Michael Field
Reporter & author - Pacific




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It was around 5pm on Betio, an islet the size of a small city park, an islet of an obscure Pacific atoll called Tarawa. Several hundred Micronesian people – ‘Gilbertese’ to their earlier colonial master – lived under the new rule of the imperial Japanese forces. It had never been benign, and certainly not on this day; it was intolerably hot and oppressive as the Doldrums pressed down.

Mikaera –like most locals he needed no second name – looked across the flat, mostly sand ground to where there were white men, standing in a line. He recognised one of the old man, a long retired master mariner Isaac Handley.

“They are going to kill us all, be brave lads,” Mikaera heard Handley say to the others with him. “One Japanese stepped forward to the first European in the line and cut his head off,” Mikaere recounted later. “Then I saw a second European have his head cut off and I could not see the third one because I fainted.” A Japanese marine held his samurai sword up against young Joe Parker’s neck. He swung, missed and instead of decapitating Parker, he died from a slash from his neck to his armpit. That afternoon, 22 young New Zealand men and three others died in accordance with the Japanese military code of Bushido, by the sword. It was a ritual slaughter that went unnoticed and unknown for decades, but for one of the victims. A shy man with a speech impediment, soldier Charles Owen, should not really have been there. His older brothers had been in the Great War and they always looked after young Charles. Nineteen weeks after that afternoon on Betio, one of Charles’ brothers, Corporal Jack Owen, was confronting Japanese prisoners-of-war in a camp at Featherston, north of Wellington in New Zealand. What happened was slipped into history as a riot; a lie used to cover-up what really happened. Jack Owen, a guard at the camp, had simply turned his sub-machine gun on a group of Japanese in front of him. Other guards opened fire too, but most of the 48 unarmed Japanese fell to bullets fired by Owen. “There had been no order given to fire and no order to cease fire,” Second Lieutenant Keith Robertson said. “It was all over in a moment except that one soldier with a lust for blood searched in among the huts for any Japanese who may have been hiding. He found one poor scared individual hiding in his hut and promptly blew his brains out.” After the war, a six-year-old girl came to live with Jack Owen. Her name was Charlotte and her father, it was said, was Charles Owen, a man murdered by the Japanese on Tarawa. She grew up with the family secret; older brother Jack had taken revenge. “Yes, “ she said, “Uncle Jack was the man. The whole family knew, but it was never really spoken of.”

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