'He had the heart of a warrior' - Kiwi war hero John Jones dies aged 96

John Jones, the man with the ordinary sounding name, has led an extraordinary life.

A life which has straddled different countries melding together war, horror and an irrepressible determination to put things right.

Today his life ended at age 96, but his story as New Zealand's last surviving Pacific coastwatcher lives on.

He is a hero - a hero who fought for decades to get recognition for his mates beheaded by the Japanese.

Their story starts in Kiribati, formerly known as the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, scattered atolls straddling the equator.

The men, including John Jones and three of his best mates, were posted there to watch the coast using their radio operator skills to report back any enemy activity.

When Japan entered the war they were left on the atolls, virtually abandoned by the New Zealand government with no means of escape.

John Jones and six others were captured by the Japanese days after Pearl Harbour and taken to a prisoner of war camp.

It turned out they were the lucky ones.

John Jones with 1 NEWS' Barbara Dreaver
John Jones with 1 NEWS' Barbara Dreaver Source: 1 NEWS

The remaining unarmed soldiers and radio operators were later captured and imprisoned on Tarawa.

On 15 October 1942, the 17 New Zealanders were killed – along with five civilians.

One of the more senior men said, "they are going to kill us all, be brave lads" but it is hard to imagine their horror as they were lined up and beheaded one by one.

John Jones relived that image of his best mates' last moments for the rest of his life - and it spurred him to fight to get them recognition for their work, the honour which had been outrageously missing back home in the decades following the war.

A couple of journalists including myself followed John’s efforts. One of my fondest memories of him was aged 90 and bounding down his stairs with that sparkle in his eye "Barbara come in!" he said.

I grew quite fond of him, and coming from Kiribati myself and growing up with the coastwatchers story, I couldn’t help but be touched with his determination to do right by his mates.

In 2012 his efforts were finally rewarded. A wreath laying ceremony was held at the War Memorial to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Coastwatchers service in the Second World War.

The Governor-General was there along with the Defence Force Chief and other senior military and political figures.

Two years later, he got the memorial for the coastwatchers in Wellingon.

Battling back the tears he gripped my hands, nodding wordless.

He didn't need to say anything.

For years John went to reunions in the US with soldiers he'd met after he'd been released as a prisoner of war in Japan.

But as time marched on, their numbers gradually lessened, and finally the reunions stopped.

One day, gazing into the distance, he told me he felt lonely.

It's hard being the last one. Now this Kiwi battler has finally gone to join his mates.

John Jones may not have fought in the war but he had the heart of a warrior.

Seventeen New Zealand soldiers beheaded by the Japanese in the pacific during World War II have been commemorated. Source: 1 NEWS