Coast Watchers

Photograph of coast watchers on Guadalcanal

U.S. Marine Corps. Via Zimmerman (1949)

Coast watchers were intelligence agents posted in remote areas to watch for enemy activity and report by radio.  The most famous coast watchers were those of the Australian “Ferdinand” organization, which dated back to 1939 and consisted of reservists recruited from among planters, colonial officials, and missionaries in areas like the Solomons, New Guinea and the Bismarcks.  These men frequently gave the air forces at Guadalcanal several hours’ warning of incoming raids, allowing fighters from Henderson Field to take off and gain attack altitude. Coast watchers also rescued an estimated 120 Allied airmen during the first year of the Solomons campaign.

The commander of the Australian coast watchers, Lieutenant Commander Eric Feldt, was a graduate of Australia's first class of naval cadets and a veteran of the First World War who was put on the reserve list in 1922, in a time of budget austerity. He then made his way to in New Guinea and became warden of the gold fields at Wau. Recalled to active duty when war broke out in Europe, he was chosen by Australia's Director of Naval Intelligence, Commander R.B.M. Long, to expand the old network of coast watchers established after World War I. Feldt was acquainted with the character of the "islanders" from whom he recruited for his organization, and he was determined to establish a solid chain of pickets along the natural fence of New Guinea and the Solomons. By mid-1941 he had 64 stations operating, each equipped with a teleradio with a range of 400 miles (640 km) for voice communication and 600 miles (970 km) for radiotelegraphy. The teleradios were battery powered, but the batteries required a recharging engine using benzine (light kerosene) fuel, and the teleradio plus charging engine required several men to carry.

Feldt had never envisioned his organization operating as a clandestine espionage ring. His original concept was that the coast watchers would watch for enemy naval sorties, raids, and other transient incursions. However, when most of the areas covered by his network were occupied by the Japanese, Feldt hoped that many of the coast watchers would find ways to continue transmitting from behind enemy lines. He was not disappointed. In addition to coast watchers already established in the Solomons, additional coast watchers were brought in by flying boat in October 1942 to Vella Lavella, Choiseul, and Santa Isabel.

Coast watchers were primarily an intelligence asset, and the existence of the "Ferdinand" organization remained a closely guarded secret throughout the war. Although the coast watchers were instructed to avoid combat (hence the name "Ferdinand", after a pacifist bull in a children's story), a few engaged in significant guerrilla activities. Of these, the most successful was New Zealand coast watcher Donald G. Kennedy at Segi Point on New Georgia. In addition to intelligence gathering and rescue of downed Allied airmen, Kennedy remained in touch with local villages, telling them:

These islands are British and they are to remain British. The Government is not leaving. Even if the Japanese come, we shall stay with you and in the end they will be driven out.

Most coast watchers were prepared to move to new positions when endangered, but Kennedy decided that Segi Point was too valuable to ever give up. He established a security zone around his base, outside of which Japanese would be left strictly alone, and inside of which they would be attacked with all the force Kennedy could muster. He is estimated to have ambushed over a hundred Japanese soldiers who entered the security zone, and he ran a small flotilla of native schooners. A colorful and controversial leader, Kennedy insisted on strict discipline, and natives who violated Kennedy's rules were held over a barrel and flogged, always by other natives rather than Kennedy himself. This occasionally bred resentment: During one firefight, Kennedy realized that a few of the bullets passing close to his head were being fired from his own side. Lord (1977) strongly hints that Kennedy had a young Polynesian mistress who gave birth to his child, both of whom were evacuated by flying boat at Kennedy's insistence when the Japanese began slowly closing in on Segi Point. The Japanese tried to bluff Kennedy into surrendering, then sent a company of infantry to hunt him down. Kennedy radioed for help and was joined by two companies of 4 Marine Raider Battalion that were the vanguard of the New Georgia invasion.

Another successful coast watcher turned guerrilla was perhaps the most unlikely character to assume such a role: Father Emery de Clerke, a mild-looking 5'4" (163 cm), 36-year-old Dutch Catholic missionary operating from Tangarare (159.617E 9.484S) on the west coast of Guadalcanal. Initially recruited by Rhoades, de Clerke had earlier refused evacuation with the rest of the Tangarare mission, concluding that it was not only his duty to remain with his flock, but to take a stick to the wolf. He eventually commanded the loyalty of a sizable force of armed natives.

Geoffrey Kuper was a young medic of mixed race who worked as a coast watcher on Santa Isabel. Married in March 1942, to a woman also of mixed race, Kuper and his wife (and, after 3 May 1943, his son) all survived the war. Kuper's mixed ancestry likely was the reason he never rose beyond the rank of private; on the other hand, his wife's mixed ancestry likely was the reason she was permitted to remain with him.

Another coast watcher with an unusual background was Frank Nash, an American from Colorado. Nash was highly idealistic and volunteered for military duty soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor. When his signals outfit was assigned garrison duty in California, he volunteered for overseas service. Once on Guadalcanal, he "sort of deserted" to the Australians to operate with the coast watchers, and he was eventually posted to Kolombangara and scouted for the Torokina Bay operation on Bougainville.

Other notable coast watchers included Jack Read at the northern tip of Bougainville; Paul Mason near Buin at the southern end of the island; Donald S. MacFarlan and Kenneth D. Hay at Gold Ridge (160.133E 9.600S) on Guadalcanal; F. Ashton Rhoades at Lavoro (159.600E 9.317S) in western Guadalcanal; and Martin Clemens near the old district headquarters at Aola (160.484E 9.533S) on the northeast coast of Guadalcanal. Leif Schroeder, a Norwegian storekeeper, operated on Savo Island but later joined Rhoades. "Dick" Horton was stationed high on Rendova Island and Reg Evans on Kolombangara. Leigh Vial operated around Salamaua and gave early warning of Japanese raids on Port Moresby; dubbed "Golden Voice", he was killed in an air crash in April 1943.

Not all coast watchers had an exciting tour of duty. Sublieutenant William McCasker was posted on Ontong Java (159.423E 5.333S) on the reasonable grounds that it was near the direct route from Truk to Guadalcanal. However, the Japanese always routed traffic for the Solomons through Rabaul, and after nine months of no activity whatsoever to report, McCasker was withdrawn. During this time, he read the entire Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Ovid's Metamorphoses in Latin, and he compiled a dictionary of the native language.

Coast watchers also rescued survivors of sunken Allied ships and disable aircraft. The most famous example was the rescue of the survivors of PT-109, including future President John F. Kennedy, by Reg Evans. More significant at the time was the rescue by coast watchers of 165 survivors of Helena who had drifted ashore on Vella Lavella. Turner sent two APDs escorted by eight destroyers to rescue the sailors. MacFarlan eventually had about 100 refugees gathered at his hideout on Gold Ridge, which attracted Japanese attention and forced him to abandon the site. The refugees included Sister Edmée, an elderly Belgian nun who escaped when the Japanese executed two priests and two nuns at Ruavatu (160.391E 9.448S).

Coast watchers were supplied with food, medicine, and benzine for their teleradio chargers by air drop from Australian Catalinas. Because these drops had to take place in inaccessible areas in rugged terrain to avoid Japanese interference, the flights were dangerous, and a Catalina crashed on Bougainville during a drop mission on 26 April 1943. Three of the crew were killed instantly, and only two of the survivors eluded Japanese pursuit to be evacuated by submarine.

Feldt suffered a heart attack on 20 March 1943 and was relieved by Lieutenant Commander J.C. McManus. McManus had long experience both in intelligence and in the South Seas, and he proved to be an excellent choice to replace Feldt.

The success of the coast watchers can be attributed to the difficult terrain in which they operated, which aided concealment and evasion; the assistance of friendly natives, particularly native constables, who scouted for the coast watchers, provided them with food, and helped conceal them from the Japanese (often at great personal cost); and their Japanese enemies, who were slow to recognize the danger posed by the coast watchers and track them down. MacFarlan was particularly successful at infiltrating friendly natives into the Japanese labor force on Guadalcanal. Among the notable native coast watchers were Jacob Vouza on Guadalcanal, who survived torture by the Japanese to warn the Americans of a Japanese counterlanding, and Yauwika on Bougainville, who assisted Mason and Read and scouted for the Americans at Cape Torokina.

Not all natives were or remained friendly to the coast watchers, and their loyalty was particularly in question when they perceived that the Japanese had the upper hand or that the coast watchers might abandon them. George Bogese, a native medic assisting Lief Schroeder, was arrested by the Japanese when he demanded payment for treating two badly burned Japanese sailors. Threatened with execution, he told the Japanese everything he knew about the coast watcher network. Bogese became an active collaborator and guide for the Japanese on his native island of Santa Isabel. The loyalty of the natives of Guadalcanal had begun to waver significantly by the time the Americans invaded the island in August 1942, and when MacFarlan was forced to retreat from Gold Ridge to the isolated village of Bombedea, the natives fled into the hills rather than assist him. At Bougainville, the last of the Solomons to be liberated by the Allies, the long Japanese occupation meant that native loyalty broke down completely, and the entire coast watcher force, along with the remaining European civilians and many of the remaining native constables, had to be evacuated by submarine in July 1943. The coast watcher team on Choiseul, Carden Seton and Nick Waddell, had considerable difficulty regaining native loyalty after the withdrawal of a U.S. Marine raiding party, which looked to the natives like a sign of weakness.

Not all coast watchers were members of "Ferdinand." In August 1944 five teams of coast watchers were landed at the base of the Gazelle Peninsula on New Britain. Four survived to give early warning of raids against New Guinea. The U.S. Navy ran a guerrilla operation, the U.S. Naval Group China, that trained coast watchers to track Japanese merchant ship movements along the China coast. The China coast watchers had their headquarters in the town of Changchow, some 25 miles (40 km) inland from Amoy, and operated in teams of two American sailors, a Chinese interpreter, a Chinese weather observer, and six or more guerrillas.

Coast watchers were not exclusively an Allied asset.  As the Allies advanced into areas formerly controlled by Japan, and especially as garrisons were leapfrogged, the Japanese began using coast watchers of their own to warn of Allied activity. Many of these were graduates of the Nakano School and especially of its Futamata Branch. One of the Futamata graduates, Hiroo Onoda, who was sent to the Philippines, did not surrender until 1974.

Photo Gallery

Photograph of Leigh "Golden Voice" Vial


Martin Clemens debriefed

U.S. Marine Corps

Photograph of Jacob Vouza


Photograph of Yauwika


Photograph of Donald S. MacFarlan


Photograph of coast watchers with captured Japanese pilot


Photograph of Model 3BZ radio used by coastwatchers



Frank (1990)

Feuer (1992)

Lord (1977)

McAulay (1991)

Mercado (2002)

Miller (1959)

Morison (1949, 1950, 1959)

Rottman (2002)

Zimmerman (1949; accessed 201--5-30)

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