Nabetari was from Nikunau in the Gilbert Group (now Kiribati), and his people had a strong background of ocean voyaging in their outrigger canoes. Sometimes they would put them out to sea in a true spirit of adventure and visit the Phoenix Group some 250 miles to the eastward.
Nabetari with about 800 Gilbertese and Ellice natives constituting the commission's labour force, was at Ocean Island when the Japanese seized the place about the end of August 1942. At the time, there were six Europeans on the island, the ones who had remained behind when the evacuation was carried out. Probably the native population was a little short of 2,500 with the women and children, and also about 700 Ocean Islanders. This was far too many for the meagre food supply available, and so the enemy deported all of them to Nauru, the Caroline Group and Tarawa excepting 100-160 Gilbertese including Nabetari. They were retained to work for the Japanese in various capacities, some of them being employed as fishermen.
About April, 1944, the Gilbertese were concerned at being ordered to dig a lot of holes, approximately the same as their own number. They were afraid that these holes might be intended as their own graves and apparently they had good reason to think so for there had been brutal killings at the edges of the graves.
As a result, Nabetari and the six of the other fishermen decided to escape in their canoes. They had three of these, comparatively flimsy craft, a few coconuts, and a little water contained in Japanese army bottles. One evening, instead of returning with their catches of fish, they put to sea, intending to try and reach the Gilbert Islands about 240 miles to the eastward but against the prevailing winds and current. One of their number was confident that he could pilot them to the Group. Nabetari was certain the date of their departure was on or about April 4th, 1944; he used to see a calendar regularly and knew how to mark it off.
At first, the three canoes kept together; but the night following their departure they lodged one canoe with three men in it. After that, they tied a rope between the two canoes each night. Their sails were lost during bad weather. By means of a feather bait they were able to catch fish, and when they had more than they could eat they sun-dried the remainder. Usually they had supplies of rainwater, but at times they had to catch sharks presumably for their blood, though this was not quite clear.
After being a considerable time in company, Nabetari and his mate Reuera lost sight of the other canoes and about a week later, their own craft capsized while they were asleep at night. Both were thrown into the water and from what Nabetari said, Reuera was much exhausted and disappeared while he was engaged in righting the canoe. The fact that one man could do this in the open sea and under such bad conditions was good evidence as to its small size and light weight.
Apparently, he kept apart, even after losing his friend, but did not attempt to paddle the canoe, letting it drift at the mercy of the wind and current. He saw aeroplanes twice, but they were flying high and though he waved a cloth, they did not appear to sight him. On two occasions, vessels were seen, one of them passing so close that he could see men aboard her; he thought they were Japanese. In November, after being seven months at sea Nabetari was washed up on the reef of Ninigo Island close to Manus, the largest of the Admiralty Group. Naturally he was in a very weak state and at first just laid exhausted on the beach but next morning he started to crawl in the water so that his body floated and in this way made some progress. Later in the afternoon, several natives saw him and he was carried to their village. Apparently they sent for assistance, and after four days a doctor arrived in a launch taking him to the Australian based hospital at Manus. He made a partial recovery there and was able to give account of himself.
The possibility of obtaining important evidence regarding the dispositions of the Japanese at Ocean Island was recognized by the authorities and he was flown to Tarawa where in due course he made a complete recovery.
It is doubtful if anyone has ever survived such a long drift voyage in such flimsy a canoe, and under such strenuous conditions. From Ocean Island to Manus in the Admiralty Group is a distance of about 1,500 miles.
Nabetari being interviewed upon his return
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