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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Sunday Ship History: Coast Watchers in the South Pacific

It seems that every good movie about the naval war in the Pacific mentions the "Coast Watchers." In Harm's Way, Father Goose and even the The Wackiest Ship in the Army all feature coast watchers in setting out the path to Allied victory.

So, who were the Coast Watchers?
The Coast Watchers, also known as the Coast Watch Organisation, Combined Field Intelligence Service or Section "C" Allied Intelligence Bureau, were Allied military intelligence operatives stationed on remote Pacific islands during World War II to observe enemy movements and rescue stranded Allied personnel. They played a significant role in the Pacific Ocean theatre and South West Pacific theatre, particularly as an early warning network during the Guadalcanal campaign.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Coast Watchers were not a spur of the moment creation of World War II. Instead as is found here:
Shortly after World War 1, the [Australian] Naval Staff instituted a system of civilian coast watchers, whose duty it was to report any matters of naval intelligence coming to their notice. Slowly the scheme was developed until the settled part of the Australian coast was under observation. In the late twenties the organization was extended to Papua, New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
More here:
The Coast Watching Organisation (WW2) commenced in 1939 under the command of the Royal Australian Navy through the Naval Intelligence Division, Navy Office, Melbourne. Lieutenant Commander R.B.M. Long was the Director of Naval Intelligence at that time. Lieutenant Commander Eric Feldt (that''s Feldt later in life to the right), who was on the Emergency List, was personally selected by Commander Long, mobilised and appointed Staff Officer (Intelligence), in Port Moresby. He had operational control of the Coast Watchers in the north eastern area of defence of Australia. This included the Australian Mandated Territories, Papua, and the Solomon Islands. There were about 800 personnel in the Coast Watching Organisation in 1939.

Eric Feldt had resigned from the Navy before the war and was employed by the Government in New Guinea. He knew the Island people, the Government Officials and the Plantation Managers who all placed great trust in Eric Feldt. Because of Eric Feldt, many civilian Coast Watchers opted to stay in New Guinea after war was declared and other civilians were ordered to be evacuated. They volunteered to stay behind Japanese lines and risked being captured as a civilian spy by the Japanese.

In 1942 the remaining Coast Watchers were mobilised into Navy service.
As set out here:
The Coastwatchers operated observation posts on the Australian coast, in New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and other locations along potential invasion routes. They were colonial government officials, civil airline pilots. shopkeepers, missionaries and planters who were organized under the control of the intelligence section of the Australian Navy. The Europeans were aided by native residents who volunteered to work for the Allied cause and provided vital manpower and local knowledge to the effort. The Japanese were known for brutality against the natives which certainly aided Allied recruitment.

Coastwatchers defied Japanese efforts to disrupt their operations, brazenly risking torture and death to keep vital intelligence flowing to Allied commanders.
Coastwatchers in the Solomon Islands

In December of 1941, full scale war broke out between Japan and United States and its allies. As Japan rapidly expanded its conquered territories, the system of Coastwatchers and the accompanying intelligence network was expanded to cover an area of 500,000 square miles. At that time, about one hundred Coastwatchers in the Solomon Islands were placed under the control of the Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB) that coordinated Allied intelligence activities in the southwest Pacific. Lt. Commander A. Eric Feldt, Royal Australian Navy, was in charge. The first mission AIB had for the Coastwatchers was intelligence regarding Japanese movements in the land, sea and air vicinity of Guadalcanal.

In the preparations for the invasion of Guadalcanal by the U.S. Marines and Army units, Coastwatchers were extremely useful, providing reports on the number and movement of Japanese troops, and the location of enemy forces in their objective areas. After the landings, Coastwatchers provided vital reports on approaching Japanese bombing raids. Japanese war planes and ships en route to destroy the beachhead at Guadalcanal had to pass over Bougainville, in the middle of their route from Rabaul. On 8 August 1942, Coastwatcher Jack Reed (note: should be "Read" - see comments)  at Buka in the north on Bougainville alerted American forces to an upcoming raid by forty Japanese bombers, which resulted in thirty-six of the enemy planes being destroyed. Paul Mason watched from a post in the south mountains over Buin and radioed, "Twenty-five torpedo bombers headed yours." All but one of those planes was intercepted and shot down. Reed  (Read) also reported more than a dozen enemy transports assembling at Buka with Japanese troops for a Guadalcanal counterattack, all lost or beached by the attack of U.S. planes Reed summoned. The Coastwatcher's early warning system was vital to the Marine's success holding Guadalcanal's Henderson Field airstrip.

In addition to intelligence, Coastwatchers rescued and sheltered 118 Allied pilots during the Solomons Campaign, often risking their own lives to do so. Coastwatcher Reed also was responsible for coordinating the evacuation on Bougainville of four nuns and 25 civilians by the U.S. submarine Nautilus. They picked up survivors of sinking ships, including an assist in the rescue of Lt. John F. Kennedy and the crew of PT-109.

The combined activities of the Coastwatchers in the Solomons was so important that Admiral William F. Halsey was quoted as saying:

Guadalcanal saved the Pacific, and the Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal.
The U.S. Marines, like Admiral Halsey, acknowledge the remarkable contributions of a Scottish-born coast watcher:
Were we to seek the most pivotal individual, broadly involved in the Guadalcanal campaign, that man might well be Martin Clemens. He was an Aberdeen born Scot, the son of the choir master of Queen’s Cross Presbyterian Church, who died when Martin was nine years old.
He was graduated from Cambridge and sent out to the Solomon Islands in 1938 as a member of the British Colonial Service, where he served a three year probationary period on the island of Malaita. He became a district officer on San Cristobal in November of 1941. With the advent of the Pacific War he volunteered for military status and was told that he was in a reserved occupation. After a brief leave in Australia he returned on the evacuation ship to evacuate the Europeans and Chinese. He became the District Officer and coastwatcher of Guadalcanal on 28 February 1942 responsible for 15,000 native inhabitants, various other white occupants on the island and reporting Japanese activities.

The Japanese juggernaut was rolling across the Pacific largely unopposed. The managers of the coconut plantations had fled Guadalcanal in panic, abandoning the native workers from neighboring islands, who were left to be returned by Clemens. He then established his radio station and coastwatching activities, the latter based upon his native police and helpers. Though commissioned a Captain in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate Defense Force He had no uniform, nor carried any military credentials. A likely catch for the Japanese, who had in early May occupied Tulagi, and in June had commenced the construction of an airfield on Guadalcanal, further isolating Clemens and his activities and forcing him to conduct them from native enclaves in the mountains. The Japanese move into the southern Solomons was an obvious attempt to establish a base for future disruption of U. S. contact with Australia and New Zealand. Guadalcanal thus became the site of a first and major offensive against the Japanese. Clemens was destined to make a significant contribution to this effort.

The coastwatchers were an integrated network of individuals at strategic locations throughout the Solomons, headed by Lt. Commander Eric A. Feldt RAN, the effort was designated Ferdinand. (John Brown, World War II, May 1998, p. 8) The 1st Marine Division and attached troops under Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift USMC were designated as the, “Cactus”, landing force. Cooperation between Ferdinand and Marine intelligence placed Clemens as the principal operative on Guadalcanal. A bare foot Clemens on his jungle shielded mountain, playing hide and seek with the Japanese, was running low on food, supplies, power for his radio and shoes as his had disintegrated. A delightful episode was the delivery by his islander crew, of a dressed duck to the deprived location and the ingenious approach to cooking it.

Despite this deteriorating status he continued to supply vital intelligence of Japanese activities. He maintained an information gathering network of natives, who reported to island police, this information was evaluated by Clemens and transmitted through Ferdinand operatives to Feldt. A significant addition to his islander force came in June, when Jacob Vouza, a retired Sergeant Major of the Colonial Constabulary, came back to Guadalcanal from Malaita. Clemens was kept uninformed of plans for the invasion, although suspecting that a large move was underway; meanwhile, his very life was in the hands of the Solomon Islanders, who were aware of his location. It is a tribute to Clemens and the Solomon Islanders, that they never informed to the Japanese.
The assault landings in the Solomons ... occurred on 7 August 1942 ... Clemens who had retreated deeper and deeper into the bush to avoid the Japanese, could now make his entry into the Henderson Field beachhead, which he did with his loyal native staff on 15 August. Major General Vandegrift, on their first meeting was indeed positive, recognizing Clemens value as an addition to his staff and placed great responsibility upon him, " ---and told me to take complete charge of all matters of native administration and intelligence outside the perimeter. I was to attach myself to Colonel Buckley of D-2. collecting information through my scouts, on the whole Island and supplying guides as required---”. Clemens had moved from the relative security of his mountain retreat to the hazards of the Henderson Field beachhead, with only a Marine Division for protection.

Clemens to his credit quickly integrated into the headquarters group, interpreting local information and his scouts constantly supplied pertinent intelligence from beyond the perimeter. His scouts first detected the, “Ichiki Detachment” A reinforced Japanese battalion which attacked the beachhead from the east, along the Tenaru river on the 20-21 August 1942 and were annihilated by the Marines. Prior to the onset of this action Sergeant Major Vouza was captured by the Japanese, though tortured and repeatedly bayoneted he gave no information to them. Left for dead, he crawled through the battle lines and his life was saved by the US Navy doctors. He made a miraculous recovery.
Clemens and his scouts repeatedly provided timely information that saved many Marine lives. Photo caption:
LOYAL NATIVES such as these, together with their leader, Captain Martin Clemens, United Kingdom government representative and Coastwatcher on Guadalcanal (even while in Japanese hands) rendered invaluable services to the Marines. These natives were all members of the Solomon Islands police force.
Naturally, the U.S. Army has a slightly different version:
An important factor in the Guadalcanal Campaign made itself felt at this time-AIB "coast watchers " sent out by General MacArthur's G-2 to operate secret radio stations behind enemy lines and report on Japanese troop, plane and ship movements. Carefully placed at strategic locations in the Solomon Islands, these agents were particularly effective in sending radio spot reports on imminent Japanese aerial attacks.

The main Japanese air bases for operations against Guadalcanal were at Rabaul on New Britain, Buin on Bougainville, and Buka Island, with Kavieng on New Ireland as a supporting base. AIB agents located at the key points of Buin and Buka Passage were ideally situated for observation purposes. (Plate No. 25) They had perfected a network by which they were able to give three successive warning signals of Japanese bombers en route to Tulagi and Guadalcanal. United States forces at Tulagi and at Henderson Field had ample notice of impending air attacks and were able to gain a decided advantage by having their planes aloft and ready to strike at the most opportune time.24

AIB "coast watchers" also reported on Japanese harbor activity in the waters adjacent to the Solomon Islands. One party in the hills overlooking Bougainville Island sent daily reports on enemy harbor activity to the Allied Fleet off Guadalcanal's shore. Another party gave details of sea and air arrivals and departures at Buka Passage, an important anchorage for ships operating against Guadalcanal. Other agents at Gold Ridge near Lunga and in northwest Guadalcanal formed an interlocking and efficient intelligence and radio communication net.25
Let's give credit to the Australians for their prescient establishment of the Coast Watcher early warning network and to the steadfast and brave men who took up the mantle of Coast Watchers. The success of the Allied Solomons campaign and the defeat of the Japanese in the South Pacific owes a great deal to the timely information provided by the hundreds of Coast Watchers (native and imported) along the island chains.

More information of the "sea daddy" of the Coastwatchers, LT Eric Feldt, here. A bit of his writing about the Coast Watchers here.

Walter Lord's book Lonely Vigil: Coastwatchers of the Solomons and A. B. Feuer's work: Coast Watching in World War II: Operations Against the Japanese in the Solomon Islands, 1941-43, pretty much cover the topic, except for books by individuals who served as Coast Watchers, like Clemen's Alone on Guadalcanal.

There a lot of other naval connections with the Coast Watchers - in 1943, Subchaser SC 761 was dispatched to retrieve Coast Watchers who had been gathered by submaine from Bougainville:
SC 761 was now overloaded with its human cargo. Lt. Commander John R. Keenan, RAN was in charge of the group of Coast Watchers. Of the 59 personnel there were about 20 Australian and New Zealand Coast Watchers, some native Police, some loyal natives, 2 or 3 Fijians, a large number of Chinese, plus two survivors of an RAAF Catalina crash.

SC 761 left USS Guardfish at 0540 hrs and headed for Guadalcanal. The 59 passengers were very hungry and tired. The Commander of SC 761, Lt. Ronald B. Balcom, USNR, asked "Frenchie" their cook, to feed their hungry guests. The ship was overstocked with Salmon which they were always required to draw from stores at their Naval supply facility. The crew of SC 761 were sick of Salmon, so "Frenchie" took this opportunity to reduce their stocks. John Keenan offered some of his Chinese to assist in the galley. Using hand signals "Frenchie" to communicate with the Chinese, they served up several cases of Salmon and large helpings of rice. After this hearty meal, the Chinese meticulously cleaned the galley, and all the plates and cooking and eating utensils. They even cleaned the aft crew quarters where many of them had eaten. "Frenchie" would loved to have kept a few of these Chinese in his galley for the rest of the war.

Lt. Comdr. John R. Keenan consumed a pot of hot tea while he relived some of his experiences on Bougainville. The Japanese would constantly track them while they were broadcasting with their teleradios, so they were constantly on the move to avoid capture. The Coast Watchers had their photograph taken on the forecastle of SC 761 after they had showered, shaved and eaten. Lt. Cmdr. Keenan advised that he had lost two men who were captured by the Japanese and thereupon beheaded.
Coast Watchers were also involved in the rescue of John F. Kennedy's PT109 crew.

As a monument to the Coast Watchers, a lighthouse was dedicated as a memorial to their service:
The lighthouse, 90 feet high, stands on a base of red terrazzo tiles, and on this circle, between each set of fins, is a bronze plaque. The plaque between the two front fins is the Honour Plaque with the names of the fallen, on the left side is a plaque which reads:
"In honour and grateful memory of the Coastwatchers and of the loyal natives who assisted them in their heroic service behind enemy lines during the Second World War in providing intelligence vital to the conduct of Allied operations. Not only did they transmit by means of teleradio from their jungle hideouts information which led to the sinking of numerous enemy warships, but they were able to give timely warning of impending enemy air attacks. The contribution towards the Allied victory in the Pacific by the small body of men who constituted the Coastwatchers was out of all proportion to their numbers."
The Coast Watchers who gave their all:

“They waited and warned and died that we might live”.
This outstanding site put the toll even higher, but also places it in some perspective:
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.
Render up a salute to all these brave men.

Perhaps unrelated to any tale of the Coast Watchers except for the movie, The Wackiest Ship in the Army is the side story of IX-95, a New Zealand sailing scow named Echo borrowed by the U.S. military as a supply craft and which, in fact, formed the basis for the "ship" in the movie. The Echo today.


  1. Hi Mark, my great grandfather is in that picture with the coastwatchers however his name is not listed. Can you tell me where you got that picture?

    1. Hi, Lillianne - not sure which picture you refer to, but here's on link. Let me know if that is not the correct photo.

  2. Anonymous4:26 AM

    Thank you for your interesting article. Could you please use the correct spelling of Coastwatcher Jack Read's surname. He is my husband's grandfather. Thanks,
    Barbara Fairhurst

    1. My source got the name wrong, but your comment puts everyone on notice.

  3. I was interested in your article
    Sunday, July 27, 2008
    Sunday Ship History: Coast Watchers in the South Pacific
    Could you please also Publish a correction: The name is William John Absolom 'Jack' READ not Reed.

    Thankyou, Ross Fairhurst (Proud Grandson of Jack Read)

  4. Apologies for my initial post (if it ever appears) at the time I wrote it the stream was not showing that my wife had already posted advice on READ vs Reed.

  5. Hi there,
    Great article, thank you. Can you tell me where you got the photo of the coastwatchers with the three men sitting in the front. The man on the left at the front is my father, Ernest Rust, and we have never seen this photo before. Thanking you, Marea Whitley

    1. I'm not sure where I got it, but you can find it at

  6. Clint Nash11:35 AM

    Man on the bottom right is my Father Corporal Benjamin F. Nash, US Army. Be was the only full time American Coast Watcher in the Solomons during WWII. Spent a lot of time behind enemy lines on Bouganville and a few other places. Was assistant to Reg Evans for a time.

    1. Interesting. How did he come to be attached to that group?

      Thanks for reading and commenting.