War Atrocities Banaba (Ocean Island)
Firsthand accounts from those who survived Japanese Occupation World War II
For the first time, the survivors tell their story of what happened to them during the invasion of Banaba by the Japanese. Their accounts have been translated into English from original transcripts by Banaban historian, Raobeia Ken Sigrah, as accurately as possible to convey their first-hand experiences (in their own words) of these events.
SAMUELU KAIPATI’S STORY
The following information comes from Samuelu Kaipati, a Banaban interviewed by committee chair Titan Itetau, MP for Marakei, Kiribati Government (1). At the time of the interview, Samuelu was ‘69 plus’ years of age.
When Samuelu was asked how many Banabans were left behind at the outbreak of war, he answered, ‘more than 600 plus’. Government records state ‘over 500’. Australian army intelligence, 27 August 1945, referring to the Pacific Island Year Book 1942, used a figure of 700 Banabans. We feel this latter figure is more accurate, taking into account the number of Banabans who died during the Japanese occupation and the number of survivors who arrived on Rabi Island, Fiji in December 1945 (2).
The Japanese invasion
• What happened when the Japanese landed?
When the Japanese landed they destroyed the store, and they were looking for the wireless house. They destroyed it, they captured the Europeans with the Father. So Mr Cartwright who was here and one of the wireless men by the name of Mr Sei [Ron Third], and one of the BPC (3) men by the name of Mr Goal [Cole] and the Father [Father Pujabet]. So they gathered all these people to one of the BPC buildings. When they were in that house they were guarded by a Japanese and put on rations. They were not given cigarettes. They would have a chance to smoke when people went past and dropped cigarettes next to their cells, hiding them from the soldiers. While they were staying in the prison for about three months the Father became sick. He was taken in a sidecar on a Japanese motorbike to the hospital for the purpose of treatment, but later on, the truth came out that the Japanese had been cutting up his stomach, so he died. Once the Father was taken away he was never to be seen again. Three weeks later the Europeans were taken by the Japanese and none of them ever returned. Nobody knows where they were killed.
Lost of possessions and hunger
• Did people get injured when the Japanese took away their possessions?
Yes, one victim didn’t give any of his stuff to these people. He was taken to the northern side of Banaba to the place named, Bareimwin, he was killed. Another person who didn’t want to give his stuff was slapped by the butt of a rifle, his name was Tebuke, he was an old man. He was a Banaban. That is why they treated him this way. This old man wanted to fight but they stopped him. But he didn’t want to stop, and when they got what they wanted they left him. A few months later other people came along as workers and these people came from a company known as Nangok, te Nangko Company [Nanyo Kohatu Kabushiki Kaisa]. The workers came to help in retaining the power plant which the BPC left and other things.
The Japanese couldn’t work the church generator, but they kept on trying until they got the power on. People who came with the Japanese were the Okinawans and Koreans. They stayed amongst the Banabans until the food ran short. There were some other problems that happened because the Banabans had already run out of food. They had nothing left over from the BPC cargoes. so the soldiers began to ration the people on a very low portion.
The Japanese began to make other plans on how to survive. They sent 60 young people from Banaba who were Gilbertese and the tall ones to Kusaie (5). So these people could send back bwabwai (taro) and coconuts. So when the food arrived they split it up amongst the people as a ration. It is not good, and when you eat the coconut it bites back on your tongue. It’s gone mouldy. There is nothing we can do about it, we will have to take it in order to survive.
"A father will go back home after fishing the whole day under the sun, to his crying wife and children because they were hungry".
And besides that, we look for our own food. We eat all sorts of leaves, even the leaves of the creeping plants, the leaves of the trees that grow beside the sea waters, the leaves of the grass known as the ‘boy’. The inner soft part of the coconut tree, the inner stem of the pawpaw tree; which we peeled the skin off and start to mash up the inner part and mix it with fresh toddy and start to boil it. We eat it the best way we can so we don’t go hungry because there was no more food left. We have some other source of food from the sea, such as fish, but the problem is when we go out fishing and when we come back the Japanese will force us and take away our fish. If you don’t want to give, you were beaten up and they took away your fish. So a father will go back home after fishing the whole day under the sun, to his crying wife and children because they were hungry. Even though the father will be as tired as can be there is one thing he can share with his family on his return, is his tears. And that is what they used to do to us every day. We will have to share our fish with the soldiers in the hope that we will have some to take home.
Beatings and ill-treatment
• What was the difference living under the Japanese?
All the good things were put aside for the Japanese. And what is enough for them cannot be shared with the people. So, the solution came that people will have to be dispersed to other islands. But before we were split up, the Japanese were organising things and setting the rules and giving orders on the island. They set the punishment for the offences committed by the people. Some people were beaten with the local timber known as te ngea, one of the hardwood on Banaba. The people will be given the amount of strokes according to their offences. Starting from five strokes, 10 strokes, 20 strokes up to how big the offence is. Some people will have broken backbones, some have back muscle infections, most of these people were being beaten by their own people who have been selected by the Japanese to look after law and order.
They were Gilbertese, Ellice and Banabans and if they didn’t perform well they too would receive beatings from the Japanese. Some of our Banabans pretended to execute their duties well, but they take pity on us, and when the Japanese found out these men were forced to beat up their people so badly that in the end, their victims suffer even more. This was the punishment for light offences. For heavy offences there were only two things that would be done, either shot or beheaded. So the first beheading was done to two Gilbertese who were found stealing green coconuts. To the Japanese, stealing is the worst offence, so the price of death.
• Do you have memories of people who were executed?
One of them from Tabiteuea and one from Nonouti. One is called Toanikarawa and the other Kamoaa. They stole green coconuts and that is why they were beheaded. One of the Banabans called Robert Corrie was beheaded also for stealing rice. I was watching those beheadings. Kamooa was taken first. Before he [Japanese soldier] chopped Kamooa he tested the sharpness of his sword first. He was trying it on one of the tall trees called te kiebu. After wiping the blade he came back and pressed Kamooa’s neck forward. At this time he was ready to cut his neck. He lifted the sword up and moved the sword to one side, and moved it back to the other side, and then he lifted it up and said, ‘Uu tie!’ and there it goes. The neck was chopped with only one blow, and the sword didn’t stop there and went as far down as hitting his knees. The head fell inside the grave with all the blood shooting in every direction; and then his body was kicked into the grave.
Then they called Toanikarawa, and another Japanese came to behead him. The same happened, except his head did not fall. They heard him moaning. When the people heard him moaning they imitated the sound. We called out, ‘his head did not drop!’ That’s why he [Japanese soldier] started to cut him up - in order to kill him fast. So the head was dropped, and the blood was just shooting out in every direction and he was asleep in his grave. So we left. The job was completed and they were starting to bury them. And so we returned. And that Robert [Corrie] he is a brave man. He was so calm, he started to smile, he said his goodbyes to his friends and his wife. They tied up his eyes and they positioned him in the same way as those before him. With one stroke his head came off. So they pulled him to his grave and there he was buried.
Two Banabans, one called Kauaba and the other Tabuia were prisoners. They were taken to test the power of the electricity and were electrified on the other side of the island. When the first one went to test the electricity, Kauaba, the electricity wasn’t turned on and he got through alive, so the Japanese shot him dead. The other man, Tabuia met the power of the electricity and was electrocuted and burnt instantly. Until they saw that the whole of his body had been burnt they turned off the power. No one knows where these people were buried.
• Can you tell us about other people who were casualties of the Japanese?
One of the ladies who was from the Gilberts was ill-treated by the Japanese. This woman was caught committing adultery with another man and this woman was called by the Japanese to face charges. She was tied to a mango tree at Tabiang Village near the Government office that was occupied by the Japanese. She was tied naked to the tree. It was made a law that everybody who goes past this woman had to put a finger in her private parts. He will poke her and after poking her he will be sent on his way; if you didn’t want to you were beaten. Until the people found out there was something going on there, they stopped going on that road, and the women protested by starting to do what the other woman had done until this woman was released. This was about two weeks.
They guarded her day and night and gave her some little drink. Fed her a little bit. I don’t know if she was released or killed. I didn’t know the true story about what happened to her, but I proved the fact because I walked that road and saw what happened to her. We ran away and tried to get as far away from her. Her body was never found, and she was never seen again.
The killing of lepers
• Can you tell us what happened to the lepers and their families?
The lepers and their families (4) were taken by the Japanese and they were all killed. The Japanese loaded them on trucks, somewhere like Lilian Point, which was one of the places they were shot at and thrown into the sea, the women, the men and all who were within the family. Like the person I knew from Buakonikai called Abitenoko with his children and grandchildren. Abitenoko had only one granddaughter who got this sickness, and it was detected on the tip of her finger. When the Japanese found out, they were all taken. The other family was Ribaai, the same was done to these people. So actually, most of them were not lepers. The Japanese considered that they should be all killed because they just hate the family of lepers and believe none of them should live. Another man from Buakonikai, Nabeteko with his children and grandchildren, and Itinnaibo and all his children. There is one of Itinnaibo’s daughters who married somewhere else who wasn’t killed. All of her children are now at Canton. All her brothers, cousins, uncles, the whole family were killed. A family from Tabwewa from Nei Kaebaa and the name of her husband Nawine. Nawine was from Ellice (Tuvalu). He was a school teacher in the government here, but he was the family of a leper. They were all taken. There was one who was a missionary in the LMS Church, and he was from the island of Tamana and his name is Notua. The Japanese instructed that these people were to be taken away on a boat, out into the ocean to be shot and thrown into the sea, where the current is strong so that their bodies may never ever be recovered.
Dispersion of the Banabans
• Can you tell us how long after Banaba was invaded the Japanese dispersed the people?
The Japanese came in late 1942. It was in 1943 when the people were dispersed because we were on Tarawa (6) for more the two to three months when the Americans arrived at Tarawa sometime in November or December. That’s it! Because we were staying at Tarawa and saw what happened there.
• Can you remember what people told you about ill-treatment on Kusaie (Kosrae) and Nauru (7)?
Those on Kusaie (Kosrae) were all ill-treated. The men were sent to work on plantations and after that, they were told to dig a big pit, with the intention they were supposed to be killed at that spot by a machine gun that was already in position above them. As they prepared to be executed, another instruction came from the Japanese they were not to be killed. This went on until the end of the war so the idea was to kill the men and leave the women to be the wives of the Japanese. I heard about three or four whole Banaban families were killed on Nauru by the bombing.
ABUSE OF WOMEN
Information about Japanese abuses against women, in particular, comes from these official transcripts of interviews by the 31/51 Australian Infantry Battalion (AIF), Nauru-Ocean Force, which was used in evidence in the war crime trials after the war. The name of people and places mentioned by witnesses have been reproduced in exactly the same way as in the original documents, in capital letters.
• Did you ever hear of two women being tied up?
Mote (I-Kiribati, 20 October 1945): I used to be a houseboy for a Japanese officer named MIJASAK, who was CO of TABIANG Force. One day I was coming to work when I saw two married native women who used to work for the BPC tied to posts on the verandah of MIJASAKA’s house. They were naked. One Japanese soldier was guarding them, who called all passers-by to come and look at the women, presumably to cast shame upon the women. I do not know if the women were violated or not but I saw marks on their bodies. They were there, tied with their arms extended above their heads for twenty-four hours. The Japanese officer MIJASAK remained in the house all that time. Lots of Japanese soldiers came and watched the two women during the day, laughing and talking. Some of them put their hands on the women’s genital area and breasts. When I left to go home that day about 6 pm the women were still there. The next morning I came and they had gone.
Rongo Rongo (Tuvaluan, 21 December 1945): Yes, I saw them. They were there for two days and two nights. Just after sunset, they had lit a small fire to cook some fish, and a guard caught them. Orders had been given that no fires were to be lit because of aircraft or ships and they disobeyed the order. Yes, they recovered, they went home, sick from lack of food, but they recovered.
• Do you know any girls who were raped by Japanese soldiers?
Kiatara (19 October 1945): Yes. An interpreter named Taninta who was a Japanese civilian brought over from the Carolines (8), used to go around the native villages and gather native girls and forcing them to go and be violated by Japanese officers. I know the name of one girl. Her name was Bakauer, daughter of a constable.
The people who remained
Between August 1942 and July 1943 on three separate occasions, ships took away our people, the first to Tarawa, the second to Nauru, and the last to Kosrae. One hundred and forty-three of the youngest and fittest of workers were left behind to supply fish for the Japanese forces. Kabunare Koura, an I-Kiribati man, is one of only two who survived the horrors of this period which concluded this tragic episode in our history. His evidence helped convict the Japanese Commander Suzuki for war crimes committed on Banaba.
Kabunare continues with excerpts taken from his meeting with the Commission in the Kiribati Maneaba Ni Maungatabu on 23 September 1996.
• Can you tell me what happened after the Japanese arrived?
We had to work for the Japanese without rations, we were forced to work, and we were not fed, so we looked for our own food. So from there, the deaths started. There was no more Number One [the phosphate company BPC], most of the boys were thrown into the pits which were made by phosphate digging. It was the Gilbertese and Ellice who suffered most because they have to share the fruit and the rice among eight people each day, so how can you survive. Our elders began to die. From Nikunau to Tarawa, Taniera’s father died, Iote also died, so there were only some of us left. Titanre and some others were still alive at that time. They stayed and faced the work. You were beaten if you were too slow; the leadership was so harsh.
We had to stand up and work with a stick behind us. If you stretched your back a while they hit your head with a stick. Anywhere. Our work was to raise the stone for gun placements after we do the job we come back to get about a pint of rainwater. I survived by diving for octopus, and then exchanged them for coconuts. That’s how we lived until the people were dispersed to Tarawa, Kusaie, Nauru and Ponape. There were people who died of hunger. But we were left behind because we were the only ones who could do the work.
The mass executions
• How did they execute your people?
We stayed and worked and fished on and on and on. We heard that there was a big pit that had been dug to bury us in. So my cousin called us together to stand up and attack Uma, my duty was to kill a certain Japanese. This motion wasn’t approved. But they went ahead with the plan and that is a trip they made without return. So nobody knows our plan but obviously, someone did. That is why our court case by the Japanese was delayed for another five or six months, concerning our death sentence. So we were there until the day we were supposed to be killed. The commencement for our execution had started.
Yes, the way they kill us. We came back from fishing. We were so unsettled and that night had nightmares. We asked each other what was happening. We prayed. Who can face this problem but only God? Early the next morning I went out fishing and we caught almost 100 bonitos. When we came back we were told to wash ourselves and to drink from the Gilbertese who were working on the farm. When we finished we went down, but I didn’t drink because of feeling disturbed the night before.
I was with one from Tabiteauea, Ueaititi, Taeka, Irome, Terara from Abaiang and some others. We were seated on the sand and asked, where do you come from, how old are you, but they lied. They actually were preparing the people they were going to kill. The Japanese started to tie our hands, one time, two times and I gave my hands. We were taken to the seashore and they put up a very high barb wire. We felt homesick, but what can we do, the time is up. I was trying to concentrate to get onto the other life if there is another life. They will have to shoot their own targets, so I slid down facing the sea and in the middle of the rock. There is nothing I can see and the other guy fell down, and I moved up, and I was poked by the bayonet. I stood up facing the sea and Tarawa with the rock underneath and one who is bigger and taller than me, and the shooting stopped. My ears exploded, and it was after 5 pm and I pulled away thinking that I was shot, and I thought that I was going to die later.
The wave started to break on me, and I was surprised because my eyes were tied. My companions never talked because they were dead, and the Japanese were talking. ‘Leave them for the sea will kill them and we will come back for them tomorrow morning.’ I was going to lay down for a while longer not knowing if there was a Japanese guard, and for a while, I twisted my body and tried to free my hand. Then I climbed up the cliff to see if anybody was there. I went back to check and see my friends, but they were all dead. About midnight I went to one of the caves and I was surprised to see some of their bodies inside the cave. And that is where sorrow came in. The next morning I heard the Japanese yell, ‘Here!’ I waited a while and then came a boat. It was filled up with the people from Tabwewa and the big canoes were put into the water. So, they took the dead bodies from off the shore and loaded them onto the Japanese boat. While they were doing this, I left and went away. I tried to get away but the barbed wire blocked my way, so I tried to break my way through. I injured my hands. On reaching the third wire I was fortunate not to touch it, for if I had touched it I could have died.
After Kabunare’s miraculous escape, he hid for almost two months in the pinnacles and caves until he finally realized that the island was safely under the control of the Australian occupation force. He was the only survivor of the 143 men left behind. One other man called Nabetari, a Tuvaluan was discovered alive. He was the sole survivor, after being adrift at sea for seven months. He was from a party of seven fishermen who risked a daring escape in their frail outriggers, choosing to take their chances at sea. All the bodies of the Europeans who had remained on the island were recovered, except for that of Arthur Mercer.
Banaban war dead
A total of 349 people died on Banaba during the Japanese occupation (9). This chapter is dedicated to their memories.
Following the surrender of Ocean Island, the Island was occupied by members of the 31/51 Australian Infantry Battalion. Lieutenant Commander Suzuki Naoomi, Commander Japanese Forces on Ocean Island (Banaba), consisting of approximately 530 Japanese troops were sent to post war camps at Torokina, Bougainville. At the Australian War Crime Trials, Naoomi and two of his fellow officers were found guilty for the atrocities committed on Ocean Island and Naoomi was executed, while the other two officers had their death sentences converted to prison sentences.
Excerpt: Chapter 27 - JAPANESE OCCUPATION "Te Rii Ni Banaba - The Backbone of Banaba" by Raobeia Sigrah & Stacey M King, and is available on Amazon.
1. Information from the report of the committee appointed by the Kiribati government to investigate the death, injury, damage and other atrocities, which happened in Kiribati during World War II. Through first-hand accounts from survivors, the committee uncovered some information that has never been brought to public attention before. It was tabled in the Kiribati Maneaba Ni Maungatabu (House of Assembly) as recently as November 1996.
2. The Banabans first arrived on Rabi Island, Fiji at the end of World War II, with exaggerated reports from the British government that all of the villages of the island had been destroyed, the Banabans were gathered and taken to Rabi in Fiji, over 3,200 kilometres away. On 15 December 1945, 703 ill-treated and weary Banabans, of whom 318 were children, and 300 Gilbertese arrived at their new home.
3. Company: The British Phosphate Commission, also known as BPC, was a board of Australian, British and New Zealand representatives who managed the extraction of phosphate on Banaba (Ocean Island), Nauru and Christmas Island from 1920 to 1981.
4. Banaban historian, Raobeia Ken Sigrah's father was a child living with relatives at the time of the Japanese invasion. Miraculously his family rescued him when one of his adopted family members were identified as suffering from leprosy. The whole family were executed.
5. During the Colonial era the island today called Kiribati was known as the Gilbert Islands, Tuvalu was known as Ellice Islands, and Kosrae was called Kusaie. In various statements, the individual names of different islands in the group are mentioned and these Island names are still used today.
6. Tarawa is the capital of Kiribati situated 281 miles (453 km) northeast of Banaba above the Equator. It was the theatre for the major Battle of Tarawa mostly around the small atoll of Betio.
7. The independent nation of Nauru is situated 185 miles (298 km) east of Banaba and is the island's closest neighbour. The island was invaded and occupied by Japanese forces for three years during WWII.
8. The Caroline Islands (or the Carolines) are a widely scattered archipelago of tiny islands in the western Pacific Ocean, to the north of New Guinea. Politically, they are divided between the Federated States of Micronesia in the eastern part of the group, and Palau at the extreme western end.
9. A list of Banaba's War Dead: Appendix 10 has been published in Te Rii ni Banaba-the backbone of Banaba .
First published: Banaban.com (Banaban War History)
About the author
Stacey King, a published Australian author and historian. Her writing focuses on her mission to build global awareness of the plight of the indigenous Banaban people and her achievements as a businesswoman, entrepreneur and philanthropist.