A Long-Awaited Tribute to the Royal Artillery POWs
In a poignant ceremony on Ballalae, Shortland Islands, the crew of HMS TAMAR, a Royal Navy vessel, refurbished and rededicated a memorial honoring 517 British soldiers who were prisoners of war during World War II.
Eighty years after these brave soldiers were executed by the Japanese Imperial Forces, the ceremony served as a heartfelt tribute to their sacrifices and an opportunity for reconciliation and remembrance.
A Tragic History Unveiled
The story traces back to November 1942 when 517 soldiers of the Royal Artillery, who had been captured during the fall of Singapore earlier that year, were transported to the Island of Ballalae. The Japanese captors forced them into constructing an airfield, referred to as an ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier,’ in the unforgiving tropical climate.
Months of relentless forced labor, coupled with brutal tropical conditions, took a severe toll on the prisoners. Many succumbed to exhaustion and tropical diseases, while others perished due to Allied bombings. Adding to their misery, their captors forbade them from building trenches to protect themselves during bombings.
As the Allied forces liberated the South Pacific islands in 1943, the Japanese Commanders on Ballalae feared imminent capture and, in a horrific act, executed the remaining 57 prisoners.
Discovering the Tragedy
Following the liberation, the United States forces bypassed Ballalae, leaving the island to deteriorate. It wasn’t until 1945 that the first Allied forces landed on Ballalae and discovered the remains of the 57 soldiers in shallow trenches.
An investigation, conducted by an atrocities commission, led to the discovery of a mass grave containing 436 bodies identified as British artillerymen. Later, the authorities re-interred these fallen soldiers in separate graves at the Bomana War Cemetery near Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Each grave bore a solemn inscription, ‘Here lies a Soldier, known only to God.’
A Pilgrimage and a Fading Tribute
In 2003, three relatives of the POWs undertook a pilgrimage to Ballalae to honor their fallen ancestors. They dedicated a memorial at the airstrip in the form of a cairn, featuring a wooden cross and a plaque donated by the Royal Artillery Association.
Regrettably, as the site was not a registered Commonwealth war grave, it did not receive regular maintenance, and by 2007, the memorial had fallen into disrepair.
A Renewed Dedication
Enter Mr. Phil Jones, an ex-British serviceman working in the Solomon Islands as part of an Australian government mission. Recognizing the importance of preserving the memorial, he generously rebuilt it with an iron cross atop a concrete plinth, preserving the remains of the old cairn.
A Touching Ceremony of Remembrance
Fast forward to 2023, marking 80 years since the tragic events of 1943, the British High Commissioner to the Solomon Islands, His Excellency Thomas Coward, seized the occasion during HMS TAMAR’s visit to the islands to maintain the monument.
Amidst the scenic coral beach of Ballalae, the High Commissioner and HMS TAMAR’s Captain, Commanding Officer Teilo Elliot-Smith, received a warm welcome from the local community in Shortlands.
With the crew’s concerted effort, rust and grime accumulated over 16 years were removed, restoring the memorial to its former glory. A poignant service of re-dedication followed, paying solemn homage to the soldiers who had lost their lives on the island.
A Timeless Tribute
HMS TAMAR’s Chaplain, Reverend Mick Uffindell, officiated the re-dedication service, with the ship’s crew and local community representatives attending.
In the touching ceremony, the British High Commissioner, His Excellency Thomas Coward, and HMS TAMAR’s Executive Officer, Lieutenant Commander Matt Millyard, reverently laid traditional remembrance red poppy wreaths. The Solomon Islanders also contributed to the homage, presenting handmade floral bouquets.
The refurbishment and re-dedication of the memorial stand as a poignant testament to the enduring bond between nations and the timeless tribute to the brave souls who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
In commemorating these fallen soldiers, the event reaffirms the importance of honoring the past while building bridges for a peaceful future.