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REPUBLIC OF KIRIBATI

HISTORICAL TARAWA

 

Closely associated with the development of the phosphate industry on Ocean and Nauru Islands, Sir Albert Ellis travelled extensively through the Pacific Islands during the early part of the 20th century. His record of Kiribati between 1900 and 1945 provides an interesting historical perspective of early 20th century Tarawa and Kiribati generally.

 

           

No greater contrast in island scenery can be imagined than Betio Islet, Tarawa Atoll, as I first knew it in 1900, and the same place when revisited in October, 1945. On the occasion of the first visit I went to confer with the Resident Commissioner of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (now Republic of Kiribati and Tuvalu), Mr. W. Telfer Campbell, regarding the opening up of phosphate operations at Ocean Island which was to come under his jurisdiction, and the employment of Gilbertese and Ellice labour there. A small lot of Ellice "boys" had already been recruited.

Memorial to Outpost Heroes

Erected on the battlefield at Betio Islet, Tarawa Atoll, by American Forces.
Brig. Stevenson, Commdr. Rose and Col. Fox-Strangways reading the inscription:
 
In memory of 22 British subjects murdered by the Japanese at Betio on 15th October, 1942.
Standing unarmed to their posts, they matched brutality with gallantry and met death with fortitude. 

Business matters were satisfactorily arranged, for Mr. Campbell was only too glad at the prospects for commercial development of the Central Pacific, also that suitable employment would be afforded for many of the young fellows. Afterwards I was hospitably entertained at the Residency. Betio was the seat of government for the Colony, or rather Protectorate, for that was its status at the time.

The Government station was on modest lines, the Residency being a comfortable two storied wooden building within a few yards of the lagoon shore. In its limited grounds were a few flowering shrubs, adding to the scene. It was difficult to have much variety in that sandy soil, while vegetables and fruit trees were conspicuous by their absence. A significant term for rice was: "Gilbert Island potatoes." Communication with the outside world was at long intervals and mostly confined to a three monthly call by one of the Pacific Islands Company's small trading steamers. I was in the employ of this London concern, but associated particularly with the phosphate section of the business.

Mrs. Campbell was on Tarawa and I remember being impressed both by the manner in which everything in her department was done, and also by the degree of bravery displayed by an English woman in living at such a far distant and isolated place. She made the best of everything in wonderful spirit. There were no other women on Tarawa at the time.

The few remaining houses consisted of two of three quarters for the limited number of officials and some rows of native built huts for the constabulary, a calaboose or two, and small buildings. A feature of the station was a low stone pier extending through the shallow water of the lagoon shore to a somewhat better depth, but not so far out as it should have been. Betio at low tide was always difficult so we considered, and sometimes visitors would have a long wade through shallow water. Our phosphate vessels frequently went there in the years that followed, sometimes in connection with labour recruiting, and also when shipping became congested at Ocean Island through bad weather. The deep passage into Tarawa lagoon gave easy access to a safe anchorage.

A picturesque, well kept native village of perhaps two hundred inhabitants was located along the lagoon shore a short distance from the Residency. On all sides there was the usual dense growth of tall coconut palms leaning out towards the lagoon, as is invariably the case. Coconuts were the main feature of Tarawa as regards vegetation; there were thousands of them and little else except a fair number of the equally useful pandanus.

In 1908, the seat of government was shifted from Betio to Ocean Island owing to the growing importance of the latter with its comparatively frequent shipping connections; perhaps other amenities of tropical life had some bearing on the change.

The years rolled by and I had not been to Tarawa for a long period. Before our arrival there this time I was told that I should not know the place, and that certainly proved correct. It was changed out of all recognition. I could not even locate the site of the old residency, but the army hut in which two of us were quartered must have been within a few yards of where the large building once stood.

Landing facilities were immensely improved; a great deal of dredging had been done, and where it was once dry at low tide, there is now a good wide channel, permitting of launches and large barges going close inshore at any time of the tide. The spoil from the dredging had been deposited over a wide area on each side of the channel. I must say, however, that from the scenic point of view, the waterfront and indeed the whole of Betio is sadly altered; the Japanese and the battle are the cause of that.

We found it almost impossible to realise that this little island, a flat sandbank as it seemed, and merely a narrow strip of land not more than two miles in length, had in November, 1943, been the scene of a most sanguinary conflict, one that will live in history by reason of its momentous and far reaching effects. Probably the results of the battle of Tarawa made the Japanese realise that they had no hope of South Sea Island domination, and their policy was to put up a hard fight at their other mid-Pacific bases in order to improve their prospects in case of a negotiated peace. It is outside the purport of this record to describe the battle; some books and numerous magazine articles have been written on it containing truly vivid descriptions.

But what does Betio look like at the present time, not two years from the date of the great fight? Soon after our arrival Colonel Fox-Strangways took us for a jeep ride round the island, stopping at the various points of tragic interest to tell us details of the battle. He gave a thrilling account, the more effectively because, he being the senior British official, was present at the time; in the earlier stages as an onlooker, but as a soldier he joined in the fight and followed it to the finish.

Gilbertese nurses at Abaokoro village, Tarawa Atoll.
Photo: Col. Fox-Strangways

The large Japanese naval guns in their emplacements, in blockhouse, the ruined search light, the numerous machine gun posts, extensive lines of reef obstructions and other signs of the battle are still there, and on many of these a descriptive tablet sets out the incidents associated with them. The well kept military cemeteries with their rows of wooden crosses are the most impressive feature.

This aspect is shared also by the little enclosure erected to the memory of the 22 British men in various walks of life who had been imprisoned on Betio. Following on the first heavy attack by American aircraft they were taken out and murdered by the Japanese solely as an act of retribution. The heroic party included a devoted L.M.S. missionary, a very gallant wireless officer, the hospital dispenser, an aged retired sea captain and an elderly trader. The remainder were New Zealand wireless operators and coast watchers, young fellows who had been stationed on various islands in the Gilbert Group. The tragedy in many ways resembled what took place on Nauru and to some extent the events on Ocean Island. The Europeans concerned had fallen into the hands of the enemy because they elected to remain at the post of duty; it would have been possible for all of them to have escaped had that been their first thought.

We never ceased to marvel that on this little island, less than a square mile in area, over 5,000 dead had been buried; it seemed incomprehensible. There can be no doubt that the Japanese considered the place impregnable; following their usual practice of belittling the white men in the eyes of the natives they boasted to them that they could never be defeated there. But they did not realise the prowess of the American Marines. Tarawa will ever be classed among the bloodiest battles of the war, an epic fight, one in which the gallantry, resource and determination of the marines carried the issue to victory.

Gilbertese medical orderlies at the native hospital,
Abaokoro village, Tarawa Atoll.
Photo: Col. Fox-Strangways

At the present time Betio is still a large American camp, though the personnel is steadily diminishing; apparently it will be evacuated before long. There are numerous Quanset huts, and many houses and huts built out of local native material, but nothing of a really permanent nature. What was once a dense grove of coconut palms is now a more or less bare area with only 50 or so palms still standing; these not only escaped the storm of shot and shell in the battle, but it is a wonder they were not destroyed earlier by the Japanese in making their defences, which almost entirely consisted of coconut tree trunks and sand; with this limited material it was wonderful what effective defences were made. These few growing palms are interspersed among hundreds of trunks still standing but without their crown of leaves and bunches of nuts; they are perhaps one of the main features of Betio at present, a mute relic of the great fight.

One could not but compare the conditions on this little island, practically a sandbank, with Nauru and Ocean Island which are natural fortresses with their ramparts of limestone rock and innumerable facilities for the enemy to fight among the coral pinnacles, or to go underground. In the event of a landing attack the casualities must have greatly exceeded those at Tarawa.

One of the few picturesque buildings on Betio is the Memorial Chapel; reminding one somewhat of the Torokina church. The British section of the camp is on the lagoon shore and there the Resident Commissioner and four or five of his officers reside under comfortable conditions, though the houses are entirely built of local material. They were originally occupied by the American Admiral and his staff; he handed them over to the Resident Commissioner when moving on from Tarawa. A large new building in which the government offices are located is really a wonderful instance of what can be done in this line of construction, which certainly suits the climate remarkably well. At Nauru and Ocean Island, however, we have found that this type of house involves a great amount of upkeep and is not suited for our more expensive conditions.

The British section is well planted with young coconut palms; from a very shipshape flagstaff the Union Jack flies daily and this part of the island is certainly the most attractive area.

Most of Betio is perfectly flat, bare and blazing hot in the tropical sunshine; certainly most historical, but not in the least degree scenic. The long wide landing strip for aircraft dominates the picture, occupying a large portion of the island. Following on the great battle, Hawkins Airfield, as it is called, must have witnessed remarkable plane activity on the part of the American forces, for from there most of the regular reconnaisance work in the Marshalls, Carolines, Nauru and Ocean Island was carried on, and with such good effect that the Japanese airmen were blasted out of the skies and their ships off those Central Pacific Seas.

An important feature of Betio life is the jeep, they are there by the hundred; one seems to go everywhere by these useful cars - to the wharf, to the canteen, anywhere, always the jeep!

Of the future, one can speak only as a layman. It seems certain that the evidences of the great battle will gradually pass away, always excepting the tragic military cemeteries, which are sure to be well kept. The machine gun posts and gun emplacements depend almost entirely on coconut tree trunks for their stability, and these are already showing signs of decay. The sand which hey are keeping in place naturally does not bind together, and will gradually settle down. a general levelling off process will thus go on, so far as these defences are concerned. In a few years the probability is that only the concrete work and the big eight inch guns will remain. There will always be ample reminders that a great battle was fought on this lone islet.

It seems safe to predict that, once again the coconut palms will be the dominant feature on Betio in the course of years; it will take time for they are slow growing in the Gilberts owing to the irregular rainfall. Even the great banks of spoil from the dredging would grow this useful and very picturesque palm, which flourishes in coral sand and shingle. One can visualise the trees planted up to the borders of the cemeteries; I judge this would be considered appropriate by those who have pathetic interest in Tarawa. should the airfield be retained, it will probably be narrowed down to some extent in view of its more curtailed duties; this would afford growing space for many coconut palms and the whole area would be greatly improved.

Major Holland's fine house built of native material still stands, and is historical. From there he went out, alone and unafraid, to meet the Japanese Marines when they landed on the ocean beach of Bairiki. He had told the constabulary and other natives to keep among the trees in the background, thinking the enemy would be content to take him prisoner, and to leave the natives unmolested. The Japanese menaced him with their bayonets, seized his wristlet watch, and it seemed as if anything might happen.

Glancing around, Major Holland was surprised to see a native constable close behind him, and asked in Gilbertese why he had come. His reply was to the effect that the Japanese looked as if they were going to kill him, and if so they would have to "kill me first." He kept close by Major Holland throughout the day, while the Japanese were destroying the launches, boats, canoes and other property. Constable Tato of Tarawa showed a fine spirit of devotion. He is still in the constabulary.

Several of the colony officials now reside on Bairiki which has scenic features sadly missing on Betio. Colonel Fox-Strangways kindly showed us over the other officials at afternoon tea served in Major Holland's house.

Naturally the future seat of government is the subject of much local interest, and rumour has it that Abemama may be selected. A fine large atoll with good anchorage, also a useful airstrip, the island has many advantages. but the passages for ships to enter the lagoon do not compare favourably with the deeper one at Tarawa, permitting large vessels to enter without risk.

Valuable information regarding this little known colony is contained in Sir Harry Luke's book Britain and the South Seas, published in 1945. He mentions that while its total land area is only 400 square miles, of which one half is contributed by Christmas Island, the colony has a total land and sea area of 2,000,000 square miles; in the proportion of sea to land it is unique. Extending from Christmas Island in the East to Ocean Island in the West, the distance is 2,000 miles.

 

Much of the material on this Web site is from Mid-Pacific Outposts by Sir Albert Ellis, published by Brown and Stewart Limited, Auckland, New Zealand, 1946.

 

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(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 21st April 2008)