Seventeen New Zealanders beheaded and left on a Pacific atoll have been virtually forgotten by their country - but newly unearthed remains have families praying their long-lost loved ones may finally be found.

The 17 men had been volunteering during World War II as "coast-watchers", a chain of radio operators stationed on Pacific islands to look out for enemy fleet movements.

Some were postal telegraphists while others were unarmed soldiers. They were all executed by Japanese forces in 1942 - and no great attempt had been made to recover their bodies.

But a United States search team visited the island, Tarawa, earlier this year looking for up to 500 lost American soldiers - and struck upon a tantalising lead for New Zealand.

A local priest told them that 10 years ago, he had found skeletons in a yard with skulls in one pile and bodies in another, the way the beheaded New Zealanders had been left.

The priest had reburied the remains, but the US team was able to obtain the GPS location of the site.

The New Zealand High Commissioner in Kiribati, Rob Kaiwai, said he and two workers had been digging up the yard for two weeks and had so far found five remains.

"I would love nothing more than for it to be these guys, and I'm praying it is so we can get them home," Mr Kaiwai said.

However, without expert knowledge, there was no way of knowing whether the pile of bones were those of New Zealanders or some of the thousands of Americans, Japanese, Koreans and locals buried in the now-built-up peninsula, about the size of the Auckland Domain.

"It's one big, mass grave," Mr Kaiwai said.

He has contacted Wellington hoping that the American excavation teams could help with identification.

John Jones, 90, the last surviving coastwatcher, said he hoped that the men, who had been his great friends, had finally been found.

Mr Jones had been stationed further north and was taken to Japan as a prisoner of war within 24 hours of Pearl Harbour.

He found out in prison about his friends' deaths.

"I was told they were executed, and I nearly collapsed thinking about it," Mr Jones said.

Despite being just 200km from a major Japanese base, the coast-watchers had been told to watch out only for German ships.

"We were sitting ducks ... It's a pity. I blame the Government of the day," Mr Jones said.

"That's really what's the basis of all my upset - I don't understand why they should treat the 17 men like they did."

He wanted the bodies identified "for my friends", he said. "I still think they should be recognised."

Anslie Ranson's uncle, Ray Ellis, was one of the 17. Her mother frequently talked about her brother's death until she died two years ago.

"My first thought when I heard he might be found was to tell her. But I can't," Ms Ranson said.

At the war's 50th anniversary, she visited the site with her mother - only to find a memorial desecrated with dead fish and blood running down the men's names.

Marie Linton's uncle, Lloyd Sinclair, was taken prisoner nearby, and she knew the Catholic priest, B Cleary, who had stayed on Tarawa with the radio operators and died with them.

"For relations, it will be so pleasing to finally know," Ms Linton said.

Historian Bruce Petty, author of New Zealand in the Pacific War, said the men had been abandoned in Kiribati after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour.

Women and children were evacuated, and the US offered to rescue the coastwatchers by submarine as a Japanese fleet approached.

"But the New Zealand Government said, 'They were put there for a purpose. Leave them'," Mr Petty said.

Five civilians, British and Australian, were beheaded with the New Zealanders.

Beheaded in Kiribati
17 NZ, 5 British/Australian civilians:
* R.G. Morgan.
* A.L. Sadd.
* A.E. McKenna.
* L.B. Speedy.
* R. Jones.
* W.A.R. Parker.
* B. Cleary.
* A.C. Heenan.
* A.L. Taylor.
* C.J. Owen.
* R.A. Ellis.
* R.M. McKenzie.
* I.R. Handley.
* J.J. McCarthy.
* T.C. Murray.
* D.H. Howe.
* C.A. Kilpin.
* A.M. McArthur.
* H.R.C. Hearn.
* C.A. Pearsall.
* R.J. Hitchon.
* J.H. Nichol.