Deep Island Time

"The occupation of Tulagi put the Coast Watchers in the position that they could escape only by our reconquest of the Solomons, if they could survive until that took place....[They] continued to signal intelligence; this, in itself, meant their death if they were captured. Deliberately accepting the risk, they remained, with only the faith that the Allies would one day strike back; if soon, to save them; if not soon, well, that would be bad luck."

    - Eric Feldt, The Coast Watchers, 1946


To say the British Solomon Islands Protectorate was unprepared to assume centre-stage in the Pacific War in early 1942 is an understatement. Its defence force based in the colonial capital Tulagi amounted to a handful of locals and about 150 Europeans. In response to the Japanese advance, a plan for Australian airmen to train up a local militia never got off the ground.

The island-hopping that saw the occupation of the Philippines, Burma, Malaya, Indonesia and by January the New Guinea Islands (Rabaul and Kavieng) was about to encircle the Solomon chain from its northwest. How Japanese naval, air and land forces were dislodged from their initial foothold in the protectorate is a story being re-considered by a new generation of Solomon Islanders curious about how largely untrained, non-military personnel helped turn the tide. In particular, how and why did the sudden affront of someone else's war spur Solomon Islanders to defend the colony?

The answer lies in how a naval intelligence operation sprung up across the islands. Its key operatives were largely Europeans, recruited as coastwatchers and stationed at strategic points to observe enemy activity. But their intelligence-gathering was enabled by the cooperation of many local recruits who spied for, fought for and generally protected the coastwatchers, allowing them to continue to supply critical information to the Allied military effort using Australian-made teleradios.

"The Japanese know that there are coastwatchers on the islands," says Annie Kwai, a young Solomon Islands historian studying her country's wartime history at the Australian National University in Canberra. "[They] have to move from one place to another just to make their location unknown to the Japanese and their mobility is assisted by the local people."

When war came to the Solomons, the civil administration became militarised. Those who took up coastwatching duties were often serving or former district officers in the colony. Or they were long-term residents who ran plantations and were later given naval rank. As Europeans, this rank was less important than the trust they inspired in those whom they recruited as scouts to be their 'eyes and ears' on the ground.

One such coastwatcher looked at by Kwai is Martin Clemens, a Scottish-born former district officer on Makira who responded to the strike on Pearl Harbour by returning to duty at Aola on Guadalcanal's north coast. He was at first posted to Gizo which was already under threat.

"Clemens claimed that going to Gizo would be suicide and he insisted to be posted on Guadalcanal," Kwai told Telinga Media. "In the end, he manage to convince [District Commissioner] Marchant to assign him to the district office on Aola."

"The interesting thing about him is while trying to hide behind enemy lines and escape from the Japanese, he also tried to maintain law and order in the country and tried to maintain his role as the district officer," she said.

These two difficult tasks depended on each other. In New Guinea, there were cases where coastwatchers had been 'given up' to the enemy. The Japanese did not underestimate their value to Allied war readiness and in various part of the archipelago, sent patrols to track them down, using locals to gather their own intelligence. 

For example, in March a Japanese landing crew near Kessa on Buka Island suspected that coastwatcher Percy Good had betrayed their position and killed him. More fortunate was Paul Mason, a planter who set up a lookout near Buin, southeast Bougainville to report on bombers flying in from Rabaul and warships amassing in the Shortland Islands. Protected by seven scouts led by a police constable named Moia, Mason avoided a search party in May; in October, just prior to a major offensive to re-take Guadalcanal, the Japanese sent tracker dogs (destroyed by an aerial bomb) plus a party of 100 trackers to capture Mason.

They failed because his own scouts secreted him inland and when it was safe shepherded him back to his lookout where he continued to signal news of the naval build-up back to the east by voice transmission or Morse Code.

Clemens likewise was dependent on the loyalty of his scouts and their ability to guarantee him safe passage as he moved inland to avoid Japanese patrols. This was particularly acute in May after Japanese forces overran Tulagi and nearby islands and begun to establish a base and airfield at Lungga Point, just east of the present-day capital Honiara and only 60km west of his base at Aola.

Clemens had his core of loyal scouts who were mostly police constables. But as the occupiers raced to complete their airfield with local labour, Japanese contact with locals inevitably increased. According to Kwai, this caused some villages to turn against the coastwatchers, though most recognised their authority, many having been part of the civil administration.

"According to some of the interviews I've done with the local surviving scouts, they see the coastwatchers as 'well, they are our government and we're supposed to look after them.'"

In a battle for the hearts and minds of the people, the Japanese did their cause no good by killing cattle, looting gardens and by their rough treatment of labourers recruited to build the airfield. Some Japanese propaganda had gone down well with some villagers but their work regimes did not inspire confidence. Kwai says notices were put about offering citizenship within the empire after two-years' unpaid labour.

"The local people - some of whom know how to read - say, 'well, if we don't get paid for what we're doing, what's the point of us working?' So, the relationship started to break down," she said. "If the Japanese built a better relationship, it could have been a different story."

Imperial designs

The destruction visited on US naval infrastructure at Pearl Harbour in December 1941 was part of a strategy to prevent the Americans coming to the aid of pre-communist China, under Japanese occupation since 1937. Its military adventure through the islands of Southeast Asia aimed to secure control of Indonesian oilfields, controlling the sea lanes and thus isolating China from its potential allies.

With bases in the New Guinea Islands at Kavieng and Rabaul, Tulagi and the airfield on Guadalcanal was the next staging post extending the buffer southeast. The American entry into the Pacific War after Pearl Harbour saw them overcome the Japanese Imperial Navy at the Battle of the Coral Sea (4 - 8 May) as it approached Port Moresby. In June, they were successful again at the Battle of Midway. And just as the Lungga airfield was almost operational, the US Marines launched a surprise ground attack on Guadalcanal to seize the airstrip and re-take British headquarters at Tulagi.

It is the date of the dawn landing by US Marines - 7th August - that has been chosen to honour Solomon coastwatchers and police scouts and recognise their role in turning the tide on Japan's imperial ambition. It was a day when the coastwatching network  demonstrated its prowess - not as a substitute for fighting - but in Eric Feldt's words, by putting 'the fighting man in a position of advantage'.

The re-taking of Tulagi and the near-complete airfield at Lungga was bound to provoke a swift counter punch by Japanese bombers. Air strikes ensued, sent from bases at Kavieng and Rabaul but reported by coastwatchers on Bougainville, giving the Allies more than two hours' warning to prepare their defences and brace for the bombardment.

The warnings also were critical to blunting the Japanese strategic advantage in the air. As Feldt explains in his book The Coast Watchers, their Zero bombers had proved a superior fighting plane owing to their manoeuvrability. The extra time gave the slow-climbing Wildcats the edge by allowing them to be above the Zeros when they reached Guadalcanal airspace.

This Sunday at Point Cruz on Honiara's wharves, a monument will be dedicated to this network of people - planters, labourers, police, soldiers, medics, missionaries and civil servants - who chose not to evacuate and worked together at great risk in defence of their islands. In addition to the monument designed by local artist Frank Haikiu, a roll of honour will be displayed at the National Museum.

Visitors will read names like D.C. Horton, H.E. Josselyn and A.N.A. Waddell who acted as guides to pilot Marines to Tulagi and each serving at various times as coastwatchers on Guadalcanal, Rendova, Vella Lavella and Choiseul. They will also be able to view the names of thousands of Solomon Islanders - names like Sir Jacob Vouza and Sir Gideon Zoleveke - whose contributions are well known throughout the Solomons. There will appear the names of enlisted scouts as well as members of the Solomon Islands Labour Corps formed in December 1942. There are also those local boys who simply turned up to help who will not all find their way onto the distinguished list.

A unifying message

Annie Kwai's desire to recognise her compatriots' role in shaping their own history comes partly from her own education.

"I finished my studies at USP [the University of the South Pacific] and come back. I don't have any idea about the topic. It is a wealth of knowledge - what your people do during the war and feeling a sense of pride for it."

Her research efforts have been supported by the Ministry of Education. Some of her results have already started to find their way into the national high school curriculum.

"Most of the things on the social science syllabus don't talk about the involvement of Solomon Islanders in World War II," she says. "It talks briefly about 'World War II comes to the Solomon Islands' but nothing about the Solomon Islanders."

The roll of honour is intentionally presented as a national roll of those who at a time of  bewildering destruction that Solomon Islanders did not fully understand, showed the highest levels of resourcefulness and cooperation in spite of the divisions within colonial society.

"We try not to separate these names to build a sense of national unity," Kwai explains. "So you can look at the list and say, 'oh, these are people from Solomon Islands, not this is Guadalcanal or Malaita." 

"And given the complexity and the sensitivity of ethicity in the Solomon Islands, it is very important for a project like this to pull together these differences and put Solomon Islanders into one nation and say, 'these are the people of the Solomon Islands, these are the heroes of Solomon Islands' and I think that the project will achieve that."


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