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Our Coastwatchers

Geraldine Warren and Madison Pine
Collection Information and Access team

The story of the Coastwatchers, is a little known one, the Coastwatchers were the first line of defence for New Zealand, they were our eyes and ears throughout Moana Oceania, Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. You can learn more about the incredible story of the Coastwatchers, in a new documentary produced by Mihingarangi Forbes airing Anzac Day 2020, on TVNZ One, Coastwatchers - Operation Pacific

*Please be aware that this article contains sensitive material relating to the Tarawa Massacre on the 15th October 1942* 


During the Second World War, New Zealand ran a coastwatching scheme throughout the Moana Oceania, Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. These coastwatchers were often locals from the Pacific Islands or from the New Zealand Post and Telegraph Department. The Coastwatchers offered an important service to New Zealand throughout the war, however the majority were volunteers and never formally enlisted with the New Zealand Defence Force.

Coastwatching Stations throughout Moana Pacific.

Coastwatching Stations throughout Moana Pacific.

Image from The Pacific, Oliver A. Gillespie part of the The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945Image may be subject to copyright restrictions.

Created by the Royal New Zealand Navy, the coastwatching scheme began in 1929 to maintain a watch from the coasts of New Zealand. These stations were at first serviced by the Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve, however, the scheme changed hands to "trustworthy" civilians in 1935. In the later part of the 1930s, their were fifty-eight coastwatching stations throughout the Moana Oceania, Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa- operating twenty four hours a day. The New Zealand Post and Telegraph Department supported the scheme by supplying radio equipment and telephones.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the coastwatching scheme was further brought into action. By March 1940 there were sixty two stations, staffed by service personnel from all three of the services and civilians. Operational control was maintained by the Royal New Zealand Navy.

In 1941 the coastwatching system had the following stations across the Pacific. 

Gilbert Islands (now known as Kiribati)

10 Stations

Samoa

5 Stations *

Cook Islands 

11 Stations

Tonga

6 Stations

Fiji

9 Stations

*some stations in Tokelau also reporting via Apia.

Post and Telegraph Department

The stations were often staffed by locals from the respective islands, with the Post and Telegraph Department responsible for maintaining the stations and supplying qualified radio operators. Many operators from the Post and Telegraph Department that volunteered for coastwatching duties, "were inevitably younger men, many less than twenty one ... attracted by a call for 'experienced morse operators, married or single, for radio duties in New Zealand or at Island stations."  [1]

The role of the coastwatchers was to collect intelligence on the position and movement of enemy forces. Within this role they had two extremely important duties, first keep alert, twenty four hours a day and second to keep communications efficient so any sightings of ships or aircrafts can be promptly reported[2]. These men, who were the eyes and ears of New Zealand's outposts in the Pacific, endured their loneliness and privation with fortitude.

D.O.W. Hall considered the role of the coastwatcher, as part of the Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War series.

"The duties of the coastwatcher are not spectacular. His role is passive or preventive rather than active and aggressive, but the information he obtains can be of vital importance. The commerce-raiding enemy at large in the Pacific is restricted in his activities because of a well-founded suspicion that a good coastwatching system has spread a wide net to catch him. He does not dare come within close distance of land, and even normally uninhabited islands may hide a trap specially set for his interception in the eyes and radio of a coastwatcher."[3]

The coastwatchers provided an invaluable service to New Zealand during the Second World War. Whilst sightings weren't vastly reported by the coastwatchers, there can be something said for the 'negative intelligence' they produced, knowing where the enemy is not, as in knowing where they are.

Cape Expedition

While the majority of coastwatching stations were set up in the Moana Oceania, Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa, coastwatching stations were also established in two of New Zealand's subantarctic islands. Auckland Island (Motu Maha), which lies 465 kilometers, south of the South Island, and Campbell Island (Motu Ihupuku) which is about 600 kilometers from Stewart Island, and is the size of Waiheke.

Map of Auckland and Campbell Islands

Map of Auckland and Campbell Islands

Hall, D.O.W. Coastwatchers, from the Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War.Image has no known copyright restrictions.

The Cape Expedition was a secret five year program throughout the Second World War. There were suspicions that the German merchant ship Erlangen, had stopped at the Auckland Islands, sometime in 1939. And after the loss of the Holmwood and Rangitane, there was concern that German raiders may have been using the Sub-antarctic islands as bases.

Three coastwatching stations were established in 1941, sailing on the Tagua from Wellington on the 5th March. The presence of these stations, were highly secretive, whereas the majority of the coastwatching stations in the Pacific were not.

The first group of coastwatchers were civilians, comprising of 7 married and 8 single men. The weather conditions were drastically different to those in the Pacific Islands, it was reported in April 1941, "No man should be expected to keep a watch of more than two hours duration in this climate" [1]. While it wasn't particularly cold on the islands, it was apparently exceptionally windy, "windproof clothing was more important than warm clothing. The temperature never fell very low ... But the islands were almost continuously clouded and the west wind blew with force and constancy." [4]

Group of five coastwatchers, Auckland Islands, photographed on 15 July 1942

Group of five coastwatchers, Auckland Islands, photographed on 15 July 1942

Alexander Turnbull Library Ref: 1/4-066869-GImage has no known copyright restrictions.

The importance of secrecy was heavily stressed,

"Emergency radio stations were established in the vicinity of each station. The men were encouraged to carry out surveys, to take weather observations, and to interest themselves in the wild life of the islands. They made one signal daily by radio, at staggered hours to decrease the risk of their presence becoming known and the value of their work being compromised."[5]

While no enemy ships were sighted by the Cape Expedition personnel, during the five year program. The meteorological and scientific work which was carried out during the coastwatching period was highly valued.

"Geologists and naturalists were members of the second and later reliefs. Surveyors joined the first and second parties, and in the fourth and fifth years a special party of three was at work completing the survey of the groups. In this way much useful work was accomplished as a by product of the expedition's main purpose."[6]

Two coastwatchers in hut, Auckland Islands, photographed December 1942 by Charles Alexander Fleming (1916-1987).

Two coastwatchers in hut, Auckland Islands, photographed December 1942 by Charles Alexander Fleming (1916-1987).

Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand Ref: 1/4-066868-GImage has no known copyright restrictions.

By the third year of the coastwatching, trained meteorologists were sent down, while the coastwatching parties were withdrawn in 1945.

The coastwatching station at Campbell Island has been retained as a permanent part of New Zealand's weather forecasting service. A weather station remains on the island today, with the Royal New Zealand Navy making periodic checks on the island and weather station.

Gilbert and Ellice Islands

Another area of huge importance was the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, now known as Kiribati and Tuvalu respectively. Establishing a coastwatching station here, was discussed in September, 1940 when the Naval Secretary wrote to the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific, in Apia.

" ... the Naval Board appreciate that the Gilbert Islands hold a position of special importance in the event of a Japanese sortie to the south from the Marshall Islands." [7].

The coastwatching system was established in Gilbert and Ellice Islands between July and September 1941. An expedition sailed from Auckland on the Matua on the 13th July 1941, after the stations were set up on Ellice Island, they then moved north to the Gilbert Islands and established six stations in the Lower Gilbert Island. They were; Tamana, Beru, Kuria, Maiana, Abemana, and Nonouti. Beru was the parent station for the Gilbert Island coastwatchers. Both Gilbert and Ellice Islands were of significant strategic importance, they were located south-east of the Japanese held Marshall Islands and north of territories important to Australia and New Zealand, the Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Samoa, Fiji and the Cook Islands.

Coastwatching Headquarters on Nukufetau, Ellice Islands (now known as Tuvalu)

Coastwatching Headquarters on Nukufetau, Ellice Islands (now known as Tuvalu)

From D.O.W. Hall's Coastwatchers, part of The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945Image has no known copyright restrictions.

Due to the close proximity to the Marshall Islands this meant that the risk of attack from the Japanese was very high, and tragically the coastwatchers of Gilbert Islands were tragically killed, in the Tarawa Massacre on the 15th October, 1942.

Just two days after the attack on Pearl Harbour, Japan over-ran the unarmed coastwatching stations in the northern Gilbert Islands and began their progressive capture of the coastwatching stations in Upper Gilbert Islands. On the 9th of December 1941, someone from Ukiangang village on the southernmost point of Butaritari sent a message to advice that Japanese troops had landed on Tarawa. [8] 

A message was able to be passed to Ocean Island (Banaba Island), however, while they were destroying radio equipment, the Japanese forces arrived and took Tarawa as a base for commercial trading. They left later that month placing the Europeans on the island on parole. A few days later thirty Japanese soldiers arrived at Bikati on the Butaritari atoll, on the Gilbert Islands. There were three New Zealand coastwatchers on the Island; John Mesach Jones, and brothers John Michael and Michael Menzies, Despite a warning from locals on the island they were captured as Prisoners of Wars.

In total seven New Zealand coastwatchers were taken as Prisoners of War. They were captured in the Upper Gilbert Islands and were taken to Yokohama on the 7th January 1942.

Ocean Island was evacuated in February 1942, Ronald Third, a radio operator from the P&T Department volunteered to stay to continue coastwatching and radio communication duties. In September 1942, Ocean Island was occupied by Japanese forces, Third transmitted the 'LLL' message to Beru which indicated that an enemy landing was taking place. After destroying the radio equipment, he was then taken Prisoner of War.

On the 25th September 1942, a final message was sent from Maiana, 'Japanese coming, regards to all.' [9]Twenty two coastwatchers and civilians were captured by the Japanese from Maiana, Abemama, Kuria, Noniuti, Beru, and Tamana, they were taken to Tarawa as Prisoners of War. They were unarmed and did not resist, some tried to flee but most surrendered quietly. Twenty days later on or about 15 October 1942, all twenty-two men were beheaded.

There were eight radio operators from the Post and Telegraph Department, who were killed as Prisoners of War, in different roles from different cities, but bonded by their service. They were:

Henry Rexton Cropper HEARN, son of Henry Charles Gordon Hearn and Alma Stella Hearn, from Hastings who was living in Auckland as a Telegraph Operator, before volunteering as a coastwatcher on Kiribati then Gilbert Island.

Arthur Clarence HEENAN, the son of Edward Percy and Martha McQueen Heenan, farmers from Middlemarch, Otago. He was a telegraphist, in Wellington.

John Joseph McCARTHY, son of John Joseph and Nancy from Auckland who was a civil servant with the Post and Telegraph Department.

Arthur Ernest McKENNA, son of Arthur Ernest McKenna, and Florence McKenna, who was living in Wellington before going overseas.

Thomas Colin MURRAY, son of Thomas and Ethel Livingston Murray of Picton. Thomas attended Whangarei High School, leaving school in 1934 and joining the Post and Telegraph Department where he was a telegraphist. Before going to Gilbert Island Thomas was working as a Radio Operator at Musick Point.

Clifford Arnold PEARSALL, son of Lewis and Jane Pearsall of Wakari, Dunedin.

Allan Leicester TAYLOR, son of William Charles and Caroline Taylor. Allan was a Radio Operator at the Awarua Radio Station in Invercargill.

Ronald Third, a cadet with the Post and Telegraph Department in Blenheim.

Ten soldiers from the New Zealand Defence Force who had served alongside the coastwatchers they were Raymond Arthur Ellis, Robert Irwin Hitchon, Dallas Hillman Howe, Reginald Jones, Claude Andrew Kilpin, Roderick Murdoch McKenzie, John Hugh Nichol, Charles James Owen, Wilfred Athol Rolf Parker, Leslie Bruce Speedy.

Portraits of Raymond Ellis, Robert Hitchon, Dallas Howe, Reginald Jones, Claude Kilpin, Roderick McKenzie, John Nichol, Charles Owen, Wilfred Parker, Leslie Speedy.

Portraits of Raymond Ellis, Robert Hitchon, Dallas Howe, Reginald Jones, Claude Kilpin, Roderick McKenzie, John Nichol, Charles Owen, Wilfred Parker, Leslie Speedy.

Images kindly provided by Auckland Libraries Heritage Images Collection Images have no known copyright restrictions.

Four civilians were also taken prisoner and killed were Basil Cleary, Tarawa Hospital's dispenser. Reginald George Morgan, an Australian school teacher. Isaac Handley a retired sea captain. Arthur McArthur, a retired South Seas trader, and Tony Sadd, from the London Missionary Society.

Memorials

Memorial at Tarawa, which includes the names of twenty-two New Zealanders.

Memorial at Tarawa, which includes the names of twenty-two New Zealanders.

From D.O.W Hall's Coastwatchers, part of the Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War. Image may be subject to copyright restrictions.
A memorial for those that were killed was erected by United States Marine Forces, when they recaptured Tarawa in 1944. It was made from coconut wood and recorded the names of these twenty-two men. On the 11th November 2002, to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the Tarawa massacre the Kiribati president Teberoro Tito, was constructed by the Office of Australian War Graves.

These coastwatchers who had volunteered from the Post and Telegraph Department, were not officially apart of the New Zealand Defence Force. However, those who were taken Prisoner of War were attested after their deaths, to enable their families to claim pensions. In late 1944, the New Zealand Post and Telegraph department started an appeal to establish a memorial for those who had been killed at Tarawa.

The Tarawa Memorial Fund was established and staff from the Post and Telegraph Department were invited to contribute. Money from this fund was used to pay for a bronze memorial plaque to the nine radio operators killed which was eventually placed on a sloping stone plinth in front of the cross erected at Betio.

Monument to New Zealand soldiers on Tarawa. Evening post (Newspaper. 1865-2002) :Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post newspaper.

Monument to New Zealand soldiers on Tarawa. Evening post (Newspaper. 1865-2002) :Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post newspaper.

Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Ref: 114/294/09-G.Image may be subject to copyright restrictions.

The Coastwatchers are also commemorated at Bourail, New Caledonia. Bourail Memorial is a Commonwealth War Graves Commission Memorial. The memorial commemorates 449 members of the New Zealand Land and Air Forces and Merchant Navy, and members of the Western Pacific Local Forces who died during operations in the South Pacific area, and who have no known grave.

A roll of honour was commissioned from Wellington artist Len Black, and in 1948 framed and hand-coloured copies of this document were distributed to the main New Zealand coast radio and radio stations and some Pacific Island stations. Miniature copies were also distributed to the next of kin of the deceased. One of these plaques, hangs at Musick Point Radio Memorial Radio Station, in Bucklands Beach, (Te Naupata).

Roll of Honour for Coastwatchers, the Roll was hung in NZ Post Office radio stations

Roll of Honour for Coastwatchers, the Roll was hung in NZ Post Office radio stations

Musick Point Radio StationCopyright restrictions may apply.

Musick Point is the former home of Post and Telegraph Maritime Radio for shipping communications and the last original coast station in New Zealand still operating, all be it as an Amateur Radio club

The plaque reads: "In proud memory of eight radio operators / of the New Zealand Post Office, and one / operator of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands / Colony – brutally murdered at Betio / Tarawa ─ and at Ocean Island ─ during / 1942 ─ after their capture by the Japanese. / Henry Rexton Cropper Hearn / Arthur Clarence Heenan / John Joseph McCarthy / Arthur Ernest McKenna / Reginald George Morgan / Thomas Colin Murray / Clifford Arnold Pearsell / Allan Leicester Taylor / Ronald Third / In the service of their country / they faced death with courage undaunted.’"

Sadly there was no further recognition from the New Zealand government, the Defence Force or the RSA.

 

A Determined Friend

John Mesach Jones, a young volunteer from the Post and Telegraph Department, who was taken as Prisoner of War on Butaritari, he was determined to have his friends, remembered. He believed the radio operators were mislead about the risk from enemy action as they volunteered in civilian positions to help the war effort. They had not enlisted nor were they were military trained, there was no escape plan or means because they had not expected to meet the enemy on the front line. Jones campaigned for over 70 years to have his colleagues service honoured.

Jones was instrumental in getting the coastwatchers memorialised. On the 70th Anniversary of the Coastwatchers death, on the 15th October 2012, a wreath laying ceremony was held, at National War Memorial in Wellington.

Wreath-laying ceremony to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of New Zealand Coastwatchers service, during the Second World War. 15th October, 2012.

Wreath-laying ceremony to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of New Zealand Coastwatchers service, during the Second World War. 15th October, 2012.

Image kindly provided by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.© Crown Copyright Coastwatchers

Two years later in October 2014, a memorial by the New Zealand Post was unveiled by John Jones, in Wellington. The memorial sits outside the New Zealand Post's Wellington premises takes a prominent place at the forefront of the plaza.

"Incorporating the ocean, weather and skies, the design captures the sense of edgeless-ness and vulnerability of life on the Gilbert Islands, realised through the wall’s shifting shadow effects and choice of weathered materials. A raised sloping bed contains pohutukawas which, when grown, will tie-in with the Memorial wall, while the plaza’s paving reflects the ocean tide." [10]

This memorial is dedicated to those men.

'With lasting memories of my 3 best friends, Rex, Arthur and Cliff.'

'From Coast Watcher, Butaritari Atoll, Kiribati.' [11]

John Jones passed away on 4 February 2017.
Ka maumahara tonu tātou ki a rātou.


Many of the coastwatchers who served during the Second World War are ineligible for medallic recognition from the New Zealand Defence Force, because they never formally enlisted. Online Cenotaph has made the decision to include coastwatchers, both locals and those from the New Zealand Post and Telegraph Department in the Online Cenotaph Database. If you know of a Coastwatcher who isn't on Online Cenotaph you can fill in this form or contact us and we can create a record.

Additional Reading 

Campbell Island

Coastwatchers - Operation Pacific

Additional Information here

History of New Zealand Post 

The Last Coastwatcher - John Jones 

References 

[1] Williamson, D. For Special Duty Outside New Zealand: The New Zealand Coastwatching Service During WW-II. Dale Williamson: Wellington, New Zealand. 

[2] Hall, D.O.W. Coastwatchers. Part of The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War, 1939-1945. Historical Publications Branch: Wellington, New Zealand. 

[3] Gillespie, Oliver A., The Pacific. Part of The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War, 1939-1945.Historical Publications Branch: Wellington, New Zealand.

[4] Rothwell, Sarah. (2014 October, 7). Gilbert Islands Coastwatchers Memorial Unveiled. Jasmax. 

[5] Field, Michael and Fensome, Alex. (2014, October 7). WWII Coastwatchers Honoured. Stuff.

Ministry for Culture and Heritage. (2012, October 15). New Zealand Coastwatchers Remembered

Ministry for Culture and Heritage. (2017, February 17). Musick Memorial Radio Station. 

Ministry for Culture and Heritage. (2018, October 15). Tarawa Coastwatchers Memorial. https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/tarawa-coast-watchers-memorial. 

Musick Point Radio. Radio Operators Roll of Honour.

Musick Point Radio. Coastwatcher John Jones, 2nd Visit. 

Navy Museum. Coastwatching in WWII


Cite this article

Warren, Geraldine and Pine, Madison. Our Coastwatchers. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 21 April 2020. Updated: 1 May 2020.
URL: www.aucklandmuseum.com/war-memorial/online-cenotaph/features/Coastwatchers