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Executed Kiwis remembered after 70 years

Published: 5:27AM Thursday June 14, 2012 Source: Fairfax

  • John Jones. (Source: Fairfax)
    John Jones. - Source: Fairfax

A group of 22 unarmed men who were beheaded by the Japanese 70 years ago will finally be honoured with a monument in their homeland on Waterloo Quay, Wellington.

In the middle of next year, New Zealand Post will begin erecting a 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. Most were New Zealanders.

The last coast watcher, John Jones, 91, placed the first wreath laid for his friends on Anzac Day, saying he had 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. Each year I get so sad over the whole damn thing."

Among those reading Jones' story was NZ Post chief executive Brian Roche, who then met Jones to discuss the creation of a durable and respectful 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 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, Roche 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 Place. In their day, they were at the forefront of technology, he 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 the advancing Japanese.

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 that he learned of the fate of three of his closest friends, none of whose bodies were found.

Japanese marines eventually took 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.

Jones 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.

"It was heartbreaking that they died in such a manner. It was so grotesque as far as I am concerned."

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