National Army Museum, Waiouru, New Zealand : Military History & Army War Museum

World War II Coastwatchers Remembered

Contributed by Grant Hays, Custodian

New Zealand Coastwatchers who served in the Pacific during World War II were commemorated this October with the laying of a wreath at the National War Memorial in Wellington. The 15th October marks a day to remember when in 1942 on Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands, 17 New Zealand Coastwatchers and 5 civilians were executed by beheading after being captured by the Japanese.

John Jones is the last surviving member of the Coastwatchers and was in Wellington to remember his comrades, three of whom were his best friends. John was a radio operator from the Post and Telegraph Department and his job as a Coastwatcher was to keep a 24 hour watch for enemy ships and aircraft and report on meteorological conditions.

New Zealand established 62 Coastwatch Units on various islands throughout the Pacific and these Coastwatchers worked in difficult conditions without access to important tools such as binoculars or aircraft and naval recognition charts. A typical station had a radio operator, 1 or 2 unarmed soldiers, a radio (to communicate with headquarters) and a number of lookout posts. Many Coastwatchers were aided by locals from that particular island, but it was an isolated and often lonely experience. Their job was fraught with danger as the Japanese were able to easily locate their positions following each transmission of information and as a result many were either killed or endured years in captivity as Prisoners of War (POW).

John saw his first Japanese aircraft (a reconnaissance flying boat) the day after the attack on Pearl Harbour. Days later John was among the first to be captured by the Japanese and taken to Japan in December 1941, but only after he and the unarmed soldier with him, burnt all the codes, smashed their radio, buried their stores and reported in code, “Japanese landing NOW!”

John spent 4 years as a POW at a camp right next to Hiroshima at Shikoku. Unknown to the radio operators, they were secretly attested into the New Zealand Army as it was feared the Japanese would execute them as civilian spies, and thus John was given the Army rank of Corporal (#180724). He was also Mentioned in Despatches after the war.

John retired in Auckland and through his dogged determination to get his mates recognised, NZ Post has announced they will erect a memorial wall in Wellington to remember them. The Coastwatchers are also remembered at a memorial in the New Zealand Military Cemetery in Bourail, New Caledonia.

John’s oral history plays in the Pacific Display at the National Army Museum where his name can also be found inscribed on the Museum’s POW Wall.

Postscript: One of the executed Coastwatchers was Charles Owen. In a strange coincidence his older brother, Jack Owen, was an NCO at the Featherston POW Camp in the Wairarapa. Four months after his brother’s death there was a “riot” at the POW camp in which 48 Japanese died.

A secret International Committee of the Red Cross report later concluded that Jack Owen had fired most of the bullets. It is not known whether he was aware of the fate of his brother as Tarawa Island remained in Japanese hands.

The bodies were never found. The US military last year found human remains on the island that may well be the New Zealanders however DNA testing has yet to confirm this.