Anzac Day TV: Once more on to the beach

By Dionne Christian

Two of Maori Television's many Anzac Day documentaries focus on the war in the Pacific during WWII. Dionne Christian reports

New Zealand forces in the Pacific race ashore from landing craft.
New Zealand forces in the Pacific race ashore from landing craft.

For many of us, a jaunt around the Pacific Islands includes relaxing on palm-fringed beaches, swimming in crystal clear lagoons and enjoying the hospitality of diverse cultures.

But when Iulia Leilua and a team from Maori Television headed to the Pacific, they went in search of a different type of experience. They wanted to find out more about the New Zealanders and indigenous peoples involved in the region's World War II battles.

As Leilua says early in Pacific Stories, New Zealanders made a massive but perhaps under-appreciated contribution to the war which raged in the Pacific. Many of the battles fought there were the bloody equal of fighting in Europe.

"Most of the Pacific war documentaries I'd seen up until now had been told from an American or Australian perspective," she says.

"I felt we should focus on New Zealand's contribution to the Pacific campaign and how it affected the indigenous peoples over whose lands they were fought.

Since 2006, our Anzac programme has interviewed a lot of people who'd served in the Pacific war but they didn't look at the bigger picture. This was an opportunity to compile many of those stories into a one hour documentary and put those stories into context with each other."

The documentary uses interviews from the Anzac archives, first-hand accounts from survivors of the war in the Pacific, oral histories, archival footage and pictures to shed light on Pacific World War II experience. Just under 20,000 New Zealanders from the Royal New Zealand Navy, the Royal New Zealand Air Force and the 3rd Division of the Army served across the Pacific.

But among the first encounters with the Japanese advance was in in August and September 1942, when 17 New Zealand coastwatchers and five civilians, keeping a round-the-clock watch for enemy ships and aircraft, were taken prisoner in the Gilbert & Ellice Islands (now Kiribati).

On October 15 they were lined up and beheaded.

Harry Bioletti, who fought with the 3rd Division, which arrived in New Caledonia in late 1942 says capture by the Japanese was the one thing Allied soldiers feared most particularly after the Americans found dismembered bodies of their comrades, and a New Zealand private was tied to a tree and bayoneted.

"I think viewers will be enlightened by our soldiers' exploits in the Pacific at a time when the majority of our country's focus was on the war in Europe and North Africa," says Leilua. "Many New Zealanders don't realise how close the Japanese came to invading New Zealand. The American and Australian troops may have stopped the Japanese advance in the Pacific, but it was New Zealand who helped turn the Japanese back home."

Pacific Stories covers battles like that fought on Vella Lavella in the Solomon Islands (where 32 New Zealanders lost their lives) as Harry Bioletti outlines the difficulties of fighting in jungles and swamps. We meet fighter pilot Anthony George Pierard (known as Tony) who flew 172 missions during six tours of duty. Pierard, who died aged 90 in 2012, talks matter-of-factly about having a job to do and getting on with it even in the face of tragedy.

"On Christmas Eve 1943, we lost five pilots and that was very hard to take; it was very difficult to see five empty beds."

We hear how Tonga and Fiji contributed to the war effort, and Sir Paulias Matene, the former Governor General of PNG, talks of harrowing experiences and hardship under Japanese occupation.

Seaman Jack Harold, formerly of the 25th Minesweeping Flotilla of the Royal New Zealand Navy, explains how New Zealand ships the Moa and Kiwi helped sink a Japanese submarine and retrieve valuable intelligence material.

Penny Allen shares the story of her aunt Merle Farland's heroic exploits as a nurse and coastwatcher. A piano teacher who became a nurse during the economic depression of the 1930s, Merle was assigned to a Methodist mission in the Solomon Islands shortly before war broke out. In 1942, civilians were evacuated from Vella Lavella but she chose to stay and care for the wounded as well as joining coastwatching patrols and making a trek through the jungle, past Japanese posts, to reach wounded Allied soldiers.

The War in the Pacific, though, was largely an American campaign and 1942 two brought the first wave of an eventual two million American servicemen to serve in the region. Many struck up friendships with families and indigenous women.

When the "Yanks" went home, they left behind 100,000 dead, tonnes of military equipment and an estimated 2000 "illegitimate" children.

The documentary Born of Conflict: Children of the Pacific War is the first full-length television feature to ask what became of these children. Based on the work of researchers at the University of Otago's history department, the documentary includes three cases, two of which involve New Zealanders tracking down their American fathers. One tells of triplets fathered In New Zealand by an American serviceman who was only in the country for a few days. They were raised in a series of foster homes and as adults finally tracked down their father's family in the US.

"These important stories have been left out of histories of the war in the Pacific," says Professor Judith Bennett of the University of Otago. "We think these personal histories are of interest and significance to all in the region and beyond."

"Whenever we do history, we potentially open a pandora's box and we just have to try to do the least harm to people, certainly to the living, so I guess we are opening wounds but also hoping to close some too."

What: Pacific Stories
When and were: 4pm, Anzac Day, Maori TV
What: Born of Conflict: Children of the Pacific War
When and where: 9am Anzac Day, Maori Television

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