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Families expected the worst for NZ Coastwatchers in Kiribati

Ontago TImes Dundein New Zealand
Click photo to enlarge
Bob Heenan with a photograph of his brother, Arthur, a Coastwatcher beheaded on Tarawa, in Kiribati, during World War 2. Photo by the New Zealand High Commission, Kiribati.
Bob Heenan with a photograph of his brother, Arthur, a Coastwatcher beheaded on Tarawa, in Kiribati, during World War 2. Photo by the New Zealand High Commission, Kiribati.
Mosgiel man Bob Heenan remembers the night in 1944 when a government official arrived from Wellington to tell his father his brother was dead.

It was about dinner time, and Bob answered the door at the family's Middlemarch farm. The man did not stop long.

His father was a quiet man, and he did not let on much. But then, he probably expected to hear what he was just told.

"It is a long time ago now, but I think we probably knew that one day someone would come and tell us Arthur was dead," Mr Heenan (84) said yesterday.

"He had been missing, presumed captured for so long, and when you do not have any news you assume the worst.

"It was the worst."

Arthur Heenan was one of 17 unarmed civilian radio operators and military observers sent to the Kiribati islands to monitor enemy shipping and aircraft during World War 2.

Click photo to enlarge
Walter Dalziel, a relation of Corporal Clifford Pearsall, with letters Clifford sent to his family as he prepared for his posting as a Coastwatcher in the Kiribati islands. Photo supplied.
Walter Dalziel, a relation of Corporal Clifford Pearsall, with letters Clifford sent to his family as he prepared for his posting as a Coastwatcher in the Kiribati islands. Photo supplied.
They were captured by the invading Japanese in August and September 1942, and taken to Betio, on Tarawa Atoll. They were beheaded by their captors after an American bombing raid on October 15.

What happened was not confirmed until 1944, a year after the Americans recaptured the islands. The families were told soon after, and the men were awarded posthumous military ranks.

Mr Heenan said Corporal Heenan was in the territorial army and worked for the Post and Telegraph Department before leaving New Zealand as a Coastwatcher in 1941.

The family understands the former radio operator at Awarua, Southland, smashed his radio equipment when he spotted a Japanese boat readying an assault off Maiana Island. The Japanese landed about two days later, and Corp Heenan and Privates Leslie Speedy and Charles Owen were captured.

"We were told he was presumed captured, so we thought that meant he would be a prisoner of war. He was not treated like one. He was only 22."

Lawrence-raised Clifford Pearsall also worked for the Post and Telegraph Department before leaving for the Pacific, his mother's brother's grandson, Walter Dalziel, said.

Click photo to enlarge
An early memorial to Coastwatchers beheaded by Japanese soldiers on Tarawa, in Kiribati.
An early memorial to Coastwatchers beheaded by Japanese soldiers on Tarawa, in Kiribati.
Like Corp Heenan, Corp Pearsall was young - he was about 19 so needed his parents' permission to volunteer. As he left for the islands, his letters home were filled with optimism.

"It was an adventure, not just for him but for many young men who volunteered. It was their chance to see the world," Mr Dalziel said.

Corp Pearsall's father Lewis died before the end of the war, but mother Jane and his three sisters lived to hear what really happened in Kiribati.

"Of course, they were very angry about it.

"War is war, but murder is murder," Mr Dalziel said.

Mr Dalziel and Mr Heenan accepted the bodies the New Zealand High Commission-led dig had found in a pit on the island had yet to be identified.

However, they believed the Government needed to use whatever resources it could to give each body a name.

"They deserve that.

"It has been a very long time," Mr Heenan said.

- stu.oldham@odt.co.nz

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