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World War 2 activity commenced in 1940 with German raider attacks on phosphate ships on Ocean Island and Nauru. The first Japanese attack also occurred on Ocean Island. Within hours on the surprise attack on the American Naval Base at Pearl Harbour on 8th December 1941, a Japanese flying boat arrived over Ocean Island and dropped five or six bombs. There were no casualties and no damage to buildings but the next day three flying boats bombed the island and destroyed the new Residency building, the machine shop and the B.P.C Manager's house. The Radio Station on Ocean Island was the parent station for the Gilbert Islands Coastwatching station and it was believed that the main purpose of the attack had been to silence this Radio Station. However, the Station was undamaged and remained in operation until Japanese forces landed and captured the Island.

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The B.P.C. Residency was bombed by the Japanese planes shortly after Pearl Harbour

The Australian and New Zealand Government had evacuated all wives and children working for the BPC on Ocean Island in July 1941, in anticipation of a coming war with Japan. At Ocean Island, the Australian merchant ships Vito and Kenilworth protected by the armed merchant cruiser H.M.A.S. Westralia had arrived and collected the refugees without incidents. Then after the attacks in December it was decided to proceed with the evacuation of all other Europeans. The Central Pacific Islanders, Banabans, Gilbertese, and Tuvaluans were left behind as it was believed that they would not suffer seriously if the Island was captured by the Japanese. At the end of February 1942, the Free French destroyer La Triomphant evacuated the Europeans from Ocean Island and Nauru.

On 24th August, Admiral Yamamoto, Commander-In-Chief of the combined Japanese fleet, ordered the fourth fleet to capture Abemama, Ocean Island and Nauru. Nine land-based attacked planes and one flying boat of the 24th Air Flotilla, bombed Ocean Island on the 24th and during the night, two destroyers, Ariake and Yugure shelled Ocean Island. The Yugure landed her land-combat unit on Ocean Island on the 26th August. On 1st September, a detachment from the 63rd Naval garrison unit replaced the Yugure force as the Ocean Island occupation unit with approximately 500 troops and 50 labourers.

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A Japanese gun site at Ocean Island with three 6-inch
guns in strategic positions overlooking Home Bay.

With the arrival with these occupation troops, life for the islanders changed for the worse. A harsh rain of fear and force began as the Japanese commenced a programme of fortifying the islands using slave labour. A Gilbert Islander, Tikaouti Bonabati, comments on life on Ocean Island, under Japanese rule:

"It would be better to be a soldier than a civilian prisoner. Soldiers have weapons and have a chance. We had no chance, we were slaves. We were the same as pigs: we had no human rights."

The Japanese had occupied Ocean Island so as to deny it to the Allies. The phosphate mining plant had been sabotaged by the B.P.C staff and there was no attempt to recommence mining. The sole purpose of the Japanese occupation appeared to be strategic. They quickly fortified the island, installing gun emplacement and traps to oppose any landing. There was no harbour at Ocean Island and no attempt was made to construct an airfield so the island became an isolated fortress of little practical use to the Japanese.

To relieve the food shortage, Islanders were shipped out even though there was grave danger that the ships might be attacked. The ships travelled mostly during the night taking Banabans, Gilbertese and Tuvaluans to other islands under Japanese control. Some, went to Nauru, others to Tarawa or to Kusaie in the Caroline Islands. All women and children were removed from the Island and the Japanese retained only approximately 150 of the young men to work for them in gardening, toddy cutting and fishing. But in August 1945, after the Japanese surrender, all Islanders were split into nine groups, marched to the cliffs over the sea, blindfolded and shot.

It was not possible to provide the names or exact number of all those killed. One of the two names was a Gilbertese, Ueanteiti, the other a Tuvaluan, *Falailiva. The only witness to the execution, Kabunare, related in his statement:

"Falailiva was the first man to be tied and was on my left. He said to me "Are you ready?" and I replied "Yes, I am ready to die." Then Falailiva asked "You remember God?" and I replied "Yes I remember"."

Soon after this Falailiva and the others were shot and Kabunare very fortunately fell over the cliff unarmed.

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The cliff where the murders took place

When the Allies arrived at Ocean Island, they found the Japanese to be the only occupants of the island and they were told that the Islanders had all been evacuated. The truth was revealed when the sole survivor of the massacre, Kabunare, a 28-year old Gilbertese man of Nikunau Island came out of hiding. Untouched by the bullets he feigned death, then hid in a cave in the bush. For three months he hid, venturing out under cover of darkness to search for food.

At first the Japanese were accused of murdering the people of the island simply so that they could use all the scarce food and water resources for themselves. As it became known that the execution had taken place after the declaration of peace, it seemed more likely that it was the means of eliminating all witnesses to other atrocities committed on the island.

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Japanese soldiers being evacuated from Ocean Island

The Commanding Officer, Lt. Commander Suzuki Naoomi faced trial when war crimes trial were convened by the Australian military in Rabaul, New Guinea, in April 1946. Suzuki, and a Junior Officer, Lt. Nara Yoshio, were charged with the murder of two natives named, and certain natives unknown on Ocean Island on or about 20th August 1945.


The Japanese Officers pleaded not guilty to the murder charge, but both were found guilty and were sentenced to death by hanging. In a petition, Suzuki accepted full responsibility for the killing and made a plea for leniency for Nara, who he claimed had only been carrying out orders. Nara had his sentence commuted to twenty-five years imprisonment; Suzuki's sentence was upheld and he was hanged.

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Two young men from Nikunau who made history at Ocean Island by their bravery,
resource and endurance. To the left is Kabunare, the sole survivor of a massacre.
To the right is Nabetari, now quite recovered from his seven months canoe voyage.  

*Falailiva (Fly River) Resture, a Tuvaluan, is the elder brother of Jane Resture's father, Robert.

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