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Watchers of the Solomons
By Walter Lord
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1977 Walter Lord
All rights reserved.
"STEAK AND EGGS"
THE RUSTY LITTLE STEAMER Morinda sagged under the weight of the people scrambling to get aboard. A local doctor, hurling himself into the mob, dislocated his shoulder. Piles of luggage lay on the pier, abandoned by the planters, traders, missionaries, and minor officials who crowded the ship's rail. Tulagi, chief port and administrative center of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, was in a panic—and so was the whole South Pacific.
Japan was on the march. On December 7, 1941, Tokyo's policy of expansion had finally collided head-on with Washington's policy of containment in the sunny skies above Pearl Harbor, and now the Emperor's forces were sweeping south. With chilling speed they struck not only the bastions of American strength but the whole jerry-built system of European possessions that for a hundred years had meant order and stability in the Pacific.
On December 23 Wake Island surrendered; Christmas Day, Hong Kong fell; January 3, 1942, Manila went. On the 12th, enemy forces invaded the East Indies ... the 23rd, New Britain and New Ireland ... the 30th, West Borneo. On February 1, in perhaps the most unbelievable stroke of all, the Japanese laid siege to the supposedly impregnable British base of Singapore after surging down the Malay Peninsula with terrifying ease.
Even more frightening than the collapse of the Allied defense was the collapse of a great many preconceptions that had stood inviolate for a century: the invincibility of the Royal Navy; American technological supremacy; the limitations of a purely imitative Japan; the innate superiority of the Western fighting man; a conviction that the oil, tin, rubber and other resources of Asia somehow belonged by inheritance—if not by divine right—to a few European powers; and an abiding faith that the Far East would always accept this state of affairs.
As these comforting beliefs crumbled in the face of the enemy advance, Allied spokesmen desperately tried to explain away the disaster. There was little mention of the Japanese development of the aircraft carrier task force, or the coordinated tactics that sank the mighty British warships, Prince of Wales and Repulse, or the fast-climbing Zero fighter plane. Instead, these easy victories were ascribed largely to stealth, trickery, a "simian" aptitude for jungle warfare. As The New York Times described the conquerors of Malaya:
Many of them wear sneakers and swarm up the boles of the coconut trees to the feathery fronds at the top and act as snipers. They swing from the jungle lianas like monkeys. They wade through the swamps and become part of them. They infiltrate the British strong points dressed in native clothes or in few clothes at all.
The effect only added to the cold fear of those in the path of the advance. Frantic civilians, white and native, abandoned their towns, burned their plantations, and fled down the roads and trails on trucks, carts, bicycles, anything. Thoroughly demoralized, the Allied troops reeled back, sometimes laden with loot and liquor.
When Rabaul fell on January 23, it was clear that Japan would soon strike the Solomon Islands, a mere 200 miles to the southeast. Nor would this be a minor conquest: The Solomons were a majestic chain stretching like a necklace from Buka and Bougainville, just below the equator, to San Cristobal, 600 miles still farther to the southeast.
Administratively the islands were divided: Buka and Bougainville formed an Australian mandate; the rest were a British protectorate. But geographically the chain was really a single unit—a visually striking and even thrilling entity. Starting below Bougainville, the Solomons split into two parallel lines of islands—Choiseul, Santa Isabel, and Malaita to the north; Vella Lavella, the New Georgia group, and Guadalcanal to the south—both lines merging again at San Cristobal. In between ran a narrow corridor of water that cartographers called New Georgia Sound, but which seemed to any traveler more like a groove ... or a gut ... or, as it came to be called, "the Slot."
Near the southeastern end of the Slot, midway between Malaita and Guadalcanal, lay a small cluster called the Florida Islands. One of these—only two miles long—was Tulagi, seat of the colonial government.
The islands that lined the Slot were bulky masses of green, rising dramatically out of a sparkling blue sea. Rugged mountains towered above the strips of beach, and on Bougainville wisps of smoke rose from two live volcanoes, blending with the huge cumulus clouds in the sky. The vastness of nature loomed everywhere, and even a large vessel steaming along the Slot looked like a toy against the spectacular backdrop of mountains and clouds.
They were islands of beauty—and remoteness. Discovered by the Spanish in 1567, they were so far removed from the world's trade routes that they were lost and not found again for 200 years. During the nineteenth century occasional European explorers added a legacy of English, French, and German place names, but no formal government existed until the British established their protectorate over the Southern Solomons in 1893.
Nearly fifty years later the islands remained largely empty and unknown. Only 650 white settlers, mostly planters and missionaries, lived in an area of some 60,000 square miles. Tulagi had perhaps 40 or 50 Europeans, although it did include those perquisites of English colonial life, a Residency, a cricket pitch, and a small golf course.
Even the jungles were largely empty, except for mosquitoes, lizards, agile crocodiles along the river banks, and an occasional bush rat as big as a rabbit. Over 100,000 natives lived wild, secluded lives. Mostly very black Melanesians, they had little contact with the settlers or even with each other—some 40 different dialects were in use. Head-hunting was not unknown, and few white men had done very much exploring. Choiseul was probably the least charted island in the world.
But that was the way the settlers wanted it. Men came out here with the deliberate purpose of getting away from the ordinary world. Some had a restless, independent streak; some had a past they longed to forget; some hoped to spread the Word of God. For a few the Solomons weren't the answer, and they just drifted—often lost in drink—little more than beachcombers. But for most this self-contained world was the end of the rainbow. In the words of one new arrival:
I realized that here was the place where one might truly live and learn, a place altogether different, and above all, a wild free place where men succeeded only by their own strength, courage, enterprise and intelligence.
And now it was crashing down around their heads. Defense was hopeless. The antique firearms collected by the British colonial government were no match for the invaders. In the whole chain there were only two small units of regular troops: a 24-man unit of Australian Imperial Force commandos stationed at an unfinished airstrip on Buka to the north; and a similar A.I.F. unit guarding a minor Royal Australian Air Force patrol plane base in Tulagi harbor.
In this desperate situation, word was spread that the steamer Morinda would sail one last time for Australia on February 8. Abandoning their holdings, terrified settlers from all over the Solomons poured into Tulagi, where the ship would make its final stop.
The refugees had a glimpse of the dark days to come even as they waited on the dock. Shortly after the Morinda hove into view at 11:00 A.M., a Japanese Kawanisi flying boat appeared overhead. As the steamer dodged into an estuary, the Kawanisi casually made two bombing runs on her. There were no hits, but this was due to luck rather than any show of defense. There was no ground fire at all.
The panic was on by the time the plane flew off and the Morinda finally docked. All afternoon the refugees fought to get aboard, while the captain fretted about lifeboat regulations and tickets. It was after 8:00 when the ship gave a farewell blast on her whistle, cast off, and headed southwest for Australia.
Quiet once more settled over Tulagi. The only trace of the afternoon's tumult was the pile of abandoned luggage still lying on the dock ... heaps of government records left behind in the rush ... a few forlorn planters who missed the boat ... and, of all things, an incoming passenger.
It should have pleased Martin Clemens to be coming in when everybody else was leaving. He had a great instinct for the dramatic and radiated a charm and urbanity that irritated some but appealed to many. A Cambridge oarsman with aristocratic tastes, he had come to the Solomons in 1938 as a young Colonial Office cadet. On leave in Sydney when the Japanese attacked Hawaii, he instantly sensed that this was the end of a way of life. He symbolically tore a pound note in half and tossed it into the harbor from a Sydney ferry.
Now he was back in Tulagi, ready for his next assignment. The Resident Commissioner, a bewildered elderly Englishman named William Sydney Marchant, ordered him to take over the district office on the island of Gizo to the northwest. But Gizo was already no-man's-land, and Clemens pointed out that it would be suicide even to land there. In the end he persuaded Marchant to let him go to Guadalcanal, largest of the British Solomons and just twenty miles to the south. Here he might be able to do some good.
On February 11 he crossed over, joining District Officer D. C. Horton at Aola, a tiny settlement on the north coast that served as administrative center for Guadalcanal. His arrival was a godsend to both Dick Horton and his assistant, Henry Josselyn. They had long wanted to leave the Islands and join the armed services. They quickly broke in Clemens, and by early March they were gone.
Martin Clemens was now the sole British official on Guadalcanal—a position that was anything but enviable. He was not only supposed to keep the flag flying as the colonial world crumbled around him, but in taking over the Aola station, he also assumed another responsibility that would hold him on Guadalcanal indefinitely. He automatically became a link in the Islands Coastwatching Service.
Developed by the Royal Australian Navy after World War I, the Service aimed to establish a network of observers who might keep an eye on the country's vast unguarded coast in case of war. Gradually the area was expanded to include New Guinea, the Bismarcks, the Solomons, and the rest of the strategic islands that girdled Australia's northeast coast. Since there was little defense money in the economy-minded '20s, the observers were volunteers drawn from local government workers, planters, traders and missionaries.
With the 1930s came the threat of Japanese expansion and the appointment of the Australian Navy's first full-time Director of Naval Intelligence. Commander R. B. M. Long was an affable career officer whose cherubic appearance concealed a brilliant mind and a skill at political wire-pulling. He saw gaps in the Coastwatching system, and the outbreak of the European war in 1939 gave him the budget to do something about it. He put the problem in the hands of an old Naval College classmate, Lieutenant Commander Eric Feldt.
It was a happy choice. Feldt tended to be distant and overly correct with his naval colleagues, but he was utterly in tune with the temperamental and individualistic "Islanders," as the longtime white residents of the Southwest Pacific were called. Squeezed out of the Navy by peacetime cuts in 1922, he had gone to New Guinea himself and was warden of the Wau Goldfield when called back for wartime duty. He knew the islands and the people thoroughly, and they knew and trusted him.
Feldt regarded the islands as a "fence" around Australia, with gaps and holes to be filled. Arriving in New Guinea on September 21, 1939, he began fixing the fence, and by mid-1941 the job was done. Over 100 Coastwatching stations stretched in a 2500-mile crescent from the western border of Papua New Guinea to Vila in the New Hebrides. Control stations at Port Moresby, Rabaul, Tulagi and Vila coordinated operations in their respective areas, and these in turn reported to Feldt's headquarters at Townsville in northern Australia.
All the stations were equipped with "teleradios"—remarkably durable sets that would transmit either by voice or by telegraph key. They worked on storage batteries and had a range of up to 400 miles by voice, 600 by key. They were efficient but clumsy, for even when broken down into their component parts of speaker, receiver, and transmitter, each part weighed some 75-100 pounds. Then there were the batteries, the charging engine, and the benzine to run it. In all, it took twelve to sixteen men to carry a set any time it had to be moved.
At the outset, however, this didn't seem especially important. No one expected the Coastwatchers to be on the move. They would not be operating behind enemy lines; they were really lookouts or spotters, in friendly territory, watching for any sign of hostile ships or planes. For sending messages, Feldt taught his Coastwatchers a simple cipher system called the "Playfair code," which required no equipment other than a list of key words. It was not especially secure, but nobody thought that mattered. The information would be of only transitory value and, again, the men would be in no danger of capture.
Those neat assumptions collapsed in the shattering aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Quickly punching through Commander Feldt's fence, the Japanese controlled New Britain, New Ireland, and the whole Bismarck Sea by the end of February 1942.
These were harrowing days for the Coastwatchers in the path of this avalanche. Some, like the ebullient Keith McCarthy on New Britain, made hairbreadth escapes. Others, like C. C. Jarvis on Nissan, had time for one last message—UNKNOWN SHIP STOPPING AT LAGOON ENTRANCE—then vanished forever. All found themselves suddenly facing the probability of operating behind enemy lines. But whatever their fate, Feldt insisted on one point: They were meant to watch—not fight. To drive the point home, he called the network "Ferdinand," after the famous fictional bull who preferred flowers to the arena.
March, and the Japanese began moving into the Solomons. The enemy had taken a few weeks to tidy up earlier conquests; so the move came a little later than expected, but it couldn't have been more threatening. The chain flanked the northern coast of Australia and pointed like a spear directly at the supply route from America. Control of the Solomons meant control of the New Hebrides and New Caledonia, and that in turn meant control of the approaches to Brisbane and Sydney.
Eric Feldt deployed his men accordingly. He planted eight teleradio stations in the Solomons area, six directly in the path of the Japanese. Two were on Bougainville; another in the central Solomons; and three on Guadalcanal, next-to-largest of the islands and the most likely place for an enemy airstrip.
Of the three Coastwatchers on Guadalcanal, Martin Clemens at Aola was in the best position to cover the eastern end of the island. Eighteen miles to his west—about midway along the northern coast—Pay Lieutenant D. S. MacFarland of the Royal Australian Navy manned another teleradio at Berande, a rubber plantation owned by the South Pacific trading firm Burns Philp. All the way west was the third Coastwatcher, F. Ashton Rhoades, manager of the Burns Philp copra plantation at Lavoro.
Stocky, cheerful Don MacFarland had been a buyer with an Australian dry goods chain before the war. Called up as a naval reservist in 1941, he landed more or less by chance in naval intelligence. Here he was picked up by Eric Feldt and sent to Tulagi to coordinate Coastwatching activities in the area, and to serve as naval liaison with Resident Commissioner Marchant.
As the Japanese advanced into the Solomons in March 1942, Marchant shifted his headquarters to Auki, Malaita, a hundred miles farther east; and MacFarland—acting on previous instructions from Feldt—moved to Guadalcanal. Unlike most of the Coastwatchers, he had no experience in the area, but he had a unique advantage. He quickly came under the wing of Kenneth Dalrymple Hay, an oldtimer who managed the Berande plantation.
Stubborn, independent, and immensely wise in the ways of the Islands, Hay characteristically refused to join the exodus south. He watched the panic with contempt, then retired to Berande and began collecting an immense amount of abandoned Burns Philp stores. MacFarland joined him, and the two spent most of April shifting supplies to three secret caches in the interior. When the Japanese came, their plan was to retire to an eminence called Gold Ridge, fifteen miles inland and 2800 feet up. From here, there was a magnificent view of the coastal plain and the waters offshore. While Martin Clemens watched the east, they would handle the middle part of the island.
Excerpted from Lonely Vigil by Walter Lord. Copyright © 1977 Walter Lord. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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