When visiting Solomon Islands, the Crew of HMS TAMAR refurbished and rededicated a memorial to the 517 British WWII prisoners of war at Ballalae, Shortland Islands, 80 years after they were executed by Japanese Imperial Forces.
In November 1942, 517 soldiers of the Royal Artillery, prisoners of war captured in the fall of Singapore earlier that year, were transported to the Island of Ballalae, in Shortland Islands, to construct an airfield the Japanese dubbed an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’.
Over the ensuing months of unrelenting forced labour in the brutal tropical climate, many had died from exhaustion and tropical disease, and hundreds more as a result of allied bombings with their captors forbidding them to build trenches to shelter themselves. In 1943, as the Allied forces liberated the South Pacific islands, the Japanese Commanders on Ballalae believed that they would be taken next and executed the remaining 57 prisoners.
When US forces took the Northern Solomon Islands they bypassed Ballalae and left it to ‘wither on the vine’ and it wasn’t until 1945 that the first Allied forces landed and discovered the remains of the last 57 in shallow trenches.
An atrocities commission was carried out on the island that led to the discovery of a mass grave from which 436 bodies were exhumed with artefacts identifying them as British artillerymen. They were subsequently re-interred in separate graves at the Bomana War Cemetery near Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, their headstones marked with the solemn inscription, ‘Here lies a Soldier, known only to God’.
In 2003, relatives of 3 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. As it is not a registered Commonwealth war grave it does not receive any regular maintenance and by 2007 the memorial had fallen into disrepair.
An ex-British serviceman, Mr Phil Jones, then working in the Solomon Islands as part of an Australian government mission, kindly re-built the memorial with an iron cross on top of a concrete plinth built over the top of the remains of the old cairn and this is what stands today.
In 2023, 80 years on from the atrocities of 1943, the British High Commissioner to the Solomon Islands. His Excellency Thomas Coward took the opportunity during a visit to the Islands by Royal Navy Vessel, HMS TAMAR to maintain the monument.
After wading ashore across the coral beach of Ballalae, the High Commissioner and HMS TAMAR’s Captain, Commanding Officer Teilo Elliot-Smith were warmly welcomed to the island by the local people from Shortlands.
The crew then 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 re-dedication service was officiated by HMS TAMAR’s Chaplain, Reverend Mick Uffindell, and attended by the Ship’s crew and representatives of the local community.
During the ceremony, traditional remembrance Red poppy wreaths were laid by the British High Commissioner, His Excellency Thomas Coward, and HMS TAMAR’s Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander Matt Millyard, alongside hand-made 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’s Commanding Officer, Commander Teilo Elliot-Smith said:
“It has 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.”
His Excellency Thomas Coward said: “It was an honour that we could gather to commemorate and pay our respects to the brave soldiers of the Royal Artillery who died on Ballalae. I want to thank the Government and People of Solomon Islands who supported us to conduct this important act of remembrance. I want to thank the government of Western Province, and the people of Shortland Islands for your warm help and for allowing this memorial to their sacrifice to stand as a reminder of the importance of peace.”
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