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Cook Islands coastwatcher recognised in New Zealand

Tuesday 19 September 2023 | Written by Supplied | Published in Local, National


Cook Islands coastwatcher recognised in New Zealand
Family members, dignitaries from the Cook Islands Government and representatives of the New Zealand Defence Force took part in the unveiling of the first Cook Islands coastwatchers plaque in New Zealand. 23091840

New Zealand has taken its first step in honouring civilian Cook Islanders who served as coastwatchers in World War II.

A service plaque for radio operator Pu Banaba, who watched out for Japanese aircraft and ships from Suwarrow during the war, was unveiled at O’Neill’s Point Cemetery on Auckland’s North Shore on Saturday.

“It was the proudest moment ever,” Banaba’s grand-niece, Theresa Tarani Greig, said at the unveiling.

Greig, who lives in Australia, said the event was a “great honour” for the family and they appreciated the attendance of the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF), the Royal New Zealand Navy, and veterans.

In a statement about the plaque unveiling, the NZDF said the condition under which Banaba operated “were, at time, hard to endure”.

“During a violent hurricane, Pu Banaba and other coastwatchers on the island of Suwarrow had to tie themselves to trees so they wouldn’t be blown away by the powerful storm and a tidal wave which swept over the island.”

Banaba is the first Cook Islands coastwatcher to receive a plaque, following last year’s announcement from the New Zealand Government that the group’s families were eligible for a certificate of service signed by the Governor-General; service plaques would be attached to their headstones; and an online historical record of their service published.

The NZDF had produced the historical record and was contacting families regarding the plaques and certificates.

Coastwatchers were a network of civilian and military personnel who kept watch all day, every day for the enemy from stations in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands.

“With Japanese advances into the Pacific, these stations became very dangerous places – as shown by the execution of 17 New Zealand coastwatchers and five other Allied prisoners by Japanese personnel on Tarawa in 1942,” the NZDF stated.

“But for decades, civilian Cook Islands coastwatchers did not receive the same recognition as their New Zealand counterparts.”

Willie Cuther, whose grandfather received the first coastwatchers plaque to be unveiled in the Cook Islands in October last year, told the gathering the NZDF’s recognition “validates all the tireless work” of the group and “brings justice to these men and their families”.

“I feel proud knowing my grandad and the men he knew and served with have finally received acknowledgement for their service.”

Banaba, who returned to Rarotonga and his family’s plantation in Maraerenga after the war, is buried next to his mother at their island home – so his service plaque has been placed on his father’s grave.

Banaba was one-year-old when his father, Sergeant Beni Banaba, died.

His father served with the Maori Contingent’s Rarotonga Company during World War I. While stationed in Palestine, he became ill and returned to New Zealand – dying at Auckland Hospital on September 16, 1917, at age 27.

NZDF / Joanne Holden