The crew of British warship, HMS TAMAR, has refurbished and re-dedicated a memorial to British FEPOWs in Ballalae Island. Lieutenant Commander Matt Millyard, Executive Officer on board, reports...
“In November 1942, 517 soldiers of the Royal Artillery, captured and held as POWs at the fall of Singapore, were transported to the tiny and remote Island of Ballalae, one of the 992 that make up the Solomon Islands, to construct an airfield the Japanese dubbed an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’. Over the ensuing months of forced labour in a brutal tropical climate, many died from exhaustion and disease, and hundreds more as a result of Allied bombings. In 1943, as the South Pacific islands were liberated, Japanese guards executed the remaining 57 prisoners.
“When US forces retook the Northern Solomon Islands, they bypassed Ballalae and left it to ‘wither on the vine’. It wasn’t until 1945 that the remains of those 57 were discovered in shallow trenches.
“An atrocities commission on the island then led to the discovery of a mass grave, from which 436 bodies were exhumed with artefacts identifying them as British artillerymen. Subsequently, they were re-interred in separate graves at the Bomana War Cemetery near Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, their headstones marked with the inscription, ‘Here lies a Soldier, known only to God’.
“In 2003, relatives of three of the POWs undertook a pilgrimage to Ballalae and dedicated a memorial at the air-strip, in the form of a cairn with a wooden cross and a plaque donated by the Royal Artillery Association. While the island remains uninhabited, the air-strip is still in use today as the only access by air for the surrounding islands. The memorial stands near the small hut that serves as the terminal building. As it is not a registered Commonwealth war grave, it received little regular maintenance, so by 2007 the memorial had fallen foul of the merciless tropical climate. Phil Jones, an ex-British serviceman working in the Solomon Islands as part of an Australian government mission, rebuilt the memorial with an iron cross on a concrete plinth on top of the remains of the old cairn.
“80 years on from the atrocities of 1943, and the British High Commissioner to the Solomon Islands, His Excellency Tom Coward, was keen to ensure the maintenance of the memorial and took the opportunity to do so during a visit by Royal Navy warship, HMS TAMAR. After wading ashore across Ballalae’s coral beach, HMS TAMAR’s Commanding Officer, Commander Teilo Elliot-Smith, was welcomed with fresh flower garlands by the Islanders, and the crew got to work removing the rust and grime of 16 years to return the Memorial to its former glory, before a service of re-dedication was held to remember the soldiers who had died on the island.
“The service was officiated by HMS TAMAR’s Chaplain, Reverend Mick Uffindell, and attended by the ship’s crew and representatives of the local island chiefs who kindly allow the memorial to stand on their ancestral land. During the ceremony, traditional red poppy wreaths were laid by the High Commissioner and myself as Executive Officer, alongside floral bouquets from the Solomon Islanders.
“‘Reflecting on the day’ the Chaplain said, ‘It was an incredible privilege to be able to pay tribute to these servicemen and their families today and 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 and is 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.
Commander Elliot-Smith added:
“It’s been an honour for the ship to pay our respects to these British Servicemen. Ballalae is simultaneously the site of a horrific chapter of WWII, 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.”
For further information on the Memorial, or on its refurbishment and rededication by the crew of HMS TAMAR, please contact Lt. Cdr. Matt Millyard on email at: HMSTAMR-XO-2OIC@mod.uk