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Tamar sailors restore monument to soldiers murdered in Pacific atrocity

Tamar sailors restore monument to soldiers murdered in Pacific atrocity
19 July 2023
Royal Navy sailors restored a remote memorial to 517 British prisoners of war – 80 years after they died at the hands of the Japanese.

A team from patrol ship HMS Tamar waded ashore on the tiny island of Ballalae to refurbish and rededicate the weather-beaten monument honouring British Army gunners.

In November 1942, 517 Royal Artillerymen – taken prisoner earlier in the year with the fall of Singapore – were transported to Ballalae, one of 992 islands which make up the Solomon chain which lie about 1,000 miles off the coast of Queensland, Australia.

They were forced to hack down trees and clear an airstrip – which the Japanese dubbed an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ – to support the defence of the island chain, then the scene of bitter fighting.

Many PoWs subsequently died from exhaustion and tropical disease during unrelenting forced labour in the brutal tropical climate – or were killed by Allied bombs when they attacked the island; their captors forbade them building trenches to shelter themselves.

There were just 57 prisoners left on the island by 1943 and with the tide of war now against Tokyo and Allied forces liberating the Solomons, Japanese commanders on Ballalae were convinced their island would fall next and ordered every captive executed.

Ballalae wasn’t actually liberated until 1945 – when troops found the remains of the murdered PoWs in shallow trenches… and then a mass grave containing the bodies of another 436 artillerymen who died building the air strip.

They were re-interred in separate graves at the Bomama War Cemetery near Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, their headstones marked only with the words: Here lies a Soldier, known only to God.

 

It was 2003 before the prisoners were honoured when three relatives made a pilgrimage to Ballalae and dedicated a memorial – with a plaque donated by the Royal Artillery Association on the airfield.

As it is not a registered Commonwealth War Grave it does not receive any regular maintenance and there’s no-one on uninhabited Ballalae to tend to it.
Nevertheless, British High Commissioner to the Solomon Islands Tom Coward is keen to ensure the memorial is maintained. The 80th anniversary of the atrocity and the presence of HMS Tamar – on the latest leg of her five-year Asia-Pacific patrol – allowed just that.

The crew got to work removing the rust and tropical grime of 16 years – when the monument was rebuilt after its initial battering from the elements - returning the memorial to its former glory.

“Ballalae is – simultaneously – the site of a horrific chapter of World War 2, in the most inhospitable of places, and now a peaceful and idyllic island. Our sailors were eager to pay their respects and did so beautifully,” said Commander Teilo Elliot-Smith, Tamar’s Commanding Officer.

A service of re-dedication was held to remember the soldiers who had died on the island, led by the patrol ship’s chaplain Rev Mick Uffindell, joined by sailors, Mr Coward, and the local island chiefs who kindly allow the memorial to stand on their ancestral land.

“It was an incredible privilege to be able to pay tribute to these servicemen and their families,” said Rev Uffindell. “In addition to restoring the memorial we placed 517 white stones, one for each individual who lost their life on Ballalae Island.”

HMS Tamar is permanently deployed to the Indo-Pacific region with her sister ship HMS Spey and has been visiting the Solomon Islands to support the British High Commission and strengthen the UK’s civil and military ties with the islands which have been a member of the Commonwealth since their Independence in 1978.

 

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