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  • Writer's pictureStacey M. King

Kabunare's Amazing Story of Survival - Japanese Massacre Ocean Island WWII

This story by Telefou Fiafia, was awarded 3rd place in the Banaban Literary Prize, 1994, called Te Karaki Nikawai (Stories of the Past).[1]

His story told to him by his grandfather retells the story of Kabunare, the sole survivor of the 200 fishermen massacred by the Japanese on Ocean Island (Banaba), two days after the War in the Pacific ended. His evidence would be used in the War Crime trials that followed. The names of the Japanese in this article are phonetically spelt and based on the names used by the Islanders at the time.

The annual competition encouraged students from Rabi High School, Fiji to talk with their Elders and submit entries based on Banaban Cultural practices. The awards were sponsored by Stacey King through the Banaban Heritage Society, and this winning entry in 1994 won $50 prize money.

Competition judges were: The late Professor Grant McCall for South Pacific Studies, University of New South Wales and Ms Jemima Garrett, Freelance Journalist and Writer, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sydney.

"The writing of this article brings me great pleasure to have this opportunity to let the whole world know the never ending pain that has been left behind after the War. The mistreatment of our innocent parents and great-grandparents during the Second World War on our beloved island called Ocean Island / Banaba, and other places in the Gilbert Islands.
I am a Form 4 student at the age of 15 with four sisters and attending school at Niusawa Methodist High School on the garden island of Taveuni, Fiji (near Rabi). My father is a Tuvaluan and my mother is a Banaban. Information for my article was collected from my grandfather, ROTAN after the war". Telefou Fiafia


Kabunare was a native of Nikunau Island, [2] who was 28 years of age and single. He signed on with the British Phosphate Commission (BPC) during the TRIASTER recruit at Onotoa Island, [2] about eighteen months before the Japanese invaded Ocean Island (Banaba). His work on the island was on the cableway.

During the Japanese occupation, Kabunare became a fisherman to provide food for the Japanese troops. He lived at Tabwewa and around 3 am daily he went out with another man in a canoe. The Japanese collected all the fish they caught, and only occasionally were they given a small quantity of fish for their use.

Sometimes the Japanese came down to the shore to meet them when they came back in, but sometimes they had to take the fish up to their barracks. The name of the Japanese who took their fish was OCHISAN (phonetic spelling). If they did not catch any fish they were slapped on their faces.

Kabunare knew Nabetari [3], and he knew he was planning to escape because he couldn't stand the rough behaviour from the Japanese. Later Kabunare learned the Nabetari and a group of other men and got away on three canoes. He was sure that the Japanese would catch them.

At the time of Nabetari's leaving, there were no Europeans still alive on the island. The Europeans Kabunare remembered were Mr Cartwright who died of malnutrition, Mr Cole, Mr Third, Mr Mercer, Father Pujabet and the Brother. He didn't know where Mr Cartwright's body was buried. He once saw Mr Cole outside his house at Tabwewa working in the garden. He was weeding around the boi plant. They were not allowed to speak to the Europeans.

His friend Teieau told him that Mr Mercer died of sickness and that Father Pujabet went into hospital for an abdominal operation. He also told him that Mr Third and the Brother were injected by the No. 2 Doctor ARAHESHO.

About five months before the end of the War their section of fishermen at Tabwewa: Kabunare, Erim and Aberam joined the fishing section at Uma. The names of the boys there were Erio, Mitire, Tuweri, Teboutabu, Baitau, Buariki, Urian, Gragham, Aba, Barei and Maori. They fished from early in the morning, sometimes as early as 3 am until the afternoon.

One evening OSAKISO the Japanese that was in charge of the fishermen came into their house and told them, that the next morning they were to come back early from fishing by 9-10 am.

Maori and Kabunare came back early around 7 am the next morning because they had caught a lot of fish while the rest returned around 9 am. They went back to their quarters but after 9 am OSAKISO shouted out from the billiard room for all the fishermen to come down.

When they got to the billiard room they found all the other boys on the island already gathered there. There were over one hundred and they were paraded in five lines along the road. Some of the Japanese troops were also gathered there when they arrived.

SUKAISO [SUZUKI], the number three commander spoke to them through OSAKISO the interpreter. He stood on the verandah with five other Japanese. SUKAISO announced that the War was over but that they still had to work for a while. He told them that the Japanese would be going away and leaving them there. After his announcement, he told them to go back to their own houses.

They were too scared to show their happiness, so just lowered their heads and went home. They laughed and talked of the good news preparing the fishing gear for the new day. They were not allowed to go out and OSAKISO was angry if anyone asked permission. Maori and Kabunare and the others went out fishing as usual, about 3 or 4 am the next morning while it was still dark. Again Maori and Kabunare came back very early, around 8 am because they had caught a lot of fish.

When they arrived back they noticed a lot of native and Japanese soldiers were gathered in the same place as the previous day. The native soldiers were told to hand in their uniforms and arms inside the billiard room. The native soldiers then marched in with their respective groups under their Japanese leaders.

Then OSAKISO called them from their houses to come down again to the road by the billiard room. When they arrived, SUKAISO [SUZUKI] spoke to them all again telling them they would be changing over their sections again.

OSAKISO then divided them up into their new sections as instructed by SUKAISO [SUZUKI]. Kabunare's section was the last to be divided up.

The first section was about fifteen. One of the men was from Bukinteriki. Then they were marched away by one soldier. The second section of about fifteen men was from Tabwewa. One soldier went with them and they were marched away. Kabunare knew the face of each of the soldiers who went with these two groups. The third group was bigger about thirty or forty fishermen from Tabiang. Again, one soldier marched them away. The fourth also was around thirty or forty and from the Chinese location. One soldier also went with them, marching them away.

The last group was the toddy or karewe cutters group. Kabunare was with this fifth group of about eight men. They were to go to Etani-Banaba, and marched off with one soldier in charge. Kabunare didn't know the names of these soldiers but was sure he could recognise them. There were still some natives (Islanders) left when he marched away from the billiard room.

Kabunare's group was marched through below the Chinese quarters and then up past the Pastor's house, to the Police Lines with one Japanese soldier in front and the Islanders following behind. When they arrived at the Police Lines they saw a lot of Japanese soldiers in their quarters. They were all inside their houses. The Japanese soldier in charge of them told them to sit down in a line facing toward the east. He then took out a little notebook from his pocket and asked them in turn how old they were.

As each man replied, the soldier wrote it down. That was the only question they were asked. When the soldier had almost finished, a Japanese named SHOTAISO came up with another soldier from behind them and walked out in front of them.

Kabunare squatting on the top of the cliff at Tabiang (National Australia Archives).
Kabunare squatting on the top of the cliff at Tabiang (National Australia Archives).

SHOTAISO drew his sword and revolver and the soldier drew a revolver and both pointed at them. They did not speak to them but called out for some more soldiers to come out. Eight soldiers arrived with guns and bayonets on them and came around in front of their group. Each soldier stood in front of each of them just six inches away.

Without anything being said, the soldiers who had led them tied each man's hands in order with some twine he had in his pocket. It was twine that was used for rope making. Kabunare's hands were tied very tight. Then SHOTAISO spoke to the soldiers before telling them to stand up. The soldiers gathered up the long ends of the ropes so they could not run away. SHOTAISO then walked toward Tabiang village, while the soldiers holding the ropes binding them followed behind him. Another eight soldiers followed behind.

The one who had the pistol with SHOTAISO stayed in the Police Lines. All of the troops still had their bayonets ready as they filed down the track behind them. They stopped by the engine room for about three minutes, while SHOTAISO spoke to the men in the powerhouse. Kabunare didn't know what they were talking about. When they had finished talking, they led them across the road down to the track leading to the cliffs below Tabiang village.

When they got to the cliff the soldiers released the ropes and told them to line up on the edge of the cliff and squat down close together. Then a cloth was tied over their eyes. The same man who tied their hands tied their blindfolds. Kabunare could hear movements behind and to the left of him as though the soldiers had moved up behind them. He had been the second man to be blindfolded.

Kabunare reenacted how he cut his bindings off his hands using the sharp edge of the cliff (National Australia Archives).
Kabunare reenacted how he cut his bindings off his hands using the sharp edge of the cliff (National Australia Archives).

Falailiva was the first man to be blindfolded and was to his left. He asked Kabunare, "Are you ready?"

"Yes!" Kaburnare was ready to die.

Then Falailiva asked, "You remember God?"

He replied, "Yes! I remember."

Then everything was quiet for a moment. Then, Kabunare fell over the cliff. He did not try to, but he just fell. Almost at the same time, he heard a scream and someone fell on top of him. He thought that it was Falailiva. He heard a lot of shots fired.

Failailiva was still on top of him and some of the bullets he could hear were close to him.

It was about 3-4 pm. The water kept breaking over them but he could take a breath as the water reached him each time. Even though he was blindfolded he could see a little out of his left eye, but didn't look up. Then he bit Falailiva's shoulder to see if he was still alive. He was still lying partly on top of him. Falailiva did not cry out, so he was dead.

He stayed about an hour in the water until he thought the Japanese would be gone. Then he got up and went over to a sharp piece of the cliff where he cut the bindings from his wrists. He removed his blindfold and went to check all the other bodies to see if any were still alive. He looked at each man's face and realised they were all dead.

There was a lot of blood about. Kabunare didn't know how all the other men were killed, but he remembered Falailiva had a wound on his left side and blood was coming from it. Ueantaiti had a bullet hole in his head. After he found they were all dead he looked for a place to hide and found a cave. He stayed in the cave all night.

The next morning he saw some of the dead bodies floating outside his cave. They were swollen. Two of the bodies washed into the entrance of his cave. He didn't touch them and stayed inside his cave and only peeped outside.

About the middle of the day, he heard the roar of a plane flying low for approximately one hour. He didn't go outside to see the plane but stayed hidden in the cave.

After the plane left he could hear footsteps over the top of his cave and then he heard voices through one of the holes leading in behind the cave. He noticed some Japanese soldiers walking along the reef. The tide was right out and just starting to come back in. Some of the soldiers came close past his cave. Two of them dragged one of the bodies out to the reef and then came back to drag the other body out to where there was deep water.

He could not see them all the time from his cave but thought they were making numerous trips to pick up the other bodies. He did see two of the Island canoes each manned by two Japanese soldiers come to pick up the bodies from the soldiers who had dragged the bodies out to the reef. There was a motor launch that also accompanied them.

Both canoes and the launch came from the direction of Tabwewa. The canoes towed the bodies out to the launch and then paddled back to Tabwewa while the launch went further out to sea.

Kabunare could not remember anything else that day. He stayed in the cave that night. The next day, he cannot recall remembering anything, except hearing the flat car moving along the rails. The next evening about seven or eight o'clock, he left the safety of the cave to search for young coconuts and to find a new hiding place inland. While he was up the coconut tree, two Japanese soldiers came along pulling a flat car towards Tabwewa and he stayed hidden up in the tree until they had gone.

Before daylight the next morning he went to look for a new hiding place and found a bangabanga (water cave), above the Police Lines. During the days that followed he would go out at night and gather old coconuts for food and young coconuts for water. Sometimes he came out and climbed a tall tetai tree to look around and see if any ships were about. He did not see the warship come but he saw other ships. Kabunare just assumed they were more Japanese ships.

He saw the Union Jack flying from the staff in the Police Lines but thought it was another Japanese trick so he did not go near. He heard the bugles every day too, but he thought it was Japanese because they had a lot of bugles.

He stayed hiding in this cave until the day he met two Gilbertese men on the 2nd of December. He was up in the teitai tree and saw a motor car different from the Japanese kind and the people in it did not look like Japanese. So he decided to come down from the tree and hide by the roadside to wait for the car to return.

He waited for two or three hours but the car didn't come back. Then he heard the tinkle of bottles and saw two men. One he thought was an Islander but the other he thought was a Japanese because he was wearing Japanese clothing and shoes. Kabunare was sure the one wearing the sulu and carrying the toddy bottles, especially when he thought he heard him speak in Gilbertese. [4]

After they passed by he made up his mind for sure, they were Gilbertese so followed them silently. When he got up close behind them he greeted them, "Kam na mauri" (Greetings).

They seemed frightened of him for a minute and asked where he had come from. [5]

He told them he had been there all the time and was the only remaining man from all the killings. He asked, "Where are the Japanese?"

They told him that the Japanese had all gone and that they had come on the second labour recruit. They asked where he had hidden all the time and he showed them.

Kabunare thanked the hole for saving his life and then went down to the Police Lines where Teauoki took him to the District Commissioner.


1. This story was first published as a Feature Story, titled 'The Interrogation of Kabunare" in Banaba/Ocean Island news No. 14 (March-April 1995).

2. Nikunau and Onotoa Islands are part of the Gilbert Island Group during these times. Since independence, the islands are now under the nation of Kiribati.

3. Nabetari escaped from Ocean Island while under Japanese Occupation. He originally escaped in canoes with six others around 4 April 1944. He spent seven months at sea and was the sole survivor of the voyage.

4. Gilbertese language also know as taetae ni Kiribati, or Kiribatese.

5. Various reports of Kabunare when he first made contact after hiding underground for two months, was that he was very pale skinned and hence why some of his fellow Islanders were shocked when they first saw him.


Get the Book!

To learn more about Banaban history including the tragic events during the invasion of the Island during World War II: Te Rii ni Banaba: backbone of Banaba, Raobeia Ken Sigrah and Stacey M. King (2001: 2019)

For more stories about Ocean Island (Banaba) War history:

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