- Historic Sites
Ordeal At Vella Lavella
June 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 4
Looking down the beach, he could see others coming ashore. Then one man was washed up almost at his feet. He was wearing a red money belt, and it reminded Grunstad of his own money, a roll of two-dollar bills fastened to his dog tags. He loosened the roll and began drying the bills. The other man began doing the same—only his bills were all twenties.
Major Kelly stuck to his raft all the way in. Finally ashore, he had his party hide it under some trees. They were just in time. Minutes later a flight of Japanese dive bombers roared by, only four hundred feet overhead. Kelly next sent a man along the beach in each direction to scout out the situation. The man who went southward returned in a few minutes with a 25-pound can of coffee—at last they were beginning to get some breaks. The other man returned with a Helena sailor and a dignified, middle-aged native who introduced himself as Aaron, “a good Christian and a good Methodist.” He quickly produced some coconuts, then disappeared to get help.
It was a quiet day at Toupalando, the little village high in the interior of Vella Lavella where the Coastwatcher Henry Josselyn had recently moved his camp. Josselyn had now been on the island more than eight months, reporting Japanese ship and plane movements, rescuing downed airmen, keeping an eye on Iringila, the main Japanese strong point in the area.
So far he had easily dodged the enemy patrols, but they were increasing in number, and when one party landed only three hundred yards from his supply depot at KiIa KiIa, he had shifted his radio deeper into the interior. This eased the pressure a little, and today he had gone off on some errand, leaving his assistant, Sublieutenant Robert Firth, in charge of the station. A former accountant and ship’s purser, Firth was a small, cheerful Australian who quickly adapted himself to coastwatching life.
At the moment, it was not an especially taxing assignment—just a lazy, tropical afternoon. From time to time Firth raised his binoculars and checked the Japanese post at Iringila, but nothing unusual was going on. Suddenly the torpor was broken by a native scout hurrying up the path to the camp. Rushing up to Firth, he breathlessly reported “plenty Americans” coming ashore along the east coast. To prove it, he produced a set of U.S. Navy dog tags.
Bobby Firth needed better proof than that. Like most Allied fighting men, he attributed almost limitless guile to the Japanese. He feared this might be just one more of their tricks: a clever charade staged to make the Coast watchers reveal themselves. He quickly radioed KEN, the base station on Guadalcanal, supplied the name and serial number on the tags, and asked them to check it out.
In an hour KEN was back. The dog tags belonged to a machinist’s mate, third class, assigned to the Helena , sunk in Kula Gulf on the sixth. Now convinced, Firth sent for Josselyn, who agreed that it looked like “something big.” As yet there was no hint as to how many Helena survivors were involved, but they seemed to be concentrating in two main groups along the coast—one in the Paraso Bay area, the other twelve miles east near Lambu Lambu village. The Japanese had outposts near both places, and fast work was needed to clear the castaways from the beaches before enemy patrols began picking them up.
A runner dashed off to alert Bamboo, the native chief in the area where the survivors were landing. He was to send out canoes to pick up any men still in the water, plant a string of sentries to watch for Japanese patrols, and stand by to help with food and housing.
Another messenger hurried to the Reverend A.W.E. Silvester, the coastwatching missionary, who was currently at Maravari on the southeast coast. He would take charge of the eastern group of survivors landing near Lambu Lambu. Josselyn himself would take on the western group, at Paraso Bay and Java. Firth would stay at Toupalando—and later at a camp still deeper in the interior—handling the teleradio traffic with KEN. They would all keep in touch through two walkie-talkies and a somewhat larger set used by Josselyn; and to help Firth out they had the fortuitous services of a “guest”—Lieutenant Eli Ciunguin, a P-ßS pilot awaiting evacuation.
Everything set, Josselyn headed for the village of Java, where the first survivors had been sighted. Time was so important that he traveled all night to get there.
Ensign Bausewinc’s group—rescued from their doughnut raft by native canoes—spent the night in leaf huts on the beach near Java. Supper was a hodgepodge of papaya, coconuts, taro, and fish stew. Normally indigestible to Americans, perhaps, but after three days of nothing to eat, nobody complained. It was food.
Shortly after dawn the next morning, July 9, they were awakened by their hosts. Using a mixture of pidgin English and sign language, the natives explained that everyone must leave the beach area. Then, as the group sleepily formed up in the early daylight, out of the jungle appeared a slim white man, hair almost down to his shoulders. It was Henry Josselyn.