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New website helps families find World War I ancestors’ graves

Wednesday 10 July 2024 | Written by Melina Etches | Published in Features, Local, Memory Lane, National, Weekend

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New website helps families find World War I ancestors’ graves
The World War I research team is led by Paula Paniani, the chief archivist at the National Archives of Cook Islands Ministry for Cultural Development, Australian cemetery and grave conservator Cate Walker and her husband Paul Morrissey and Bobby Nicholas, head researcher. SUPPLIED/24011206

A passionate research team created a website to document Cook Islands World War I soldiers’ graves and share stories of their contribution to the war.

Through extensive research and GPS (Global Positioning System) mapping, the Cook Islands World War I New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) Soldiers Research Project is pleased to announce that the new “The Cook Islands Online Cenotaph” website is active.

With just a few clicks, families searching for the graves of their relatives, who served in World War I, can search the database https://www.cookislandsonlinecenotaph.com to access the exact location of their ancestor’s resting place.

Cate Walker, the project coordinator, said: “The Cook Islands Online Cenotaph is another step in creating an independent identity and shows the world the huge contribution that a small Pacific Islands nation like the Cook Islands has made towards world peace.”

The project was initiated by a small team of passionate volunteer researchers nearly a decade ago.

In early 2016, during a clean-up of the Nikao Cemetery, the graves of Cook Islands WWI returned servicemen buried in overgrowth were discovered by Bobby Nicholas, head researcher, Paula Paniani, Tauranga Vananga chief archivist, Cate Walker and her husband Paul Morrissey from Australia.

“These men had served for New Zealand during WWI and the Nikao Cemetery was their final resting place,” said Walker.

“I knew nothing about the Cook Islands’ involvement during WWI back then and started researching and sharing their stories on the cemetery’s Facebook page.

“We were inundated with inquiries from around the world asking if we knew the location of certain WWI soldiers.”

Since there was a great deal of interest from the public the team began to locate and document these graves.

From 2016, they have documented 314 WWI graves and headstones on Rarotonga (172), Aitutaki (50), Mangaia (43), Atiu (29) and Mauke (20).

In 2018, the team began recording the GPS coordinates and documenting WWI graves and headstones located in Mangaia (2018 and 2023), Rarotonga (2019 to 2024), Atiu (2019), Aitutaki (2019) and Mauke (2022).

In April 2019, Julie Taripo, Cook Islands Television documentary producer, joined the team and filmed the first soldier search series in Atiu.

Walker believes their research has led them to between 370 and 410 returned soldiers who are buried across the Cook Islands.

“The website came about as a way to share our research with the people of the Cook Islands, free of charge,” said Walker, who built the website using YouTube and a lot of reading.

“We have done this research voluntarily for the people and with the help of the people.”

She said the website will always be a “work in progress” as more graves are located, and photos and biographical information are shared.

“If you have a story or photos to share, please hit the ‘Contact Us’ button in the website menu or send a private message to this page,” Walker said.

The Cook Islands Online Cenotaph includes European service personnel who were living in the Cook Islands on enlistment, those who served in the Cook Islands during WWII or had a connection to the Cook Islands through work or marriage, as well as service personnel from any country who served during war or peacetime and are buried in the Cook Islands.

To have Cook Islands ownership of the website, Walker approached a very generous supporter, Tata Crocombe, for sponsorship.

Walker and the Cook Islands WW1 NZEF ANZAC Soldiers Research Project  would like to thank and acknowledge Tata Crocombe, for providing accommodation in Rarotonga and Aitutaki (Sanctuary Rarotonga and Aitutaki Lagoon Private Island Resort) and website sponsorship, Air Rarotonga, for return flights to Atiu, Aitutaki, Mauke and Mangaia, Cook Islands Television News, Eddie Drollet and Kave Ringi, Bank of the Cook Islands (BCI), Minister Rose Vainetutai Toki-Brown, Tokoa Pera, and Vodafone Cook Islands.

The team welcomes any feedback, corrections, information, and photos to this website.

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