The Coastwatchers, also known as the Coast Watch Organisation, Combined Field Intelligence Service or Section C, Allied Intelligence Bureau, were Allied military intelligence operatives stationed on remote Pacific islands during World War II to observe enemy movements and rescue stranded Allied personnel. They played a significant role in the Pacific Ocean theatre and South West Pacific theatre, particularly as an early warning network during the Guadalcanal campaign.
Captain Chapman James Clare, district naval officer of Western Australia, proposed a coastwatching programme in 1919. The Australian Commonwealth Naval Board first established the coastwatching organisation, operated through the Naval Intelligence Division, in 1922. Originally confined to Australia, it expanded after the outbreak of war in 1939 to New Guinea and to the Solomon Islands.
Lieutenant Commander Eric Feldt, based in Townsville, Queensland, led the Australian coastwatch organisation during much of World War II. Coastwatchers became particularly important in monitoring Japanese activity in the roughly one thousand islands that make up the Solomon Islands.
The Australian military commissioned many personnel who took part in coastwatcher operations behind enemy lines as officers of the Royal Australian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RANVR) to protect them in case of capture, although the Imperial Japanese Army did not always recognise this status, and executed several such officers. Escaped Allied personnel and even civilians augmented the coastwatchers' numbers. In one case, three German missionaries assisted the coastwatchers after escaping Japanese captivity, even though Nazi Germany had allied itself with the Empire of Japan during the war.
Feldt code-named his organisation "Ferdinand", taking the name from a popular children's book about a bull, The Story of Ferdinand. He explained this by saying:
Ferdinand ... did not fight but sat under a tree and just smelled the flowers. It was meant as a reminder to coastwatchers that it was not their duty to fight and so draw attention to themselves, but to sit circumspectly and unobtrusively, gathering information. Of course, like their titular prototype, they could fight if they were stung.
In June 1942 "Ferdinand" became part of the Allied Intelligence Bureau, which came under the Allies' South West Pacific Area (command) (SWPA). However Feldt reported both to GHQ, SWPA, in Brisbane and to the United States-Australian-British Fleet Radio Unit in Melbourne (FRUMEL), which came under the Pacific Ocean Areas command.
New Zealand developed its own coastwatching scheme from the 1930s. From the outbreak of war, the New Zealand Naval Board controlled coastwatching stations located around the New Zealand coastline and in the eastern Pacific. Stations were established in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, Tokelau, Samoa, Fanning Island, the Cook Islands, Tonga , and Fiji. For the coastwatching programme in New Zealand's sub-Antarctic islands from 1941 to 1945, see Cape Expedition.
In 1942, two coastwatchers on Bougainville, Read and Mason, radioed early warning of Japanese warship and air movement (citing the numbers, type and speed of enemy units) to the United States Navy. Coastwatcher reports allowed US forces to launch aircraft in time to engage the attackers. Admiral William Halsey, Jr. was later to say that the two men had saved Guadalcanal.
One of the most highly decorated coastwatchers was Sergeant Major Jacob C. Vouza, who retired from the local constabulary in 1941, volunteered for coastwatcher duty, was captured and interrogated brutally. He survived and escaped to make contact with US Marines warning them of an impending Japanese attack. He recovered from his wounds and continued to scout for the Marines. He was awarded the Silver Star and Legion of Merit by the United States and later received a knighthood as well as becoming a Member of the Order of the British Empire.
Coastwatchers were paid a bounty for each rescued Allied or captured Japanese pilot they delivered. Donald Kennedy of New Georgia was paid more than US$1 million for delivering 20 Allied and 20 Japanese pilots at once in August 1943. That month, LTJG John F. Kennedy of the United States Navy—a future President—and ten fellow crew members were shipwrecked after the sinking of their boat, the PT-109. An Australian coastwatcher, Sub-Lt Arthur Reginald Evans, observed the explosion of the PT-109 when it was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. Despite US Navy crews giving up the crew as a complete loss, Evans dispatched two Solomon Islander scouts, one of them named Biuki Gasa, in dugout canoes. The scouts found the men; Kennedy scratched a message to Evans on a coconut describing the plight and position of his crew. The future US President was rescued shortly after and 20 years later welcomed Evans to the White House. Gasa did not make the trip, later claiming he received the invitation to attend but was fooled into not attending by British colonial officials. Gasa left his village and arrived in Honiara but was not allowed to leave in time for the ceremony.
"After the rescue Kennedy said he would meet us again," the other scout, Eroni Kumana, says in 'The Search for Kennedy's PT-109'. "When he became President, he invited us to visit him. But when we got to the airport, we were met by a clerk, who said we couldn't go—Biuku and I spoke no English. My feelings went for bad."
When the Japanese overran the Gilbert Islands in 1942, 17 New Zealand coastwatchers were captured. Imprisoned at Tarawa, they were executed by the Japanese in October 1942 following an American air raid.
From 1942 to 1945, New Zealand scientists were stationed on subantarctic islands during World War II (to prevent their use as refuges by German surface raiders). The idea was that scientists would not become bored but pursue their research. The stationing of the scientists was known for security reasons in scientific publications that ensued as the "Cape Expedition". The staff included Robert Falla, later to become an eminent New Zealand scientist.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Coastwatchers.|
- Bowen, James. "Australian Coastwatchers in the Pacific War". A History of the Battle for Australia 1942–43. Retrieved 12 December 2006.
- Dunn, Peter (2005). "Coast Watch Organization". Australia @ War. Retrieved 12 December 2006.
- Resture, Jane (2005). "Coastwatchers". Jane's Oceania Home Page. Retrieved 12 December 2006.