Coastwatchers Finally Honoured At Poignant Government House Ceremony – New Zealand Defence Force

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Thirty civilian coastwatchers who provided invaluable – and until now unrecognised – service during the Second World War as the eyes and ears for the Allied effort in the Pacific, have received a long-awaited act of recognition at Government House in Wellington.

Governor-General Dame Cindy Kiro, GNZM, QSO, presented families of 25 Pacific Islands coastwatchers – along with those of five Post and Telegraph Department coastwatchers – with certificates recognising their relations’ service.

25 Pacific Island and five New Zealand coastwatchers were recognised / SUPPLIED: NZDF

For decades, civilian coastwatchers did not receive the same recognition as most of their New Zealand counterparts despite facing the same level of risk.

“Any fears they may have had about their personal safety were fully justified, as they lived with the prospect of imminent Japanese invasion,” Dame Cindy Kiro said.

“As it happened, in 1941, Sergeant Ronald Third was taken prisoner and executed by Japanese forces, and in 1942, a further 17 coastwatchers were executed on Tarawa, along with five Allied prisoners.”

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In October 2022, the Government announced steps to formally recognise their valuable service, setting in motion work to have Service plaques attached to coastwatchers’ headstones, the production of an online historical record of their service and the issuing of certificates of service signed by the Governor-General.

 Many family members brought photos of their loved ones to the ceremony / SUPPLIED:NZDF

Willie Cuthers – whose grandfather William Cuthers was a coastwatcher in the Cook Islands – played an integral part in securing this long-awaited recognition. He said it was an honour to finally see so many families able to share in such a poignant occasion.

“It’s been so long, nearly 80 years since the Second World War finished. It was fitting it was in this way – with the Governor-General – and for the families, and my own family to be able to come here and be part of this is really special,” Mr Cuthers said.

Many family members made a point of thanking Mr Cuthers for the part he played, which he said was pretty emotional for him.

“That’s the hard stuff, honestly. But that’s what I wanted – other families to cherish their ancestors as well. I’m happy.”

Mr Cuthers worked alongside members of the New Zealand Defence Force’s Heritage Commemorations and Protocol team to help track down living relatives of coastwatchers; around 150 family members attended Tuesday’s ceremony.

The NZDF’s Alex Scahill said it had been a mammoth effort, but seeing families receive their forebears’ official recognition was a special moment.

“So often, our line of work deals with historical archives and documents, delving through decades of recounted stories and details. To be able to witness the real-time impact of all this work, and seeing what it meant to so many families was incredibly humbling and special for myself and the whole team at the NZDF.”

 Mother and son Angela and James Drake travelled to Government House for James’ great-grandfather Vetevihi Pamatatau / SUPPLIED:NZDF

Acting Chief of Navy, Commodore Andrew Brown, attended Tuesday’s ceremony, along with the Cook Islands High Commissioner to New Zealand, the Cook Islands Consul General and a representative from NZ Post.

While the ceremony itself marked the final chapter for many families, the process is still open to coastwatchers who remain unrecognised.

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