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By MICHAEL FIELD - Stuff Last updated 05:00 02/09/2010
SOILED SHRINE: Murray McCully at the memorial to 17 New Zealand Coastwatchers. The monument was stained with fish guts and human excrement.
New Zealand's war dead have suffered humiliation on the hallowed ground of one of the 20th century's greatest battles. Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully, on a three-country week-long Pacific trip, briefly called at Betio Islet on Tarawa, Kiribati, to lay a wreath at a memorial to 17 New Zealand Post Office and army personnel, who were working as Coastwatchers and beheaded there by the Japanese 70 years ago next month.
But instead of a solemn moment, Mr McCully arrived at a monument stained with fish guts and human excrement. Clearly embarrassed New Zealand diplomatic staff said they had tried to maintain the monument to the New Zealanders but had been unable to fend off continued vandalism.
The Culture and Heritage Ministry is responsible for looking after the graves of servicemen who died in the first and second World Wars in New Zealand and the South Pacific. They maintain them on behalf of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which look after the graves and memorials for 1.7 million war dead.
The ministry's manager of heritage, Brodie Stubbs, said the memorial in Kiribati was not the official memorial to the Coastwatchers. It was a monument funded through contributions by the Australian Government, British high commission and the New Zealand high commission, and was intended to mark the place where the servicemen were killed.
Mr Stubbs said the Coastwatchers were commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing at the Bourail New Zealand War Cemetery in New Caledonia. Their names were also recorded on the Roll of Honour at the National War Memorial in Wellington. The New Zealanders, who were sent to what was then called the Gilbert Islands to act as Coastwatchers to prevent German raiders operating in the Pacific, were largely abandoned after Japan entered the war.
Mr Stubbs said there had been several failed attempts to retrieve the bodies. "Their bodies were buried in one pit and their heads in another and the remains were burnt. Then when the Americans invaded, the place was bombed, which further obscured where the remains might have been."
While Mr McCully was laying a wreath, a United States Army unit was nearby carefully searching for war dead of up to 400 bodies of the 1200 Americans who died in the battle on the island throughout three days. "We know our boys are here and we will continue searching until we take them home, that was the deal when we all joined," US Marine Captain Ernest Todd Nordman said.
Ad Feedback The Americans have found several remains, as well as a mass Japanese war grave.
About 6000 Japanese soldiers and Korean construction slaves also died in the battle