The story of the Papua New Guinea Coastwatchers is one of extreme bravery and sacrifice. This is one man's story about the events that contributed so much to the ultimate Allied success in the Pacific campaign.
Australia's "Cloak and Dagger" men, who operated behind the Japanese lines during the war, were honoured on 15th August 1959 - the 14th Anniversary of the end of the war in the Pacific - when Senator Gorton, Minister for the Navy, officially dedicated and lit the COASTWATCHERS MEMORIAL LIGHT at Madang, New Guinea.
At sunset, the beacon sent its one million candle-power beam into the Bismark Sea for the first time, honouring the Coastwatchers, living and dead, European and native, who took part in the war's most hazardous spy operation.
South Pacific Post, Port Moresby, 1959
In early July 1942, Sydney, Australia was overflowing with servicemen of all branches of the armed forces of many different nationalities - Americans, Dutch, Filipino, Free French from New Caledonia, as well as Englishmen, New Zealanders and Australians.
The Pacific War was just seven months old and in that seven months, Sydney had undergone a transformation from its sleepy acceptance of the European War - which was too far away to affect the local populace - to the full, startling awareness of the major war right on its door step.
Indeed, this awareness had been heightened by the bombing of Darwin by the Japanese on 19th February 1942 and the subsequent attacks on Sydney Harbour itself by Japanese midget submarines on the night of the 31st May 1942.
Harry Murray was an Australian who had spent his life on his plantation at Kavieng, New Ireland. He escaped from the Japanese invasion of New Ireland and arrived in Sydney to meet many of his old acquaintances many of whom were already in uniform.
Photo courtesy of Bruce Adams
Captain H. J. Murray, Australian Imperial Force
Harry Murray enlisted and found himself attached to an outfit known as the "Z" Special Unit one of a number of units under the control of Colonel Mott. The men recruited for this unit were men who had a special knowledge of all areas now occupied by the Japanese. The unit comprised men who were willing to return to these areas and work behind the enemy lines, obtaining information on enemy strength and disposition of forces, carry out sabotage by disrupting communications, mining ships, destroying arsenals and generally harassing the enemy.
The New Guinea team were relocated to Cairns and immediately began training. Parties were formed consisting in most cases of four members: one leader, two utility men and one wireless operator. All members, however, were given instructions in wireless operations, which would be their life line. The weapons to be used - Tommy guns, Owens, Stens, rifles, revolvers - were all given the full work-out and grenades, explosives, and booby-traps were handled until the men became proficient in their use.
After completing a course at Cairns on the use of limpet mines the unit received orders to return to Melbourne where accommodation was provided for them at various hotels. When all was ready for departure, Murray was called to Colonel Mott's office to receive last minute instructions and the necessary movement papers. It was then that he learnt that the contents of the containers labeled "valuable supplies" would be under his charge for the journey and that they contained the highly powerful plastic explosives which was still on the secret list.
The party moved from Melbourne to Adelaide then north to Alice Springs. They then travelled by train from Alice Springs to Darwin where they were conveyed five miles out of the township to the Quarantine Station which had been taken over for the "Z" Special Unit. To hide their true identity, they were referred to as the "Lugger Maintenance Section". Murray then received orders to proceed to Townsville in North Queensland where he was to report to Commander Feldt at the Naval Staff Office. Commander Feldt succumbed to illness in March 1943 and his job was taken over by Lieutenant-Commander J. C. McManus, R. A. N., who was assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence. Murray received orders to return to Brisbane and report to Commander McManus at an address in Queen Street.
Commander McManus explained that Major Keith McCarthy had been instructed to return to Port Moresby to select natives to be trained in Australia to play their full part in wrestling their island home away from the enemy. McCarthy had reported that natives from almost every island and township throughout the territory had been found and that arrangements were under way to transport them to Brisbane. Murray's job was to establish the training camp as a centre to accommodate and train outgoing parties, an act as rest centre for incoming parties. Murray established the camp a few miles south of the Beaudesert township. Within a few days, the camp was a hive of activity with stores and equipment arriving daily. Towards the end of the first week, the first members began to trickle in. Among these were Sergeant R. W. (Bill) Dolby, Corporal R. J. (Percy) Cream, and Corporal C. F. (Snow) Evans. Ten days later 360 natives arrived by army trucks and commenced special training.
As more submarines and planes became available for Allied Intelligence Bureau use, party leaders were called together and told to prepare their respective parties for the job ahead. The parties usually consisted of the leader, a junior officer, one highly trained wireless operator, an assistant wireless operator and one general utility man who had a knowledge of medical work. Murray and Commander McManus made a point of farewelling each party at the airstrip, no matter what time they departed. The training camp proved so successful that American forces began training there following the same pattern as for the Australians.
Eventually, Murray received a telephone call from Commander McManus to come up to Brisbane at once. Murray was asked if he felt that he could get into New Ireland as information was required from that area to cover the American landing at Torokina. Captain B. Fairfax-Ross was appointed to take over as Camp Commandant, and Murray set to work picking his men and natives for the coming landing on New Ireland. Murray picked Sergeant Dolby, and Corporals Cream and Evans because he liked them, knew they were thoroughly dependable and had the necessary local knowledge. Murray also took a half-caste lad named Julius McNichol as well as eight natives.
On Saturday, 23rd October, 1943, the party left Beaudesert and set off for Amberly aerodrome where an American Liberator was waiting for them. The plane took off at 4 a.m. and five hours later they touched down on New Caledonia. They spent a day at Noumea, then a DC3 transport plane conveyed them to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. The party left at noon for Tulagi, and embarked on the submarine Scamp which was awaiting them, under the command of Commander Ebert, U. S. N.
Lihir Island where a Japanese submarine was based
The Scamp arrived at her destination off the east coast of New Ireland at 04.30 hours on 3rd October and lay quietly under the sea to await daybreak. At first light the periscope was upped and the shore closely scanned. During the day, bearings were taken, and they moved slowly along inspecting the coast in order to select the correct landing spot. Carefully, they scanned the shore for signs of Japanese activities looking for new buildings and installations that would indicate a Japanese presence.
The spot chosen for their landing was not far from the mouth of the Weitin River, which indicated the floor of the valley, and therefore should afford them easier and quicker movements away from the beach-head. When darkness settled over land and ocean, the submarine surfaced and stood off a little over a mile from shore to await zero hour. At 1930 hours Murray and Dolby synchronized watches with the rest of the team and in two separate groups headed for shore, the second group only leaving when they received the all clear from the first. Even so, the two teams became separated with the second team coming ashore about two miles away down the coast.
From this point onwards, Murray decided that they would travel up the river bed, walking close into the bank where the overhanging bushes would afford them from protective cover. At night, they set up camp and sent a radio signal to say that they had landed safely, cleared the beach head and that no enemy had been contacted. Soon all efforts was thrown into finding a look-out that would provide a first rate view of the east coast and islands lying to the north west. Eventually, a good place was found and the camp site was then moved to the new position. At the new site, magnificent trees rose to a great height and the sun never penetrated to the ground. A rattan ladder was made up and placed against one of the tallest trees and a platform was placed on top.
When the successful Allied landing at Torokina was over, the Japanese were on the defensive all along the line from Guadalcanal to the Philippines and were slowly being starved out. Murray became concerned once the position of their camp had been discovered by the natives and relocated the camp to another high position on an adjacent mountain range. On the 21st November, Percy Cream received the message from Headquarters informing them that a parachute drop of food, batteries and medical supplies was about to be made. Headquarters requested that a suitable location be picked and identification fires be arranged. It was then discovered that the Japanese had decoded their radio signals and that they should retreat to higher ground immediately after the drop. On the following night, the party moved from their hilltop camp into the valley to prepare for the air drop scheduled for 03.00 hours on 21st November. It was a long wait but exactly two minutes to three they heard the sound of an approaching plane. The fires were lit and the plane was dead on target with the parachutes opening and billowing as the packs floated down to earth. The pilot returned with a second run and five more parachutes were dropped as the plane continued down the valley and out to sea, its mission successfully completed.
The main purpose for which they had been inserted into New Ireland had been fulfilled and it was decided that the party should be removed from the island. At the appointed time and place, all ears were strained to catch the sound of the P.T. boats but there was no sound of engines. The fires were lit and they watched for the signal that would tell them that the P.T. boats were offshore. Another twenty minutes passed then suddenly there was flash from the sea and the boats came into the shore and the party went on board.
With throttle opened up, the boat was soon hitting more than 40 knots and daylight found them almost opposite Buka Passage when one of the boats broke down. Slowly, the other two circled around the disabled craft while repairs were done with thousands of Japanese not two miles away at Buka Passage with enough guns to blast the three small patrol torpedo boats out of the water.
When Murray arrived in Guadalcanal, he was informed that his services would be made available to the Americans in whatever capacity they desired. A few days later, he was taken by American transport plane to Noumea on New Caledonia for conferences at Admiral Halsey's Headquarters. From Noumea, he was flown straight to Brisbane where he reported immediately to Commander McManus. He then returned to Guadalcanal where he joined the crew of a B-24 bomber on a daily routine search between Emirau Island and Truk (Chuuk) in the Caroline Islands. For his next mission, Murray chose his own team from the members of the New Ireland party - Sergeant Bill Dolby, and four native scouts, Nein, Sarlie, Selas, and Keip Marlin.
On Christmas Day, 1943, a party of ten Americans, two Australians, and four natives proceeded from Guadalcanal to Tulagi, where the U.S.S. Peto lay at anchor, ready to convey them on a special mission. Shortly after midday, they got under way from Tulagi harbour and for the next three days the submarine made its way to the Tanga group of islands which lay off the east coast of New Ireland.
The combined American and Australian team for the Tanga landing
When the first party had reached the shore, they found, a short distance away from the beach, a house which was occupied by a lone man. They went along to inspect it and woke the occupant, a terrified native who had been told by the Japanese that all the "masters" were dead. The occupant was able to supply the party with all the details of the Japanese occupation of the island. Of the second party, there was no sign of the missing boat and men and it was apparent that the group of four Americans would have to accomplish what had been set down for the whole party of ten. After being warned by the local natives that the Japanese were aware of their presence on the island, the first party returned to where their boat had been hidden and hid themselves in the bushes. Twenty-five minutes later, a Japanese party came along comprising an officer and six men, two carrying machine guns and the rest armed with rifles emerged into the clearing and halted. It was obvious that the officer knew where the boat was hidden and fortunately made no attempt to go to the spot and destroyed the craft but rather he ordered his men to hide in the adjacent bushes. During the resultant gun battle, three Japanese soldiers lay dead including the officer still with the sword in his hand. The bodies of the dead enemy soldiers were quickly searched and everything of importance was collected.
With just enough light to see, they launched the rubber boat and paddled out to sea through a heavy surf to meet the submarine. The time slowly slipped by and eventually a large flash blinked at them and a voice cried out: "Is that you Captain Murray?" They entered the warm, quiet, grey interior of the Peto and an officer escorted Murray to the conning-tower, where Commander Nelson was on duty. At that moment, the ship's general alarm sounded as they had been spotted by the Japanese. In a matter of seconds the submarine was under way and the Japanese surface craft left far astern.
The approach to Kavieng through Steffen Straits
In January 1944, the Allied counter-offensive in the Pacific was well under way. In this vast operation, in which hundreds of thousands of Allied fighting men of all services were to be engaged, the full story would require an extensive treatment. As part of this effort, the work of the Coastwatchers cannot be underestimated. Before this new concentrated harassment, however, the United States Navy had also conducted aerial raids on Kavieng which was known to be an important supply base for Rabaul.
Altogether, thirty-six Coastwatchers lost their lives. At the base of the Coastwatchers Memorial Light, one of the three plaques lists the names of the fallen men. The inscription beneath their names reads:
THEY WATCHED AND WARNED AND DIED THAT WE MIGHT LIVE
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