(See maps at the bottom of this page.)
The Australian Coast Watching Service owed its genesis to a suggestion by the then District Naval officer, Western Australia, Captain C.J.Clare RAN. in 1919.
He submitted, that selected civilians, on a voluntary basis, should be organised along coastal areas, to report in war time unusual or suspicious circumstances.
This idea reached the Chief of Naval Staff via a Navy Office paper, with the added recommendation that the scheme embrace New Guinea, Papua and the Solomon Islands.
CNS gave his approval, and the Minister of Defence, caused a committee from the three services to be formed to discuss this Navy proposal.
The scheme found general approval, but it was left to the Navy to implement through their Division of Naval Intelligence.
Most of the detailed work in building up the organisation fell to Walter Brooksbank, a civilian, working in the Naval Intelligence Division, at Navy Office, in Melbourne. Much of the credit is due to him for his zeal and efficiency in carrying out this work.
Coast Watching Appointments.
Those appointed came from Post Masters, Missionaries, and Civil Airline Pilots who flew coastal routes, and Planters in the Island chain.
By the time War was declared on Sunday the 3rd. of September 1939, some 800 people were ready to operate this infant Coast Watching Service.
Means of Communications.
Initially, pedal radio sets were distributed, but later on, tele radios were to become available.
The Island Coast Watching Service.
Lieutenant Commander Eric Feldt RAN. was recalled to the Navy from its Emergency List, and the then Director of Naval Intelligence, Commander R.B.M. Long RAN. gave Feldt the task of setting up Coast Watchers in the Islands to the North and North East of Australia.
By the time Japan entered the war on the 7th. of December 1941, Feldt had recruited and set in place, a chain of Coast Watchers on the Islands of Rabaul, at Kavieng, and on New Ireland.
Eric Feldt had, in the main selected Australians living and working in these arears, they were always independent, and recourceful men who commanded respect and loyalty from the native people.
This group were responsible for obtaining and feeding intelligence and useful information into MacArthur’s Allied Intelligence network. It was soon realised that many of these people would be forced to work behind enemy lines as the Japanese would quickly invade and invest themselves into Allied Territory. To protect civilian Coast Watchers, from a charge of spying, it was necessary to commission them into one of the three Services, and many were to become Officers in the RAN Reserve.
The First Enemy Sighting.
On Tabar, Sub-Lieutenant C.L. Page ( later to be captured and killed by the Japanese ) made the first Japanese sighting on the 9th. of December, 1941, it was an enemy aircraft on its way to reconnoitre Rabaul.
On the 4th. of January 1942, Rabaul was bombed for the first time by the Japanese, Page warned of their approach, and Mackenzie at Rabaul, passed on the warning, so casualities were thankfully light.
Rabaul and Kavieng soon fell to a Japanese invasion in January 1942.
On Bouganville, outside Kieta, Lieutenants Jack Reid and Paul Mason, RANVR, used their tele radios to maintain contact with Port Moresby.
By the end of February 1942, Lae and Salamaua were occupied by the Japanese , once again, one of Feldt’s front line people was in danger.
Leigh Vial , had been hastily commissioned into the RAAF. as a Pilot Officer, and was flown into Salamaua only a few days ahead of the Japanese invasion.
Feldt had realised he had very little time to send in Vial, before the Japanese arrived, he then chose the RAAF, to help him with a quick commission, rather than the RAN, as he believed that Naval red tape would preclude Vial joining the Navy in time to beat the Japanese.
Vial set himself up in the hills overlooking the airfield at Salamaua, and, over the next 6 months he was dubbed as the “Golden Voice” by people at Port Moresby, as he passed on his warnings of impending air raids from both Lae and Salamaua.
The Coast Watchers Remain.
A number of Feldt’s Coast Watchers remained in position even though the Japanese had invaded their Islands.
The Japanese soon came to realise the importance of this Coast Watching intelligence to the Allies, and continually tried to hunt them down, thus adding pressure to these resourceful men as they lived, worked, and moved behind enemy lines.
Let me quote Eric Feldt, who sets the scene so very lucidly in his book,The Coast Watchers:
“Many of our forces have now learnt from hard experience of the mountains, the jungle, the rain and the mud, with the contrast of burning sun on open Kunai Plains of flat soggy swamps and water logged beaches, of fever and dysentery and tropical ulcers and scrub typhus, and of the summation of all these which saps the energy and endurance and is a constant brake on human endeavour.
"Now any Staff Officer can foretell the conditions troops will encounter, and make arrangements to meet them and minimize the worst effects.
"But not many men knew these things when Japan made war on us in 1941, when that knowledge was essential to a campaign in the North East area to Australia.
"Native people had the knowledge, but could not convey it to others, or use that knowledge themselves in warfare, except in a very limited field.
"There were some Europeans who had that lore, gained from experience, and it was from these that we drew members for the Coast Watching Service. The conditions of the area set the limits and provided the scope of the Coast Watchers’ Service. Terrain, climate and local resources were all of consequence, but the most important was the relationship of the Native people to our Europeans.”
Coast Watching Chain Completed.
By early August of 1942, Coast Watchers were installed at Segi, on Southern Isabel, on Guadalcanal, Maliata, and San Christobal, thus covering the Japanese who were working to fortify Tulagi, and build an airfield on Guadalcanal.
It was Major Martin Clemens, a District Officer, and Coast Watcher, who warned Feldt of the impending problems posed by the completion of the airfield on Guadalcanal. Martin survived the war, and is living in Toorak, a suburb of Melbourne, and I see him regularly at meetings of the Naval Historical Society.
Martin Clemen’s warning was quickly passed on to Admiral Ernest King, Chief of Navy Operations in Washington, D.C. King acted quickly, and mounted Operation Watchtower, designed to retake Tulagi, and occupy Guadalcanal, it composed of a strike force of about 19,000 US Marines under Major General A.A. Vandergrift, with a strong Naval presence, including aitcraft carriers in support of the proposed landings.
Timing was essential, King wanted the occupation of Guadalcanal brought to fruition before this airfield became operational, he could not afford the invasion force being under constant threat of attack from Japanese aircraft attacks mounted from this airfield on Guadalcanal.
The Marines Arrive.
In August 1942, I was serving as a Sub-Lieutenant RAN, and a bridge watchkeeper in the Australian heavy cruiser HMAS Canberra.
We were part of the Naval Support Group covering the Marine invasion force that stormed ashore at Tulagi and Guadalcanal on the 7th. of August 1942.
It was in this operational zone during the next few days, that I had first hand experience of both the efficiency and tactical value of the Coast Watching Service.
The Japanese Response.
In Canberra, we were warned over the Ship’s broadcasting system: “All hands will go to dinner at 1100 ( 11AM. ) as we expect a Japanese air attack.”
Paul Mason, the Australian Coast Watcher hidden on Bouganville, South West of Kieta, had sent this warning.
As he had so rightly forecast, the air raid arrived to attack the Fleet, and troop laden transports. Sixteen Japanese aircraft were destroyed, for the loss of twelve Carrier borne aircraft.
The US. Destroyer Mugford was hit during this raid, and 20 of her crew died.
On the 8th. of August, Jack Read, another Australian Coast Watcher, situated on the Northern end of Bouganville, gave us a warning of forty Japanese bombers flying South East.
About midday, the Fleet was subjected to attack by these Torpedo Bombers, who fiercely pressed home their attack.
The fleet gunners accounted for sixteen of these Betty Bombers, and, at one stage I counted six blazing aircraft as they crashed close by into the water.
The US Destroyer Jarvis was torpedoed, and a transport, George F. Eliot had a blazing aircraft crash on board, she was abandoned that night, and grounded South of Florida Island.
Coast Watching 1943-1944.
Throughout 1943, and up to October of 1944, the Coast Watching Service played a most valuable part in the Pacific War.
To quote Eric Feldt:
“But Coast Watching, that is, the obtaining of intelligence from enemy occupied areas was finished. The Coast Watchers had done their job, and, for their numbers, had made a contribution out of all proportion.”
This service had drawn its numbers from many sources, Officers and Ratings, Honourary Chief Petty Officers RANVR, from the Amalgated Wireless Association, Mrs Boye an Honourary Third Officer WRANS, Officers and Other Ranks from the Australian Army, Officers from The Royal Australian Air Force, from the British Solomon Island Protectorate Defence Force, The US Marine Corps, the US army, and Civilians.
The Final Count.
When one looks at those who served, and the number who survived, the final count shows seventeen killed by the enemy, another fifteen missing, two were wounded, one died in service, and one became a prisoner of war.
Recognition of Service.
The quite incredible service of many of these brave people was recognised by decorations from the United States, and from the United Kingdom.
The real value of the Coast Watching Service to the allied cause was summed up by the appreciative words spoken by Admiral Bull Halsey USN, who said: “The intelligence signalled by Read and Mason had saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal had saved the South Pacific.”
The Last Verse.
In August of 1992, on the 50th. Anniversary of the landings at Guadalcanal, the last words of the fierce and bloody battles on the sea, in the air, and on the land, that took place in this area in 1942 were written.
A Memorial, set high on the ridge of Guadalcanal, overlooking Iron Bottom Sound, that graveyard of many Allied and Japanese Naval ships, was unveiled. This granite monument, manufactured in Australia, and transported to the Solomons, honours the sacrifice of all personnel drawn from both sides of the Pacific Ocean, who fought here in those momentous days of 1942.
Clemens, W.F.M., The Battle of Savo Island - 9th. August 1942. Transcript of an address by Major Clemens to the Naval Historical Society of Australia. Victoria Chapter, Melbourne. 1974.
Feldt, E.A., The Coast Watchers, Oxford University Press, New York, 1946.
Leckie, R., Challenge for the Pacific - Guadalcanal - The Turning Point of the War, Hodder and Stroughton, London, 1966.