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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

Coastwatchers in the Solomons

Coastwatchers in the Solomons

A SYSTEM of coastwatching posts operated by the Royal Australian Navy covered the Solomons and New Guinea area. The coastwatchers were mostly men whose ordinary work was in the Island territories, ‘islanders’ as they were nicknamed, administrative officers, traders, or plantation owners. These coastwatchers voluntarily stayed behind when the Japanese invaded their islands; they continued to send reports, their knowledge of the natives and the country enabling them to live safely in concealment and to win the game of hide-and-seek with the enemy. Not all evaded capture or death. Their reports were of the highest value to the Allied cause. After the Americans had landed on Guadalcanal, day after day the signals from the northern islands warned the defences to expect attack from the air or the sea and enabled an exact calculation to be made of the arrival of the enemy. Admiral Halsey himself acknowledged the great debt owed to the Solomons coastwatchers: ‘… the intelligence signalled from Bougainville … had saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal had saved the South Pacific’.

Although it is not directly part of the history of New Zealand in the war, the work of some individual New Zealanders among the Solomons coastwatchers reporting to the Royal Australian Navy must not pass unrecorded. A District Officer on Santa Isabel, Major D. G. Kennedy, ‘a determined man of middle age with a strong personality’,* in common with the other members of the Protectorate administration, remained at his post. His reports of Japanese ships off Santa Isabel Island in May 1942 gave the needed warning for the evacuation of Tulagi, the capital of the Solomons Protectorate. Soon afterwards the hiding place of his own motor-boat was betrayed to the Japanese, but he was able to make his way in another vessel to Segi, a plantation on the southern coast of New Georgia, in a position protected by tortuous, uncharted channels through intricate coral reefs. From this new headquarters Kennedy organised coastwatching activities through the adjacent islands. The natives were instructed to avoid all dealings with the enemy and they proved themselves faithful and well-trained. A screen of scouts protected Kennedy's own dwelling. Natives watched for hostile aircraft and shipping and penetrated into the surrounding enemy-held territory by hazardous canoe voyages. On the few occasions when Japanese approached Segi by sea or by land, they were systematically wiped out to preserve the secret of the location of the headquarters. After the establishment of a Japanese base nine miles away on the same island, a patrol of twenty-five Japanese was sent out to find Segi. This patrol was ambushed at night and dispersed. In all these actions fifty-four Japanese were killed, while Kennedy and two natives were wounded.

Another of Kennedy's activities was to rescue airmen shot down over the neighbouring area. He paid the natives a standard reward of a bag of rice and a case of tinned meat for each airman, friend or foe, delivered to Segi. Twenty-two United States and twenty Japanese airmen were brought in; they were later collected by flying boat.

By November 1942 Segi was surrounded by Japanese posts. This did not diminish its value as a base from which scouts were sent to other islands. These reinforcements usually arrived by Catalina. In spite of their conspicuous character the visits of these flying boats never drew Japanese attention to the post. A few weeks before the United States attacks on New Georgia and Rendova in June 1943, extensive reconnaissance of Japanese positions from the land was carried out by

* Eric Feldt, The Coast Watchers (Oxford University Press, Melbourne), p. 107.

page 30 coastwatchers and native scouts from Segi, and a signal staff was sent there to handle the increased traffic. The reconquest of these territories was made much easier by the high quality of the intelligence received from the Segi headquarters, and its value was recognised in the award of the Distinguished Service Order to Major Kennedy.

From early in 1943 until May 1944 eleven telegraphists serving in the Royal New Zealand Navy were seconded, four at a time, for duty with the Australian Navy's coastwatching service to remedy a shortage. All of these men served in the parent station at Lunga, Guadalcanal, but some also took part in the operations to the north.

Telegraphist G. Carpenter, RNZN, was sent forward by canoe from Segi to join the coastwatching post on Rendova before the assault on the Japanese position on that island. After the successful attack, remnants of the Japanese garrison retreated inland and accidentally hit upon the coastwatchers' post. The handful of coastwatchers held off the Japanese for some hours but retired when the enemy brought up a machine gun. The signals staff had kept on sending messages under fire. As the coastwatchers were leaving it the Japanese rushed the post, and Carpenter had hurriedly to destroy the teleradio by wrenching out the crystals. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for his coolness in this action.

Another New Zealander, Telegraphist T. Witham, RNZNVR, was attached to a coastwatching party which went with the United States Marines in November 1943 when they landed at Torokina, Bougainville. In action the principal duty of the coastwatchers was to report aircraft sightings. Witham, who had erected new aerials while the post was being bombed, was also awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.

A New Zealand Wesleyan missionary, the Rev. A. W. E. Silvester, who remained at his station on Vella Lavella after the Japanese invasion, was closely associated with the coastwatching party established in October 1942 on his island. He rescued many shot-down American airmen. In June 1943, 161 survivors from the cruiser USS Helena, sunk in battle with the enemy, reached the island, and Silvester joined with the coastwatchers in collecting the men before they could be caught by Japanese patrols and in organising the scanty local food supply to cope with the large influx. The men were taken off by destroyer a week later. Silvester was afterwards awarded the United States Medal of Merit for these services.*

* Eric Feldt, The Coast Watchers. The greater part of this account of the Solomons coastwatchers is based on Feldt's account of the coastwatching organisation under the operational control of the Royal Australian Navy.