World War II in Tuvalu
All through 1939 the colony was still very short of administrative officers and they could not get a district officer for the Ellice district, so I continued to perform the duties of the officer in charge, Ellice Islands.
World War II broke out in September 1939, and this was the date I broke open the official seal into secret documents. These documents contained instructions in case of emergencies such as identifying curious objects seen in the region, reporting unidentified aircraft, enemy or otherwise, movements of foreign vessels, friendly or enemy and so on. All these had to be reported by special war time codes. There were other actions listed under "precautions" in case of enemy landings, and these included destroying all secret documents and wartime code books. The Government Telegraph Code Book was still mostly used, but wartime code books had to be used in special cases. The people eat that time were of course very keen to hear news about the war and I used to go up to the village to tell them the little bit of news we got from the wireless.
In 1940, when the war in Europe was about one year old we had in the Ellice Islands a young cadet district officer named Mr. Tremong with his beautiful wife fresh from the United Kingdom.
The District Officer decided we would go for a tour of the Ellice Islands. We stopped at Vaitupu where he wanted to see the construction of the district vessel Nautoka which was being built at the school station.
The District Officer and his wife stayed in the headmaster's house at Elisefou, Vaitupu, while my wife and I lived in the native government guest house in the village. I went to Elisefou during the daytime to work and returned in the afternoon.
Coast watching stations had been established on all islands with the exception of Nukulaelae and Nanumaga because there were no wireless stations there. These stations reported to Funafuti any ship or object seen around their islands and the reports were then relayed on to the New Zealand Naval Station in Wellington.
About that time we had had reports from outer islands of ships seen in the region but nobody could confirm if they were friendly or enemy ships.
So one evening at about nine o'clock we saw the lights of a ship to the north coming up to the island without warning. I immediately sent a policeman with a note to the D.O. reporting to him about the ship and awaited his instructions. I had in mind that the D.O. would come over and we would go out together to board the ship. However in those grim times nobody wanted to be captured by the enemy in the early stages of the war and have to spend many years of life in a war prison camp. Furthermore nobody wanted to leave a beautiful wife behind in a remote place like this and to be taken away as a prisoner of war.
So instead of coming himself the District Officer sent over a letter asking me to go out to meet the ship and to take all necessary actions required by law. He regretted he could not join me as his wife "did not feel too well".
And with the brave Chief of Police, Nielu and two others we went out to meet the ship. It turned out to be the M.V. Moamoa, belonging to Burns Philp Steamship Co. Ltd. and based at Tarawa. The master was taking his ship to Funafuti to close the B.P store there and then going on to Australia.
I returned ashore and conveyed this information to the D.O. who thought for awhile and agreed that I would join the ship that night to go to Funafuti. The ship stayed at Funafuti for join me as his wife "did not feel too well one day loading the stores on board which were already packed in boxes and crates. The Manager and staff hosted a very nice send off party in the Burns Philp compound and the next morning I issued the master with his clearance requested for Australia. That was the last time the 1~oamoa was ever seen in the waters of the colony.
A similar event occurred shortly after Pearl Harbour was attacked by the Japanese on 7th December, 1941, when all ship sin the colony were ordered to make for Suva to escape from being captured. The Catholic ship Santa Teretia was ordered to divert to Funafuti to pick up Mr. Wernham and take him to Suva. We were not warned about this arrangement until the ship arrived at Funafuti, when Brother Gautia conveyed his orders to Wernham. The Brother also said that his ship would be in port for less than one hour as he was in a great hurry.
There was no alternative, and also no time to make a proper handing-over report. Wernham just handed me the keys of the office and went out to pack. After a quick 'tofa' to the people, I accompanied him to the ship which sailed 45 minutes later.
During his short time in port the Brother told me he had not enough ship's stores on board for the trip to Suva. So I got the prisoners to load the Santa Teretia with brown nuts, drinking nuts, germinating nuts and a couple of bunches of bananas, which gave the Brothers a glorious time to Suva.
When I went back to the office I was thinking about our position and wondering who would be my next visitor or my next boss. I was pretty certain that my next boss may be a Japanese officer and if so, I knew the first thing he would be after would be the "The Secret Documents". I was ready if the time came, total him politely that according to my orders they had all been destroyed as well he would expect because this was wartime. They were on my conscience at that time
Early in 1942 two ships visited Funafuti. One was the ]ohn Williams and the other a New Zealand ship, the New Golden Hind. The John Williams came first in March, and I was pleased to meet Mr. Eastman again on board. Eastman was the President of the L.M.S. Mission of the Gilbert Islands and had come to make a short visit to the Ellice Islands. On the outbreak of the war, the L.M.S. headquarters in Samoa had postponed their annual visits to the Ellice, and Eastman came to fill that gap on his hurried visit. I thought it was a daring effort on the part of Eastman to visit the Ellice at this critical time.
I wanted to take the opportunity to go for a tour and Eastman gladly welcomed me to join the trip.
The ship's movement was to travel at nighttime and shelter around the islands during the day. The well-known Captain Kettle did not forget his boat drill every now and then in case the Japanese tried to worry us.
I took with me some Fiji rope, tobacco, matches, and washing soap for distribution to the people. The people were very pleased and thankful for these gifts especially at a time like that.
The people on the islands were not as badly off as I had expected. They were quite happy as usual and going about doing their daily work. Their only problem was that they were hard up for imported goods. I told them that the same situation applied to many places in the world. I persuaded them to be patient, hoping it would not be long before things were back to normal again.
Towards the middle of 1942 a Japanese flying boat from Tarawa began to fly over the Ellice more regularly. Sometimes it was twice a week but she did not land on any island.
Round about this time the New Golden Hind arrived. Her mission was to replenish stores to wireless stations in the Ellice Islands, because most wireless stations were very low on stocks. This ship was a schooner and was manned by personnel of the New Zealand navy. She was also armed enough to shoot down that Japanese flying boat if she tried to interfere with her voyage. I went on board and was pleased to meet Mr. Coode, an ex-district officer of the southern Gilbert Island district. Mr. Coode asked me to accompany him on this trip and I and the captain agreed.
We followed the ]ohn Williams itinerary by travelling at nighttime and sheltering on the islands during the day.
There was not much change round the islands as I had recently taken the tour on the ]ohn Williams. We took some gifts to be distributed round the islands this time. I let Coode take notes of our tour so that he could take them to Suva to the High Commissioner's office where he worked.
We were very lucky on this tour because even though the flying boat picked us up between Niutao and Nanumea, she did not get us. We had left Niutao about 6 p.m. and while the island was fading out behind us, we heard the flying boat above. Luckily it was raining hard, and the ship stopped her engines. By then it was almost dark. The flying boat did not spot us but returned to Tarawa.
This schooner was a very fast boat. We arrived at Nanumea that night, discharged our cargo and proceeded on to Nanumaga to drop the mail and some other goods, and left the same night and set our course due west. Daylight found us well away tithe west of the Ellice Islands.
The marines used to call this flying boat "washing machine Charlie". The next day we heard that W. M. C. was again over the Ellice looking for us, but we were almost in the safe zone coming to Funafuti from the west.
About noon on the same day the watchman on the crows nest reported an object dead ahead. We thought it might be a Jap submarine. The ship increased speed and headed straight to the object, while everybody stood at battle station. But the watchman soon reported that it was a floating log. As we came along side we saw many kinds of fish of various sizes sheltering under the log. I joined those who rowed a small rubber boat to the log and we caught two bags full of fish, chopping them down with knives. We arrived safely back at Funafuti, where I got off and the ship sailed on to Suva.
On board the New Golden Hind was an American naval officer, Lieutenant Harris, who travelled as a crew member. At each island visited, I spent more time with Lieut. Harris than wither. Coode. Lieut. Harris was collecting information about the Ellice Islands; the food supply on each island, the water supply, anchorage on the lee side of the island, and anchorages elsewhere if the weather was bad. He even wanted to know the English-speaking people and where they were educated. He asked about any German descendants, pro-Nazi, and other similar questions. I was sorry for some German descendant ladies on Vaitupu, who were scared because Lieut. Harris was carrying his revolver on him. I told these ladies that there was nothing to be afraid of.
After this trip life continued on as usual until one Sunday afternoon in September, 1942. My wife and myself were on our way to the Sunday afternoon service, when we saw an American PBY overhead which came straight down to land. I told my wife that we would cancel our attendance at the service as I was going out to the plane.
When I arrived on board the seaplane I was met by Colonel Vivian Fox-Strangways, who introduced himself as the resident commissioner of the colony. With him was Colonel Good, who was afterwards the Island Commander of the American occupation troop on Funafuti Island. On our way ashore Fox-Strangways was telling me that I was to accompany Colonel Good to fly back on the PBY and from then on I was to be under him during my absence from Funafuti.
The resident commissioner then asked me to give him all the keys I had. This was something like Wernham and myself just handing over the keys from one to another. On reaching shore we went straight into the office where I showed the resident commissioner around and especially the important things. I rushed to my house nearby, put a few clothes in my case and went out with Colonel Good to the plane which was already warming up. The plane took off and headed south.
We arrived at Suva Point after sunset and after going ashore were driven to the old Town Hall where I was to stay. Col. Good drove away to his residence after giving me a few instructions. The Town Hall was occupied by American sailors. Before Colonel Good left he said I could have the next day off, and most importantly told me the meal hours, but that he would come over on the second day.
So the next day I went up to the High Commissioner's office. I was surprised that they already knew I had arrived in Suva. I was happy to meet the staff in the office because although I knew them all by name it was the first time I had met them in person except for one or two. I spoke to Mr. Vaskess, the First Secretary who asked me about the Ellice Islands. Then I went to Mr. Ambler, the accountant, who advanced me forty pounds Fijian as pocket money. (I never refunded this money, because I forgot all about it). I also met Tofiga, Lesuma and Fatiaki, the office clerks and Capt. Webster, one time master of the colony ship, Nimanoa. I was very pleased to meet Mr.Coode again, but he seemed to be very worried.
After leaving the office I went on down to meet some of the Ellice Islands people whom I knew. I also met the crew of the Kiakia, who were curious at my presence in Suva. I told them not to worry because during wartime one could find anybody anywhere at any time. They asked a lot of questions, but I remembered the old wartime saying, "loose words cost lives" In the hospital I met Dr. Macpherson, one time medical officer in the Ellice, who was then deputy director of medical services of Fiji and the Western Pacific High Commission. He took me to Teleke Kofe, Tebau Tiba and Toamanga Maraki, colony students in the central medical school. The last two named were my school mates in KGV at Tarawa. In the nurse's quarters were Seinati, Meiema, Segalo and Rosa, who were very keen to get news about their families at Funafuti. The "Plotting Table" people of the Americans had taken the top floor of the Bank of New South Wales and were working there. We went therewith Col. Good and they asked me some questions similar to those Lieut. Harris had asked during our tour of the Ellice on the New Golden Hind. They also wanted to know the best and deepest passage on Funafuti which could take ships from 10to 20,000 tons or over, where the convoy could enter when it arrived here. I showed them the S.W. passage, the one nearest to Funafala.
When we were finished with our business in Suva, Col. Good told me one afternoon that we were to leave early the next morning. After an early breakfast we were taken out to the harbour where a destroyer waited for us. As soon as we went aboard the warship left at pretty high speed out to the ocean.
I judged our direction was about North East. We travelled at that speed all day and in the afternoon about5 p.m. there loomed ahead of us a great number of ships all heading in the same direction. It was the convoy at last! There were battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, transports as far as the eye could see.
We were transferred to a transport but even through this transfer, the convoy kept its course and speed. I went to bed late that night as I stayed outside watching the movements of the convoy with much interest, and sometimes yarning with some of ship's officers who were off duty.
The next day we arrived in Funafuti. In one long straight-line of a various description of ships we took the S.W. passage 'Te ava i Mateika'. I stood on the bridge of the leading troopship and prayed hard that no ship should hit bottom otherwise my promise of a safe passage would not be fulfilled. Aircraft flew ahead of us with smoke bombs marking straight lines on the water for each ship to follow to its anchorage. Eventually all ships came into the lagoon and took up their positions as arranged without any trouble. One could see boats pushed out from each side of every ship as unloading started of troops, equipment and war materials.
The people of Funafuti were very curious and spellbound to see so many ships in the lagoon, so many carrier planes in the air and Americans by the hundreds coming ashore. The bigger ships, warships and aircraft carriers stayed outside the lagoon to see that the Japanese didn't come nearer to interfere with the unloading. It took about three days, day and night to move all the war materials and equipment onto the island.
On my arrival I went into the office and was greeted by the resident commissioner in full uniform, with his usual stern look which did not make me happy. But I was glad that the Japs had not come and taken him away while I was on my travels.
Now that Colonel Fox-Strangways has died in the UK, I can speak of an event that happened at Funafuti. On the day after I flew away from Funafuti on 20th September, 1942, a ship came into the lagoon which Fox-Strangways thought might be a Japanese ship. He ordered the police to take him in a canoe from the back of the island to Funafala, a small village at the southwestern tip of the island about ten miles away. It was revealed afterwards that it was an American ship which had been crippled in a sea battle in the Solomon Islands and it had come to Funafuti to seek shelter.