As I remember : A Coast-watcher's story
By P.F. Wallader
Way back in 1923 I was born into this world in Gympie, Queensland, to be reared in the small timber town of Imbil. My toys consisted of match tins on a string and a home made timber truck with trailer. Later on for Christmas I got a Mecanno Set, as that was the toy of the day. The only things to do were go and collect the eggs and help bring in the cows for milking. Owing to the fact that my father was the local blacksmith and there were numerous horse and bullock teams hauling their pine and hardwood logs to the loading yards at the railway, I liked hearing stories from the bullockies. Seeing that my mother boarded the local school teachers, I was sent to school six months early in order to escape learning the bullockies’ language. I maintain that I cannot manage a computer but I can put a wagon wheel together and shoe a horse. As time progressed the bullock wagons were replaced by motor transport, going from the 3 ton truck and trailer with one log at a time, and then to solid tyre trucks carrying large loads.
I went through primary school as normal in Imbil; went swimming in the local Yabba Creek, not a concrete swimming pool. We had the swimming carnival in the creek as well. Football was the most popular sport. 1937 was a bad year. The primary school was burnt down about the middle of the year. My mother took sick and passed away suddenly at the end of the year. I sat for my Scholarship exam the day my mother was buried. To further my schooling I went to Gympie and boarded with friends and finished my high school in 1939.
Against my grain, I was destined to be a school teacher and was sent off to Brisbane to attend Teachers Training College in 1940 and then the Technical College in 1941 to be a Manual Arts Teacher. Fortunately I was boarded with a family who were our neighbours in Imbil. My friends and I went into town to see the American Fleet and the opening of the Story Bridge in 1940.
The war in Europe erupted in 1939. While I was at college in mid-1941 the whole class – nine in all – put our names down for military service, but were rejected by the Education Department. On the 7th December 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. Results were, I was accepted into the Navy and on 7th January 1942 I was sent to Flinders Naval Depot in Melbourne for training. In March 1942 I was posted to the Naval Base in Brisbane. The war with the Japanese was very active. We were kept busy. The most notable incident that comes to my mind is the Japanese midget submarine and float plane activity in and around Sydney and up the east coast of Australia. At about this time Jack Kissane and I were brought together and worked together until mid-1944. In mid-1942 the Allied Intelligence Bureau was formed, which incorporated the Coast Watching Organisation which had already been established.
On reporting at Naval Office for normal duties one morning we were informed that we were no longer wanted there but had to report to the Naval Depot for a medical, say our goodbyes, and be at Amberley Airport to catch a plane to an unknown destination. The pilot was given a letter which, he was instructed, was “not to be opened until after leaving Australia”. We boarded a U.S. B24 mail plane bound for America. It attempted to take off, got halfway down the runway, but had to abort on account of engine trouble. Jack and I had to stay at the airport while waiting to board the plane. We went and had a look around other planes but M.P’s thought we were spies. After proving we were not we were reprimanded and told to board the plane for take-off that night. The pilot opened the letter which stated that we were posted to an Australian Naval Office at Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides.
After many hours, the aircraft landed at Plain de Giuac, a newly constructed airport on the northern tip of New Caledonia. In the letter we were instructed to go on to Espiritu Santo. On making enquiries nobody knew where that was. The Americans only knew it as “BUTTON”, a code name used so that the Japanese didn’t know where places where. Next morning we were on a D.C.3 aircraft bound for “BUTTON” Espiritu Santo. On arriving there no-one knew where the Australian representative was. After visiting several different places we ended up at the U.S.S. Albatross (a sea plane tender), which was the headquarters of Admiral Halsey, Commander of the South Pacific Area. From there we were sent to a Quonset Hut in the middle of a coconut plantation, which turned out to be our destination. Lt. D. Thompson was the only inhabitant who was posted there to set up a base station to receive and dispatch Coast Watchers’ messages to the U.S. authorities at the Rear Base at Santo. The U.S. Military had made the landings on the 7th August at Guadalcanal and Tulagi in the Solomon Islands, which were several hundred miles to the north.
We had to settle into tent life quick smart, getting used to ants in our cot, falling coconuts caused by crabs and the sound of Jap shelling and stray bombs; even a person tripping in the doorway in the early hours of the morning. It turned out to be an American who had had too much Jungle Juice, and we being rookies, thank God, we were prevented from killing him. The same thing happened during the Torokina Landing 12 months later. The victim was a Japanese Commando. We were a bit more experienced and he did not survive to see the sun come up. At about this time I experienced my first tragedy of war. A 4 Fu fighter plane crashed in front of our eyes and all we could do was pray that the pilot didn’t suffer too long burning as the plane tipped on its nose and burst into flames.
Quite a lot happened at Santo about this time. The U.S.S. “President Coolidge”, on its way to Australia with the U.S. Army Division 182nd, was diverted to Santo. It was avoiding a I Class Jap sub and while entering Segond Channel it hit a mine and was beached. All survived except one. They set up camp in the jungle a few hundred yards from where we were, so we tuckered with them until we were moved to a more permanent camp. The ships damaged in the battle of Santa Cruz were in the channel. The U.S.S. “Enterprise” (an aircraft carrier) had suffered a few bombs through the flight deck while the heavy cruiser “U.S. Minneapolis” had quite a bit of her bow blown off. While we were there the H.M.A.S. “Australia” and H.M.A.S. “Hobart”, with H.M.A.S. “Arunta” and H.M.A.S. “Warramunga” as escorts, arrived. The cruisers departed on patrol with U.S. destroyer escorts, but the H.M.A.S. “Hobart” had her stern blown off the next day. The Australian destroyers had departed elsewhere.
While there, Mrs Roosevelt, wife of the U.S. President, visited the base in order to boost the morale of the troops. The fighting on Guadalcanal wasn’t going very well. She was present at the local picture show one night. Arty Shaw’s Jazz Band, who were crew on the U.S.S. “Enterprise”, entertained us.
In mid-1943 we were transferred to “KEN”, the Coast Watcher base on Guadalcanal, and with parties coming and going and stiff resistance put up by the Japs, it was a busy place. I can remember the messages from Jack Read and Paul Mason on Bougainville informing Guadalcanal that the Jap bombers from Kavieng and Rabaul were on the way. When the Japs were evacuating, Paul Mason and various other stations informed us of the six destroyers heading down “The Slot”. Only a couple returned.
The action that later got the most publicity, because he went on to become the President of America, was the rescue of J.F. Kennedy and his crew of his P.T. Boat 109. While patrolling Blacket Strait in the New Georgia group of islands P.T. 109 was run over by a Japanese destroyer which was evacuating their forces from the Munda area during the night. Lt. Kennedy, with the surviving members of his crew, made their way to Plum Pudding Island and then to Wana Wana Lagoon. Meanwhile the Coast Watchers on Kolombangara had reported the flash incurred by the collision to base (KEN) at Guadalcanal, which was passed on to American authorities and to Coast Watcher on Rendova Island, where the P.T. 109 was based. The natives observed the survivors and reported them to the Coast Watcher (Reg Evans) who arranged their rescue. Likewise, the crew of the U.S. cruiser “Helena”, which was torpedoed during the battle of Kula Gulf, were rescued off Valla Lavella, and many others throughout the islands with the aid of the Coast Watchers organisation.
At about this time I was sent on a job with a Coast Watcher, natives and two American Intelligence Officers to observe the bombing and destruction of the Japanese refueling base (for submarine and flying boats) at Rekata Bay, Santa Isabel. We left Lunga for Tulagi by boat, by submarine to the east coast of Santa Isabel and by rubber dinghy to shore (where the dinghy was buried in the sand). We put on rubber boots with footprints on them to disguise our being there, and we were issued with dropout pills – because we would be in enemy territory. We met the local natives who guided us up the track until we reached a position to see the results of the bombing. On the track we stopped and had K. & C. rations (chocolate and tinned M.&V. Stew). After seeing the results of the bombing we proceeded to the west coast of the island to meet with a boat to deliver us back to Lunga. After being on K. & C. rations for so long we were looking forward to a piece of fresh meat. Owing to the fact that the boat transporting our fresh meat had been sunk there wasn’t any available, but a New Zealander had knowledge of fresh venison at the N.Z. Air Force Base. In order to satisfy our longing he confiscated a piece for a BBQ.
The Japanese were gradually being pushed back and likewise the Americans were planning to move forward. On 30th October 1943, R.A. Robinson, R.A.A.F (C.O.) with Tel. T. Witham, R.N.Z.N., Tel. P.F.C. Engler, U.S. Army, Cdr. J. Kissane, R.A.N. and Cdr. P.F. Wallader, R.A.N. boarded the troopship U.S. “George Clymer” (Flagship) while Sub Lt. B. Stuart, R.A.N.V.R., Sgt. F. Halveston, U.S. Army, Cpl. F. Nash, U.S. Army and natives were embarked on a cargo ship to make a convoy of 12 Transports plus accompanying destroyers, mine layers, etc at Guadalcanal. We immediately tuned into the Coast Watcher frequency. On 31st October 1943 the convoy, while being escorted by an American naval taskforce, moved toward the west coast of Bougainville. We had Prayers and a Church Service and a feast. So it was that on the 1st November 1943 the landing force was assembled off Cape Torokina, Empress Augusta Bay Bougainville in the early hour of the morning. It consisted of the 3rd Marine Division; a Construction Battalion (U.S. Navy); and a Coast Watcher party.
Two Coast Watcher parties had been landed by submarine five days previously, in order to monitor the movement of the Jap forces. As the convoy moved toward the beach the morning was hazy, with Mt Bagana (a volcano) visible in the distance. Suddenly a dark orange flash was noted on the horizon out to sea, then the rumble, then the screaming of the shells as they passed overhead to explode in the jungle adjacent to the shore line. The landing craft were floated and occupied by marines. The dive bombers (U.S.) pounded the landing area. The first wave moved to the beach and as they landed they were strafed by six Jap Zero aircraft. At the same time a terrific barrage was put up by the ships in the convoy to combat the Jap Air Force from Rabaul.
While observing the dogfight between the U.S./N.Z. fighters and the Japanese, we noticed a N.Z. pilot, who had ejected from his disabled plane, descending close to the troopship. He was cut to pieces by a Jap Zero. At the same time we noticed two Jap dive bombers, who had just released their bombs, heading in our direction. We hit the deck. It was our turn to go over the side into a landing craft to make for the beach. On our way a Jap machine gun fired at us from a nearby island. Thankfully these shells only hit the craft but did not penetrate, so we were saved from being killed. On our reaching the beach the ramp went down and without hesitation we quickly made our way up the beach to the cover of the jungle, disregarding the bodies lying on the beach.
While on the troopship (Robbie) R.A. Robinson noticed a “bread fruit” tree a fair distance from where we would land, so he instructed us to make our way there, as it indicated dry ground in preference to the swampy country in the area.
The jungle was thinned out by the shelling etc and the gunfire in the vicinity. We came across a cleared area which had been a Jap camp, with a dugout, a sac sac dining area, even two logs with a sac sac roof as the toilet, also a well – not for drinking. The whole party got busy cleaning up – that’s when I pocketed some calendar leaflets. Five Jap bodies had to be taken outside and covered with sand. We immediately set up our wireless equipment in order to contact “Wobbie” Robinson, the Coast Watcher to the north and Jack Keenan, who was put in behind the beachhead and the base at Guadalcanal. Wobbie Robinson supplied useful information, but Jack Keenan had transmission trouble. We contacted “KEN” Guadalcanal early in the afternoon.
Early on 2nd November a Jap Zero came in at treetop level. Luckily he must have been taking photos, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. Later in the day the Japs started to shell us. They must have had a spotter on the small island adjacent to the beachhead, because they knocked off the food dump, ammunition dump, the fuel dump and machinery involved being used to build the airfield. A party of Jap Commandoes invaded the perimeter during the night. In the early hours of the next morning a Jap Commando tripped into the dugout while we were working. Thank God, he was killed before he killed us. The Marines were stabbed in their cots, also snipers were put in place.
A lot happened about then but owing to the fact that I was knocked out during a bombing raid my memory is a bit hazy. The Japs counter-attacked fiercely, but the marines held and enlarged the perimeter, enabling a fighter strip to be built so that the aircraft could refuel to venture to Rabaul and beyond and return. Likewise a bomber strip was built, enabling the heavy bombers to venture further into the Pacific.
An assault group was assembled to knock out the gun which shelled us. Lt. Stuart with natives located it. The Japs were waiting when they landed, so fighter aircraft from Treasury Island, just south of Bougainville, were called in to put it out of action.
Many U.S. and N.Z. aircraft had to crash land in the area. While J. Keenan’s wireless was out of order he contacted and befriended the native population. They were beginning to think that they had been forgotten. Ceasefire arrangements were made, allowing many natives to be brought through the perimeter for medical treatment. The Japs had left a huge stock of their rice, which came in handy. At about that time I was hospitalised with a bout of malaria. Both Jack and I were given leave in Australia. At Brisbane we were put on a four engine flying boat bound for Santo direct. It had to have three attempts to become airborne while taking off from Hamilton Reach, Brisbane. Time had marched on to the middle of 1944. On our way home, while flying in a D.C.3 between Santo and Noumea, our aircraft had to fly through a storm cloud in which we encountered an air pocket, dropping about 2000 ft. Seven planes took off from Santo that morning but only two got to their destination. So we were told on our way back. After the break we had to report back to Guadalcanal.
Coast Watcher Andy Andresen’s station on Northern Choiseul, overlooking the Jap base at Buin-Faisi area, was over-run and he had to destroy his wireless etc. It had to be replaced. A native and I, with another, were put on an “H” boat, a flat bottomed boat brought out from the Great Lakes in America, with the necessary gear. The first stop was a channel in the Russell Islands. Late next afternoon we proceeded “up the slot”, the passage between New Georgia Islands and Choiseul and Santa Isabel. We ran into a tropical storm. It was very severe, according to the instruments the boat should have rolled over. Apparently the wind prevented it. Someone was taking care of us. Owing to the rough weather the crew did not want breakfast, so the natives and I had a dozen sunny side up eggs each. The next morning we arrived at our destination in calm water. The gear was unloaded into native canoes and we proceeded south, hugging the coast because there was a possibility of being spotted by the Japs. We called into Funafuti, a native village on the southern tip of Choiseul to pick up numerous natives going to work for the Americans. The village put on a sing sing to wish them farewell. Their favourite song was “You are my Sunshine”. The next morning we went on to Russell Islands and Lunga.
When I got back to Guadalcanal Jack and others had left for Nadzab in New Guinea. Coast watching in the Solomons was winding down. I was then sent down to Santo where Lt. Bridges was in charge, for a couple of months before returning to Lunga until the end of the war. I also had to make a quick trip to Torokina to sort out an upset with the coding. While passing over the New Georgia Islands, the pilot spotted a Jap barge, so he put his Hudson into a dive to strafe it. I had to fill in as crew.
I arrived back in Brisbane at the end of the war celebrations to spend a few months at Coast Watcher headquarters in Brisbane, and then to general service at “H.M.A.S. Moreton”, and eventually discharged on 20th March 1946. It was a relief to get back to civilian life and endeavour to throw off the trauma of the war. I feel proud to think that I was given the opportunity to serve in the Coast Watcher organisation, although in a minor way compared with those who formed the initial nucleus of the outfit. Although we were not big in numbers our contribution to the war effort was much appreciated by the planners of the offensive. For instance the arranged shooting down of the Jap Admiral Yamamoto on the west coast of Bougainville by U.S. P.38’s was attributed to the work of the cryptanalysts (code breakers) and the information supplied by the Coast Watchers on Bougainville.
Most of my service was experienced with the American troops, who were expected to adapt themselves to the jungle and its wildlife. As Joe Hands of New York remarked, “The only goddamn trees I saw were the ones growing in Grand Central Park, New York.”
I would also like to express my appreciation and respect for the native population of the islands who, in some cases, gave up their lives to help win the war and save their islands from the Japanese.
Capturing and holding Guadalcanal was the turning point of the war with Japan in the Pacific. Admiral Halsey, who was in command of the American forces said: “The Coast Watchers saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal saved the Pacific”. It could equally be said that the Coast Watchers saved Port Moresby and Port Moresby saved Australia. “And it all could not have been done without the help of the Natives”.
My thanks are due to Mr Wallader for his kind permission to reproduce his fine material on the Internet. As at June 2011 he now lives in Toowoomba. I also wish to thank Bernice Macarthur for typing this script and Nola Robinson for checking same. - John Clements.