Seventeen New Zealand “coastwatchers” executed by the Japanese during World War II have been remembered in New Zealand with the unveiling of a memorial on Wellington’s waterfront.

The memorial wall was unveiled on Tuesday by 94-year-old John Jones, the last surviving Gilbert Islands coastwatcher, in front of dignitaries invited from Kiribati (formerly the Gilbert Islands) and Japan.

John Jones was in Wellington to remember his comrades, three of whom were his best friends. John was a radio operator from the Post and Telegraph Department and his job as a Coastwatcher was to keep a 24 hour watch for enemy ships and aircraft and report on meteorological conditions.

New Zealand established 62 Coastwatch Units on various islands throughout the Pacific and these Coastwatchers worked in difficult conditions without access to important tools such as binoculars or aircraft and naval recognition charts. A typical station had a radio operator, 1 or 2 unarmed soldiers, a radio (to communicate with headquarters) and a number of lookout posts. Many Coastwatchers were aided by locals from that particular island, but it was an isolated and often lonely experience. Their job was fraught with danger as the Japanese were able to easily locate their positions following each transmission of information and as a result many were either killed or endured years in captivity as Prisoners of War (POW).

John saw his first Japanese aircraft (a reconnaissance flying boat) the day after the attack on Pearl Harbour. Days later John was among the first to be captured by the Japanese and taken to Japan in December 1941, but only after he and the unarmed soldier with him, burnt all the codes, smashed their radio, buried their stores and reported in code, “Japanese landing NOW!”

John spent 4 years as a POW at a camp right next to Hiroshima at Shikoku. Unknown to the radio operators, they were secretly attested into the New Zealand Army as it was feared the Japanese would execute them as civilian spies, and thus John was given the Army rank of Corporal (#180724). He was also Mentioned in Despatches after the war.