The Australian Coastwatchers

by Avi Heiligman

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A historian was once asked to name one modern invention that would have changed the outcome of major Civil War battles. Instead of suggesting machine guns, airplanes or tanks, he said that if General Robert E. Lee had had one set of walkie-talkies the South would have won the Battle of Gettysburg. Knowing the position and strength of the enemy and their movements is of major importance for generals and admirals to win battles. During World War II the technology had changed in such a way that made this possible to happen. Although in the Pacific both the Japanese and the Allies had successes and failures in the intelligence arena there were some pretty innovative ways used to produce the needed information. One of these methods was set up by the Australians to send a lone radioman to a strategic location and report back on enemy movements. This provided Allied intelligence with vital information during the early operations of the Pacific war. Here is the story of the Australian Coastwatchers. The idea of sending Coastwatchers deep behind enemy lines started 20 years before the war began. Australia is an ocean away from Japan with several island chains in the middle. Three years after this strategy was first proposed, 1922 the Australians sent men to remote island outposts. In 1939 men were sent to New Guinea and the strategic Solomon Islands. Both were invaded by the Japanese and posed a real threat to nearby Australia. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces soon were on these islands. With the help of American forces the Japanese were pushed back from invading the southern coast of New Guinea. Japanese forces had been on the Solomon Islands for a couple of months before American Marines stormed ashore on August 7, 1942. The Battle of Guadalcanal was the first offensive operation by the Allies, and it took six months for the combined air, naval and ground units to completely secure the island. Included in the mix of Allied forces who helped secure the island were the Coastwatchers. Coastwatchers were from Australia, New Zealand and Pacific islanders who all wanted to help in the war effort. Some of the others were escaped POWs, civilians and men who refused to be captured and had been left behind by their own troops. They were under the direction of Lt. Commander Eric Feldt of the Royal Australian Navy. Feldt took over the organization in 1939 and expanded the group to over 400 people working behind enemy lines. The operations were codenamed “Ferdinand” which was taken from a children’s book about a bull who did not want to fight and who sat under a tree smelling flowers. Feldt said, “It was meant as a reminder to Coastwatchers that it was not their duty to fight and so draw attention to themselves, but to sit circumspectly and unobtrusively, gathering information. Of course, like their titular prototype, they could fight if they were stung.” After gleaning intelligence the Coastwatcher was to pass on the information by teleradios or an existing radio station. Codes, mainly Morse code, were used, and Coastwatchers were instructed on how to make a report and what was considered important intelligence. After that, they were on their own as most of them were fed by locals or lived off the land. It was a tough mission as the Japanese were hot on their tails and the Coastwatchers had to move their camps fairly often. A dozen or more locals were employed to be their carriers which was necessary as their radios and gear weighed hundreds of pounds. One of the main intelligence gathering points was at Lunga Point on Guadalcanal. Coastwatcher Martin Clemens watched and monitored the Japanese construction of an airfield. The Japanese became aware that someone was watching the construction and began hunting Clemens. As he was forced deeper into the island, his loyal native scouts gave him updated information when the airfield was nearing completion. It was this airfield that convinced the Allied commanders to invade Guadalcanal in August 1942. The island was captured and renamed Henderson Field. Twenty-thousand Americans Marines and service members were now on the island and were working hard to complete Henderson Field. Within an hour of the landings, Japanese bombers escorted by venerable Zero fighters were on their way to attack the Americans. Coastwatchers on the nearby island of Bougainville saw the coming formations of enemy aircraft. Paul Mason transmitted the radio message: “Twenty-four torpedo bombers headed yours.” This gave the Americans a precious forty-five minutes to temporarily cease landing operations and to scramble fighter aircraft from aircraft carriers. Another formation of Japanese planes was sent later in the day, and again Mason sent the information to the American fleet. Thirty of the fifty-one Japanese planes were shot down due to Mason’s timely warning. The next day on Bougainville, coastwatcher Jack Read was having a tough time moving up a steep jungle ridge when heard the sound of twin engine bombers overhead. He sent the message: “From J.E.R. forty bombers heading yours.” Through a quick communication channel that involved radio stations in Australia and Pearl Harbor the message was sent to the fleet with enough time to launch American fighters. Japanese planners had expected the American carriers to respond and rerouted their planes to avoid the Wildcat fighters. However, the Americans were still prepared with anti-aircraft weapons on the ships and landing beaches. The Japanese attack didn’t do serious damage, all thanks to the warnings sent out by the Coastwatchers. One of Clemens’ local guides was Sergeant Major Jacob Vouza. The forty-year-old native of Guadalcanal had been a local constable and volunteered for the British Army. On August 7, Vouza rescued a downed pilot from the USS Wasp from Japanese held-territory and returned him to American lines. He then offered to work as a scout for the Americans but was captured on August 20. Japanese interrogators couldn’t get any information out of him about Allied troop movements and tortured him so badly that he was left to die. He chewed through the ropes and, despite losing a lot of blood, crawled three miles to the American lines. Before receiving medical attention Vouza barely made out a warning that hundreds of Japanese soldiers were about to attack their position. This gave the Marines a precious ten minutes to prepare for the Battle of the Tenaru, which proved to be a decisive victory for the Allies. Vouza eventually recovered and went on to perform other special missions for the Allies.

Besides reporting on enemy movements the Coastwatchers provided protection and assistance to those who found themselves behind Japanese lines. They rescued 75 POWs, over 300 downed airmen, close to 300 stranded sailors, and hundreds of civilians and locals who found themselves being pursued by the Japanese. One of the sailors rescued by a Coastwatcher was future American President John F. Kennedy. His boat, the PT-109, was sliced in two by an enemy destroyer. Lieutenant Kennedy and most of his men made it to a nearby island where Coastwatcher Reg Evens met them and arranged for their transport back to friendly forces. These are just some of the many stories of the Coastwatchers. Other Coastwatchers were stationed on New Guinea and reported Japanese activity there, giving the Allies time to build their defenses. As for the ones that were on the Solomon Islands, Admiral William F “Bull”Halsey acknowledged, “The Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal saved the South Pacific.”

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