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William Kiri Cuthers pictured with wife Jean Cuthers. Photo / Supplied
It all started with a grandson’s search to find out more about his grandfather.
What Tua’ipulotu Willie Cuthers found has led to what will be the official recognition of up to 100 Pacific Islanders who served as coastwatchers throughout the Pacific region during World War II.
“I was studying at the time and was looking into my grandfather’s history.
“I knew he was a radio operator – it was something [my family] always talked about. But I didn’t know what that meant.”
Cuthers would eventually discover that his grandfather was one of dozens of young men – many of them still teenagers – who were trained to work as coastwatchers.
They were one of the first lines of defence for New Zealand during WWII.
There were 58 stations set up in the coastwatching system around the South Pacific and included people posted around the Cook Islands, Samoa, Kiribati, Tonga, Fiji, Tokelau and Tuvalu.
In 1942, William Kiri Cuthers was a 16-year-old boy from Arorangi, Rarotonga, who would soon be put on a remote island to carry out the work he had been trained to do.
The key task was to communicate back any sightings of what could be enemy ships or aircraft. The other big task was to stay alert and awake.
“He did it for maybe two years. He was on an outer island called Mitiaro, in the Cooks. That’s where he was posted by himself.
“It’s one of those things, when you’re reading about it, you’re like: ‘Man, he’s only 16’. Well, 16 in 1942, was it better than being 16 in 2022? I don’t know, but he was still just a kid.”
Willie Cuthers, who works as a police inspector, said he immediately started to look for records that may show his grandfather’s role during the war or an acknowledgement of the role he had played to help New Zealand.
There was nothing, he said. There was also no sign of recognition for any of the other Pacific Island civilians who became coastwatchers around the Pacific.
“He was doing the same as everyone else – the same as the European New Zealanders doing it as the same time. I just thought: ‘There’s something here’.”
He contacted members of the NZ Defence Force, politicians and the Government; calling on them to look into the need to formally recognise these unsung heroes of the Pacific.
Years later, his efforts have been rewarded; Defence Minister Peeni Henare has announced the Government’s official acknowledgement of Pacific coastwatchers.
“This is long overdue recognition of the Pacific Island coastwatchers and the important role they played in our early warning system in the Pacific,” Henare said.
“With Japanese advances into the Pacific into 1942, these stations became very dangerous places.”
The real danger to coastwatchers was brought to light when Japanese forces captured and beheaded 17 New Zealand coastwatchers in what is now known as Kiribati.
Henare said, in 1942, it was decided that all NZ civilian coastwatchers should be attested in the Second NZ Expeditionary Force.
But it was later discovered that no consideration was given to attesting civilians in the Cook Islands and other Pasifika civilians carrying out tasks outside of mainland New Zealand.
A historical report prepared by Defence historian John Crawford concluded that about 50 to 60 civilian coastwatchers, including one Pākehā New Zealander, in the Cook Islands and another 50 civilians elsewhere in the Pacific did not receive formal recognition of their service.
The recognition will involve the presentation of a certificate of service to families and the publishing of an online historical record of the WWII service of those Pasifika coastwatchers.
Families will also be able to have special service plaques attached to their loved one’s headstone, indicating their service.
Asked how he thought his grandfather would have reacted to the news, Cuthers said: “He’d be embarrassed; humbly trying to hide behind everything.
“But he’d be real happy that lots of people got recognised – not just him.”
A national commemorative service is being held in Wellington this morning to mark the service of all New Zealand coastwatchers who served during WWII.
It also marks 80 years since the tragic events on Tarawa island, in Kiribati.
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