The descendants of Pacific Island Coastwatchers just want to be part of the ANZAC story – but there’s so little recorded about the men sent to remote areas with no resources, who then got no pensions or medical care. 

Willie Cuthers’ grandfather played a crucial role in the Pacific in World War II, a Native Wireless Operator who was part of the covert intelligence network across the region. But little is written about his work and until his grandfather is formally recognised, Cuthers says he cannot be part of Anzac Day.

Today The Detail looks at the struggle to rewrite New Zealand’s war history in the Pacific to include the coastwatchers’ stories, and their dangerous and lonely work.

Cuthers is a police officer and researcher on indigenous identity, born and raised in New Zealand. But his challenge of the history books has made him question his own identity as a New Zealander.

He tells his grandfather William’s story in the documentary Coastwatchers – Operation Pacific, broadcast on Anzac day this year.

He was just 16 when he was trained to be a wireless operator and sent to the outer island of Mitiaro from his home in Rarotonga.

He was one of hundreds scattered across remote islands in the Pacific, the eyes and ears of the region, on the lookout for ships and aircraft, using morse code to send messages back to New Zealand via Fiji.

Very little is recorded about their work and decades later Willie Cuthers is still uncovering their full story, and their inferior treatment compared with their New Zealand counterparts.

They did not receive pensions, healthcare or medals and they were not formally acknowledged by the New Zealand Defence Force.

“No recognition at all. Nothing from New Zealand,” says Cuthers, who went as high as the Prime Minister’s office to try to get support for formal recognition.

He’s still working on it but “I understand that we’ve been dealing with a lot this year as a country so I don’t want to be that guy that’s just that annoying thorn in the side while we’ve got huge things going on.”

Cuthers has been contacted by many families of the Pacific coastwatchers, after the documentary played, who had no idea about the true role of the wireless operator.

“Some of the families would come forward and say, ‘oh I didn’t realise that that’s what they were doing. I thought they just communicated between the islands, I didn’t realise they were actually part of that effort.”

He’s also been in contact with families of European New Zealanders who worked with the men in the Pacific.

“One of the men wrote diaries…he talked about working in Rarotonga and travelling throughout those islands and he alluded to the fact that they were well underpaid for an important role, he would write in his diary that he felt they were being exploited,” says Cuthers.

He tells The Detail’s Sharon Brettkelly about his efforts to have their stories recorded so their legacies are remembered.

“Someone needs to a write a book because a lot of those stories are already getting lost now, because some of the descendants of those people are quite old and have already passed on.”

Want more from The Detail? Find past episodes here.

Sharon Brettkelly is co-host of The Detail podcast.

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