New Zealand coastwatchers executed by the Japanese

15 October 1942

Memorial to New Zealand coastwatchers on Taraw
Memorial to New Zealand coastwatchers on Tarawa

Seventeen New Zealand coastwatchers and five European civilians captured in the Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati) were beheaded at Betio, Tarawa. 

Coastwatchers were service and civilian personnel from New Zealand, as well as Pacific islanders, who kept a 24-hour watch for enemy ships and aircraft. They were a vital link in the intelligence chain during the Pacific War. For most, the main challenges were isolation and boredom. For those on the front line in the Gilbert Islands, however, the risk of capture by the Japanese was very real.

During August and September 1942, 17 military coastwatchers (seven Post and Telegraph Department radio operators and 10 soldiers) and five civilians were captured as Japanese forces overran the Gilbert Islands. Imprisoned on Tarawa atoll, they were all beheaded following an American air raid on the island.

All those executed received a posthumous mention in despatches. The civilian coastwatchers were retrospectively given military rank in 1944 so that their dependants could claim pensions and other rights. The story of the Pacific island coastwatchers who served for New Zealand has received less attention.

Community contributions

13 comments have been posted about New Zealand coastwatchers executed by the Japanese

What do you know?

Clare Pierson

Posted: 25 Apr 2020

I understand that only European and not Pacific peoples doing coast watch during WW2 were recognised as army in 1944. If this is so, why?? What will be done to rectify this apparent anomaly?

Jamie M

Posted: 28 May 2018

Selwyn R GUEST

Posted: 23 May 2018

Why is there no listing of those men killed and wounded board HMNZS Leander at the Battle of Kolonbangara on 13 July 1943, including my father Stoker Petty Officer William Henry Guest NZD949.

Tracey Davis

Posted: 08 Feb 2017

My grandfather was Colin Stanley Davis a coast watcher I don't have much information. About his service as his diary were destroyed.

Nolene De Luca

Posted: 29 May 2016

Would like to hear from Paul Canham re Tarawa. Would you please email me on [email protected]
Kind regards
Nolene De Luca (née Howe)

Nolene De Luca

Posted: 29 May 2016

I have just come back from Tarawa Island after laying a wreath on Anzac Day at the Coastwatchers memorial and would like to make contact with any descendants of those men executed by the Japanese on 15 October 1942. My email is [email protected]
Would love to hear from you. Nolene De Luca (née HOWE)

Kevin Menzies

Posted: 18 Feb 2016

I am interested in contacting some of the people below who have information. My father was one of The Gilbert island coast watchers taken POW. How do I do this.... my Email is [email protected]

Stephen Bonnett

Posted: 30 Jun 2014

I have been researching this event for the benefit of family members of Ray Ellis, one of the coastwachers killed at Tarawa and would much appreciate it if I could be put in contact with Paul Canham who has posted a message here about material he has available for research. I am happy to have my email address forwarded to him.

Paul Canham

Posted: 13 Apr 2014

I have a lot of original, unpublished material on the New Zealand coastwatchers. This was compiled and held by David Shepherd, who was based at Suva Aeradio (BVO) which was the radio link with the coastwatchers. I will be happy to make it available to any genuine researcher.


Posted: 19 Dec 2012

Thanks very much for this, Stephen. From what I understand the Koreans were mentioned by some witnesses at the 1944 inquest, but this could easily have been misremembered or later misinterpreted - I'll update our page now. Regards, Jamie Mackay