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MICHAEL FIELDLast updated 18:29 25/04/2012
With damp eyes, John Jones stood in front of an Anzac memorial today and did something he hadn't done before - lay a wreath to his mates who were executed by the Japanese 70 years ago.
Jones, 91, is the last of the coast watchers, the first Japanese prisoners of war from New Zealand.
Among the 25 men beheaded on October 15, 1942 were his three best friends.
"I felt very lonely," he said after laying the wreath at the Takapuna Anzac service today, "and I thought believe it or not, my three friends, I will see shortly.
"It is the first wreath that has ever been laid for them."
His wreath of red roses carried this inscription: "In memory of 17 New Zealand Coast Watchers executed by the Japanese Army, Oct 15th 1942 on Betio Islet, Tarawa Atoll, Gilbert Islands, now Kiribati.
"For nine months prior, knowing the 7 Coast Watchers in the northern atolls had been captured before Christmas 1941, they gave daily reports with no outside help and no means of escape.
"With lasting memories of my 3 best friends, Rex, Arthur and Cliff.
"From Coast Watcher, Butaritari Atoll, Kiribati."
Jones is not at all fond of Anzac Day. It has too many bad memories and he is driven by the belief that the murdered coast watchers were never really honoured by their country.
"But I am trying to keep remembering it, the executions, and bringing their names in front of the public," he said.
"Each year I get so sad over the whole damn thing."
Successive governments, Jones believes, kept quiet about the executed men, not wanting to make trouble with post-war Japan.
Like Jones, most of the executed men were Post and Telegraph radio operators.
They were sent with a group of unarmed volunteers, New Zealand soldiers in Fiji, to sit on the scattered atolls of the then Gilbert Islands and keep watch for German shipping raiders.
After Pearl Harbour and the start of the Japanese war, New Zealand left the men on the atolls, making no attempt to bring them to safety. Unknown to the radio operators, back in Wellington they were secretly attested into the New Zealand Army. It was feared the Japanese would execute them as civilian spies.
The coast watchers never saw any Germans, but the day after Pearl Harbour, Jones and two unarmed soldiers were taken prisoner from Butaritari. They spent the rest of the war in a POW camp in Japan. Other coast watchers on the northern atolls were also captured and sent to Japan.
But on the atolls south of Tarawa the 22 coast watchers and unarmed soldiers were left untouched until September 1942 when the Japanese rounded them up.
They were taken to Tarawa and locked up with five other European civilians.
For reasons far from clear, the Japanese beheaded all of them.
They had all been tied up to coconut trees in front of Commander Keisuke Matsuo house on Betio. Along with the coast watchers was an old missionary, Tony Sadd, New Zealand trader A.M. McArthur, Reg Morgan, chemist Basil Cleary the dispenser and Isaac Handley, a blind old man.
A Japanese soldier asked Joe Parker of the Waikato if he would like to have his binds loosened on his swollen hands.
"No, you tied them tight, you can leave it as it is," he replied.
During the day, they worked to build a wharf and at night were locked up in the "lunatic's enclosure" at the hospital.
What happened at around 2pm is not clear, as a brief investigation by district officer David Wernham later reported.
Some say a US warship shelled the island and two aircraft attacked Japanese ships in the lagoon. One of the prisoners may have waved to the planes.
Catholic nun Sister Helena heard that Cleary had taken his shirt off and waved.
Local man Terrienne said one of the prisoners had escaped and a gang of labourers, armed with axes and knives, had gone to his house looking for him.
Local man Mikaere said the searchers going to the church.
"One Japanese came to the bishop's fence and showed him his sword which was stained with blood. It was fresh. The Japanese said the European who had run away was dead."
At around 5pm, Mikaere said he heard a lot of noise and when he looked out, he could see the white men standing in a line about 40 metres away.
"While I was sitting in that house I saw all the Europeans sitting down in line in front of the first house inside the lunatic enclosure. There were a lot of Japanese coolies inside the enclosure."
As the men sat on the ground, a white man was pulled out of the house.
It may have been Handley. He was made to lie down in front of the others.
"They are going to kill us all, be brave lads," Handley called out.
"One Japanese stepped forward to the first European in the line and cut his head off," Mikaere said.
"Then I saw a second European have his head cut off and I could not see the third one because I fainted."
Another coast watcher, Ron Third, was on Banaba or Ocean Island when it was occupied. His fate is unknown, but like 150 local people, he too is believed to have been executed by the Japanese.
It fell to the Americans over a year later when, in the three-day Battle of Tarawa, 6000 men were torn to pieces on 116 hectare Betio, smaller than the Auckland Domain.
Nothing was found of the dead New Zealanders. The Americans erected a small memorial to them.
Despite orders not to get close to the locals, the radio operators and the soldiers had relationships with the women of the atolls, and left a number of children.
The New Zealand Government discretely paid for their education. Their many grandchildren can still be found in Kiribati.
One of the children is Charlotte Owen, a retired nurse who lives on the Kapiti Coast. Her father was executed soldier Charles Owen.
In a strange coincidence, Owen's older brother, Jack Owen, was an NCO at the Featherston prisoner of war camp in Wairarapa.
Four months after the coast watcher executions, there was a "riot" at the Featherston camp in which 122 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 if he was aware of the fate of his brother as Tarawa remained in Japanese hands.
On Betio the New Zealand bodies remain lost.
The US military, which continues to bring home their dead, last year found human remains that may well be New Zealanders. Testing has yet to be completed to confirm it.
EXECUTED AND REMEMBERED 70 YEARS ON
Ray Ellis, Auckland - thought going to the tropics would cure a bad knee
Robert Hitchon, Waitoa - "a very shy sort of person"
Dallas Howe, Thames - a bricklayer who built the town's convent
Reg Jones, Auckland - at 42, the oldest coast watcher
Cluade Kilpin, Manuwaru - a farmer
Rod McKenzie, Kopaki - a farmer
Jack Nichol, Te Puke - a fluent Maori speaker
Charles Owen, Masterston - his girlfriend Taengeri gave birth to Tiare (now Charlotte) later.
Joe Parker, Tirau - his girlfriend Taate gave birth to a girl, Tio, later.
Leslie Speedy, Wairarapa - his girlfriend Tatu to a boy, Leo, later.
Post Office radio operators
Arthur Heenan, Middlemarch - a farmer's son and Mr Jones' friend
Rex Hearn, Hastings - a fine pianist
John McCarthy, Auckland - a devout Catholic
Arthur McKenna, Big River - a West Coast miner's son and Mr Jones' friend
Tom Murray, Picton - took a tuxedo to war
Cliff Pearsall, Wetherstones - known to party well and Mr Jones' friend
Allan Taylor, Waimate - crazy about crystal ham sets
Basil Cleary, Tarawa hospital's dispenser
Ray Morgan, Australia - a school teacher on Tarawa
Isaac Handley - retired sea captain
Arthur McArthur, Auckland - retired South Seas trader
Tony Sadd, a London Missionary Society missionary
- © Fairfax NZ News