In an important milestone for the legacy of the WWII coastwatchers, a plaque for radio operator, Pu Banaba, has been unveiled at O’Neill’s Point Cemetery on Auckland’s North Shore.
It is the first Cook Islands coastwatchers plaque to be unveiled in New Zealand, after the Government last year announced steps to formally acknowledge the group’s valuable service.
Mr Banaba was part of a network of civilians and military personnel who kept watch 24/7 for enemy aircraft and ships, from stations in New Zealand and other 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.
But for decades, civilian Cook Islands coastwatchers did not receive the same recognition as their New Zealand counterparts.
Last year, the Government announced families could now receive a certificate of service signed by the Governor-General, have Service plaques attached to coastwatchers’ headstones like other Service personnel, and that an online historical record of their service would be published.
The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) produced that historical record and has been contacting families to ensure they receive the certificates and plaques.
While Mr Banaba is buried in Rarotonga next to his mother, his plaque was placed on the Bayswater grave of his father Sergeant Beni Banaba, who served in the Rarotonga Company of the Maori Contingent during the First World War.
Speaking to those gathered at the cemetery on Saturday, Commander Marty Broederlow from the Royal New Zealand Navy said both Beni and Pu Banaba proudly served New Zealand.
“Cruelly, Beni Banaba never made it home to the Cook Islands, dying here in Auckland 106 years ago, shortly after returning from overseas service,” Commander Broederlow said.
“This unveiling ceremony today is an opportunity for us all to think about how the two most terrible conflicts in human history, the First and Second World Wars, impacted on the lives of people all over the world, including the Cook Islands.
“Both Beni and Pu Banaba made a decision to stand up for what they thought was right and volunteered to serve New Zealand. Today all of us here remember and pay tribute to that service.”
Theresa Tarani Greig, Pu Banaba’s grand-niece, travelled from Australia for the ceremony and said the unveiling was a great honour for their family.
“It was the proudest moment ever. We really appreciated the attendance of the NZDF, Royal New Zealand Navy representatives and veterans of the Forces,” she said.
Willie Cuthers, whose grandfather was a coastwatcher, has been a driving force in achieving recognition for the group.
His grandfather’s plaque was recently unveiled in Rarotonga – the first coastwatchers plaque to be installed in the Cook Islands.
Speaking at Saturday’s ceremony, he said it had been a long road to get to this point and it was uplifting for families to see their loved ones honoured.
“Formal recognition by the NZDF validates all the tireless work that was undertaken throughout this journey, and is a significant event that 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 acknowledgment for their service.”
Family members, dignitaries from the Cook Islands Government and representatives of the NZDF took part in Saturday’s unveiling ceremony.