Working in the tropical jungle in the South Pacific gathering military information for the Allies with the enemy all around was vital and incredibly dangerous.
That’s what the Coastwatchers did during World War II.
Peering through binoculars from camouflaged hideouts and high points, the men who volunteered for that duty tipped off American, Australian, British and other Allies about Japanese ship and troop movement.
Today, the Coastwatchers are rarely remembered.
They rescued downed aviators and wounded soldiers, returning them to friendly forces and then melted back into the jungle to continue their work.
Local natives in the Solomon Islands, New Guinea and other islands helped as well.
On the day the U.S. 1st Marine Division landed on Guadalcanal in 1942, native islander Jacob Charles Vouza, a retired sergeant major from the Solomon Islands Protectorate Armed Constabulary who was educated at South Seas Evangelical Mission School, rescued a downed aviator from the USS Wasp aircraft carrier.
He led him to the Marines, and then volunteered to be a scout behind enemy lines.
Two weeks later while searching for enemy outposts, he was captured. The Japanese found a small American flag in his loincloth, so they tied him to a tree and tortured him for hours for information about the allied forces.
Vouza refused to talk.
Then they bayonetted him in the arms, shoulders, face, throat and stomach, and left him to die.
He amazingly freed himself by chewing through the ropes, and made his way to American lines.
Before accepting medical attention, he reported that 250 to 500 Japanese soldiers were heading their way.
Quickly, the Marines got ready for the attack that started just 10 minutes later. It was called the Battle of the Tenaru.
The Marines won.
After 12 days in the hospital, Vouza headed back into the jungle.
Years after the war, he was honored with many high awards and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth.
Most of the Coastwatchers were Australian, with some British, New Zealanders and Americans.
They were surrounded by the Japanese most of the time, which meant constantly having to move, hauling their heavy equipment with them. Patrick Lindsay in his book “Coastwatcher” describes the scene:
“These unheralded heroes performed extraordinary feats. Two of their most remarkable members, Paul Mason and Jack Read, worked on Bougainville under the most harrowing circumstances: with constant enemy patrols trying to eliminate them, with few supplies and uncertain support. Their warnings played a critical role in allowing the Americans to triumph on Guadalcanal.”
Australian Navy Commander Eric Feldt was given the job of heading up the Naval Intelligence Centre in Port Moresby. From there, he traveled the area recruiting everyone who had a tele-radio — a clumsily large instrument consisting of a transmitter, receiver, loudspeaker that was powered by car batteries recharged by a gasoline-driven engine. It took 12 to 16 locals to help carry it all.
The volunteer Coastwatchers set up in an operational perimeter stretching from the Dutch border on New Guinea to east of the Solomon Islands.
For possible protection in case of capture, the Coastwatchers were later given military status.
An Australian Government report says, “After the capture, torture and murder of Percy Good, an elderly copra planter on Buka Island, off Bougainville, all civilians were enlisted into the Royal Australian Navy in the belief that their combatant status would protect them if they were captured by the enemy.”
After General MacArthur arrived in Australia from the Philippines, he made the Coastwatchers part of the Allied Intelligence Bureau. By then, there were more than 100 Coastwatchers tracking the Japanese.
Code name for the operation was “Ferdinand,” named after the children’s book character Ferdinand the Bull who would rather sit under a tree and sniff the flowers than fight in the bullring.
The message behind that was that Coastwatchers were to gather intelligence and keep a low profile — and not to fight. They were armed however, and occasionally had to use their weapons.
Some Coastwatchers were caught by the Japanese, tortured and executed.
Not caught were some German missionaries who helped the Allies, even though Germany and Japan were on the same side.
Just months after Pearl Harbor, Coastwatchers saved Australia from being invaded by the Japanese when they spotted a fleet of Japanese ships carrying 5,500 troops on their way to attack Port Moresby on the southeast coast of New Guinea.
That was to be the launching point for an invasion of Australia.
They planned to take the port before American and Australian navies could join up and stop them.
But the Japanese flotilla was spotted by two Aussi Coastwatchers — one on Bougainville Island and the other on New Georgia. Both radioed their observations to headquarters at Port Moresby.
That gave the Americans and Aussies time to prepare.
On May 4, 1942, the Japanese arrived and were surprised by the Allied naval reception committee. For four days, the Battle of the Coral Sea raged. Then it was over, and both sides claimed victory.
The U.S. lost the aircraft carrier Lexington and several other ships. The biggest Japanese loss was light carrier Shoho.
Comparing just losses, the Japanese had a tactical victory, but their drive to take Port Moresby as a stepping stone to Australia was stopped — giving a strategic victory to the Allies and a big morale boost after a string of defeats in the first six months of the war.
Also, it was the first time in the war that the Japanese had not achieved their tactical objective.
The Japanese looked disdainfully at the Allied effort in the Coral Sea engagement.
But the Battle of Midway was just a month away and that quickly changed their attitude when the U.S. Navy devastated the Japanese fleet — sinking four aircraft carriers along with other ships.
Midway was the first time in history that a naval battle was won by air power, and the victory opened the road to Tokyo.
Over and over again, the Coastwatchers radioed alerts that enemy ships or planes were on their way — giving Allied forces time to meet the attacks.
They also rescued 321 downed Allied airmen, 280 sailors, 75 prisoners of war, 190 missionaries and civilians, and hundreds of island natives.
U.S. Fleet Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey said, “The Coastwatchers saved the Guadalcanal and Guadalcanal saved the South Pacific.”
Also playing a vital role in the Solomon Island campaign were the swift PT boats.
Armed with torpedoes and .50-calibre machine guns, they prowled the straits between the islands, ready to pounce on enemy ships.
On the night of Aug. 2, 1943, PT-109 was patrolling Blackett Strait in the Solomon Islands when the Japanese destroyer Amagiri suddenly churned right at them and sliced the wooden PT boat in half.
Two crewmembers were killed, and mechanic Patrick Henry “Pappy” McMahon badly burned and unable to swim.
Eleven survived — including the PT’s skipper — Lieutenant (J.G.) John F. Kennedy, future president of the United States.
Perched in his secret lookout on top of nearby Mount Veve volcano on Kolombangara Island, with 10,000 Japanese soldiers garrisoned below, Australian Coastwatcher Arthur Reginald Evans from Sydney saw the explosion and shortly thereafter learned by radio that it was the PT-109.
He immediately sent native scouts Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana out in a dugout canoe to look for survivors.
Meanwhile, JFK led his crew on a four-hour swim to Plum Pudding Island — some holding onto wooden wreckage from the PT — through shark and ocean crocodile-infested waters during nighttime when the predators normally hunt for food.
Miraculously none appeared.
In the days that followed, the survivors swam from one island to the next looking for food, water and hopefully rescue. Ending up on tiny Naru, they found a tin of Japanese candy, crackers and a drum of fresh water.
Finally on Day Five, Coastwatcher Evans’ scouts found them, and during the next few days brought them food, alerted the Americans and delivered a note Kennedy carved on a coconut husk (now in the JFK Museum).
Leaving the crew on Naru, Kennedy and the two scouts went by canoe to an American base on New Georgia and returned with two PT boats to pick up the rest.
Almost overnight, Kennedy became a war hero, and when asked how he became a hero he replied:
“It was involuntary — they sank my boat.”
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Contact Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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The real PT-109 had been in continual combat for five months before JFK took command and was not the derelict shown in the movie. President John F. Kennedy approved selecting Cliff Robertson playing him in the movie. He enjoyed the film and praised Robertson’s acting, noting only that while watching some early footage, his hair was parted on the wrong side. They corrected it. JFK also approved not using his Boston accent.
What happened to the native scout rescuers?
Both Solomon Islanders Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana who found the PT-109 crew were visited by National Geographic in 2002. They were presented a bust of JFK by Max Kennedy, JFK’s nephew. President Kennedy invited both of them to his inauguration, but the island authorities prevented them from boarding the plane at the airport and gave their trip to local officials instead, claiming that the appearance and pidgin English spoken by the two heroic scouts would be “an embarrassment.”
In 2002, a National Geographic Society deep sea exploration expedition headed by Robert Ballard and including JFK’s nephew Max Kennedy found the wreckage of the PT-109 at a depth of 1,200 feet. They found a torpedo tube and the forward section on the vessel. The gravesite was left undisturbed in accordance with Navy policy.
Thanking Coastwatcher Evans…
Charles Reginald Evans received Australia’s Distinguished Service Cross for his heroic service as a Coastwatcher, and met with President Kennedy at the White House on May 1, 1961. Evans died in 1989 at age 84.
End of the Amagiri…
The Japanese destroyer Amagiri that rammed and sunk JFK’s PT-109 was heading from Singapore to Davao in the Philippines when on April 23, 1944, it struck a mine some 60 miles south of Borneo and took more than two hours to sink, with only a few casualties.
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Invitation to readers…
Everyone has a story. Press readers are invited to submit their Popcorn History stories (“Tasty little morsels of personal history”) for possible publication. Keep them 600 words or less. The stories may be edited if required. Submission of stories automatically grants permission to publish. Send to Syd Albright at email@example.com.
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