Heroes of the Solomons: The Coastwatchers

The role played by Australian Coastwatchers and their Melanesian scouts during the Pacific War

Martin Clemens and his local Solomon Islander "boys"

“The Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal saved the Pacific.”
- Admiral William F. Halsey USN

Words: Roderick Eime

When the conversation turns to Australia's actions in WWII’s Pacific Theatre, it invariably starts with tales of the Kokoda Track and how our brave and underresourced lads turned back a Japanese invasion. Well, all that is true of course, but it’s part of a much bigger picture.

While many military history authors fixate on Kokoda, Michael Veitch has made it his mission to shine a light on the many other actions and personalities who, for one reason or another, have been overlooked in our recounting of the campaign that occupied much of 1942.

One such motley group of highly effective espionage agents was actually comprised of mainly civilians who happened to be in the right place when the urgent need arose. 

“The Coastwatcher organisation of World War II has been rightly described by their wartime leader, Commander Erik Feldt, as ‘one of the most successful spy rings of all time’, said Veitch, “achieving real battlefield results far in excess of their minuscule numbers.”

The need for these improvised coastal sentries came about after WWI when it was realised that our northern borders were almost completely undefended. At the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, German colonialists and their small militia detachments roamed and sailed unchallenged all across our porous frontier. 

Commander Eric Feldt, the Queensland-born son of Swedish immigrants who had joined the Royal Navy (RN) in 1917, worked in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s and reenlisted when war broke out in 1939. With his regional experience and sharp military mind, he was given the task of forming a network of lookouts across PNG, Bougainville and the Solomons whose job it was to report on ship and aircraft movements in their vicinity.

Also critical to the success of the coastwatcher operation was the cooperation of the local native people. It was important, Feldt noted, that locals must be treated fairly and paid properly in order to gain their trust. Without the aid of villagers, the operation would fail.

Feldt drew on his contacts among missionaries, traders, administrators and plantation owners, supplied them with radios and hoped for the best. When the Japanese forces arrived on their doorstep any coastwatchers captured would receive little mercy and almost 40 fell into enemy hands. Of those, none survived the brutal interrogation that ensued.

A wireless telegraphist operator, probably Sgt William ‘Billy’ Bennett, British Solomon Islands Protectorate Defence Force, operating an AWA 3BZ teleradio at the Seghe coastwatchers’ station ZFJ5. (AWM)

But if the worth of Feldt’s secret men and women ever needed to be validated, one event stands out that changed the course of the war in the Pacific.

Initially, they had performed small, but heroic acts such as helping the few surviving stragglers from Rabaul escape their Japanese pursuers in January 1942. They also helped coordinate the evacuation by submarine of Europeans destined to be hunted and slaughtered by the enraged Japanese.

But it was in August 1942 as 19,000 US Marines and their supply ships were unloading on the beaches of Guadalcanal that a simple but vitally important radio message was relayed to the vulnerable invasion fleet.

Paul Mason was a short, half-deaf and malaria-impaired 40-year-old former plantation manager who was almost passed over for the mission. But Mason and his 2IC, Jack Read, bravely remained on Bougainville operating from behind enemy lines, providing vital weather reports. Then, on August 7, a telltale V-formation of Japanese dive bombers flew overhead on a course for Guadalcanal. Mason immediately radioed his now famous message: "Twenty-four bombers headed yours". These critical five words were relayed via Port Moresby, Townsville and Canberra to the US fleet anchored off Guadalcanal, giving them a vital 90 minutes to prepare for the attack. 

Thanks to Mason’s message, the supply ships were withdrawn to safety and a flight of US Navy Wildcat fighters sent up to intercept the incoming attackers. Thinking they had the jump on the Americans, the Japanese bombers were instead taken completely by surprise and cut to shreds allowing the Marines to consolidate their beachhead.

The vicious fighting on Guadalcanal would rage until February 1943 when the last of the Japanese survivors were evacuated. From that moment on, the Allied forces were on the offensive, culminating in the unconditional surrender of Japan in September 1945.

Michael Veitch’s latest book on Australia’s war in the Pacific, Australia's Secret Army, tells the long-overlooked story of these brave and sometimes flamboyant men and women and their crucial role in the Allied victory in the Pacific.

"They watched and warned and died that we might live."

Sir Jacob Vouza

Sir Jacob Charles Vouza MBE, GM

Equally as famous and perhaps more so, is the courageous Jacob Vouza who was captured by the Japanese while on a dangerous patrol and beaten and tortured to near death.

Vouza survived the war, passing away in 1984 at the age of 84. For his exemplary bravery, he was presented with the Silver Star and Legion of Merit. In 1979, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. In addition, he was awarded Great Britain’s George Medal and a scholarship fund was set up in his name to assist underprivileged Solomon Island children in attaining a better education. 

Refusing to give any information to his captors, he was left for dead. When Vouza regained consciousness, he freed himself and crawled four miles back to Allied lines in order to deliver vital intelligence. When met by Martin Clemens, the Australian said he could “barely look at him” because of the severity of his wounds.


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