A Coastwatcher’s Diary

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The cost of victory on Guadalcanal would have been far higher but for an organization with the unwarlike code name of Ferdinand. Ferdinand’s contribution was military intelligence, collected under the noses of the Japanese by British and Australian coast-watchers.

Coastwatching was the brain child of the Royal Australian Navy. The Bismarck and Solomon archipelagoes and New Guinea were the logical stepping stones for an enemy intent on attacking Australia, so after war broke out in Europe in 1939, Commander Eric Feldt, R.A.N., set out to expand and supervise an intelligence network in these islands. By December of 1941, Feldt had too strategically placed observers reporting to him, by radio.

The coastwatchers were a varied lot—naval and colonial officers, copra planters, traders, missionaries—but they all knew the island natives and the jungle, and how to get the best out of both. They lived by their wits and their experience. If captured by the Japanese they faced torture and execution. All a coast-watcher had, wrote Commander Feldt, was “the promise of certain peril.” Nevertheless, these men rendered invaluable service in the Solomons campaign: rescuing Allied personnel (among them, John F. Kennedy), reporting Japanese strength, and robbing enemy attacks of the element of surprise.

In February, 1942, a young English colonial officer named Martin Clemens took up coastwatching duties on Guadalcanal. Clemens had come to the Solomons in 1938, fresh out of Cambridge, and was well versed in island life. He remained on Guadalcanal for nine months, in the jungle during the Japanese occupation and in the beleaguered perimeter around Henderson Field after the Marines landed.

During these nine months Clemens kept a diary, excerpts from which appear here. Never before published, the diary gives a vivid, first-hand picture of life behind enemy lines and reveals the hopes and fears of a brave man who truly experienced “the promise of certain peril.”

—Stephen W. Sears

10 February 1942 Resident Commissioner is by himself at Tulagi. He offered me Malaita or Guadalcanal. I choose latter. … I was given no instructions, policy or plan, other than “act as Intelligence Officer.” So presume we do what we can with God’s help and a tooth brush. … Tulagi looks ghastly—every place littered with smashed furniture. Got to Berande Plantation 2100. Macfarlan [of Australian Naval Intelligence] held alcoholic conference of war. …

15 February [At Aola Station, Guadalcanal] Climbed to our lookout tower in a giant banyan tree from which you can see planes over [adjacent island of] Gavutu and checked air warning system—conch shell, red flag; white flag for all clear.

17 February … There are eleven enemy cruisers in Rabaul. … Seems funny that our defences for the whole area total one platoon and two Catalinas [of the Royal Australian Air Force]—apart from our local guerrillas armed with knife and club! …

4 March Macfarlan decides to set up with me here, for the time being. He is still in faultless whites, tho’ soap is getting scarce. … Anti-loot patrol returns. At least 11 looters, blast them.

Clemens’ diary for the next two weeks or so records the steady disintegration of the well-ordered colonial way of life in the Solomon Islands Protectorate. Native looting grew as planters and missionaries were evacuated in a mosquito fleet of schooners. The Japanese stepped up their raids on Tulagi and Gavutu. “This waiting for something to happen is intolerable,” Clemens wrote.

26 March Very busy inspecting all work on Station. District headman reports Catalinas are landing daily at Marau during Blitz hours. The Nip is very regular, yet never visits us. Order tennis court to be dug clean and weeded, as we may need to display signals for our aircraft—if any! …

30 March Message from V.N.T.G.—R.A.A.F. Gavutu—three Jap cruisers and one transport off Faisi in the Shortland group. Looks like a landing force getting ready for us. Macfarlan goes to Berande Plantation hot foot 1900 with W/T [radio] set and his gear. … It is better to keep our W/T’s dispersed, both for safety and usefulness. I am now the only European here, and doubt whether I will see many more for some time. …

April, 1942, was a time of anticlimax for the Guadalcanal coastwatchers. The Japanese, concentrating on their build-up for the New Guinea campaign, limited action in the lower Solomons to bombing and aerial reconnaissance. Clemens, Macfarlan, and “Snowy” Rhoades, a copra planter who had volunteered as a coast-watcher at the northern end of Guadalcanal, used this month of grace to set up their native scouting and intelligence network and to restore some semblance of administrative order.

1 May 0700 Launch arrives towing Catalina damaged in yesterday’s raid. Crew of nine, Eakins pilot. Eakins wishes Catalina towed ashore till a rigger flown in from south to mend it. … 0800 Two enemy vessels sighted 300 miles off [by a coastwatcher]. Speed quoted should bring enemy ships to Tulagi tomorrow night. Catalina camouflaged with palm fronds. Doubt whether she will ever fly again.