Sketch by Jack Chalker

Pilgrimage to Ballalae

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Pilgrimage to Ballalae 2003

In the Solomon Islands



Beryl Canwell

Ballalae Group

This story starts over 60 years ago, in November 1942, when 517 officers and men of the Royal Artillery, prisoners of the Japanese, arrived on the small island of Ballalae in the South Pacific, one of the Solomon Islands, to help construct an air strip. Not one of those 517 men survived beyond June 1943. They died from disease and malnutrition, from Allied bombing, which was intense at that time, and those still alive when the air strip was completed were massacred by the Japanese. The relatives of the men who died on Ballalae were never told officially how or where their loved ones died and it is only in recent years that the true facts have begun to surface.

One of the men who died was my uncle Gunner Alfred Burgess and with his daughter, my cousin June, I began in 1995 to try and find out more about what had happened to him.

Gradually the horrific story of what had taken place on Ballalae came to light with particular assistance from Peter Dunstan, a FEPOW archivist, and the Commonwealth Department of Veterans' Affairs in Australia.

When Ballalae was reoccupied by the Allies after the War, information given by Chinese nationals on the island at the time, meant that  438 bodies were discovered but none could be individually identified. Artefacts found in the grave proved these men were Royal Artillery personnel. These bodies were subsequently reinterred at the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.

The air strip, which the men died building, is still in use today for domestic flights by Solomon Air. There is nothing on the island to commemorate the fact that over 500 British soldiers had died there and I became determined that this should be remedied. A plaque was obtained from the Royal Artillery Association but how were we to get it there and where would we stay as Ballalae is uninhabited and very remote? Fortunately for us, through the COFEPOW  web site, we were approached by Chris Cowx in Vancouver who had been to Ballalae in recent years and saw that we were looking for up-to-date photographs of this island. How lucky for us that he had contacts in the area who could arrange accommodation for us as there are no hotels. With his valued help we were thus able to plan our journey to the other side of the world.

On 27th June 2003 a group of 8 of us left Heathrow - me and my husband Robin, my cousin June, Bill Boswell and Chris Foley, son and grandson of Gunner E G Boswell (35 LAA) , Ken Young, son of L/Sgt W Young (35 LAA), Carol Cooper, chairman and founder of COFEPOW, and her husband Ron. Later in the trip, on 9th July, for the final flight to Ballalae we were joined by Bill Davies, grandson of Gunner W Sutton (3 HAA) with his wife Kate and Brian Baldwin, British High Commissioner for the Solomon Islands and his wife Liz.

After much bad publicity regarding the Solomon Islands in the English press our visit was on the point of being cancelled at the last minute when the 'Mail on Sunday' published an article saying that the Solomons was one of the most dangerous places on earth!    Having been reassured by the Commonwealth Office in London that any problems would not affect us, we departed using Singapore Airlines' excellent service.


Changi Chapel

Kranji Memorial

Changi Chapel

We spent two days in the beautiful city of Singapore where we visited the Kranji Memorial and the Changi Chapel and Museum.   We then flew to Brisbane in Australia where we spent one day.







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