The Timaru Herald

Beheaded Kiwis’ memorial

- Michael Field

Aforgotten group of 22 – mostly New Zealanders – beheaded by the Japanese 70 years ago are to finally be honoured with a striking monument in their homeland on Waterloo Quay, Wellington.

New Zealand Post will begin erecting what is planned to be a purpose-built wall dedicated to the memory of the 17 Post and Telegraph (P&T) and unarmed soldier coast-watchers who were executed on October 15, 1942, on Betio in Tarawa, now the capital atoll of Kiribati.

Creation of the monument comes after the last coast watcher, John Jones, 91, last Anzac Day laid the first wreath ever laid for his friends.

He has always been upset that the men were never really honoured here.

‘‘But I am trying to keep rememberin­g it, the executions, and bringing their names in front of the public,’’ he said on Anzac Day. ‘‘Each year I get so sad over the whole damn thing.’’

Among those reading Mr Jones’ story was NZ Post chief executive Brian Roche, who then met Mr Jones and discussed the creation of a durable and re- spectful memorial marking what he said was one of the untold Pacific stories.

‘‘They were our employees who volunteere­d for service. A number of them did not come back. It seems appropriat­e that we recognise their contributi­on. I feel strongly and so does the board. We want to thank people for a great service.’’

The DNA of the P&T was part of NZ Post, he said.

‘‘The future is important, but you do need to be respectful of the past; they gave their lives.’’

Among the dead were seven P&T radio operators who had trained at Courtenay Pl. In their day, they were at the forefront of technology, Mr Roche said.

Together with 10 unarmed soldiers they were stationed in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands charged with watching out for German raiding ships.

After Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, New Zealand left the men in the face of advancing Japanese.

Mr Jones, who was on the northernmo­st atoll, was captured the day after Pearl Harbour and spent the war in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp.

It was not until after the war he learnt of the fate of his closest friends. None of the bodies has ever been found.

Japanese marines had eventually taken the 17 New Zealanders to Betio, and for reasons not explained, executed them along with five elderly civilians, including a New Zealander.

After the war the United States erected a memorial to the dead New Zealanders and two years ago it was replaced with a large stainless steel monument paid for by Australia to honour two Australian­s among the civilians.

NZ Post said the memorial would be part of the NZ Post House capital expenditur­e budget. It could not give a cost, saying the design was in the concept stage. ‘‘Obviously, we will strike a balance between providing a fitting memorial and being fiscally prudent,’’ a spokesman said.

Mr Jones said he was delighted NZ Post was erecting the memorial.

‘‘I am very pleased after all these years that the young people of New Zealand, who haven’t any idea of what went on, will be reminded of the coast watchers.’’

Three of them were his all-time closest friends.

‘‘It was heartbreak­ing that they died in such a manner.

‘‘It was so grotesque as far as I am concerned.’’

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