Pacific Islands Coastwatchers recognisedDefence
The Minister of Defence, Hon Peeni Henare, has announced a number of steps to formally recognise the valuable service of Pacific Island coastwatchers during the Second World War.
In 1942, it was decided that all New Zealand civilian coastwatchers should be attested in the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF). However this policy was never properly implemented in the Cook Islands.
A report by the New Zealand Defence Force found that it appeared no consideration was given to attesting civilians in the Cook Islands who performed coastwatching duties very similar to those undertaken by attested military personnel.
“This is long overdue recognition of the Pacific Island coastwatchers and the important role they played in our early warning system in the Pacific,” Peeni Henare said.
“It is important to acknowledge the service of all our coastwatchers whether on the New Zealand mainland, Chatham Islands, the sub-Antarctic Islands and especially in the Pacific. With Japanese advances into the Pacific in 1942, these stations became very dangerous places. The brutal killing of our coastwatchers on Tarawa and the suffering of those captured showed the real risks of this service.”
This recognition for Pacific Island coastwatchers includes:
- a certificate of service signed by Her Excellency The Governor-General,
- giving families the opportunity to have Service plaques attached to their headstones like other Service personnel; and
- publishing an online historical record of their service
“After representations from descendants, the Government asked the New Zealand Defence Force to undertake historical research to identify whether Second World War Pacific Island coastwatchers had been appropriately recognised for the service.”
“The historical report prepared by Defence Historian John Crawford reviewed the role played by Cook Islanders and other Pacific Islands civilians in the coastwatching organisation outside mainland New Zealand. The report concludes that the approximately 50 to 60 civilian coastwatchers (including one Pākehā New Zealander) in the Cook Islands and another 50 civilians elsewhere in the Pacific did not receive any formal recognition of their service.”
“We will work with descendants to identify the Pacific Island coastwatchers and any other New Zealand coastwatchers to ensure that these brave people all have the recognition they deserve,” Peeni Henare said.
Mr Henare announced that there will also be a national commemorative service at the National War Memorial in Wellington on Saturday 15 October to mark the service of all New Zealand coastwatchers in the Second World War. That date is the 80th anniversary of the murder of 17 New Zealand coastwatchers and five civilians from Australia and the United Kingdom, on Tarawa. Another New Zealand coastwatcher died in captivity on Ocean Island.
Media Contact – Irena Smith 021845205
The New Zealand Defence Force prepared an historical report on the status and service of civilian Cook Islanders employed by the New Zealand coastwatching organisation during the Second World War. This request was in response to concerns about the lack of formal recognition received by these persons.
The historical report prepared by Defence Historian John Crawford reviewed the role played by Cook Islanders and other Pacific Islands civilians in the coastwatching organisation outside mainland New Zealand. It outlines the arrangements under which they were employed, and concludes they were haphazard and inconsistent.
During 1941, with the agreement and support of the British colonial authorities in Fiji and the Western Pacific and the Tongan Government, a coastwatching system with 58 stations was established across the South Pacific. By late 1941, the New Zealand-controlled coastwatching organisation included 11 stations (later increasing to 14) in the Cook Islands group, three in the Tokelau Islands and five in Western Samoa. After the outbreak of war with Japan, the Western Samoan and Tokelau stations were handed over to the US authorities.
Late in 1942, the military Chief of Staffs’ Committee decided that all New Zealand civilian coastwatchers should be attested in the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF). This was an attempt to provide them some legal protection should they be captured by the Japanese, rather than be treated as civilians engaged in military activities. Ten of the 17 New Zealand coastwatchers on Tarawa were already soldiers serving in 2NZEF. The remaining seven New Zealand coastwatchers at Tarawa, and Sergeant Third, the New Zealand coastwatcher who died on Ocean Island were retrospectively attested after they had been killed by the Japanese. Some coastwatchers elsewhere were simply deemed to be attested while others personally signed attestation forms.
The report concludes that this policy was never properly implemented in the Cook Islands and other Pacific Islands. It appears that no consideration was given to attesting civilians in the Cook Islands who performed coastwatching duties very similar to those undertaken by attested military personnel. As a result, the approximately 50 to 60 civilian coastwatchers (including one Pākehā New Zealander) in the Cook Islands and another 50 civilians elsewhere in the Pacific did not receive any formal recognition of their service.
After consideration of options (including retrospective attestation and alterations to medal regulations) it was concluded there was no mechanism for the award of Second World War medals. Instead, Her Excellency The Governor-General has agreed to provide and present signed certificates recognising the service of the Pacific Island coastwatchers.
There is no existing entitlement for Service headstones to be installed over the graves of the Cook Island coastwatchers, as they were not attested. The Government has agreed, however, that the memorial plaque placed on the headstones of former Service personnel can be placed on the headstones of the civilian coastwatchers.
The report by John Crawford is a valuable historical resource for those who are interested in the service of the Cook Island and indeed other New Zealand coastwatchers. The detailed references provide an avenue for those who wish to undertake further research.