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The Coast Watchers


The Coast Watchers by Commander Eric A. Feldt


On April 18, 1942, General Douglas MacArthur formally assumed command over all the surviving army, navy, and air forces of the Americans, the Australians, British, Dutch, and other Allied forces routed by the Japanese since their offensive on December 7, 1941. His new command covered the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) and was headquartered at Australia.

In addition to assuming military authority over the tattered Allied units, he also assumed command over the remnants of Allied intelligence units in the SWPA. In June, he formed the Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB) to consolidate the various intelligence fragments. He had been offered the assistance of the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), however he declined the help of the Washington-based spy organization in favor of the AIB, which could be immediately responsive to his command and plans.

The embryonic-AIB would have five divisions. The first division would engage in sabotage and assassination. The second division would intercept and decrypt enemy radio communications. The third division would conduct espionage in the enemy-occupied Netherlands East Indies and Dutch New Guinea. The fourth division would disseminate misinformation and propaganda. The fifth division was already fully operational and had been supplying a steady stream of tactical intelligence on enemy movements in the Bismarck Archipelago and Solomon Islands via teleradio transmissions. These were the Australian coast watchers.

Australia had implemented its coast watcher system in 1939. Operatives had been situated on New Ireland, New Britain, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands, at locations where they could closely watch Axis shipping. The coast watcher ranks consisted of islanders, planters, prospectors, missionaries, and government bureaucrats who lived in these areas and knew the terrain and native people well. Their code name was "Ferdinand," inspired by Munroe Leaf's fictional bull, who preferred to sit under a tree and smell the flowers rather than fight. The purpose for this name was to remind the coast watchers "...that it was not their duty to fight, and thus draw attention to themselves...it was their duty to sit circumspectly and unobtrusively, and gather information. Of course, like Ferdinand, they could fight if they were stung." 1

In 1939, Lieutenant Commander Eric A. Feldt had been charged by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) director of Naval Intelligence to expand and refine the Australian coast watcher system. In accomplishing this task he had performed superbly. He would continue to head the coast watcher section under AIB. When Feldt met with AIB management officials in July 1942, the focus of planning became Japanese expansion onto Guadalcanal Island.

He (Feldt) unlocked a brief case and spread charts, maps, and statistics on the barely dusted-off tables. There was an upward tilt to his lips and an upward tilt to his words, but there was no nonsense about him. So it was that in a surprisingly short time we had made a compilation of names, check marks, and neat columns of notations that constituted Allied Intelligence Project No. 1A: the collection of all possible information about the enemy on the ground, in the air, and on the seas surrounding Guadalcanal. 2

The Coast Watchers by Commander Eric A. Feldt is a first-hand account of the little known accomplishments of a highly unusual and hand-picked group of men who preferred the jungles of the South Pacific to the regimentation of normal society and the military. First published in 1946 by Oxford University Press, it was written very close to the time the events in the narrative occurred, thus increasing its value as a primary source of information on the Australian coast watchers. The Bantam Books edition cited herein is a 1979 reprint that includes an addendum by Feldt detailing the coast watchers' involvement in guerrilla operations against the Japanese in late 1944 and into 1945. It also includes drawings of personnel, equipment, aircraft, and naval vessels, and detailed maps of the Solomon Islands and Bismarck Archipelago. All of these are very well-done.

Feldt's narrative is chronological. He begins on September 21, 1939, when the war was only sixteen days old for the Australians. The primary focus then was to provide adequate surveillance along the huge coastline of Australia itself, as well as for the mandated territory at Papua, New Guinea. He progresses to what the Australians called the Northeast Area, the Solomon Islands and the island chain that flanked New Guinea's east coast. To the Americans, this area was generally termed the South Pacific Area. By early 1942 the Solomon Islands, and especially Guadalcanal, had become the final line of Japanese advance for the Allies. If the Japanese were able to establish airdromes at Guadalcanal, their superior air forces would be able to reach far to the south and pose a serious threat to American reinforcement and supply convoys en route to Australia. The decision was made to evict the Japanese from Tulagi and Guadalcanal, and to secure these areas as Allied military bases. In order to do this the SWPA Command would need a steady and reliable flow of tactical intelligence on the enemy's strength and movements in these two areas, as well as at the Japanese airdromes on Bougainville, New Britain, and New Ireland.

Feldt describes in detail how the coast watchers assigned to these locations were chosen, deployed, and supplied. In my opinion it is the most interesting part of his book because of the importance of their mission and their contribution to the Allied victory at Guadalcanal and Tulgai. The coast watchers provided key intelligence on the enemy's strength, which had been underestimated by the SWPA Command. Thus on August 7, 1942, when Allied forces, predominantly American, landed on the islands at Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and Florida, they overwhelmed the outnumbered Japanese defenders and secured control of these locations. Most importantly, they took Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. In the following months, coast watchers positioned on Bougainville and New Britain notified Port Moresby via teleradio transmissions whenever Japanese bombers took off from the air bases at Buin, Rabaul, and Kavieng, headed for Guadalcanal. This gave Allied fighters plenty of advance warning so they could gain altitude and attack the incoming raiders from an advantageous position. Every sortie the enemy dispatched received the same treatment. Soon the Japanese ran short of planes and pilots, and abandoned their efforts to re-take Guadalcanal.

One of the most frequently cited coast watcher acts involves Jack Read's teleradio transmission to Port Moresby after he spotted forty enemy bombers lift off from Bougainville headed south to Guadalcanal. This veteran coast watcher quickly dispatched the message "FROM JER: FORTY BOMBERS HEADED YOURS." Only eighteen of them made it back to Bougainville. Read was also responsible for spotting a huge buildup of enemy shipping in the Buka Passage, consisting of ten 10,000-ton troop transports and a strong warship escort force - clearly the enemy task force formed to retake Guadalcanal. Read's teleradio transmissions on this force enabled SWPA naval and air forces to prepare, and on November 11 off Savo Island Allied forces soundly defeated the enemy task force and sank every transport.

The coast watchers' success at Guadalcanal made their position on Bougainville and other islands riskier. The Japanese realized there had to be Allied eyes in the mountains. They assembled teams of troops and indigenous natives to hunt for Ferdinand operatives. This made re-supply efforts more hazardous, and the coast watchers had to become more resourceful and mobile. Yet they continued to send transmissions on enemy troop and ship movements, and on resource locations, such as ammunition and fuel dumps, and gun emplacements. They also continued to rescue downed Allied aviators and stranded ground troops, and provide for their safe evacuation via submarine or sea plane. If the same means of evacuation was not viable for themselves, they would use canoes to travel to a safer location and await their turn.

At times it seems like you are reading a novel as you follow a Ferdinand operative's deployment on an enemy-held island in the South Pacific. You meet his contacts, share in his adventures, and feel his pain when times get crazy. It's very hard to put this book down once you get into it. You will also learn a lot about island cultures and indigenous people. Eventually the Japanese pursuit of the coast watchers became so fierce and effective that all Ferdinand men on enemy-held Solomon Islands had to call for evacuation. Their regret as they watched burn their encampments and equipment is evident in the narrative. Many of them made it back to Port Moresby via submarine. Others were killed by disloyal natives or Japanese troops. Some survivors returned to guide Allied troops as they hunted for stranded Japanese garrisons.

Footnotes:

1. Feldt, Eric A., The Coast Watchers, p. 2. Later in the war the coast watchers would team with Australian commandos to hunt for Japanese troops who had been abandoned by the Empire on various islands, cutoff from resupply, and left to wither on the vine. Very few of these troops were taken alive because they refused to surrender. They were either killed or committed suicide. Only 74 were captured. 5414 were killed. 1492 were wounded.

2. Ind, Allison, Allied Intelligence Bureau, p. 12-13.