Deep Island Time

'The news of Bogese's defection was flashed to all Coast Watchers and others, for it made their positions even more precarious. Bogese knew them all....and if the Japanese used his knowledge it could only be a matter of time before Government officials and Coast Watchers were rounded up and tortured for such information as they could give before being beheaded, as had happened in other territories to the north of the Solomons.'

- D.C. Horton, Fire over the Islands, 1970

 

 

The US Navy's defence of Port Moresby in May 1942 - known as the Battle of the Coral Sea - was fought entirely in the air by fighters launched from opposing aircraft carriers. But at the same time, the capital of British Solomon Islands Protectorate Tulagi - in the Florida Islands - was occupied by a Japanese force including ships arriving from the north, the southernmost tip of Santa Isabel Island.

It was District Officer Donald Kennedy, a New Zealander, who gave warning of these ships; this allowed aircraft from two US carriers south of Guadalcanal to meet them at Tulagi, sinking nine of them. But later that month, Kennedy's mountain coastwatching position at Mahaga became precarious. On Savo Island, the occupiers had captured a South Isabel man and physician named George Bogese. He was press-ganged in various duties including translating Japanese propaganda for local consumption but went close to breaking the coastwatching network when - together with a number of his wantoks -  he led a Japanese patrol to Kennedy's hideout. 

Fearing the worst, some of Kennedy's carriers deserted. He was left with his deputy and medic Geoffrey Kuper, five police from North Isabel and six Rennell Islanders. But as luck would have it, the patrol was called off and ordered back to Tulagi. 

As a parting shot, one of Bogese's relatives led the Japanese to mangroves where Kennedy's vessel, the Wai-ai, was hidden. The 14-ton sloop was Kennedy's ticket as district officer to roam a very wide patch from Isabel to the Florida and Russell Islands, New Georgia and the Shortlands. The boat was captained by his second-in-command, Bill Bennett, a New Georgian, described by one author as 'a man of many parts: sailor, radio operator, mechanic, medical dresser, cook, and schoolteacher'. 

Under orders to prevent the vessel falling into enemy hands, Bennett doused it with petrol and was still on the boat when it ignited from a bullet fired from a Japanese barge. He escaped but was badly burned.

Hidden stories

But how much is really known about the position of Solomon Islanders enveloped by a calamity not of their own making? And how much is known about those islanders who worked closely with the coastwatchers gathering and sharing intelligence for the Allied cause? 

A young Solomon historian researching this part of her country's past is Annie Kwai from the Australian National University in Canberra. From the written memoirs of European coastwatchers, she says, a picture emerged of locals - seen by the Allies and the Japanese - as 'civilians' whose loyalty was there to be won. Once trusted, their local knowledge could be used in pursuit of military victory. 

"This perspective does not generate a comphrensive picture," says Kwai. "Rather it promotes the story of coastwatchers, while suppressing that of Scouts."

She believes that this suppression may be because of the oral tradition in the Solomons where the real stories of the scouts are embedded in memory and transferred to the next generation.

Clearly, the scouts' loyalty towards European coastwatchers varied depending on how each coastwatcher conducted his affairs. Eric Feldt in his memoir The Coast Watchers praises Donald Kennedy as 'one of those to whom command came naturally, a full-blooded, dominant man, who at last found himself in a position where he could really use his talents'. 

There seems to be no doubt Kennedy trained and commanded an effective military fighting force backed by a disciplined network of local intelligence operatives. His 'commando-style' attacks on Japanese barges were daring, to say the least. In addition, after July 1942, his base at Seghe, New Georgia was the centre for rescuing downed airmen - a haven for Allied pilots, a prison for Japanese ones.

As much as his military-style discipline exerted control over local villages and prevented Japanese infiltration, some of Kennedy's most perilous moments were partly the result of his personal habits. His betrayal by Bogese on Isabel (described above) is said to have been partly related to his womanising. At Seghe, Kennedy was known for brutal punishment of anyone suspected of disloyalty. Researcher James Boutilier records Kennedy's crew ramming a whaleboat in Marovo Lagoon. Kennedy himself was wounded in the leg. Much later, his captain Bill Bennett, admitted that it was he who caused the injury and not the enemy. Despite his senior rank as one of Kennedy's 'lieutenants', Bennett too was brutalised by the coastwatcher.

Other coastwatchers, it seems, commanded respect more than fear. Martin Clemens on Guadalcanal was supported by many acts of courage, guile and heroism, built around a group of savvy police constables who protected the intelligence operation as it was forced to move inland from Aola. All three qualities were often required to win the crucial psychological battle waged at the grassroots, a battle on which the quality of intelligence turned. In his coastwatcher's memoir, Fire over the Islands, Dick Horton wrote - 

'The scouts and police were continuously active in seeking news of enemy dispositions and preserving and encouraging morale amongst the islanders. They combined business with pleasure by attaching themselves to the Japanese as simple villagers anxious to work for them....When they had gleaned all they could, they would slip away and report to Martin [Clemens], making certain en route that the local people knew what they had done so that they would take heart and look down on the invaders who could be fooled so easily.'

A police sergeant-major who came out of retirement, Jacob Vouza, was also a key member of Clemens' scouting team. There are many recorded accounts of Solomon Islanders not giving up coastwatchers under Japanese interrogation but Vouza took his duties one step further. While scouting for Marines in August 1942 just prior to the Battle of Alligator Creek, Vouza was captured. A Marine journal from 1992 describes his ordeal in this way - 

'Vouza refused to answer questions. The Japanese tied him to a tree and beat him in the face with rifle butts. He not only refused to answer more questions but shook his horribly bloody head. They bayonetted him twice in the chest. He still said nothing. Finally in frustration, a Japanese soldier thrust his bayonet forward, stabbed the sergeant-major in the throat and left him for dead, tied to the tree. Vouza, though choking on his own blood, was too tough to die....Vouza gnawed and chewed his way through the ropes. Eventually freeing himself, Vouza crawled to the Marine lines.'

Miraculously, he recovered and in November the same year, he was back guiding Marines through the jungles behind Aola. Highly decorated, he died in 1984, aged 89.

As it is with all soldiers, the extremes of war create bonds between those whose lives depend on each other. So, Dick Horton, a long-time resident and district officer, speaks highly of the individual islanders who defended the protectorate. He also suggests that their collective loyalty, however praiseworthy, still relied on people like him and Clemens standing firm and staying committed to the Allied cause.

On the other hand, Eric Feldt,  who ran the coastwatching operation from Townsville, did not have the personal ties to Solomon Islanders, though he did serve as district officer in New Guinea. In The Coast Watchers, he recognises the auxiliary (and sometimes heroic) role of loyal islanders and cites their military honours by name; but collectively he regarded them as prone to disintegration.

'[I]n spite of the encouraging signs in the native attitude, it was obvious to anyone of experience that time would bring deterioration. The only question was how much time would elapse before native loyalty cracked completely, and what would have happened in that time elsewhere.'

As a naval officer at some distance from the ground war, Feldt may have underestimated the ingenuity of key local leaders (in particular, the scouts with their ties to colonial authority) in forestalling this process. Scouts not only used guile and trickery to keep community members away from the enemy and vice versa but also worked to bring local populations into the game of intelligence-gathering and so gave them a stake in its outcome. 

Horton recalls an episode at Aola when the Japanese were still holding ground on Guadalcanal's north coast. One of their patrols had enlisted the help of a local Japanese man from Tulagi (Ishimoto) to interrogate villagers. It encountered Corporal Andrew Langaebaea, one of Clemens' police scouts.

'Andrew was interrogated but was far too wily to give anything away, and spun a yarn so convincing that in the end the Japanese were made to believe that all the Europeans had fled from the islands and that all Andrew was interested in was the cultivation of his garden. Andrew's example of courage and quick thinking did a great deal to stabilise the local people after their first wild panic when they saw Ishimoto with the Japanese patrol.'

War and hunger

Courage and quick thinking aside, the war brought unmitigated hardship. Another decorated hero is Sir Gideon Zoleveke, a former government minister from eastern Choiseul, who had to defer his medical education in Fiji till after the war. 

Speaking at a seminar in 1988, Zoleveke is at times resentful of foreign powers turning his land into a killing field. And despite being untrained, they still offered themselves up to the Allied cause.

"If it hadn't been for us, they would have been stopped by the reefs, the jungle, and starvation," he said in a translation from Pidgin. "They wouldn't even have met up. They would have died, every one of them, both Japanese and American. But we were there and we led them."

But he complains most bitterly about the lack of financial support for Solomon veterans, something that foreigners fighting on their shores were covered for. It reminds him that what the Allies achieved in the Solomons was only possible because Solomon Islanders at the time were a dependent people.

"The British rounded us up and threw us into the fight," he said. "If they were to do that today, they would have to go through the Parliament. And Parliament would have to ask the British government to pay a certain amount of money before they could take even one Solomon Islander to join that war."

Another Solomon veteran who has spoken about his wartime activities is Alfred Bisili, a New Georgian who scouted for Donald Kennedy at Seghe. Bisili was on-duty during the occupation of Gizo and Munda in the Western Solomons in late 1942. He recalls the evacuation of Munda and how the villagers fled to the hills and suffered from hunger. He scouted for them telling them when it was safe to come down to their food gardens. 

Bisili told the 1988 seminar that he was "saddened by the fact that for many of us who have contributed and done a lot during the war, no recognition has been given to us for what we have done". His memories may have been sweetened by an opportunity to attend a commemoration earlier this month in Honiara (see photo) which dedicated a permanent monument to the scouts and the coastwatchers whom they so selflessly served.


Main sources

Feldt, E. (1946), The Coast Watchers 

Horton, D.C. (1970), Fire Over the Islands: The Coastwatchers of the Solomons

Laracy, H. & White, G. (eds)(1988), 'Taem Blong Faet: World War II in Melanesia', ’0’0: A Journal of Solomon Islands Studies, No 4

Boutilier, J. (1989), 'Kennedy’s Army' in  White, G. & Lindstrom, L. (eds), The Pacific Theater: Island Representations of World War II

 

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