The role played by Australian Coastwatchers in the Battle for Guadalcanal

Of the eight battles that comprise the Battle for Australia 1942-43, the fate of Australia hung in the balance during four of those battles, namely, Coral Sea, Midway, the Kokoda Campaign and the Guadalcanal Campaign. During the six month long war of attrition between Japan and the United States for control of the island of Guadalcanal in the British Solomon Islands, the Americans came perilously close to defeat at times. If that had happened, Australia would have been cut off from American aid and exposed to a Japanese invasion of the Australian mainland. Australian Coastwatchers played a vital role in the ultimate American victory at Guadalcanal.


United States Admiral of the Fleet, William F. Halsey paid high tribute to Australian Coastwatchers.
He said: "The Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal saved the South Pacific."

On the jungle-clad hills above the north-western tip of Bougainville Island, Australian government officer and Coastwatcher Jack Read monitored the movement of Japanese aircraft and warships between Rabaul and Guadalcanal. The stretch of sea separating the Solomon Islands into two roughly parallel island chains would become known as "The Slot" when Japanese warships used it for their nightly hit-and-run raids on the beleaguered US Marines on Guadalcanal. Those nightly raids were called by the US Marines the "Tokyo Express".

On the south-eastern tip of Bougainville, Coastwatcher Paul Mason had withdrawn to the jungle-clad hills above the town of Buin when the Japanese arrived. Mason had lived for twenty years on Bougainville and knew the area like the back of his hand. Mason also monitored the movement of Japanese aircraft and warships through the Solomon Islands.

On Guadalcanal, Coastwatcher Martin Clemens, the senior British official on the island, had withdrawn from the administrative centre at Aola to the hills overlooking the northern coastal plains of Guadalcanal when Japanese military flying boats from nearby Tulagi Island began to show interest in his station. During June and July 1942, from the hills above Lunga Point, he monitored progress by the Japanese on the construction of the vital forward airfield that was later captured by US Marines and named Henderson Field. Control of that airfield would give the Americans a vital strategic advantage in the lengthy Battle for Guadalcanal. Driven constantly deeper into the hills by Japanese patrols hunting him with dogs, Clemens was nevertheless able to employ his loyal Melanesian scouts to keep the Japanese airfield at Lunga Point under observation, and was able to give the Americans timely warning when the airfield was nearing completion. Twenty thousand US Marines were landed at Lunga Point and Tulagi on 7 August 1942. They arrived just in time to prevent the Japanese bringing their airfield to operational status.

The Japanese responded to the American landing on Guadalcanal with fiercely determined efforts to save their vital forward airstrip. Within one hour of the American landing, a large Japanese bomber group with Zero fighter escort formed over the Japanese base at Rabaul and headed for Lunga Point. If the Japanese had been able to attack without warning, the large American landing fleet at anchor off Guadalcanal would have been very vulnerable. The Australian Coastwatchers on the island of Bougainville now played a vital role in providing the Americans with advance warning of Japanese bomber formations heading for Lunga Point.

At 10.30 am on the first day of the American landing, Coastwatcher Paul Mason, from his hideaway on a hill commanding a view of the sea passage to Guadalcanal, observed the Japanese bomber formation passing overhead as it headed for Lunga Point. He quickly transmitted the radio message "twenty-four torpedo bombers headed yours". Mason's message gave the Americans forty-five minutes warning before the Japanese bombers arrived at Lunga Point. Landing activity ceased immediately, and the transport ships weighed anchor and assumed anti-aircraft dispositions. Paul Mason's warning also gave time for fighter aircraft from the aircraft carriers of the American naval covering force to reach an altitude over Savo Island, about 32 kilometres (20 miles) north-west of Lunga Point, where they could intercept the Japanese formation. An American destroyer was slightly damaged but the vital transport ships escaped damage. Very few of the Japanese bombers returned to Rabaul.

Later that same day, Mason gave warning of a formation of Japanese dive-bombers heading for Lunga Point. Again, the warning enabled the transports to disperse and the American fighters to be on station over Savo Island when the Japanese bombers arrived. No ships of the landing force were damaged, but at the end of the first day, the Japanese had lost thirty of the fifty-one planes they had sent against the American landing force.

Early on the morning of 8 August 1942, or Day 2 of the Guadalcanal landing, Coastwatcher Jack Read and his native carriers were struggling through dense jungle up the side of a steep ridge on northern Bougainville with heavy radio equipment. Read was looking for a high location from which he could obtain better radio transmission and reception. He heard the sound of aircraft engines, and looking up, he saw a large number of Japanese twin engine bombers with Zero fighter escorts heading in the direction of Guadalcanal. Read quickly set up his radio and transmitted the message "from J.E.R., forty bombers heading yours". The message was relayed via Townsville, Australia, to Pearl Harbor and thence to the American landing force at Guadalcanal.

Once again, American Navy fighters were stacked at various altitudes over Savo Island to intercept the Japanese bombers and the transports weighed anchor and dispersed. However, on this occasion the Japanese changed course before reaching Savo Island. They turned east while still 80 kilometres (50 miles) from Savo, and then, avoiding the island and the stacked American fighters over it, the Japanese bombers swept in at treetop height from the north. Having cleverly side-stepped the American fighters on patrol over Savo Island, the Japanese pilots were expecting easy pickings among the crowded transports at Lunga Point. Instead, they flew into a storm of anti-aircraft fire put up by the transport ships and their warship escorts. Most of the Japanese bombers were shot down, and the Americans suffered only serious damage to one destroyer and one transport.

If the first three Japanese air strikes had reached the anchored American transports at Lunga Point without prior warning, and while troops and supplies were being unloaded, it is likely that the success of the American landing would have been gravely prejudiced.

Coastwatchers Clemens, Read and Mason all survived the war. Martin Clemens came down from the hills to Lunga Point and offered his services as adviser on the local terrain and people to the first Marine Division. He and his native scouts gave valuable service to the Americans during the Guadalcanal campaign. Read, Mason, and their men were all evacuated from Bougainville by American submarine in July 1943 when Japanese troops were closing in on them.

United States Admiral of the Fleet, William F. Halsey, later paid tribute to the enormous value of the early warnings provided by Australian Coastwatchers when he said:

"The coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal saved the South Pacific".

In Conclusion

This short account of the heroic exploits of Australian Coastwatchers would not be complete without further mention of their achievements in saving people who would otherwise have been at grave risk of harsh imprisonment or execution by the Japanese. In addition to their vital intelligence gathering function, the Coastwatchers rescued 75 prisoners of war, 321 downed Allied airmen, 280 sailors, 190 missionaries and civilians, and hundreds of native people and others who had risked their lives for the Allies.

Perhaps the most famous of those rescued by the Coastwatchers was US Navy Lieutenant John F. Kennedy, who later became 35th President of the United States. After his patrol torpedo boat was sunk in the Solomons, and Kennedy and his crew reached Kolombangara Island, they were found by Coastwatcher Sub-Lieutenant Reg Evans who arranged their rescue. President Kennedy later welcomed Evans as his guest at the White House.

A memorial lighthouse was erected to honour the Coastwatchers at Madang on the northern coast of Papua New Guinea in 1959. The memorial plaque carries the names of thirty-six Coastwatchers killed while carrying out their dangerous duties behind enemy lines. The plaque also bears the inscription:

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