CHAPTER 8 — The Coastwatchers
FROM 1941 until the cessation of hostilities, New Zealand coastwatchers maintained a lonely vigil on islands scattered over sixteen million square miles of the Pacific Ocean, engaged in the most monotonous and unspectacular of all war service. Those stationed on islands of the Gilbert Group, the northernmost of which were closest to the enemy-held Marshall Islands, were the only ones to fall to the Japanese, some to be brutally killed, others to spend the rest of their war years as prisoners in Japan.
One of the obvious dangers in the Pacific was the possibility of German surface raiding craft sheltering in anchorages of such uninhabited groups as the Auckland and Campbell Islands and in the Kermadecs, from which they could endanger vital shipping along the sea lanes. Stations established on those distant islands served a twofold purpose—as watchers for enemy shipping and as meteorological stations. Without them periodical inspection would have been necessary by either surface craft or aircraft to remove any doubts of enemy occupation.
One of the first coastwatching stations in the Pacific was established by Mr. Nelson Dyett on Pitcairn Island on 20 December 1939 and served as a link in the Pacific communication system, although he was a civilian operating his own equipment. He was afterwards attested as a New Zealand serviceman. When the volume of shipping increased with the outbreak of war with Japan, the United States Navy requested a station on Pitcairn in order to pass signals to ships at sea affecting their safety and routeing. Four operators and a landing party sailed from Auckland on 15 December 1943 in an American merchant ship, the J. Sterling Morton, which remained off Pitcairn for ten days while materials were off-loaded into small boats and hauled up cliffs. This station was operated until October 1945, after which it passed to the Western Pacific High Commission.
Immediately following the outbreak of hostilities in Europe, a coastwatching system was organised throughout the Fijian and Tongan Groups, using natives to man scattered stations linked to the civilian communications by any means available, since radio page 229 sets were in short supply. Messages from these distant stations to the available telephone or radio-telephone terminals were by boat, horse, runner, and in some instances by smoke signal. This system was under the jurisdiction of the civilian administration. When the first New Zealand force reached Fiji in 1940, the coastwatching system, already established there and in Tonga, came under the operational direction of Cunningham's headquarters, though it was still nominally controlled by the civil administration. This service was an integral part of the plans of the New Zealand Chiefs of Staff for the defence of Fiji and Tonga, and was linked broadly with that of the Australian Naval Board whose theatre of operations extended from New Britain through the Solomons to the New Hebrides, a line along which air reconnaissance was maintained by flying boats from Port Moresby in the early months of the war. The whole system, however, lacked co-ordination and there was a good deal of overlapping. Early in 1941 the New Zealand Naval Board initiated an extended service over the whole of the South Pacific to include the Crown Colony of Fiji, the territories of the Western Pacific High Commission, the Kingdom of Tonga, and the dependencies of New Zealand. Some co-ordination was instituted in 1941 when a senior naval officer, Lieutenant-Commander P. Dearden, was appointed to Suva, and Mr. L. H. Steel, of the New Zealand Post and Telegraph Department, was sent there by agreement with the Governor of Fiji as Controller of Pacific Communications, with direct control over the powerful Suva Aeradio Station and executive powers in an emergency. His appointment brought about a desirable co-ordination in an indifferent system which, until then, was at the mercy of eight different authorities.1
1 The eight organisations which were concerned with coastwatching in the Pacific and which were co-ordinated by Steel for their more efficient operation were: The Fiji Government, the Western Pacific High Commission, the Military Administration Headquarters in Fiji, the Tongan Government, the New Zealand Naval Board, Amalgamated Wireless (Fiji), the Fiji Post and Telegraph Department, and the Fiji Harbour Board. An organisation known as Fiji Aeradio later came into operation, and became the centre for all combined services communications as well as for all coastwatching stations.
Coastwatching stations were established in the Auckland and Campbell Islands in March 1941 and were combined with a scientific expedition collecting data on radio short-wave reception. For the rest of that year and through 1942 similar stations, manned by radio operators who, in many instances, were accompanied by soldier companions, were established from the north of the Gilbert Group to the far south of New Zealand, until the Navy Office in Wellington became the centre of an immense network radiating north, south, and east across the Pacific. This system provided for a series of sub-stations in each island group on which parent stations maintained a constant watch. These parent stations acted as clearing houses for the sub-stations and passed on to Wellington any vital information which came to them. Suva, the largest and most important centre in the South Pacific, was the receiving station for a network which had as parent stations: Ocean Island, Beru, which watched ten sub-stations in the Gilbert Group; Funafuti, seven stations in the Ellice Group; Canton Island, four stations in the Phœnix Group; Fanning Island, three stations in the Line Group; Apia, five stations in the Samoan Group; Rarotonga, eleven stations in the Cook Group; Nukualofa, six stations in the Tongan Group; as well as all stations throughout the Fiji Group itself. Wellington was the parent station for posts in the Kermadec and Chatham Islands, and Awarua (Southland) for the Auckland and Campbell Islands. The sub-stations worked on a common crystal-controlled frequency on which the parent stations maintained a constant watch.
Because of their proximity to the Marshall Islands, about which the British and American Chiefs of Staff vainly endeavoured to obtain information before and after the outbreak of war, the decision was made in 1941, and the responsibility passed to New Zealand, to establish seventeen coastwatching stations throughout the Gilbert and Ellice Groups, a series of atolls clothed in coconut palms and pandanus extending north of Fiji for more than 600 miles and adjoining the Japanese-held Marshalls. One qualified radio operator was supplied from New Zealand for each post, and two soldier companions were to accompany fourteen of them.page 231
Cunningham received his instructions in April from Army Headquarters, and twenty-two soldiers were obtained from the Reserve Battalion (later the 34th). They were all volunteers, selected for their initiative and self-reliance and preferably from those accustomed to an outdoor life. Two of them were to accompany the radio operators on eleven of the islands, as the remaining three operators were destined for islands on which there were either missionaries or European officials, as at Tarawa, headquarters of the British administration in the Gilbert Group. This proposal to send soldier companions with the operators was regarded with disfavour by the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific, Sir Harry Luke, and also the resident commissioner of the group, who urged that as the soldiers would not be engaged on any specific duty, their presence would inevitably lead to unfortunate complications with the natives. New Zealand, however, did not agree, on the grounds that most of the operators were very young men, most of them in their early twenties, and that their companions were men of maturer years, selected for their special qualities. The soldiers were also more skilled in the observation of naval, military, and air installations.
Because of isolation and the possibility of losing surface contact with headquarters in Fiji, each group took with it sufficient food, equipment, and medical supplies to last for at least nine months—all obtained from 8 Brigade Group and prepared for despatch under the supervision of Captain R. C. Aley,1 the brigade supply officer, and his staff. Because of the number of small groups, ranging from three to one, into which the soldiers and operators were divided, this required an immense amount of detailed planning and packing. Moreover climate, distribution, and the necessity to go ashore in small boats or canoes required all supplies to be hermetically sealed in tins and then encased in strong timber. These supplies included a number of items not usually associated with a military expedition and such essentials as twine, scythes and sharpening stones, saws, axes, butter muslin, hammers, mosquito netting, fishing lines and hooks, clocks, chisels, lamps and globes, petrol, small cooking stoves, as well as food apportioned on a generous army ration scale, with extras for the natives, and medical stores for the treatment of minor ailments, particularly skin infections. Extra clothing was also generously supplied. Aley overcame many difficulties and supplied every commodity except tinned butter, which arrived too late from New Zealand to be included.page 232
The operators and soldiers left Suva on 19 July in HMFS Viti, the principal employment of which was to transport the Governor round the island territories which came under his jurisdiction as High Commissioner for the Western Pacific. The men were accompanied by Sergeant M. M. N. Corner,1 who returned to Fiji after supervising the disembarkation of each island group with their supplies, a manœuvre often attended with some difficulty because of the coral reefs. At Nurakita small boats were unable to beach and the station was not established until the following October, but all others were installed and in touch with Suva by the end of July and the beginning of August.
These coastwatchers went unarmed to their isolated tasks, as it was assumed that such small groups would only imperil their own safety by resisting capture in the event of enemy attack. The wireless operators went as civilians, though their assignment in reporting the activities of enemy surface craft and aircraft was essentially military. When Japan entered the war the soldier coastwatchers throughout the Gilbert and Ellice Groups requested a supply of rifles and ammunition, but these were not issued until May 1942, when a further supply of eight months’ rations was distributed to stations in the Ellice Island and to those not yet overrun throughout the southern Gilberts. A month previously Army decided that, as a state of war existed with Japan and as small parties from seaplanes might land at isolated islands, the coastwatchers might reasonably deal with them. Each man was therefore issued with a rifle and 200 rounds of ammunition. By that time, however, stations in the northern Gilberts had been overrun by the Japanese and all soldiers and wireless operators associated with them either killed or taken prisoner. After the death of the operators it was also decided to attest as soldiers all men engaged on such work in the Pacific and give them retrospective rank, even to those who had been killed. This was done in December 1942 and created some involved administrative problems since dead men are unable to sign the necessary attestation papers. However, the required regulations were promulgated entitling dependants to pension rights and other privileges of men of the services. Although the operators were given military rank, they still retained their civilian rates of pay.
On 10 December, two days after war was declared, two brothers, Privates J. M. Menzies and Michael Menzies, and the operator, Corporal J. M. Jones, reported the presence of 23 Japanese naval craft of various sizes in the lagoon of Butaritari, on which they were stationed. The following day they were taken by the Japanese and, with Private Basil Were, Private L. E. H. Muller, and the operator, Corporal M. P. McQuinn, from Little Makin, and another operator, Corporal S. R. Wallace, from Abaiang, who was collected on 23 December, they were assembled at Butaritari with Mr. G. Williams, an administration official. Here the men were all closely questioned about the defences of Fiji, with particular attention to the aerodromes. Although they revealed nothing to the Japanese, by giving vague and non-committal answers, they were not ill-treated and spent Christmas Day on the jetty there. Williams enlivened the occasion by producing two bottles of wine which he had packed with the kit he was permitted to take with him. All these men were shipped to Japan soon afterwards and, except for the discomfort of close confinement, they had no cause for complaint. When a Japanese guard stole some of their biscuits he was punished by his own people. This party, the first New Zealanders to fall to the Japanese in the Pacific, arrived at Yokohama on 8 January 1942 and remained in captivity for three years and nine months, most of which were spent in the prison camp at Zentsuji, on the island of Shikoku.
Although the remainder of the men on the Gilbert Island stations realised their companions had been either captured or killed, they refused to leave their posts, despite the offer of relief. In February 1942 the first lot of stores was despatched to them from Fiji on the Degei which, because of enemy air activity, was permitted only as far north as Nonouti, after which supplies for the men on islands nearer the Japanese were transported by launch and canoe, moving by night and sheltering in the lagoons by day. On his return the master of the Degei reported that the morale of the men was still high.page 234
From the time of the first Japanese reconnaissance of Tarawa in December, Mr. R. G. Morgan, an administrative official, had smashed the main transmitter of the radio station there and taken refuge in the jungle. With the assistance of loyal natives, he gathered invaluable information of enemy air and naval activity which he transmitted to Suva on the small set he had taken with him. Morgan was not captured until the Japanese began their move farther south in September, when they gathered up the coastwatchers and operators in the remainder of the Gilbert Islands.
When the Japanese came there was no panic among those men. Until they were apprehended they continued to send their vital messages, calmly and without haste, to the Suva station. Each message was the end of a chapter as each island station closed down, and the listeners so far away in Fiji realised that the enemy was so many miles nearer. Ocean Island, which is part of the Gilbert Group for administration, though far distant from the main chain of islands, went off the air on 26 August. The New Zealand operator, Sergeant R. Third (who later died in captivity), was attested into the NZEF at the same time as the other operators. After bombing and strafing several of the stations, the Japanese sent in their surface craft with landing parties. Maiana sent its last message on 25 September: ‘Japanese coming; regards to all’, then silence, as the two soldiers and the operator concealed themselves in the jungle, only to be captured later. The Nonouti watchers were taken on 26 September. The same day three warships visited Beru, where the two operators, Lieutenant A. L. Taylor and Corporal T. C. Murray, sent their final message: ‘Three enemy warships. Good luck’, before destroying their equipment and fleeing into the jungle, hoping to escape later by canoe or launch. Because of Japanese threats of revenge on the natives these two men gave themselves up on 3 October, to suffer further pain of ill-treatment from their captors. Kuria went dead on 28 September with a message: ‘Two warships visiting us now’, and also reporting that the watchers on Abemama had been captured earlier in the month, after hiding from the Japanese for a week. This information had been obtained for them by Ben Randolph, a loyal native of Kuria, who had paddled 26 miles to Abemama and back in a canoe with information of the enemy visit. On the island of Tamama the operator was actually sending a message as the Japanese walked into the station; he ignored them and continued to despatch the message until he was struck violently on the head. These seventeen soldiers and operators were all taken to Tarawa. There, together with several European inhabitants of the island, they page 235 were treated with callous indifference. After being tied to coconut palms with telephone wire for three days while awaiting examination by their captors, they were confined in a hospital building in the enclosure reserved for native lunatics. Finally, they were made to work on the wharf at Betio.
The fate of these men was unknown until the islands were recaptured at great cost by an American landing force on 20 November 1943. Then it was learned that when an American machine from an aircraft carrier bombed Tarawa on 15 October 1942, the New Zealanders and five European civilians were killed and their bodies thrown into a pit. Not all the details, however, were revealed until a court of enquiry was instituted on 16 October 1944, and evidence collected from the available witnesses. All of them confirmed evidence of the brutal execution of the New Zealand soldiers and operators. Tiriata, clerk and interpreter for the administration, told how he accompanied the Japanese from island to island collecting the coastwatchers, none of whom forcibly resisted capture. He told how the three men from Nonouti were taken on 1 October and beaten by their Japanese guards and how, when the men were finally assembled, they were tied to palms outside the Japanese commander's office. The New Zealanders bore their suffering with dignity and fortitude. One of them, Private W. A. R. Parker, knocked down a Japanese soldier who jostled him. Another, when asked by the Japanese guard if he wanted his hands united a little because they were swollen, replied ‘No. You tied them tight, you can leave it as it is.’ Another witness, Frank Highland, said the prisoners were united when they were given food and rice in a tin. He found the bodies in a pit, headless and partly burned, several days after they had been killed. A Tarawa native, Mikaere, witnessed the execution of three Europeans and then fainted. One of these Europeans had escaped from the asylum enclosure when the American aircraft came over the island, but he had been recaptured. When Mikaere recovered consciousness he saw the Japanese carrying the bodies to two pits.
There is no explanation of the treatment of the two groups of captured coastwatchers and operators. Those taken in December were humanely treated, whereas those captured later were most cruelly used before they were killed, possibly in retaliation for bombing by American aircraft and the futile attempt at escape by a civilian member of the party when an American aeroplane flew over the island later in the day. Apparently the fact that civilians and soldiers were employed side by side was of no significance to the Japanese, nor is there any evidence that it influenced their behaviour, since the first-captured operators were page 236 accorded the same treatment as the soldiers, even in prison camps in Japan. The desire to preserve civilian rates of pay for operators on a service mission seems to have been the motive for a policy which would have justified the Japanese in shooting them out of hand as francs tireurs.
All those killed were later mentioned in despatches—Privates R. A. Ellis, R. I. Hitchon, D. H. Howe, R. Jones, C. A. Kilpin, R. M. McKenzie, J. H. Nichol, C. J. Owen, W. A. R. Parker and L. B. Speedy; and the operators, all of whom were given post-humous military rank—Lieutenant A. L. Taylor, Corporals H. R. C. Hearn, A. C. Heenan, J. J. McCarthy, A. E. McKenna, T. C. Murray and C. A. Pearsall. Sergeant Third, from Ocean Island, and Corporal P. B. Thorburn, his assistant, whose illness caused his removal from the island before the Japanese arrived, were also given military rank. A memorial erected on the island of Tarawa bears the following inscription: ‘In memory of 22 British subjects murdered by the Japanese at Betio on the 15th October 1942. Standing unarmed to their posts they matched brutality with gallantry and met death with fortitude.’ A tribute to their courage and devotion to duty was paid by the Prime Minister when he made public the circumstances of their death.
The treatment of prisoners of war by the Japanese varied according to the outlook of the officer commanding the particular camp in which they were held, and often also reflected the outlook of the individual. Private Were and the Menzies brothers, who spent three years and nine months as prisoners, most of the time at Zentsuji, stated that they were treated with consideration on the voyage to Japan, but as the daily ration of food was reduced in the prison camps, conditions became correspondingly worse. Were, who wrote a record of his years as a prisoner of war, stated that treatment was fair at Zentsuji. He was then sent to Tanagawa, where conditions degenerated because of the extreme shortage of food. He was afterwards moved to Tokyo, where conditions ranged from ‘fair to pretty bloody’. When the Japanese surrendered he was in a prison camp at Kobe. With others he took food from warehouses on the wharves, for which the Japanese requested signatures. These men still retained sufficient sense of humour to sign as Tom Mix, Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt, and MacArthur. The Menzies brothers stated that conditions were reasonable for the first year at Zentsuji but became worse as the war progressed. Warrant Officer I. D. Newlands, a New Zealand pilot who operated a Hurricane from the British carrier Indomitable and was captured in Java, was ill-treated and thrashed until an English-speaking colonel took over the camp on the island of page 237 Hokkaido, in the north of Japan. After that the beatings ceased, food was increased until the prisoners had more than they could eat, and they were permitted to hold concerts. Warrant Officer R. C. Warren, of the RNZAF, whose aircraft crashed on York Island on 21 June 1945, was shockingly treated. Although suffering from a broken leg, he was given no medical treatment and was kept in a small dark cave at Rabaul. These are only limited examples of the treatment of prisoners.
Islands of the Gilbert Group were the extreme limit of the Japanese thrust south, though they bombed Funafuti, the parent station for the Ellice Islands, where the principal operator, Lieutenant D. L. Vaughan, extended his station to an outside bomb shelter from which he transmitted messages during raids. One soldier coastwatcher from the Ellice Group was relieved in February 1943, but the remainder stayed on, one until 1946. Five of the original operators were relieved in April 1943, when the mission steamer John Williams was used for their transport. For the most part the conduct of the coastwatchers was exemplary, despite their years of isolation. When a representative of the Western Pacific High Commission visited the Ellice Group in November 1943, he reported that some of the men had been there too long and their mental attitude bore evidence of their lack of association with their fellow-men. One or two of them caused friction and embarrassed the economic structure by inciting the natives to demand rates of pay equal to those of New Zealanders. On two islands watchers had contracted liaisons with native women, and on one island the soldiers had quarrelled. All this was merely the fruit of endless monotonous days of idleness and isolation. Food was poor and mail came only when the relief arrived, which, at best, was once a year.
Although the coastwatching service through the Solomons was organised by the Australian Naval Board, several New Zealanders were engaged there both before and after the Allied thrust when the islands were recaptured. Many of the administrative officials and planters joined this service. The value of their work was acknowledged by Halsey, who said that information obtained from these coastwatchers secreted in the jungle and aided by loyal natives was of immense value in assisting the United States forces to hold Guadalcanal. Again and again, from their dismal hideouts, these watchers gave American headquarters warning of the approach of both air and naval attacking forces. Major D. G. Kennedy, a New Zealander in the Colonial Service who was district officer on the island of Santa Isabel, was awarded the DSO for his work. After losing his launch by betrayal, he made his way by native canoe to page 238 Segi, in the south of the New Georgia Group, where he organised a coastwatching service throughout the neighbouring islands. He was also responsible for the rescue of 22 American airmen and the capture of 20 Japanese. Kennedy, from his station in the jungle, organised the natives for this work, paying them a bag of rice and a case of tinned meat for every airman brought to him. They were then collected from the jungle refuge by flying boat, even after the Japanese had established posts in the area. Kennedy and his loyal natives killed 54 Japanese by ambushing small parties of them. When the American forces began their attack on the New Georgia Group to capture the Munda airfield, reconnaissance of Japanese positions was made easier by Kennedy's native scouts.
The Rev. A. W. E. Silvester, a New Zealand missionary on the island of Vella Lavella, remained in hiding when the Japanese came and later joined the coastwatching service in the jungle, working with Lieutenant H. E. Josselyn, a district officer from the Solomon Islands Administration. These two men also rescued American airmen who had been shot down in combat, hiding and feeding them until they were taken off by surface craft. In June 1943, when the USS Helena was sunk after an engagement in the Vella Gulf, Silvester helped the coastwatchers to succour 160 survivors who reached the shore and were hidden for a week until they were taken off by a United States destroyer.
A New Zealand naval rating, Telegraphist G. Carpenter, joined a coastwatching post on Rendova Island, in the New Georgia Group, before the American landing there. When this post was attacked by Japanese Carpenter, before he escaped, succeeded in destroying the teleradio set before it was captured. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his work there. Telegraphist T. Withers, of the Royal New Zealand Naval Volunteer Reserve, accompanied the American Marines who landed at Empress Augusta Bay on 1 November 1943 and remained with them for some months.
Coastwatching stations established to the south of New Zealand in the Auckland and Campbell Islands remained there for five years. The first party sailed from Wellington in the Tagua on 5 March 1941, taking three years’ supply of food and portable prefabricated huts because of the sub-arctic weather conditions. The manning of these stations was the responsibility of the Aerodrome Services Branch of the Public Works Department. There were three shore stations, one at Port Ross, another at Carnley Harbour, both in the Auckland Islands, and a third at Perseverance Harbour in the Campbells. The motor vessel Ranui remained at an anchorage in Waterfall Inlet, in the Aucklands, page 239 to act as a link between the stations, each of which was manned by four men during the first year but later increased to five. Geologists, surveyors, and naturalists accompanied each relief, and certain scientific data was also collected. These coastwatching stations were of scientific value and their daily weather reports were invaluable. That on the Campbell Islands was retained as a permanent part of the New Zealand meteorological service at the end of war.
The first arrivals confirmed the visit of a German ship, the Erlangen, which sailed from Dunedin on 26 August 1939, ostensibly for Australia but which went instead to South America, calling at the Auckland Islands to collect rata wood to supplement her coal supplies.
Apart from the heat in the north, the cold in the south, and the isolation of both, some of the Pacific coastwatchers suffered from the violence of tropical storms. Those on Suvarov Island, in the Southern Cook Group, endured a grim experience when a hurricane struck the island on 16 February 1942. There was no high ground on which to take refuge, since the island is only 14 feet above high-water level. The two soldiers and one operator climbed to safety in a tree, clinging there until the raging wind subsided and enduring the deluge of a tidal wave which swept over the island. Some natives were washed into the lagoon by this wave, but fortunately another one washed them back again. When the hurricane subsided the operator pieced together a transmitter from salvaged equipment and sent out a call for help, but a relief ship did not arrive from Rarotonga until 16 July, bringing with it much-needed food as well as six tons of earth and some plants with which to rehabilitate this coral island. Later a strong wooden shelter tower, twenty feet high, was erected on Suvarov for the protection of the coastwatchers.
Throughout 1944 most of the coastwatching stations were closed down as the Pacific war was pressed closer to the Japanese mainland. Some of them, however, remained as meteorological stations, their value as such having been established during the war years. In May 1944 stations in the Phœnix Group closed down; on 15 June orders were issued to close those in the Tokelau Group; the Chatham Islands stations ceased on 18 July, Fiji and Tonga on 25 July, and the Cook Island stations on 26 July. Two stations remained in the Fiji Group for the meteorological service—Wailangilala and Cape Washington, and also Suvarov and Nassau in the Cook Group. Nassau was closed in August 1945 after the island had been purchased by the New Zealand Government for £2000.