They watched and warned and died so that we might live 49



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In the Pacific Islands during World War II, a number of very brave people – service personnel and civilians – maintained watch for enemy movements, radioing vital information back to Allied forces. This item is not a history of the Coast Watchers, merely a few snippets related by my late friend, Ron, who was one of them.


The boys knew a hideaway, a place safe from any search by enemy troops. A small cave, its entrance was low and covered by overhanging tropical growth. It angled inward and upward and was of a size that could hold and hide the four of them.

Ron made a quick decision. With the enemy now landed on the beach below, it would take little more than 20 minutes for them to reach this spot. It was possible to hide either radio or people. The radio was inanimate and unable to conceal itself whereas they could see and act for themselves. “We hide the radio gear, boys!”

Ron saw a potential problem. The area in front of the cave had soft soil with a light grass covering. The equipment was heavy. The batteries and the petrol-powered generator, itself around 30kg, if dragged across the surface would leave witness marks. As the other two passed everything to them, Ron and one of the boys lay on their backs, taking the weight on their bodies, working the gear up into the hiding place without it otherwise touching the ground. This took around 10 minutes. When done, Ron inspected the area to ensure it remained pristine. Then they took off into heavy jungle on the hill beyond.

Men and radio survived but their little thatched humpy (a bit further across the slope) was slashed and burnt. Henceforth, their time on the island was fraught, Japanese patrols now regular.

A few weeks later, Ron decided to move all the gear to another island. Increased patrols proved their present location was suspect, if not blown. Trusted natives rowed him and the AWA radio across a mile-wide sea channel between the two islands. The waterway was far from clear, with mangroves growing across much of the intervening area. Natural channels created passages through which they paddled. He felt they were relatively safe from waterborne discovery but remained alert for the sound of aircraft.

They made the first trip safely, secreting the radio, then paddled back for the next load. With the batteries on board, the canoe had little freeboard. On a calm sea, they set out with their load. Ron’s hackles were on edge as they made their way across. About two-thirds of the way there, a marine engine roared in the mangroves to one side of their course. They could make out the grey shape of a motor cutter as it accelerated forward. Quickly, his skin tanned but still that of a white man and a thus dead giveaway, Ron threw himself into the bottom of the canoe, covering himself with a net. It was the flimsiest possible camouflage and wouldn’t be much help once the cutter stopped by their side but was all he had available.

The enemy cutter did not stop. Its commander evidently failed to suspect the presence of a white man. Thrusting forward under full engine power, the motorboat’s bow rode up over the canoe, rolling it on its beam ends before cracking it in two. All three on board were thrown into the water. Although aware of the potential for leaking battery acid in the sea around him, Ron kept himself low in the water and hid behind the floating bow section of the canoe. The cutter kept going.

On another occasion, Ron sensed an approaching patrol. Too late to take an escape route, he headed down into the mangroves, trusting to his luck concealing his presence in the mud and gnarled roots. Suddenly, he realised three enemy soldiers were there, less than fifteen feet away across a narrow channel. He froze. One soldier looked his way, spoke a guttural “Hunh…!” (or so it sounded to the alarmed Ron) and turned towards his hiding spot.

Ron was certain the beating of his heart must be heard but kept still, glued to the spot. The soldier took a step towards him, stopped, unbuttoned his fly and had a pee before returning to his companions and continuing their patrol!

Amazingly, of the more than 600 brave men – and at least one woman – who served in such dangerous circumstances, a relatively small number, 38, lost their lives. One of their greatest tributes came in the words of US Navy Admiral William ‘Bull’ Halsey, “Guadalcanal saved the Pacific. The Coast Watchers saved Guadalcanal”.

Share your thoughts below.

John Reid

  1. My Dad was RADAR at 3RAR Cape Gloucester New Britain. A humpy on stilts on a spit-ball of mud in the Coral sea

  2. Thank you for writing this piece John, you brought back lovely memories. My Uncle Billy was a coast watcher and luckily had tight curly black hair and dark skin so lined up with the villagers a number of times. He became a very solitary person as he grew older and months would pass without seeing him. He was a great friend to my father, they were like brothers and was a favorite family member even though he was not related. I remember him as a very gentle man with beautiful manners; whether it was my grandmother, mother, or my baby sister, he always stood when a woman entered the room.

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  3. My dear Mum was with the VAOC in Evans Head NSW. If you google Eileen Hilda Crandon she will take you to a website by Petter Dunn. He has documented much information.

  4. Wonder if your friend, Ron, has read the book “Curtin’s Cowboys” – (not quite as dramatic) but a story I feel should be known about the coastwatchers from Weipa to Wyndham?

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    • Sadly, a bit late, Anne. Dear old Ron’s been dead these past 25-odd years but a nice thought.

  5. My granddad was with the airforce in the pacific and said they helped with the rescue of some. Of these people , he said they were very very brave fellows.

  6. My grandfather helped the US navigate its way around the Shetland Islands. He was enlisted at the age of 64 because of his invaluable local knowledge.

  7. My Dad was one. Left to his own devices quite a lot to get on with the job.
    I’m riding my Harley from the Northern Wheatbelt in WA to Geelong in Victoria next week to visit and stay with him for a couple of weeks. He’s 96 and still living independent.

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