How Superb Recon in the South Pacific Helped to Win WWII

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September 21, 2020 Topic: History Region: Oceania Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: HistoryWorld War IIPacific WarIntelligencePBY

How Superb Recon in the South Pacific Helped to Win WWII

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.

Another station was set up when the Japanese began building another airfield at Vita on the south coast of Kolombangara. The American attack on the big base at Munda was in the offing, and there was considerable barge traffic through that area as the Japanese moved to reinforce it.

The men sent to run the station were not the old island hands Feldt liked to recruit. One of them, Arthur Evens, had been a purser on an inter-island steamer but had little experience on shore. The man sent to work with Evens, Frank Nash, seemed an even odder choice. An American Army Air Corps corporal, he had grown up on a ranch in eastern Colorado and had been so eager to get overseas that he was ready to volunteer for the infantry. Instead, he was assigned to a signals construction company that was sent to Guadalcanal to set up communications for Henderson Field. When the company was being withdrawn, he volunteered to stay and work for the coastwatchers.

The two men actually worked well together. They had their most memorable moment when they woke to find four Japanese destroyers offshore that had run into a newly laid American minefield. One had sunk, two were damaged, and the fourth was picking up survivors. Evens and Nash called in aircraft that sank the two damaged ships and shot up the fourth. They also had the distinction of being the watchers who made contact with John F. Kennedy and the crew of PT-109in August 1943.)

About the only criticism of their work was that the few natives in the area could not spare much food and the two were not up to foraging in the jungle; they subsisted mostly on Spam and C-rations.

In the early days of primitive radar, the difference between the available American and Japanese fighters made the coastwatchers’ warnings crucial to holding Guadalcanal. Japan’s dominant fighter in the campaign was the Mitsubishi Zero. It was a fast, agile aircraft that could climb quickly. To achieve this, it was built with a light airframe and was not constructed with armor or self-sealing gas tanks. Like most Japanese aircraft, the Zero was somewhat fragile and vulnerable to gunfire. The fragility of Japanese aircraft actually became a bigger problem as the war went on and metal shortages worsened.

America opted for sturdy airplanes that could take great punishment, equipping them with self-sealing gas tanks and some armor. Most of them were armed with multiple Browning .50-caliber machine guns, which outranged anything on Japanese airplanes.

In a typical engagement, the watchers on Bougainville would sight formations of bombers coming in from the fields around Rabaul, joined by fighters from the field on Buna. When the Japanese formations reached the vicinity of Guadalcanal, the Grumman F4F Wildcat fighters would dive out of the sun and rake the bombers. If a Zero got on a single Wildcat’s tail, the Wildcat’s pilot could go into a fast dive; if a Zero attempted to dive as fast as a Wildcat, its wings might tear off.

American aircraft regularly savaged Japanese raids. Typically the kill ratio in such an engagement was “wildly disproportionate” in favor of the Allies. Later in the Solomons campaign, the Wildcat was superseded by more modern aircraft like the Lockheed P-38 Lightning and the Vought F4U Corsair that could outperform the Zero in every way but in making tight turns.

Few sources agree on how many Japanese aircraft were brought down during the first series of raids on August 6 and 7, 1942. Eric Feldt puts the casualties for the first unescorted raid at 23 of the 24 Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” bombers making the attack. Reed and Mason, who had reported the oncoming raid as it passed over Bougainville, listened in on the chatter during the fight that took place just north of Guadalcanal. At one point about eight Japanese aircraft were simultaneously falling out of the sky. Hearing that the results were so dramatically in the Allies’ favor must have made Reed and Mason feel the risks they were taking were justified.

Whatever the actual losses, they were unsustainable, and after a few days the attacks ceased while the Japanese brought in additional aircraft from the Carolines. The Japanese would periodically renew the raids as they made another attempt to reconquer the island; the heavy losses would continue.

The coastwatchers assisted the Allies in a variety of other ways besides air raid warnings. They kept tabs on Japanese supply and reinforcement movements throughout the islands. During the first half of 1943, the campaign became a war of attrition for the Japanese as they suffered severe losses because of the intelligence coastwatchers supplied. Once the Allies began moving north, the coastwatchers moved in close to targeted bases to provide detailed information and even acted as guides for Allied troops.

Assistance with search and rescue of flyers and mariners was important at all stages of the campaign. Clemens on Guadalcanal began rescuing flyers before U.S. forces landed there. The most spectacular example was the rescue of 165 crewmen of the light cruiser USS Helena, whom the watchers hid until the Navy could rescue them.

There was one major exception to Ferdinand’s policy of avoiding contact with the Japanese: Donald Kennedy at Segi Point, who became very active in rescuing flyers. His station became the collecting point for downed flyers in much of the central Solomons. His central location also made him extremely effective in providing information on Japanese movements.

His base was no hut hidden in the jungle but rather a full camp, with mess hall, arsenal, and even a prisoner of war compound. His post could be in the open because it was hard to approach. It was backed by swamps, and naval charts warned mariners of unmapped reefs and shallows.

The Japanese decided to send small patrols to find Kennedy’s compound, but Kennedy knew that if the patrols did not return the secret of his location would be safe. Accordingly, he established a “forbidden zone” around his post and adopted a policy of ambushing the Japanese and killing or capturing all that came within it.

When a scout reported two Japanese supply barges tied up five miles away, Kennedy gathered a force of 23 men, including a downed flyer awaiting rescue, and attacked. All of the enemy crews were killed, weapons and supplies were taken, and the barges sunk in deep water. Presumably the Japanese never learned what happened to them.

Another mysterious disappearance took place when old and nearly blind Chief Ngatu learned of a Japanese post on an island 30 miles from Kennedy’s camp. With the Aussies’ permission, Ngato and six of his men slipped into the Japanese camp and slipped out with their rifles. The next morning Ngatu’s men used them to take the Japanese prisoner.

Action of this sort boosted Kennedy’s standing with the natives; Ferdinand might be a bit of an abstraction to them, but a good fight was always fun. The chief of the Mindi-Mindi Islands enlisted as a scout and was given a rifle. He ambushed enough Japanese and collected enough rifles to put 32 armed men at Kennedy’s service.

In this way Kennedy built up a force armed mostly with captured Japanese weapons and even more when PBYs came in to pick up Allied personnel; captured Japanese were flown out with rescued flyers. The combination of anger at the Japanese and Kennedy’s example encouraged natives to ambush any small enemy parties that came within reach.

The Japanese continued to push their net of bases farther south. But Kennedy did not move his base even when the Japanese set up an emergency airstrip and base a few miles away at Viru; he continued to ambush their patrols.

Another Japanese air base was established at Munda on the other end of New Georgia from Seti Point and had extremely tight operational security. It was hidden in a coconut plantation where Japanese engineers had wired the tops of coconut palms together and cut off the trunks where the runway was to be, thus suspending the tops in the air and preventing aerial reconnaissance from observing the activities beneath.

Initially, native scouts simply could not get close enough to find out what the Japanese were up to; it took weeks to finally penetrate the base. But their reports were not corroborated until the engineers got careless about replacing the coconut tree tops as they dried out, and sharp-eyed photo interpreters on Guadalcanal spotted the ruse.

Once it was clear that a major Japanese base was being built there, Dick Horton was sent to keep watch on it. From a spot on neighboring Rendova Island, he was able to provide detailed information about activities on the base. Eventually a Marine reconnaissance team slipped into his station. Their observations and the information supplied by the coastwatcher/scout team helped the Marines to plan a landing on beaches close to the base.

Kennedy’s problems with the base at Viru continued to increase. After several patrols and scouting vessels failed to return from trying to penetrate Kennedy’s forbidden zone, the Japanese prepared to send a whole battalion. Kennedy was forced to seek help, but by then he had been instrumental in saving so many flyers that he probably could have asked for anything he wanted.