During World War II, Royal Australian Navy Coastwatchers stationed throughout the South and Southwest Pacific areas played a vital role in the defeat of the Japanese. Coastwatchers warned of enemy bombing raids, reported on enemy air and surface movements, reconnoitered beaches, evacuated civilians and prisoners of war, and rescued downed airmen and shipwrecked sailors. Many of these services were particularly useful to U. S. military forces who could not have performed such work themselves. In addition, after the Coastwatchers became guerrillas, they eliminated some 5,000 Japanese and wounded or captured others. Yet the entire force numbered about 400 Europeans (of whom less than 100 were in the field) and about 1,000 natives. Of these, 37 Europeans and 50 natives were killed.
The original Coastwatching Organization had not been planned to carry out exactly these operations. At the end of World War I, the Royal Australian Navy instituted a civilian Coastwatching Organization to report the movements of unidentified shipping to the Director of Naval Intelligence. On the outbreak of the war with 'Germany, I was appointed Supervising Intelligence Officer of the Northeast Area comprising the northern part of Queensland, Papua, and Australian New Guinea, the British Solomons, and the New Hebrides (British-French Condominium) to control and expand the organization there. I had retired from the Navy as a Lieutenant, had spent the next 16 years in New Guinea, knew the area and its people, and had had considerable experience in the jungle.
Between 1939 and 1941 the organization was expanded, first by bringing in the existing teleradios and then by supplying on loan teleradios to individuals in strategic positions and finally by appointing Naval Intelligence Officers to the capitals of each Territory. By late 1940, over 100 teleradios were operative, reporting to centers at Thursday Island, Port Moresby, Rabaul, Tulagi, and Vila. From these points, signals were sent in high grade code to an Area Combined Headquarters in Townsville, Queensland, and then to the Director of Naval Intelligence in Melbourne, Victoria. All operatives, except the NIO’s were civilians. The NIO’s were instructed to take to the jungle and continue reporting in the event of invasion. No such orders could be given to the civilians though the prospect had been discussed privately with some of them. Some of them had served under me in civil life and I knew most of them personally; this, plus the fact that there was an existing organization, was a distinct factor in making their decisions to stay at their posts when invasion actually took place.
With the fall of Rabaul in January 1942, several Coastwatchers were captured or killed, leaving a gap extending from the New Guinea mainland to Buka and Bougainville.
The remaining Coastwatchers picked up communication with Port Moresby though the distance of nearly 600 miles made reception sometimes difficult. Some Coastwatchers from outlying islands were stationed on the coast southeast of Madang and kept there for future operations. Civil administration in Papua and New Guinea was replaced by military and many of the operatives were given Army rank, while in the Solomons the Resident Commissioner retired to Malaita Island and continued administration with a skeleton staff. Later, other Coastwatchers were given naval appointments and the organization continued to function, the Australian Army personnel being seconded to the Coastwatching Organization.
With the assumption of command of the Southwest Pacific Area by General McArthur it was decided to co-ordinate the activities of unorthodox units. The Allied Intelligence Bureau was formed, directly under G2 (General Willoughby) with Colonel Roberts of the Australian Army as Director. Other sections in AIB dealt with the Philippines, the Netherlands East Indies, British Borneo, and with sabotage. The Coastwatchers retained their function in New Guinea and the Solomons, but areas still uninvaded were placed under the Australian Army. One great advantage of this was that, being a Headquarters Unit, lesser commanders could not interfere.
The division between the Southwest Pacific and the South Pacific made a theoretical problem, as it was certain that the most important information from Bougainville in the Southwest Pacific would be useful to the U. S. Forces in the South Pacific, when operations against Guadalcanal commenced. Lieutenant Mackenzie, who had been NIO in Rabaul, was sent to the latter place to establish himself as my Deputy (DSIO) to collect information and pass it on. In practice, we took no notice of the dividing line and Read and Mason on Bougainville sent him signals direct while I continued to supply them from Townsville. In October 1942, further parties were moved to the islands by submarine and these were administered by DSIO. Over-all administration remained in Australia.
In the whole organization, Mackenzie and I were the only professionally trained officers. We both had extensive knowledge of the area, its people, and conditions. When I relinquished command in 1943 because of a coronary thrombosis, Mackenzie was the natural successor, but he soon developed blackwater fever and Commander McManus, who had served in Intelligence but had little personal knowledge of the area, was appointed. By then, however, the pattern of operations was well enough established to allow him to continue successfully.
It was advisable to have a professional officer in command, to understand the requirements, know the limitations of other services, and to deal with senior officers. Where he had insufficient local knowledge, he could rely on the advice of non-professionals who did have it.
Stationing of Coastwatchers
In war, no one knows where operations will develop. Was there, in 1940, a less likely place than Guadalcanal? Originally, watching posts were placed to cover the whole arc of islands; after the Japanese entry, posts were selected depending on the likelihood of their being useful and on the possibility of using them. One unforeseen result was that the stations on the south coast of Papua provided warnings of air raids on Torres Straits by aircraft from Rabaul which I had, frankly, never thought of. On the other hand, we placed extra personnel on Guadalcanal because it was the only island with an area which could readily be converted to an airstrip. Buin and Buka Passage were situated on the direct line from Rabaul and Kavieng on that to Guadalcanal so that we had nothing to do but leave our Coastwatchers where they were. The worst situation which could arise was that the Japanese and ourselves might arrive at the same place at the same time. We had several casualties from that in New Britain.
Communications and Codes
Initially, high grade codes were used from communications centers. The civilian operators were instructed in the use of the Playfair Code and practiced with dummy runs. Code words were changed every month but we soon ran out of them. There, personal knowledge was used in emergency: “Use the surname of the officer who lived on fowls and ice cream at Madang” or the occupation of a man’s brother. Call signs were also altered. Later, special codes were compiled for our use. For the attack on Guadalcanal, it was felt that messages were so important that they were sent in plain language and an alternative circuit through Pearl Harbor repeated them. As soon as DSIO was established, code was reverted to. Luckily, the enemy did not realize the importance of our signals. It was a risk that had to be taken.
The first safeguard was to keep communications down to the absolute minimum. In this, discipline was excellent and no unnecessary transmissions were sent. The Japanese never realized the important role of the Coastwatchers and this was mainly due to their using the air no more than was necessary. The teleradio used at first was one which had been in civilian use in the area. It was very efficient and stood the climate, but needed six men to- move it. Later, the R.A.A.F. designed a 30-pound, dry battery set. Coast-watchers were allotted one frequency and constant watch was kept on it.
Few of the Coastwatchers were expert radiomen. However, professionals at the bases often took signals which would have baffled anyone less skilled. When messages did not get through, an alert operator at another station could often make a relay.
The whole success of the organization depended on its personnel. Knowledge of the country and of the natives was essential. “Going bush” was not simple. Supplies and radio equipment had to be moved over primitive trails in rough country. This required carriers, and they required more supplies. Food had to be obtained from local natives, so the whereabouts of the party was known to many, any of whom could betray it. The co-operation of the natives could only be obtained by a man who knew them. First, he had to speak pidgin, a language which takes about a year to learn. Conditions were grossly unhealthy and only those who understood them could survive. This meant that only “Islanders”—experienced men who had lived there—were of any use and those must be reasonably young.
There never were many such people, and some of them had already joined the fighting forces and were overseas when Japan entered the war. A number of them were returned to us as the war went on, but there was always a demand from other forces for experienced personnel. Men who had been behind the lines needed time to recuperate before they could be sent in again. This all added up to a shortage of skilled personnel. In the later stages, Army personnel manned the radios, but with an experienced Islander in charge.
In the beginning, we were all known to each other if not personal friends. In the field, men were trusted to use their own judgment; they were told what was wanted and they did it if they could. If they said it could not be done, that was accepted. Occasionally there were cases of actual disobedience. Read and Mason, having been behind the lines for nine months, were relieved by three experienced Islanders. They refused to come out and leave the natives who had served them so loyally. Their decision was gratefully accepted.
There was no possibility of any European posing as a native. Concealment was our only hope and this meant mobility. Coastwatchers were ordered not to fight unless they had to and the code name “Ferdinand” was used to remind them of it. This, too, was disobeyed at times. Kennedy fought to keep his area clear and succeeded because the Guadalcanal fight was in full swing and the enemy had no troops to spare. In other countries, however, it might be very different and the best concealment might be in the slums of a large city. Anywhere, the natives of the country will be the best operators. We could not use them in New Guinea because none were sufficiently educated to carry out the duties. Now, 15 years later, the case would be different.
Recognition of his services was the highest reward a Coastwatcher could want. General MacArthur awarded Distinguished Service Crosses to Read, Mason, Rhoades, and Macfarlan soon after the Guadalcanal landings and this was of great value in encouraging the men in the field. Later, personnel were well decorated.
The original Coastwatchers were self- selected, which is the best method. Later, volunteers were taken, generally selected on their local knowledge. Personnel of “Ferdinand” came from all three Australian military services. This had the advantage that in dealing with each service, an officer of that service could be used. However, the disadvantages of different administrative systems in the services far outweighed this. Worst of all was the promotion problem: out of the blue, an Army captain in a party commanded by a naval lieutenant might be promoted to major and so entitled to assume command. The best system would have been to have all men from one service except a few older ones with local knowledge, and prior experience in other services, for use as liaison officers.
The early Coastwatchers had no formal training. The basic requirement was that they knew how to keep alive in the bush. They had weapons and communication equipment. Identification silhouettes of ships and aircraft were air dropped to them. Proposals for sabotage training were resisted. Our job was intelligence collection, and the men were better off without the temptation to blow up something and attract enemy attention. Men were trained in coding, use of the radio and small arms.
The ideal size of a party was four Europeans and as many natives as necessary for each situation. The four-man party was selected because a man alone was under too much strain; two were not enough for continuous work; with three, two of them might be friends and leave the third man out. There could be no formal discipline in the bush where they all lived together.
For base staffs, the best men were those who had already been behind the lines. But the major difficulty was to keep them at the base—they all wanted to go out again. We used some older men for key positions, but so many were required for liaison work with different commands that most of the positions had to be filled by men with little knowledge of the actual work. There may be people who can tell by looking at a man whether he will stand up in war or not, but I am not one of them. Our only punishment was to send the offender back to his original service. I remember one officer who failed badly where qualities of imagination were required, but in another assignment where courage and tenacity were needed, he served with distinction.
Original parties obtained supplies from local civil sources. Further supplies were dropped from aircraft at night near full moon. After the Coastwatcher had indicated a dropping zone known to me or someone else at the base, he was given the ETA of the aircraft and lit beacon fires when he heard the engine. Supplies, such as rice, flour, and staple items, could be dropped in half-filled bags, a trick learned in New Guinea in peacetime. Storepedoes, containers with springloaded heads, dropped by parachute could land almost anything including teleradios, Properly if packed, and we landed teleradios by this means. Mail and small luxuries were dropped to make the men below feel that they had not been forgotten as human beings. Relatives sent letters to our office for forwarding, but they rarely got replies.
The jungle-covered mountains were not suited to parachuting personnel, so they were sent in by submarines. The submarines had the additional virtue that they could also take off wounded or sick men. These operations were risky, as unloading left the submarine exposed for long periods. If there was no contact with people already on the beach, a small canoe was used to reconnoiter before the main landing took place. Packages had to be limited in size to suit submarine hatches.
Food had to be of the type the consumers were used to. For instance, in the Solomons, the ample coffee supplies did not compensate the Australians for the lack of tea. Another scarce item was the type of tobacco preferred by natives, which also passed as small currency. Spare stores had to be hidden in different positions to meet unusual demands. For instance, Josselyn and Firth on Vella Lavella once had 161 survivors on their hands, most of them from USS Helena.
Bound up with the question of supply and landings was the relationship with other services. We had no aircraft or submarines allotted to us, until later, in the Philippine and Borneo sections. We asked for what we wanted when we wanted it. In the early days we had worked closely with the R.A.A.F. and as we provided their air warnings, they did all they could to help us. However, there was such a shortage of aircraft that to divert one for our supply was a serious 'matter. We kept our requests to a minimum and the R.A.A.F. never let us down though sometimes rain over the dropping zone sent cargoes astray. Later, when there were more aircraft, our requests became easier to fulfill. In the Solomons, the U. S. Navy realized the worth of our warnings and did everything possible to assist us.
It was our experience that we got consideration from other services in proportion to the benefits they got from us. At first, the least cooperative service was the Australian Army who were not directly affected by what we did; later, in the guerrilla phase, they were most co-operative. In the early days on Guadalcanal, it was felt that General Vandergrift was dubious of our usefulness, but he soon changed to hearty helpfulness. One minor point was that many shot-down airmen thought we were there just to pick them up and they made trouble when they could not be evacuated immediately.
Everything must be done to prevent the enemy from knowing what is being done and where, but secrecy can be overdone. In our case, when a signal was received reporting an air strike on its way, the Air Force Staff had to know where the reporting Coastwatcher was in order to make their calculations. If we were to be of help to shot-down airmen, they had to know parties were in the field and approximately where. Most local natives knew where the parties were. Further, when parties were required to cover a projected major operation, some information had to be given by the top command in order to fulfill their requirements.
In another section of the Allied Intelligence Bureau, where secrecy was worshipped, an officer had to pass through a forward military post to reach his assignment. He declined to tell the commanding officer who he was or what he was doing and was promptly (and quite properly) placed under arrest and his mission was delayed until the situation was cleared up.
We had no formal alarm signal to indicate that an operative had been captured. The voice and signalling style of each was his own identification. Probably we should have had some means by which an operator could indicate that he was being forced to transmit by an enemy, but we left that to the individual. Fortunately, that never happened.
A Lesson to Remember
What can a U. S. naval officer learn from our experience that may be of use in the future? The next war is always different from the last and conditions will not be parallel. Advance information of enemy strengths and movements, however, is valuable and always will be. It seems unlikely that any part of the United States will be over-run, but in smaller, weaker countries, this condition might well arise and the United States might find itself an ally having to deal with and depend on information from enemy occupied territory.
An officer assigned to that duty will find himself in Country A while the Coastwatching goes on in Country B. There may be few in Country A who know anything about Country B and his first search may be for someone who does. At this point, remember an important “Don’t.” Don’t take into your confidence the first man who comes along with knowledge of Country B. He may only be a fast talker in search of a base job with access to a PX. Without rejecting him, search around for others. The best ones will be found in some existing organization, the armed forces, the government, or an extensive commercial firm. Select a man who has performed a little in preference to one who promises much. Adopt the most promising outfit and then let them run their own show as long as it provides what you want.
Keep your communications simple: a code on one sheet of paper, and a radio that a nonexpert can maintain. If possible, use one that has been tried in the area. A radio can be concealed, but its signal cannot, so insist on the minimum of signalling for the best security. Let your watchers arrange their own supplies while giving them any you have which may be useful.
Do not enforce your own form of discipline or ask for agreement with your opinions on anything but the job in hand. If your men perform valuable and dangerous service, try to have your seniors recognize it by decorations and praise. Admiral Halsey always did this and gained our wholehearted loyalty. This can be done without endangering security, provided it is not broadcast or published.
In addition, watch information dissemination. It is frustrating for an operative to send in information and find that it is not used. For instance, we read heartbreaking accounts of the Marines landing on Guadalcanal with no knowledge of the terrain or the position of the enemy and thought it was just journalistic license; not until after the war did we learn that all the information we had so carefully compiled had been lost in New Zealand.
Above all, do not let your men be treated as expendable. If they begin to think they are being so used, they will “get smart” and look after themselves first. They will be in a position to do so without you or anyone else knowing it.
In short, treat any Allied Coastwatchers or similar organization in the same way the Senior U. S. officers of all forces treated us in World War II. One could do no better.
After graduating from the Royal Australian Naval College, Commander Feldt served as a Midshipman in HMS Canada and an Acting Sub-Lieutenant in HMS Sybille during World War I. He retired from the Royal Australian Navy as a Lieutenant in 1922, and served in the New Guinea Administration from 1923 until 1939, when he again entered service as a Lieutenant Commander. During World War II, he performed various duties connected with intelligence in the South West Pacific Area, was attached to GHQ South West Pacific Area, and served as Naval Officer in Command at Torokina. His book, The Coast Watchers has been published in England and the United States.