The role of Australian Coastwatchers in the Pacific War

Observing Japanese military activity

When Japanese invasion forces landed on the coasts of New Guinea, the Coastwatchers packed up their portable radio equipment and withdrew from their assigned stations into the jungle. Their equipment and supplies were carried by loyal native people. The radio equipment, batteries, charging engine and fuel were so cumbersome that it required the assistance of at least a dozen native carriers to move them through the jungle and up and down mountains. The Coastwatchers sought out vantage points, often high in the jungle-clad hills, from which they could observe Japanese activity at their bases, and the movement of Japanese aircraft and warships. This vital information was passed back by radio from Coastwatcher to Coastwatcher, and ultimately to Naval Intelligence in Australia.


A memorial lighthouse was erected and dedicated to Australian Coastwatchers at Madang in Paua New Guinea in 1959. The memorial plaque bears the names of thirty-six Coastwatchers who were killed while carrying out their dangerous duties and the words: "They watched and warned and died that we might live".

Operating behind enemy lines, and constantly hunted by the Japanese, it was very dangerous work that brought torture and summary execution to those who were caught.

The loyalty of the native people of New Guinea to Australia was vital to the survival of Coastwatchers, and it says much for the quality of Australian government officers and missionaries in the territory that most of the native people remained loyal to Australia during the Japanese occupation. They served the Coastwatchers and Australian troops willingly as carriers, and some risked their lives by gathering intelligence while undertaking labouring work for the Japanese at their bases. Government officers carrying out Coastwatcher duties after the Japanese invasion were often fortunate to have members of their native constabulary to assist them. Native people of New Guinea who were caught by the Japanese aiding the Coastwatchers were almost invariably killed unless they were prepared to betray the Coastwatchers.

In a small number of cases, the native people betrayed the Coastwatchers to the Japanese. Coastwatcher C. L. Page remained on the small island of Simberi, off the northern coast of New Ireland, after the Japanese invaded New Guinea. He sent valuable reports on the movement of Japanese aircraft for five months until the Japanese caught him with help from some local natives. Page was executed. On Bougainville Island, the Japanese had won the loyalty of so many of the local natives by mid-1943 that all Coastwatchers had to be withdrawn, including the famous Coastwatchers Jack Reed and Paul Mason.

Prior to the Japanese invasion of the Australian Territory of New Guinea, which began at Rabaul on the island of New Britain on 23 January 1942, the role of the Coastwatchers was viewed by the Royal Australian Navy as being limited to passive observing and reporting of enemy activity. The Coastwatchers were mostly civilians and it was expected that they would withdraw from areas occupied by the Japanese. To stay behind Japanese lines would expose them to a grave risk of execution as spies. However, many of the civilian Coastwatchers declined to withdraw from Japanese occupied territory. They continued to perform Coastwatcher duties knowing the grave risk that they were taking. In the faint hope that it would provide them with the status of prisoners of war if caught by the Japanese, the Navy gave them naval appointments and badges of rank.

The Coastwatcher role as rescuers of those in danger of capture by the Japanese

Almost immediately following the Japanese landings in New Guinea, the Coastwatchers began to assume an additional important role as rescuers of Allied service personnel, and others at risk of capture by the Japanese.

On 23 January 1942, five thousand troops of Japan's elite South Seas Detachment stormed ashore at Rabaul on the north-eastern tip of the large island of New Britain. The Australian army garrison was heavily outnumbered and quickly overwhelmed. The survivors fled west, seeking some means of escape from the island. In the hope of saving some of them, the naval officer in charge of the Coastwatchers, Lieutenant Commander Eric Feldt, contacted one of his Coastwatchers on New Britain, J. K. (Keith) McCarthy. McCarthy was Assistant District Officer at Talasea, which was a government post on the northern coast about 280 kilometres (175 miles) south-west of Rabaul.

Although McCarthy was a civilian, not subject to naval orders, and quite free to save himself, Commander Feldt asked him to take his portable radio transmitter and go towards Rabaul to find out what had become of the Australian garrison. McCarthy set off up the coast towards Rabaul in his government launch, and met the first survivors from Rabaul at Pondo, a coastal village only about 72 kilometres (45 miles) from Rabaul. McCarthy then continued up the coast towards Rabaul. He called at plantations and directed any Australian soldiers that he found to fall back towards Pondo.

McCarthy learned that a small motor vessel was still hidden at Witu Island which was situated about 96 kilometres (60 miles) north-west of his post at Talasea. He took possession of it, loaded aboard the survivors of Rabaul, numbering over two hundred, and conveyed them safely to the New Guinea mainland.

McCarthy informed Feldt that there was still a large number of Australian troops left on the south coast of New Britain. Feldt ordered Lieutenant Ivan Champion, RANVR, to take a 150 ton former government motor vessel HMAS Laurabada across to the island to pick them up. Laurabada arrived off the south coast of New Britain at dawn, remained at anchor camouflaged by branches during daylight, and then successfully ran back in the night with another hundred and fifty Army survivors.

The survivors of Rabaul who were rescued by the Coastwatchers were very fortunate. Most of those who were captured by the Japanese were either murdered or died in captivity.

As Japanese military forces advanced further into New Guinea and down the Solomon Islands, the Coastwatchers played an important role in rescuing people at risk of capture by the Japanese, including Allied servicemen and missionaries.

Coastwatchers serving in small vessels

The Coastwatchers' numbers in 1942 were augmented by inclusion of serving members of the armed services, and their role was expanded to include service in small motor vessels off the coast of New Guinea. These boats, manned by Coastwatchers with experience in New Guinea waters, were used to establish Coastwatcher stations, evacuate or replace Coastwatchers, and assist Allied supply ships to negotiate the natural dangers of the New Guinea coast. One of those serving members, Lionel Veale, tells the story of one of his missions as an Army Coastwatcher and steersman aboard the small motor vessel Paluma when it escorted a towed ammunition barge through reefs off the coast of New Guinea. The small vessels were also used when necessary to rescue troops at risk of capture by the Japanese, downed airmen, ship survivors, and civilians at risk.

From mid-1943, Coastwatchers acted as scouts for Allied counter-offensives

When the Allies were finally able to take the offensive against the Japanese invaders of New Guinea and the Solomons in mid-1943, Coastwatchers landed with the troops and set up radio stations to receive warnings of Japanese air attacks. Coastwatchers also guided the troops through the dense jungles.

Just before the Allied landings at Torokina on Japanese-occupied Bougainville, Coastwatcher parties were put ashore on the island to gather intelligence. On New Britain, prior to Allied landings, reinforcements expanded the Coastwatcher operation until there were five separate parties operating there.

Coastwatchers also landed at Long and Rooke islands to see what the Japanese there would do in response to the Allied landings at Cape Gloucester and Arawe on New Britain. Coastwatcher parties also operated in the Sepik Valley in far northern New Guinea before the Allied operation to recapture Wewak.

A Coastwatcher party landed at Hollandia in Japanese-occupied Dutch New Guinea, but it met with disaster. Its leader and four others were killed in action when their presence was discovered by the enemy.

Logistics, insertion and evacuation

Living rough, and constantly hunted by the Japanese, it was very difficult for Coastwatchers to maintain their radios and feed themselves and their native helpers. Their usual means of supply was by small motor vessel or air drop, at night, and at a pre-arranged time and location.

Royal Australian Air Force Catalina flying boats carried out most of the supply drops over Japanese -occupied territory. After long flights from Australia, to areas as distant as the Solomon Islands, the Catalina pilots had to find the drop zones in jungle clearings, and drop their precious cargo in a small area defined by signal fires. Repeated runs over the drop zones were necessary because each article was dropped separately to facilitate recovery. Radio parts were dropped by parachute and other articles, such as food, would hurtle to the ground in double-packed jute bags.

To minimise the risk of intervention by Japanese patrols, the site for an air drop was usually deep in jungle-clad mountains, and this made the low level drops at night highly dangerous for the intrepid Catalina crews. Occasionally, the supply Catalinas crashed in Japanese-occupied territory. Captured air crew members were sometimes executed by the Japanese, and many died in captivity.

When it was necessary to evacuate or replace a Coastwatcher in Japanese-occupied territory, establish a new Coastwatcher station behind enemy lines, or recover Allied service personnel and civilians rescued by Coastwatchers, this was usually done at night by US submarines, US patrol torpedo boats, small motor vessels, and occasionally, by Catalina flying boats.

All of these activities were fraught with danger for everyone involved.