London to erect ly among my generation a statue honouring him. – he is better known and Over the last few years more highly regarded I’ve often asked peoin Britain than in his ple whether they knew homeland. Because he that the man who saved really did save us. the world was born in “What makes his Thames? And, of course, achievement even greatreceived a mystified re-er is that he fought not only the enemy but his own high command – the ‘big wing’ group led by Douglas Bader and Leigh Mallory. Both were extraordinarily brave and gifted pilots but their tactical thinking and pressure on Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding would have been fatal to the RAF. And such was their opposition to Park that after the Battle of Britain, they got him moved sideways in the upper echelons of command and into the shadows of history.
“The ‘big wing’ group believed every possible aircraft should be put in the air to oppose the German raiders. Park knew that if that course was taken, the RAF would not run out of planes but of pilots. So he sent up only as many aircraft as necessary to hold the line. He rotated his pilots so they had spells of relaxation in Scotland and the North of England in between their battles.
“As a result, when the final all-out German attack came in September of 1940, the RAF could muster enough – just enough – planes and pilots to defeat it. And, as the finest of all the German aces Adolf Galland, said many times later, the Luftwaffe never recovered from that defeat.
“All, thanks to Park. He deserves so much more recognition here in his homeland. Hopefully articles such as yours will help remedy this sad neglect of a true New Zealand hero.” • The big mail wasn’t all on ‘big wing’ tactics. “I was an apprentice at New Zealand Railway Otahuhu workshops and a member of the No 3 Squadron ATC and No 1 Territorial Air Force Squadron at Whenuapai when the Spitfire he got for the museum arrived.
I climbed inside and tightened all nuts on to the bolts of the tail section as they were added.
I met Sir Keith Park twice at the Battle of Britain parades at the cenotaph, there in his uniform and with sword.
He’d always speak to the ATC cadets who were not frightened to speak to him.
He towered over most of them and all the gold braid could have seemed quite intimidating. But there was something about his manner that put you at ease.”