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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

Pacific Coastwatching

Pacific Coastwatching

THE NEW ZEALAND Naval Board controlled the coastwatching stations established in the eastern Pacific. The screen of stations directly protected our ports and coasts and interlocked with the coastwatching system to the west for which Australia was responsible.

The political control of the eastern Pacific was, for practical purposes, vested in Britain and New Zealand. The coastwatching system set up in early 1941 included the mandated territory of Western Samoa, the Cook Islands, the Crown Colony of Fiji, the monarchy of Tonga, many islands in the widely scattered domain of the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific (which extends from the Solomon Islands to Pitcairn), and also some islands not continuously inhabited. In 1941, when the system was first in full operation, there were stations on ten islands of the Gilberts, seven in the Ellice Group, four in the Phoenix and three in the Tokelau Groups (reporting through Apia), five in the Samoa area, three in the Fanning Island neighbourhood, eleven in the Cook Group, six in Tongan territory, and nine in the Fiji Islands. These numbers fluctuated during the war, the general tendency being for more stations to be established during 1942 and 1943 (ignoring the loss of the Gilberts) and for stations to be closed down altogether or relieved of full duty during 1944 and 1945. A coastwatching station in this account means a station with a radio or other means of communicating with headquarters. It might have one, two, or a larger number of actual lookout posts feeding it with information.

New Zealand's coastwatching stations were mere pinpoints in the immensity of the Pacific Ocean. The most northerly were those on Fanning Island, 230 miles north of the Equator, and Makin, or Butaritari, Island in the Gilberts, 1660 miles west of Fanning and thirty miles nearer the Equator. The southernmost was the station on Campbell Island, some 3300 miles due south of Makin. A like distance, over sixty-four degrees of longitude and twenty-five degrees of latitude, separated Pitcairn Island, 2890 miles east-north-east of New Zealand, from the Auckland Islands. All the island stations in this vast area of ten million square miles were stored and serviced by the Aerodrome Services Branch of the Public Works Department by means of three small auxiliary-screw sailing vessels, the Tagua, New Golden Hind, and Ranui.

The operational control of this wide network of coastwatching stations was centred in New Zealand, but our responsibility for maintaining them was limited. The Post and Telegraph Department supplied radio equipment for many stations, both in our own dependencies and on islands governed by Britain. The fullest use was made of existing facilities, and wherever a Government or a private individual had already installed any type of radio transmitter a coastwatching station was established, even if arrangements for keeping the watch were not always entirely satisfactory.

In all island territories a general instruction was issued to the population at large to report to the authorities the appearance of strange ships or aircraft, as well as drifting or stranded mines or unusual flotsam and jetsam. On populous islands like Viti Levu, in the Fiji Group, general reporting by responsible European and Fijian individuals was well developed. It was, however, laid down that a coastwatching lookout should not be more than two hours away from its radio station, so that the delay in reporting a sighting was never likely to exceed three hours. Undoubtedly, local conditions directly affected the value of the reports made.

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