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The following story of the Coastwatchers is dedicated to the men operating behind enemy lines in an environment of appalling danger. Their task was to observe Japanese movements through the Solomon Islands so that they might be counted by the Allies. These men, Australians, New Zealanders and Solomon Islanders, some of whom are pictured below, operated in fearsome jungle condition and performed seemingly impossible feats in order to land or escape by submarines and aircraft. This was all done to gain the essential knowledge which they radioed back to Headquarters - and which played a vital part in the defeat of the Japanese.

The Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal and Guadalcanal saved the Pacific!

Long empty coastline, undefended islands, unused harbours of great potential, sheltered waters of enormous extent characterised the lands settled by the tiny populations of South Pacific nations. With these populations concentrated at widely separated points such nation, when at war, become acutely conscious of the vulnerability with such geographical features create, and their own involvements. In an effort to cope with this handicap the Coast Watching Service had its birth.

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Tenaru Beach where American marines
landed on Guadalcanal - August 7th 1942

     

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Watching is not primarily, or perhaps not peculiarly a naval responsibility; but as to the areas most handicapped by isolation the Royal Australian Navy assumed a responsibility before the outbreak of hostilities. It set up an intelligence organisation, and from the beginning of the European War in September 1939 this body had a good chance of being able to detect and report on the movements of enemy fleets near lands of Australian responsibility; the coasts of the continent, New Guinea and the Solomons.

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Coastwatcher: Gerard Balai - Solomon Islander

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Coastwatcher: Bill McNicol - Solomon Islander

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No system of payment rewarded the volunteer members of this organisation; they conducted it as a patriotic duty, and even headquarters probably never envisioned that these units could do more than accomplish the detection of some enemy raider or raiding squadron. They reported to the Navy Office in Melbourne, taking their instructions from a printed sheet. Their numbers included most administrative officers in the islands. On the Australian coasts, direct communication by telegraph, or at worst by established pedal radio was readily available; the islands to the north required special attention.

However wary they might be of potential observation, ships from the north could penetrate the chain formed by mountainous islands from Timor to New Caledonia at only a few key points. Large convoys almost had to expose themselves, especially if they had limited their range by carrying great overloads of troops and materials.

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Wreckage of wharves and pontoons
at the American naval base on Tenaru Beach

Commander Eric Feldt, RAN, was put in charge of organisation and supervision; a good choice, for he had World War One experience with the navy, and followed his personal fortunes in the islands between the wars.

The basic unit of a portable radio with a range of 400 miles stipulated the number of manned stations he required; his organisational ability dictated his other decisions. He recruited plantation owners, missionaries, traders, teachers - every man available. For a start no one imagined that any of them might have to serve behind enemy lines; front lines were half a world away. There was no thought of making provision for an elite of heroes; but the swift advance of the Japanese altered the game.

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Coastwatcher - Paul Mason -
one of the most known Coastwatchers in the South Pacific.

In 1939 Feldt had not yet welded his motley collection into an organisation when reports of strange shipping movements began to come in. Japan, two years before her entry into the war, was talking an over keen interest in any martial developments in the Australian area of influence.

Feldt visited every man in the organisation, sometimes travelling by canoe, sometimes by aircraft and sometimes walking. He taught each one to use a code, to operate a radio, and to react with judgement to the prime essentials of what he saw. He set exercises to increase the efficiency of his squads in coding and using the teleradios. Between the Dutch border in New Guinea and the most easterly of the Solomons his coverage was almost complete; hardly a ship could move Australiawards in that area without being reported if she came close to the coasts, and to run the gauntlet of the chain she had to come close.

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Sunken wreckage of a Japanese transport which was
bombed by American aircraft during the Battle of Guadalcanal.

He extended the system to the New Hebrides (Vanuatu), where the French Resident, M. Sautot, was the first Colonial official to rally to de Gaulle; and the Free French Navy co-operated.

In August 1940 the organisation considered the procedures members should follow if Port Moresby should fall to an enemy; Feldt had supplies packed to a station inland over the tremendous crest of the Owen Stanleys, and held in readiness. Similarly the Tulagi organisation in Florida prepared to move to Guadalcanal where it would at once be less easily run down and more likely to be close to the action. Rabaul units in New Britain would move to the Toma area, inland.

When the Japanese swept in, reactions of organisation members varied, but that their sense of duty was highly developed was already plain. On Simberi Island, one of the Tabar Group seventy miles from the tip of Kavieng, C. L. Page sent extremely valuable messages concerning Japanese aircraft movements, remaining behind the lines five months while the Japanese slowly pulled a net about him, and some of the natives turned inimical. His death and that of others who, sometimes less spectacularly, remained behind enemy lines to serve, emphasised the urgency of giving naval rank to civilian Coastwatchers for the protection of their dependents. In March 1942, after messages had detailed enemy movements, a raid on the transmitter killed Percy Good, a civilian.

The Naval Board had previously decided that civilian Coastwatchers should simply cease reporting when the enemy occupied their area; but man of the men were too stubbornly brave to follow such instructions.

According to Erick Feldt himself, as he has recorded in his book The Coast Watchers, he sent a signal then to the Director  of Naval Intelligence asking the position of Mrs. Good regarding pension rights. Coastwatchers were unprotected and their dependents unprovided for, and the risks they sometimes took were formidable.

From that time his recommendations regarding the conferral of navy rank on individuals bore fruit. Authorities paid Mrs. Good's pension as though her husband had been a member of the uniformed services.

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American naval gun at the point where
 the last Americans left Guadalcanal in 1952.

In Bougainville the Coastwatchers registered a magnificent performance. Four hours after the Americans opened the attack on Guadalcanal, Paul Mason, a planter and radio ham, sent a message: "Twenty-four torpedo-bombers headed yours." It proved a classical example of the value of the Coastwatcher. When the torpedo-bombers arrived the ships that would have formed their targets were all on the move, their anti-aircraft guns at the ready, their crews at battle stations, all their defensive equipment prepared. Only one of that two dozen, it is claimed, reported back to Rabaul.

Next morning, W.A. Read, who had been an assistant District Officer, reported the flight of forty-five dive bombers to the same area. Again the intended target fleet exerted massive retaliation against the aggressors.

With Grumman Wildcats stationed at Guadalcanal such messages made all the difference between success and failure. The Wildcat, a rugged aircraft, was less manoeuvrable than the Japanese Zero, and climbed more slowly. But with advance warning it could be in the air above the intruder fleet; five miles up, with plenty of potential dive speed to put it on target.

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Left: Commander Eric Feldt, O.B.E. Right: Commander J.C. McManus, O.B.E.

In the Solomons too, Donald Kennedy, stationed first on Santa Isabel. Later on Segi Plantation at the extreme southern end of New Georgia, close to the Russells, added a new dimension to coastwatching values. He discovered a good harbour there which, according to misleading Admiralty charts, was unusable. Therefore his survey made it available to the American advance, while the Japanese with the charts for authority, avoided the place. Kennedy maintained a kind of guerilla army, or perhaps navy, amongst the myriad islands, and captured from the Japanese armed barges laden with petrol, lubricating oil and rations which he diverted to his own use.

His successes fired local heroes with the desire for emulation: Seni, a chief of the Mindi Mindi islands built himself an army and armed its men by the simple process of killing Japanese. At the peak of his achievement he led a well-armed force of thirty-two men.

When it was possible, submarines supplied the lonely Coastwatchers, and sometimes relieved them of the care of friendly troops or airmen they had rescued from the jungle and its enemy forces. The Air Force supplied others with parachute drops. Some of them, however, maintained themselves for months and years.

Because of the positions in which they had taken up station not all of them could make a ponderable contribution to the war effort, but by their very being they added to the safety and the efficiency of the Allies. Hunted men, they kept a cool control of themselves. And by their examples and the force of their personalities they kept the friendly natives friendly, and elicited from them some outstanding feats of heroism.

In the Solomons there were no instances of disloyal natives. Though the record was not quite so good in New Guinea the loyalty level remained high there.

Without the intervention of Coastwatcher Reg Evans, on Kolombangara, the United States could not, of course, have retained the services of Lieutenant John F. Kennedy eventually to become its president; a president, moreover, who brought new concepts of international relations to that high office.

Perhaps, for the purposes of this short and incomplete record, a more typical example of forthright and valuable duty can be provided by Allan Roberts, MC. Administrative service in the Territory's jungles from 1925 onwards had given Roberts a very detailed knowledge of the country, and he was one of six Coastwatchers planted by the Australians on New Britain to report on air and sea movements from Rabaul.

His camp in Wide Bay, set within a short distance of the teaming Rabaul headquarters of the Japanese, frequently attracted the attention of scouts. But his own men were sensitively alert; because of the difficulties attendant on shifting the radio and the heavy engine used for recharging batteries he never shifted camp unless they reported seeing Japanese footprints - readily identifiable because of the shoes they wore, divided between the big toe and the others - in situations from which the men who left them must have had the camp under visual observation.

For Roberts and his men it was a nervous situation, but consider his usefulness: from his eyrie he could see the air fleets headed back across his camp towards the Allied landings at Gasmata or Cape Gloucester. His message could alert the fighter fields in the Trobriands to the south in good time for them to intercept.

Sometimes, as Quentin Reynolds once recorded in a biased and misinformed book, he rescued Allied airmen, and these could considerably threaten his usefulness while they remained in his charge. They wee not disciplined to bush life, and their presence was a liability as a succession of patrols from Rabaul tried to hunt out this thorn in the Japanese side.

In such impudently-sited camps, men carried on lives that must have been quite incomprehensible to people for whom war was too remote to constitute a personal experience. There was the loneliness and the danger, and the knowledge that every signal they committed to the air-waves could be traded, as to its origins, by enemy instruments, by simple loop aerials. There was the distrust with which they had to view every stranger who moved in a radius of miles.

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Coastwatcher - Bill Bennett - Solomon Islander

There was the self-imposed discipline with which they had to limit the calls for assistance from the services. There was the typically invariable diet, eaten cold in daytime because of tell-tale smoke from fires, and accompanied by cold water.

And the rewards: the heart-warming support of the natives, the joy of worthwhile accomplishment.

For a loss of forty-three Europeans and sixty natives their achievements approached the spectacular. These losses were matched, more than a hundred to one, by the enemy. But disregarding the conflicts in which they personally engaged, their achievements remained high. They rescued 75 prisoners of war, 321 shot-down Allied airmen, 280 shipwrecked naval personnel, 190 missionaries and civilians, and uncounted natives and 260 Asiatics who had put their own lives into danger. The Coastwatchers wrote a glorious page in the sad history of war.  

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Jane Resture
(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 5th October 2012)