Memories of a bloody conflict litter sands of a Pacific paradise

In Foreign Parts
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The Independent Online

Matai Terote is the envy of all his neighbours in Betio, a crowded township on the western tip of Tarawa, the principal island in the South Pacific nation of Kiribati.

Matai Terote is the envy of all his neighbours in Betio, a crowded township on the western tip of Tarawa, the principal island in the South Pacific nation of Kiribati.

Not for him a traditional hut on stilts with raised wooden platform; he and his family reside on a 3ft-high slab of concrete. Their home is a former Japanese war bunker, transformed with the addition of upright wooden beams and a roof of thatched pandanus leaves.

"It's very nice," Mr Terote said, rousing himself from an afternoon nap on a nest of woven coconut mats laid across the concrete. "It's very cool in the heat, and it's much better than the usual sand and gravel." The bunker is among dozens of relics scattered around Betio, reminders of one of the Second World War's bloodiest conflicts. Nearly 5,000 Japanese naval troops and more than 1,000 US Marines perished during a three-day battle for control of Tarawa, then part of the British-administered Gilbert Islands.

On Betio's palm-lined white sands perch two of the eight-inch guns that blasted the Marines as they launched their amphibious assault in November 1943, pointing out across the calm waters of the Pacific. Low tide reveals a fragment of a submerged battleship is just visible above the surface.

Betio was extensively fortified by the Japanese, who occupied the Gilberts - a chain of coral atolls in the central Pacific - in December 1941, after Pearl Harbour was bombed. Just 2.5 miles long by half a mile wide, the islet contained 500 densely packed bunkers and 50 anti-aircraft, anti-boat and coastal defence guns in armoured turrets. Tarawa's central lagoon, meanwhile, bristled with mines. One American commander warned that Betio was, yard for yard, the world's most heavily defended beach.

The Marines - dispatched to the Gilberts on the first stage of an American island-hopping campaign across the central Pacific - misjudged the tides and crashed their landing crafts into the coral reef. As they waded towards shore in full battle kit, they made easy targets.

One US naval officer later recalled: "They kept falling, falling, singly, in groups and in rows." When the Americans gained the upper hand on land, they exacted brutal revenge, hurling explosives into the bunkers. Only a few Japanese surrendered; some killed themselves.

Ex-servicemen make periodic pilgrimages to Tarawa to visit the battle sites; for locals, the debris of war has become part of the landscape.

Lovers sit beneath the silent guns, dreaming their dreams; children play hide and seek around the ruined bunkers. One enterprising Betio resident has turned a bunker into a pig pen. A bunker near the main road is used as a squash court; another hosts a Friday evening mata-mata, or disco.

"I used to play here when I was a child," said Ioanna Mamara, a local woman who has studied records of the Japanese occupation. "We used to climb up on top of the tanks. They were our toys."

Not all of the war relics are innocuous. Ammunition buried in the sand still poses a threat to islanders. Workers building a Mormon church in Betio found an unexploded landmine.

In a tranquil palm grove cemetery overlooking the ocean, a path of crushed coral leads to a memorial stone bearing the names of 22 British coast watchers imprisoned on Tarawa after the Japanese occupation. A year before the US assault, they were tied to trees and beheaded; their bodies were burnt in a pit.

The suffering of the islanders was immense. Large numbers of them were moved between islands, abandoned without adequate food and, in some cases, executed by their captors.

By a neat irony, Japan is now a leading aid donor to impoverished Kiribati.

Across the road from the cemetery, at the location of a former airstrip built by the occupying forces, stand workers' huts belonging to Dai Nippon, a large Japanese construction firm.

The main hospital was funded and built by the Japanese, as was a school on Tarawa - called Dai Nippon Primary School - and the Nippon Causeway, which links Betio to the administrative centre of Baikiri.

In Tarawa's one hotel, Japanese guests account for most of the sparse clientele. The hospitable Kiribati people make them welcome, garlanding them with flowers. But locals cannot forget the war. "How can we?" asks Mr Terote, gesturing at his house. "It is all around us."

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