New Zealand coastwatchers executed by the Japanese

15 October 1942

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.

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Stephen Bonnett

Posted: 19 Dec 2012

The comment that "He was hunted down and shot by armed Korean labourers" cannot be correct as Korean labourers were not landed on the island until December, some months after the atrocity. There is no doubt that the escapee was hunted down and somehow killed, most likely by a staff officer of the Japanese occupying forces.