Watching, and waiting
When McCully and his media entourage got close to the memorial, though, they found it covered in excrement and fish guts. An embarrassed McCully soon scuttled away, and New Zealand's mainstream media ran suggestive stories about 'desecration'. McCully's visit to Betio was allowed to overshadow the rest of his visit to Kiribati.
It was left to Michael Field, long-time Pacific journalist and author of an essential book on Samoa's struggle for freedom from New Zealand, to give some context to the farcical ceremony at Betio. Field, who was attached to the team of politicians and civil servants New Zealand sent to Kiribati, took the time to visit the slums, makeshift hospitals, and underequipped schools of Tarawa, which now counts as one of most densely populated places on earth. As they battle to to fill their bellies, and to avoid diseases like dysentery and tuberculosis, the people of Tarawa understandably find little time for the upkeep of the many memorials to different aspects of the war foreigners fought over their territory. The I-Kiribati have nevertheless recently taken the trouble to unearth a number of bones at Betio, and researchers believe that these bones may belong to the men who were executed on the islet more than sixty years ago. The find on Betio has been reported in New Zealand papers, but discussion of the current problems of Tarawa, and of Kiribati in general, still seems to be deemed inessential by our media.
It is perhaps churlish to criticise the media's interest in the Kiwis who died on Betio, because for six decades the sad story of these men has been neglected not only by our newspapers but by our government and our military.
Shortly after the beginning of the Second World War New Zealand defence forces distributed a mixture of army personnel and civilians on a series of atolls in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, the British colony which would eventually be divided into the independent states of Kiribati and Tuvalu. The coastwatchers, who were given radio gear but not guns, were supposed to observe the movement of ships, and provide advance warning of the intentions of hostile forces. The navy initially used Catalina Patrol Bomber flying boats, which servicemen nicknamed 'Cats', to check up on some of the coastwatchers, but after Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and began to move through the central Pacific in December 1941 the unfortunate men were virtually abandoned by New Zealand authorities. Some of the coastwatchers were befriended by villages of I-Kiribati; others had been placed on uninhabited islands, and had to feed and amuse themselves.
Japanese forces had entered parts of the Gilbert and Ellice archipelagoes only days after the attack on Pearl Harbour, but it was not until August 1942 that most of the coastwatchers were arrested and removed from their isolated islands, and taken to Betio. On the 15th of October, in the aftermath of a raid on Tarawa by American planes, seventeen of the coastwatchers were beheaded on Betio.
Perhaps because they were not officially regarded as part of the military, the executed coastwatchers have not received the recognition accorded to most other Kiwis who died overseas during World War Two. The memorial on Betio was funded by the Australian government. In the aftermath of McCully's visit to Betio, John James, a ninety year-old former coastwatcher who survived the Japanese occupation of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, used an interview with Television New Zealand to condemn the neglect of his fallen comrades’ memory, and to call for a memorial to be built for them in New Zealand.
The coastwatchers may have remained remote from the consciousness of the mass of the New Zealand public in the decades after World War Two, but they did not escape the attention of one of our finest poets. In a text written on the second day of 1985, Kendrick Smithyman described the strange and ultimately tragic situation of a coastwatcher:
The coastwatcher brewed up and set out six
cups but seven saucers. Five from the Cat watched;
part of their mission was observe and assess.
He poured tea into the saucer, warning
“Don’t say anything. If you talk they won’t come out.”
Out plodded a file of big cockroaches to surround
the saucer, and slurp up heartily.
“When they finish up I’ll show you their tricks.
When I first came to this atoll I collected shells.
Then I did birdwatching, and after that, fish.
What bothers me is,
what am I going to do next?”
Really, that wasn’t to worry about.
The Nips suddenly made a pass and picked up all the coastwatchers along the line.
They took them to Tarawa. They cut their heads off.
'Coastwatcher' is included in Private Bestiary, the selection of previously unpublished Smithyman poems I will be launching with Titus Books later this month. During the Second World War New Zealand deployed coastwatchers in other parts of the Pacific besides the Gilbert and Ellice archipelagoes: a team of scientists, for instance, was placed on the subantarctic Auckland Islands, after it was discovered that a vessel of the German merchant navy had stopped there during the first months of the war. 'Coastwatcher’ was originally written as part of a sequence of poems called ‘Cats’, which described the experiences of Kiwis left on a variety of remote islands during World War Two. The poet later excerpted ‘Coastwatcher’ from the sequence and revised it. A fascimilie of the manuscript of 'Cats' is included as an appendix to Bestiary.
It is not hard to see how Smithyman, who often felt forgotten by military bureaucracy, even when he was serving in New Zealand, and who suffered months of isolation and homesickness on Norfolk Island during the last months of World War Two, might empathise with the lonely coastwatchers of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. In the poems he wrote about coastwatchers, about his time on Norfolk, and about the cruelly routinised life that training camps and barracks on New Zealand's 'home front' offered, Smithyman seems to be challenging standard ideas about New Zealand's military contribution to World War Two. Instead of the heroic, often rather glamorous images of the gladiators of Monte Cassino and El Alamein which are part and parcel of Anzac Day speeches and children's war comics, Smithyman offers us tales of loneliness, frustration, and fear of sudden death. Smithyman never stepped onto a battlefield, but might we nevertheless decide that his picture of war is more accurate than the more popular alternative?
And is it going too far to argue that the situation of Kiwi coastwatchers during World War Two might serve as a sort of metaphor for the situation of the I-Kiribati today? These one hundred thousand people, who are heirs to one of the most extraordinarily creative cultural traditions in history, are struggling with the overcrowding of some of their atolls and the depopulation of others, as landless young people flock to the few islands where work for wages can sometimes be found. Low-lying Kiribati also faces the threat of rising sea levels caused by global warming. There are potential solutions to the problems of Kiribati. As Briar March's recent film showed us, certain techniques can stymie, for decades if not centuries, the threat rising seas pose to coral atolls. The overcrowding of Tarawa is also remediable: as Michael Park notes in his report on McCully's trip, the huge, sparsely populated Christmas Island could absorb much of the surplus population of the capital-atoll, if only Western nations like New Zealand could stump up the funds to give Christmas a better infrastructure and a regular sea link with the rest of Kiribati. Like the coastwatchers of World War Two, though, the I-Kiribati seem to have been left to their own devices on their remote equatorial islands. Certainly, McCully's visit brought no offers of large-scale assistance with resettlement and atoll-protection. If Michael Field is right, then the Chinese might be a better bet for help.