In the vast Pacific Theater, vital intelligence on the movement of Japanese ships, planes and troops came from a band of civilians known as Coastwatchers. Organized under military intelligence, they remained behind enemy lines to spy, conduct guerilla operations, and rescue downed pilots or crews of lost ships. The work of the regular military was tremendously aided by the Coastwatchers, especially early in the war in the Solomons Campaign.
Coastwatcher Captain W.F. Martin Clemens, British Guadalcanal district officer and police chief, with Solomon Islands natives, members of his constabulary.
Background on the Coastwatchers
In 1919, following the end of World War I, the Royal Australian Navy formed a civilian coastwatching organization to provide early warning of impending invasion. Electronic monitoring was far in the future and the Pacific was too vast to patrol solely by air. Local residents of the Australian north shore and many Pacific island communities were recruited to note the movements of ships and aircraft.
As Japanese control of the Pacific expanded in the late 1930s, Allied military personnel were evacuated along with most European civilians who were not native to the area. Nonetheless, by the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, approximately eight hundred civilians remained to report movements of Japanese units on the ground, in the air, and at sea.
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 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 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.
Coastwatchers in other Pacific Areas
The Solomons Coastwatchers were the model for other such intelligence operations and guerilla activity across the Pacific Theater. They were important in the preparation for the liberation of the Philippines as well as their use on New Guinea, Borneo and other Pacific Theater locations.
Coastwatcher's intelligence had to be quickly transmitted to Allied forces, the faster the better. Therefore, radio sets were provided to each Coastwatcher location, with sufficient range to reach the location of the appropriate controller. These radio sets could carry 600 miles (CW or key operation) or 400 miles for voice operation. Such transmitters at that time were very heavy, requiring up to a dozen men to carry the radio, batteries and related equipment over rugged terrain, often while Japanese patrols were looking for them.
The Coastwatchers are remembered by this memorial located at Madang, Papua New Guinea. It was at this location where Coastwatchers made the first sighting of Japanese forces in December 1941 when large flying boats were spotted off the coast.
Coastwatchers' Memorial, Madang, Papua New Guinea.
The memorial tower is a working lighthouse, opened 15 August 1959, and maintained by local authorities.
Recommended Books about the Coastwatchers
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