• Katherine Cummings, NSW, Australia - April 9, 2002

Katherine Cummings

My interest is a personal one. I spent some years as a child living on Betio, as my father was captain of the medical yacht, Kia Kia, for the Gilbert and Line Islands and Ocean Island. We were ordered out to Fiji shortly before the Japanese entered World War II. My mother, sister and I were sent down to Australia because I was a sickly five-year-old after three years with almost no fresh fruit and no fresh milk, but when my health recovered we found we were not allowed to return to Fiji because it was classified as a “war zone”.

         My father stayed in Fiji, joined up with the FRVNR (Fiji Royal Volunteer Naval Reserve) and after a series of promotions was confirmed in command of HMS Viti, which had been the Governor of Fiji's yacht but was converted for submarine hunting and escort work during the war. My father was the first British officer to volunteer to lead the USMC invasion of Tarawa, but was refused, because he was the only person who could navigate into the islands without charts. My father's charts, with many of his own annotations, had been commandeered for the planning of the assault. He did, however, take the Viti into Tarawa on D plus 2, and was the first White Ensign ship to arrive after the assault, a fact which is generally ignored by historians.

When he landed he and the other members of his party were fired on by a Japanese sniper hidden in the piled-up bodies under the jetty. I recently acquired Utmost Savagery and thought it very well written, although the author (probably reproducing someone else's mistakes) got the names of two of the British pilots wrong. They should have been Jack Webster and Bill Page. Jim Forbes' name was correct. All these men were friends of my family, as was Major Holland, who is said to have produced a Union Jack from his holdall at the joint flag-raising on Tarawa. Subsequent inspection showed that his holdall contained nothing but the flag and some clean underwear!

We remained in touch with the Forbes family for many years. In fact my sister, who lives in New Zealand, is still in touch with Jim Forbes' daughters. My father made many friends among the Americans he encountered in the Pacific. As one of the very few White Ensign ships in the Pacific early in the war he was attached to the Americans for supply and liaison purposes. As the American Navy is “dry” and the British Navy is not, he was always very popular with the Americans when he arrived, as they knew his wardroom was always open to them and someone christened Viti “Fiji's packet bottleship”! I have always wanted to return to Betio although I understand that it will not be to the islands I knew as a child. The Gilbertese have apparently succumbed to fast foods and sweetened soft drinks and obesity and diabetes are rife

I guess I have rambled on sufficiently. I look forward to reading your book. I am an academic librarian, by the way.

Katherine Cummings

PS I did my post-graduate work in Toronto, and lived for five years in the United States (Oregon and New Jersey), so I know North America a little bit.

In a subsequent note, Katherine writes:

I was working at Macquarie University a few years ago and did a staff management course with a woman who had been working in the Gilberts for some social work agency. She told me much the same as you have about the garbage and the danger of hepatitis. She attributed some of this to the building of causeways between the islands, which has prevented the former tidal cleaning of the lagoon of toilet waste. Apparently the modern inhabitants don't want to get their feet wet! When I was there we would wade from island to island at low tide and the water would come up to the men's chests. Of course I was privileged to be riding on someone's shoulders on these occasions!

I assume you have read Arthur Grimble's books on the Gilberts? The life he describes was much more the life we knew.

By the way, you talk of corrections. I was looking for references to Tarawa for quite a while so I am not sure now if the reference was from your excellent site or another, but I noticed something about the natives speaking either Gilbertese or Kiribati, which surprised me, because Kiribati is not a native word, but the local approximation of an attempt to say “Gilberts”.

I phoned my sister in New Zealand this evening to tell her of my recent searches and we both bemoaned the fact that we did not sit our parents down and record far more of what they had to say about life in the islands, and from my father about the campaigns he took part in. My sister is five years older than I so she has clearer memories than I do of many of the details and I usually check with her when I can.

I know my father was at Savo Savo because he loved to tell the story about a report coming in that a Japanese submarine had been spotted on the other side of the island. There were two American MTB and father's ship, the Viti in harbour so they raised steam and the MTBs went one way around the island and Viti went the other. As soon as one of the MTBs saw Viti coming around it fired two torpedoes, mistaking Viti for the submarine (which never materialised). Father stemmed the torpedoes and when they were all in port that night the officers from the torpedo boats came over to apologise. No sooner were they in the wardroom than my father approached them with a stern look and said “You fired torpedoes at me today, and now you are going to have a drink of whisky with me.” Which they did. Then the first lieutenant went up to them and said, “You fired torpedoes at me today and now you are going to have a drink of gin with me.” Which they did. And so on, with each officer nominating a different alcoholic drink for the Americans to down to atone for their sins. Apparently the word got around very quickly that if you wanted to have a terrific party all you had to do was fire a couple of torpedoes at a Limey!

My father loved the Americans he served with. He said many of them came from the South. Was the Second Division mainly Southerners?

In a note dated April 16, 2002, Katherine writes:

It must have been July 4 1944, after the re-taking of Tarawa, that my father, whose ship “Viti” was, as I have said, attached to the Americans for supplies and liaison, was invited to an Independence Day dinner on one of the American warships in Tarawa lagoon. He accepted, without even thinking what the date signified and was mildly surprised at the end of the dinner to have one of the officers ask him, from the other end of the wardroom table “What's a Limey doing at a dinner to celebrating the Americans beating the British in the War of Independence?”

My father had to think quickly, but responded, “Well, actually, in 1776 there were no Americans, just British colonists at war with British imperialists, who deserved everything they got.” But, he added kindly, “you chaps have acted so well in the last two wars that we are thinking of allowing you back into the British Commonwealth, and even giving you Dominion status, like Canada and Australia, once you show you can rule yourselves properly . . .”!

        Father said he was told in no uncertain terms by everyone present except his personal host, the captain, and the chaplain exactly what he could do with the Commonwealth and Dominion status _and_ where he could put the crown! My father loved living dangerously!

Katherine Cummings

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