Bravery award for Aussies on Nauru in WWII

CAROLINE Billingham grew up knowing that discussing the tragic fate of her grandfather was strictly taboo in her family.

Early in 1942 western and Chinese civilians evacuated the tiny island of Nauru amid the outbreak of war in the Pacific.

But Ms Billingham's grandfather Frederick Francis Harmer and four other courageous Australians were too concerned about the welfare of the island's indigenous population to leave. So, with no back-up and "no hope in hell", they stayed.

"No one talked about it in our family," Ms Billingham, 49, said.

"It was like a sort of no-go zone for a long time."

In August 1942, Japanese forces invaded the island to commandeer its phosphate deposits and took all five men as prisoners.

They were kept alive until just before dawn on March 25 1943, when they were all executed.

But it wasn't until two years later that their families found out the painful truth.

Their story became bogged in bureaucracy, and because the men weren't serving in the armed forces, the Australian government was slow to help.

"His wife wrote to the government after the war ... She really wanted something done about the bodies," Ms Billingham said of her grandmother Bertha.

Now, 76 years on, these courageous Australians have been recognised in the Australian Bravery Awards.

It's bittersweet for Ms Billingham.

"I would like to say it would be closure."

"However ... my dad died five years ago and his brother, the only other sibling, died about nine years ago," she said.

"So, it is very sad that they had no idea anything like this was happening."

It comes after Tasmanian historian Scott Seymour discovered their burial site -- a long-time goal of Ms Billingham's father Ron that was never fulfilled, despite a trip to Nauru in the 1990s.

Ms Billingham hopes to bury her grandfather's remains alongside his wife in Coogee, Sydney.

Among those executed was former Nauru administrator Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Royden Chalmers, from Tasmania.

His grandson Roy Ramage says the award is "long overdue".

Mr Ramage, 69, said their efforts to dig up his grandfather's remains have already been stopped twice because of "government this, government that".

"The Nauruan government has got a say in it, our government has got a say in it, and we couldn't afford to stay there overnight; it's $1000 a night," he said.

William Doyle, Dr Bernard Quin and Wilfred Shugg have also been posthumously named in a Group Bravery Citation.

"They were very brave, to stay on and do that," Ms Billingham said.

"Against Japanese, with no back-up, just them, they didn't really have a hope in hell."