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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

The Manning of the Stations

The Manning of the Stations

LOCAL authorities gave the utmost assistance to the coastwatching system. At Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands, for instance, where there was already a Government radio station, the watch was first kept by members of the island boys' brigade. The boys tired of the novelty of looking out over the empty sea, and the duty was taken over by returned Polynesian soldiers at the local rates of pay for constables. The lookout points were all high up, and it was hard work scrambling up to them. On Niue the watch was organised by the Resident Commissioner, the coastwatchers being natives who were paid two shillings a day for their services. The instructions to these coastwatchers held out an unusual inducement to unflagging zeal: ‘One sentry must always be on the lookout, and if he carries out his soldier's duty properly he may see a battle at sea.’ On Tarawa, in the Gilberts, the Government radio operator made the coastwatching reports from information supplied by native lookouts: he was to lose his life as a consequence of this service.

Not all Pacific stations could be manned by local persons. In the Pacific Islands generally there was a shortage of trained wireless operators. Attempts were made in 1941 to overcome this deficiency and native operators were trained in Suva, in Tonga, at Tarawa, and later at Funafuti. These men later gave good service, though in some cases their scanty knowledge of English was a grave handicap. The quaint phraseology used in their often imperfectly coded signals could be alternatively a source of exasperation or amusement. In the first months at least (and often for longer) these native operators had to be helped by skilled European operators supplied by the New Zealand Post and Telegraph Department, and in some places native operators had to be replaced by New Zealanders. The men sent were all volunteers.

The New Zealand Chiefs of Staff doubted the wisdom of posting to remote tropical islands young men without much experience of life who might not easily adjust themselves to the isolated conditions in places where they would be the only Europeans among a native population. It was decided, therefore, that these operators should have older men as companions. Thus soldier companions to most of the wireless operators were sent in pairs to the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, except Funafuti, where two operators were stationed—until Japan entered the war they also had the company of the District Officer. When reliefs were sent to the Ellice Group early in 1943 the number of soldier companions was reduced to one for each operator. In Fiji, on some islands of the Tongan Group, and on certain other islands, soldiers were sent to some of the more important stations to supervise the work of native operators. On Fanning Island coastwatching was the responsibility of the military garrison.

The sub-Antarctic islands were manned at first wholly by men recruited by the Public Works Department, and both Raoul (or Sunday) Island in the Kermadecs and Suvarov (or Suwarrow) Island had, to begin with, Public Works survey parties which also acted as coastwatchers. The radio operators in each case were recruited from the Post and Telegraph Department. Suvarov had been noted by the Chiefs of Staff in 1940 as an uninhabited island with a good anchorage which raiders could use. Early in 1942 it was swamped in a hurricane, the coastwatchers climbing a tree to avoid being drowned. After the sea subsided the operator had to dry out his equipment and almost three months passed before the station was on the air again.

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During 1942 United States naval or military forces occupied many islands in the south- eastern Pacific. Some coastwatching stations were handed over entirely to the Americans: for instance, they manned two of the Tongan stations. On Canton and Christmas Islands the New Zealand signals staffs remained but passed under American control. In Fiji and elsewhere American radar stations were installed, extending the scope of the reporting service.

At the beginning of 1941 there were seven authorities controlling communications in the eastern Pacific area for whose defence New Zealand was responsible. Some of the fifty existing radio stations were operated by natives, others by private persons—missionaries or planters. There was no co-ordination, and the heterogeneous nature of the control of the radio stations made the system, if it could be called that, too inefficient for the prompt passing of signals from the coastwatching stations then being established. Naval intelligence is a unity. The enemy reports from one area are of interest and importance to all other areas, and the nearer the origin of the report the more interesting and important. But reports are valueless unless they are swiftly passed to the authority which will act upon them.

In agreement with the Governor of Fiji, who is also the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific, the New Zealand Government set up a unified communications system centred in Suva under the direction of a civilian official supplied by the Post and Telegraph Department. He bore the title of Controller of Pacific Communications. He had direct control of the important Suva aeradio station and also acted as adviser to the Government of Fiji in communications matters, but in an emergency he could assume executive powers and would then be responsible to the Government of New Zealand. After Japan entered the war, the Controller of Pacific Communications early in December 1941 assumed and exercised this authority. Suva had a number of advantages as a control centre. It was geographically near the centre of the area, it already had a powerful radio station, and it was linked by cable to Australia and New Zealand and, by Fanning Island, to Canada.

In each island group a parent station passed to Suva any messages received by it from individual coastwatching stations. These parent stations were Ocean Island in the Gilberts,* Funafuti in the Ellice Group, Canton Island in the Phoenix Group, Apia in Samoa, Fanning Island, Rarotonga in the Cook Group, Nukualofa in Tonga, and Suva itself in the Fiji Group. Raoul Island and the Chatham Islands had Wellington as their parent station, Norfolk Island had Wellington or Auckland, and the sub-Antarctic islands had Awarua.

To make sure that each station was always ‘on the air’ if needed, sub-stations passed signals to parent stations and the parent stations themselves made contact with Suva at regular schedule times. Unless there were any signals to be sent, these schedules did not go beyond the acknowledgement of each other's call signs and signal strengths. At each parent station a constant loud-speaker watch on a frequency used by the sub-stations made it possible for a signal to be received at any time; a sighting report from an individual coastwatching station would be immediately retransmitted to Suva by the more powerful parent station. Signals describing the sighting of aeroplanes or ships received at Suva from anywhere in the coastwatching system were reported, during 1941, to the Resident Naval Officer, and afterwards to the New Zealand Naval Liaison Officer, and if unidentified or important were retransmitted by Suva to Auckland. From early in 1942 page 7 the United States Fleet had many ships in the South Pacific, and from that time it was arranged that Honolulu should also receive everything that Auckland received; both stations also retransmitted automatically any signal received which had not originated with the other. In this way important signals were known with a minimum loss of time to both the New Zealand and the United States naval authorities.

* When Ocean Island was evacuated in February 1942 the auxiliary parent station, Beru, took over.