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.

2 May Macfarlan goes bush in a hurry from Berande. Inspection of defence posts 0900. 6 raids on Gavutu. … 2100 R.A.A.F. burn everything to get off. Can see flames. All breathless with jitters. … Receive prearranged V.N.T.G. evacuation signal at 2330—“Steak and Eggs.” Was trying to remember what the signal was all day. Bacon and eggs? Eggs and sausage? But it wouldn’t come.

3 May 0530 Balus arrives with Peegham and the R.A.A.F. unit, about 40 of them. Have food ready for them. They look pretty well all in. Three Jap cruisers, one destroyer going into Tulagi as they left. … Platoon spent all yesterday smashing and burning Gavutu and blowing up machinery. They are to meet R.A.A.F. at Marau and are not staying to help us. Position very grim, as there is so much to do I cannot leave the beach, and Nips could send a boat over here [from Tulagi] in two hours. …

4 May Many reports—many planes about. We see from AoIa that some sort of Allied attack is developing. Shipping in Tulagi in trouble. 12 bombers at 0800—12 dive bombers at 1000—4 fighters at 1230. At least four Allied raids and probably lots more. Hurrah! Tulagi in flames. Excellent show, but how about some land forces? We count up to 14 ships driven out of Tulagi, some in poor shape. Their A.A. fire seems poor. Several sink between Tulagi and Savo. See the flash of glistening torpedoes launched from single-engine bombers. [The Japanese at Tulagi were the men of the ycd Kure Special Landing Force. The Allied planes were from the Yorktown of Admiral Fletcher’s Task Force 17. Three days later Yorktown and Lexington were hotly engaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea.— Ed. ]

6 May In spite of heavy attacks, Japs seem to be successfully using Tulagi as a flying boat base. Plenty of them, too. The Catalina crew prepare to pack up as there is no chance of a rigger either arriving, or fixing their plane. … Continue to evacuate station gear.

8 May BBC says lots of ships sunk in some battle of the Coral Sea. Is this our show? Hope so, cheersl 1500 Loai dispatched with F/Lieut. Eakins and his crew. Solemnly signed a chit for the Catalina, to cover Eakins. Eakins has been a great help. I wish he could stay. 1700 blew charges in Catalina. … It is very sad blowing our own aircraft while the enemy sails serene above. …

11 May Everything seized and packed up, and at 0720 leave house by back way. …

12 May At my bush station. Kawanishis [Japanese flying boats] 0715; another 0735. Straighten office gear. Clear and dig hole for W/T mast as trees inconveniently placed. As bush station all set, take W/T and leave at 1400. 1700 back at AoIa Station, wireless in action 1900. …

13 May Br. James [a Catholic missionary] arrives from Marau Sound 1720 in Ramada with 2 pilots off American carrier Yorktown who were washed up off Avu Avu after rowing in a raft for three days. Actually one pilot and one W/T operator off a torpedo bomber. … Ewoldt, the pilot, says he attacked supply vessels near Savo on 4th and saw two go down. Ewoldt’s first remark was, “Could you please get us back to Pearl Harbour?” I said I would see what could be done. …

16 May Disturbing news from Tulagi. Bogese [a native colonial aide] seems to be letting the show down—took Japs on tour. Sent the two U.S. airmen off to Vila [in the New Hebrides] in Jones with volunteer crew. …

18 May Further news of treachery by Bogese. Batteries again run up. Japs going to Kau Kau. Quiet day. Packing up as have decided safer for W/T in bush. Carriers start. … Very sad to leave Station deserted, but had better go as Bogese may have told Japs exactly where we all are. …

19 May Reach Paripao 1730, all in good nick. Store and house for clerk being built. Mast for W/T erected—sticks out somewhat, but will not be noticeable from the air. … Signal fairly well received. Area looks like normal bush village. Wireless mast now has false betel nut palm top as camouflage, and the Union Jack still flies overhead, though unobtrusively. …

21 May W/T messages continuously in and out. Prospecting for lookout site as cannot see Tulagi from house. Essential keep tabs on shipping traffic. Find good place at end of Paripao village, a nut tree 80 feet high. Attend to small matters. Latrines, public and private, being made. …

For the next month Clemens trained and expanded his intelligence network, reported by radio details of the Japanese strength at Tulagi, and did his best to keep the natives loyal. The enemy was showing increasing interest in the flat, grassy area at Lunga Point on Guadalcanal, across the 20-mile channel from Tulagi.

20 June Destroyers went down to Makile yesterday and a landing party questioned the natives. Nothing in as to what they gave away. The suspense is awful. P.M. Scouts in and messages from Rhoades more or less corroborate that Japs know there are three of us here with radios, and that they intend to look for us. Very worried as there is not much I can do to prevent uninformed locals talking to them, or prevent locals from knowing where I am. Decide to prepare to move farther in, depth is our only defence really. …

21 June Destroyer still steaming peripatetically about between Lunga and Tulagi. Have we any subs out? Late at night Chimi gets in with news that they have built a wharf at Lunga and it looks as if the Nips are going to stay. …

1 July Coding and decoding all morning. 1200 Dovu arrives to report 1,000 Nips arrived at Lunga on Monday. Now we’ve got something. [They] show every sign of staying. …

4 July 1200 Corporal Andrew arrived to say all well at AoIa and no visitors. 1400 Kambatimbua arrives to say all not well. Eyes popping out of his head. 2100 Dovu reports Japs ashore at Taivu Point. … Decide that in this case the Nips are far too close for comfort. … [Will] shift back in a hurry. …

5 July Evacuation plan put into operation. All surplus gear goes into cache. Get this done by 1200 and traces concealed and covered. On road by 1245 witl1 skeleton equipment. …

6 July We reach Vungana at 1340. It is a miserable place with precipice on three sides and connected to rest of land by knife edge on fourth. This is four feet wide with a sheer drop on both sides. Should be able to defend it with a minimum of men. It is like a miniature Edinburgh Castle. There are only a handful of dirty people here. … One thing it has is a magnificent view from Savo to below Rua Sura and clear into Tulagi Harbour. …

7 July It looks as if the Japs are consolidating Guadalcanal. They have at least 700 at Kukum and also posts at Visale, at Berande, and at Taivu, and 500 are reported en route to weather coast. … Situation looks black. Charging engine [for radio batteries] again out of action—damn! blast! …

8 July Enemy activity all along the coast. The grass plains are now being fired and smoke interferes with view. …

13 July In answer to an urgent appeal for fresh food, a basket of tomatoes and a decent sized duck arrived from Andrew at AoIa. Extremely welcome. … 0940 Kawanishi again nosing around at treetop height, until clouds stop play. About lunch time it finally settled down to a steady rain, which kept up. Keeps the planes down, so get messages off about recent air and sea activity. I am asked for troop strength, gun sites, and numbers of enemy establishments on this island and Tulagi. With pleasure!! …

14 July “Down South” [Allied headquarters] enquires into state of progress of clearing on plains. Quite clear that an aerodrome is being made behind Lunga. Rhoades is very anxious about Macfarlan and myself. … Personally I think we may just be safer staying put, and if we do we can continue to pump the info out. Oh Lord, how long???

The next two weeks were nearly unbearable for Clemens. His food situation became desperate, and Japanese efforts to locate him increased. Yet in the presence of his native scouts he maintained a cool air of imperturbability, reading Shakespeare as enemy reconnaissance planes prowled overhead. “If I lose control everything will be lost,” he wrote on July 23. “All are so jumpy and they still think I’m not. If they only knew!” His reports of Japanese progress on the airstrip on Guadalcanal increased the urgency of Allied preparations for an invasion, which, unknown to Clemens, was set for the first week in August. Then, at the end of July, he began receiving hints by radio that something was afoot in the Allied camp. There were air attacks on Tulagi and on the Japanese positions on Guadalcanal.

2 August No bombing last night and no fires seen, but there have been hourly attacks by probably six planes since 1000 this morning. … Kukum, Lunga, Tulagi, and Gavutu all received their share. This steady stuff almost makes me believe we have something to dish out to the Nips after all.

3 August Letter brought up from [a native clerk], a detailed map of Lunga and Kukum with much information. On the 3ist one small [seaplane tender] sunk, one destroyer blew up after being bombed, three trucks were done in and ninety Nips were killed. Also on the map are positions of wireless installations, engine shop, and slit trenches. …

4 August Food for scouts, sentries, and prisoners now nil. Deputation waited on me to say they could not work if they had no food. … Had to give my last remaining personal rice to scouts in from patrol at noon. All are semistarved. So am I. … 1700 Urgent request by wireless for position of installations previously reported. Was able to give this in ten minutes. …

5 August Scouts quote today’s bombing as much heavier than yesterday’s. At 1350 saw four Fortresses returning and also a smart encounter between two Zeros and a Fort—no one scuppered. … Koimate’s patrol has confirmed that runway at Lunga … is ready for use.

6 August Is nothing going to happen after all? If not, the Hebrides will be bombed from here and we shall be too far away to be of any further use. Nothing doing on the wireless all morning. Disgusted, hungry, and depressed—and feet in bad shape. …

7 August Starting at 0610 very heavy detonations heard Tulagi and Lunga direction at very short intervals, which continued indefinitely. “ Dies irae ” at last!! I can hardly realize that someone has come at long last. Judging by the bomb-to-bomb descriptions I am picking up on the air, Gavutu, Tulagi, and Kukum are being attacked by landing forces, mainly American. Many planes in the area emanating from “orange base,” “red base,” “purple base.” I presume these are the carrier code words. … 1200 Calloo, callay, oh what a day!!! On combat radio I hear that Tulagi is taken and at 1205 Marines land on Gavutu. Wizardl Lookouts keep coming in with reports of their pet objectives at Lunga going off with a loud bang and a cloud of smoke. The Kukum oil dump and ammo dump which we described both hit beautifully. We heard the targets being given. … 1550 Several flights of dive bombers flying home down weather side. We cannot resist waving madly. Morale has gone up about 500%. … 1645 Complete control of Tulagi established. … This is better than a football match, but what wouldn’t I give for a beer and a grilled steak or so. …

8 August I can now see the amazing panorama laid out as far as the eye can see. From Savo to Rua Sura, from Lunga to Tulagi—ships everywhere. Can make out fourteen troop ships off Makile and about six cruisers and twelve destroyers, which presumably are their escort. … 1200 In spite of smoke, mist and low cloud obscuring the view, I observe a solid air attack on our vessels. After it, three of them have black columns of smoke over them, and they may have been hit. … Can’t see a thing for an hour or two afterwards, there is so much smoke. When it clears, one transport is on fire—must have been hit or had a plane crash into it. [This was the transport George F. Elliott of Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner’s amphibious support force.— Ed. ]

… Three scouts come in with report from Lunga [that] Nips definitely expected their own land planes very shortly. None of us have eaten all day for excitement. And so ends another splendid day.

9 August Much gunfire 0200 till 0300 so must be a naval battle off Savo. 0800 Heavy enemy air attacks on cruisers, but do not reach the transport fleet. … These all disperse about ten o’clock. Some fifty small landing launches remain scattered in all directions. One of cruisers is unmistakably Australia or Canberra , Burning vessel exploded early on, but must have sunk as no sign of it by lunch time. Air activity now all friendly. Smoke still floats over Tulagi—must have been stiff fighting. … 1500 Convoy, now unloaded, moves off with what looks like a County Class cruiser as part of the rear guard, which now looks a bit smaller. [Clemens was observing the aftermath of the stinging American defeat in the Battle of Savo Island. The vessel that “exploded early on” was the Canberra , put out of her misery by a U.S. destroyer. H.M.A.S. Australia helped cover the withdrawal of Turner’s supporting force.— Ed. ] Now what happens, I wonder. I wish I had something civilised to eat.

12 August Grouse season opens in Scotland. Nips do not have feathers, but send out instructions to all headmen to deal faithfully with any stray Nips they may find. … I take advantage of the spare time. It is grand after so much hiding from enemy planes. I do not bother to pull down the Union Jack when we hear aircraft now. …

13 August From 1615 to 1630 gunfire heard at Kukum. Local attack, or practice? At last Koimate’s scout arrives from Macfarlan. Is a “U.S. Marine Corps Field Message” from Widdy [the Solomons manager for Lever Brothers]—“Proceed Lunga, hitting coast at Volonavua. U.S. Marines have landed successfully in force. Will be very glad to see you.” Three rousing cheers—at last! …

15 August … Once on the beach we close up and march in two ranks, as we have no identification or password, and I doubt whether the enemy would proceed in this fashion. As we came down the beach, suddenly see hosts of Marines hauling trucks on the beach. The outpost stood fast with his rifle, but luckily did not fire. I felt a queer lump in my throat, and felt very nervous as to what an English voice would sound like after not hearing one for so long. I was given a cigarette and a piece of chocolate and taken to a Captain Ellison who seemed very glad to see me. He had the word from Widdy. After shaking several dozen hands, we clambered into a jeep and I was taken to regimental headquarters, the carriers following. Beach piled with gear, and arms everywhere. Frightfully glad to meet Colonel Gates [Clifton Bledsoe Gates, commander of the ist Marine Regiment, afterward (1948–52) Marine Corps Commandant], and especially Widdy. We patted each other on the back for some minutes, and tears streamed down my face. …