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Honouring the forgotten: Cook Islands coastwatchers to receive recognition

Thursday 27 June 2024 | Written by Melina Etches | Published in Features, Local, Memory Lane, National


Honouring the forgotten: Cook Islands coastwatchers to receive recognition
Rosie Blake holds the commemorative plaque for Papa Taikanapa “Tai” Nicholas recognising his service as a coastwatcher in World War II. MELINA ETCHES/24062610

Cook Islanders are among the 25 Pacific Islands coastwatchers who will be recognised by New Zealand’s Governor-General for their service during World War II.

Next week, the Cook Islands will have the opportunity to honour more of their forgotten coastwatcher heroes from World War II.

On Tuesday, July 2, the New Zealand Governor-General Dame Cindy Kiro, GNZM, QSO, will present families of 25 Pacific Islands coastwatchers with certificates recognising the service of their relations.

For decades, the Pacific coastwatchers remained largely unknown, hidden in the shadows of history. Cook Islander Tua’ipulotu Willie Cuthers, whose grandfather was a coastwatcher himself, began working tirelessly to gain recognition for the group.

And now over 75 years later, more of these long-overlooked coastwatcher figures of the Allied Forces across the Pacific are being honoured for their service.

Rosie Blake, the country’s former consulate general to New Zealand, beamed with pride knowing that her father Taikanapa “Tai” Nicholas and others would, at last, receive public recognition for their service during World War II.

Blake and several Cook Islands families received invitations from the NZ Governor-General to a ceremony recognising the Second World War coastwatchers at Government House in Wellington on July 2.

“I’m so proud,” Blake told Cook Islands News.

“He was sent to Mangarongaro (Penrhyn) for some time as a coastwatcher.

“In Rarotonga coastwatchers used to go up the hills where the reception was clearer and they could see the ships.”

Blake says the hard work of Willie Cuthers really needs to be acknowledged.

From left: Carmena Blake, Mama Odile Nicholas, Papa Taikanapa “Tai” Nicholas (aged in his early 40s) holding Remi Blake, and Mama Aratini. Picture: Rosie Blake/24062611

“He’s (Cuthers) the one who had driven this project, relentlessly I have to say because he kept persisting and he gathered all our support for his appeal and he succeeded, how amazing.

“I thank Willie for this huge honour, thank you for fighting for our recognition.”

Nicholas, who was born in Rarotonga, died at the age of 47. He is buried at the Ngati Uritaua burial grounds.

He married Odile Marama, who passed away just two years ago in Australia, aged 94.

The couple had no biological children. However, they had feeding children – Rosie (Blake) and Mary.

Nicholas attended Avarua School and was a “fantastic” rugby player and an outstanding sportsman for Avatiu.

“And he loved planting,” shares Blake. “I would follow him up the hills to do the pai taro. I became the boy around the house – feeding the pigs and we had a farm in Ngatangiia.”

Every morning, her job was to fetch five pute mauku (sacks) for the pigs and to cart water from the stream.

“Dad was also a big exporter of tomatoes and oranges and the Packing Shed used to be the focal point for every planter,” said Blake.

“He was very industrial and agriculture was booming at that time.

“We had pigs, plantations, and chickens…”

Blake said their household was always busy, and one of her chores was to help make “homebrew” for the workers.

Nicholas, who was a wireless operator at Nikao, worked evenings. Blake would then take his food down on a bicycle.

“He would share his food with the other workers, they all did,” she says.

Blake recalls the government workers were dressed immaculately, and her father’s shirt and pants would be starched every day.

“He had pride in his job, he appreciated his position, and he took his job very seriously.

“These days I don’t think government people have pride in their jobs or how they dress for work.”

Nicholas also spent some time in Wellington for training.

“He loved education and set me off on that good grounding as we used to do some homework tests,” Blake said.

“You don’t appreciate it then but you realise the value of it later.”

A plaque commemorating her father’s service has arrived in Rarotonga. The special ceremony to dedicate it will be held in December with her sister Mary.

Blake returned to Wellington yesterday to attend the recognition ceremony alongside her sister Mary who has flown to Aotearoa from Australia for the occasion.

Some of the other Pacific coastwatchers were recognised in 2022.

Last year in Auckland, the first coastwatchers plaque was unveiled for a Cook Islands civilian recognising the service of radio operator Pu Banaba.

Cuthers also placed a special plaque onto his grandfather William Kiri Cuther’s grave in Rarotonga last year, acknowledging his role as a wartime coastwatcher.

Blake also acknowledged the work of Bobby Nicholas and Paula Paniani and those who have contributed to the legacy of the Pacific coastwatchers.

Cook Islands Consul General Keutekarakia Mataroa and the Cook Islands High Commissioner to New Zealand Kairangi Samuela will also attend Tuesday’s ceremony.