Even after the Battle of Midway in June 1942, the Japanese were still in a commanding position in the western Pacific. They still had more of every kind of military and naval resource, but the Solomon Island campaign that had begun in January 1942 would change that. By the end of the campaign, the Japanese would lose the initiative in the Pacific and would no longer have the strength to stop Allied advances. Bloody battles lay ahead, but now it was a different war.
There were a number of reasons for the eventual Allied victory. The Japanese made some terrible strategic and tactical mistakes. Overconfidence—“victory disease”—caused many. They were willing to fight in awkward circumstances and at the end of a painfully vulnerable supply line. At the same time, the Allies’ strength was growing as they deployed new units on the ground, at sea, and in the air and introduced new weapons, innovative tactics, and superior aircraft.
Allied losses during the campaign were painful, but Japanese losses were shattering. That was partly because Allied strategic and tactical moves were better thought-out than those of the Japanese. In addition, the Australian coastwatcher organization and the American “Black Cat” PBY Catalina flying boat squadrons made substantial contributions to minimizing Allied losses and ensuring that Japanese losses were ruinously high.
The coastwatchers were initially set up by the Australian government, which needed observers in Australia’s sparsely inhabited Northern Territory. Local volunteers were trained and given a “telaradeo,” which was capable of both voice and Morse code operations.
When the Australians gained control over the Solomons after World War I, they assigned district officers to represent the “Government.” Their administration was benevolent. Intervillage warfare and head hunting were suppressed. A system of medical practitioners was set up that provided the islanders with a modicum of medical support. On the whole, the natives were sincerely appreciative of that support and had a positive attitude toward the Australian administration.
As war loomed, the coastwatcher system was extended into the Australian-controlled islands. District officers and selected planters and miners were enrolled—men who had been in the islands long enough to adapt to the heat and humidity. They were people who, as one historian put it, “knew how to live in the jungle, how to handle the natives, how to fend for themselves.” Events showed it was a sound policy.
It was also important to have old hands for the job because disease can make the islands a miserable place; yaws, dysentery, and blackwater fever are just some of the diseases that afflict people living there. When the Marines left Guadalcanal, 75 percent had malaria. There are also plenty of dangerous pests like the centipede that bit a chief scout on Rendova and left him in agony for two weeks.
At the beginning of the war, the coastwatcher operation was headed by Commander Eric Feldt, who had set up the network that extended throughout the Solomons, New Guinea, and the smaller islands north of it. Feldt codenamed the network “Ferdinand,” after the Walt Disney cartoon bull character that preferred smelling flowers to fighting.
Feldt wanted his people to be covert and not engage the Japanese if at all possible. He wanted information on Japanese movements and, as the air war picked up, weather reports. He felt that the information they could provide was far more important than any pinpricks they might inflict. He was correct; their warnings would have a decisive impact on the campaign.
There were never more than about 15 coastwatchers in the Solomons, plus a few American assistants; several watchers on the northern island of Bougainville were killed. Things could quickly get hairy even in the air. When coastwatcher Dick Horton was sent to reconnoiter the Ontong Java Atoll, north of the Solomons, he flew in a PBY. On the way back, a patrolling B-17 tried to shoot it down. The Japanese had captured a PBY, so Horton’s pilot was supposed to flash a recognition signal to the B-17 when the bomber challenged it. The PBY did not see the challenge, so the bomber opened fire.
The district officers continued to try to help the natives even as their control crumbled during the Japanese advance. When the coconut planters fled, they left hundreds of contract workers stranded, so the district officers made strenuous efforts to get those men back to their home islands.
On Bougainville they were not completely successful, and coastwatchers there purchased tracts of land from the local villages so the stranded men could plant kitchen gardens. In contrast to the Japanese, the watchers were also free with their medical supplies as long as they lasted.
When Japanese pressure forced the watchers still free on Bougainville to withdraw by submarine, the coastwatcher headquarters on Guadalcanal ordered one watcher to leave his native scouts and carriers on the island, as there was not sufficient room for them on the sub. He deliberately failed to rendezvous with the submarine. A second submarine trip had to be scheduled to retrieve him—a sub with room for all his party.
The missionaries in the islands were another group that had earned the natives’ respect because of the medical help they gave and their obvious good intentions, but generally they tried to stay neutral in the conflict. Japanese atrocities and random acts of cruelty directed at missionaries and natives alike made some side with the Allies.
Father Emery de Klerk on the south shore of Guadalcanal began by rescuing a downed American flyer. His resistance to further involvement dissolved when the Japanese wantonly slaughtered some elderly nuns. Before the Japanese evacuated the island, he was commanding his own small war band and wearing the uniform of a second lieutenant of the U.S. Army.
The coastwatchers could not have existed without the support of the natives. About 400 Melanesians served with the coastwatchers, another 680 with the Solomon Islands Protectorate Defense Force, and about 3,200 served as laborers. Most natives subsisted on produce from their communal gardens and the fish and other seafood they gathered.
Generally the people who wrote about the character of the natives were unstinting in their praise. When the Japanese landed on Guadalcanal at Lunga Point to build their airfield, the first detailed information about it came from one of the “police boys” who volunteered to serve in a Japanese kitchen.
Throughout the campaign natives took grave risks to rescue downed flyers and shipwrecked sailors. Then they often spent days of dangerous work getting them to a coastwatcher.
With a few exceptions they were encouraged to stay away from the Japanese, but that did not stop the Japanese from killing or capturing hundreds of natives. It was sometimes hard for the natives to see a reason for restraint when Japanese landing parties looted villages and pillaged gardens as happened one day when the Japanese sent eight men to set up their own coastwatcher station on the south coast of Guadalcanal. The depredations infuriated the local villagers, so they struck back a few nights later. They killed all but one radio operator, who fled into the jungle never to be seen again.
A particularly senseless atrocity prompted watcher Dick Horton to write, “This was not the only case in the Solomons in which the Japanese showed their cruelty and practiced their belief that anyone not a Japanese could be regarded as Kichibu, or beast.” Watchers and scouts were sorely tempted to ambush isolated parties.
Even when cruelty was not involved, there was friction between natives and the Japanese. The occupiers paid little for the supplies they commandeered and for the labor they demanded. Often they lived in such rough and squalid circumstances that the natives had little respect for them.
It was uncertain that the watchers could remain operational after the Japanese occupied the islands, but fallback positions, where provisions and gasoline were stored, were prepared in the jungle. The watchers on Bougainville—Jack Reed in the north and Paul Mason in the south—were able to fall back and keep apprising the Allies of Japanese movements. A few weeks before the Marine landing on Guadalcanal, they were ordered off the air to minimize any chance of their being put out of action before that landing.
The campaign that most clearly demonstrated the coastwatchers’ usefulness began with the battle for Guadalcanal. On August 7, 1942, a force of inadequately trained U.S. Marines landed in what they called Operation Shoestring because they had only a fraction of the supplies and equipment their leaders thought necessary. Their objective was to capture the Japanese airfield and surrounding area, finish building it, and turn it into an Allied air base.
The landing, however, managed to surprise and overwhelm the small Japanese force on the island, enabling the Marines to finish the airfield (Henderson Field) so it could be used by Marine and Army aircraft.
Over the next few months the Japanese made more landings in an effort to build up a force strong enough to expel the Americans. Finally, the Japanese effort collapsed, and the sick and starving remnants of the Japanese forces were withdrawn. Much the same sequence of events occurred on several other islands later in the campaign.