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- Biographies and personal histories, Naval Intelligence, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Manoora I
- March 2018 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
As told to our Editor by Ron (Dixie) Lee
The December edition of this magazine contained a story The Last Coastwatchersfeaturing James (Jim) Burrowes. Mention was also made of endeavours to contact another Coastwatcher, ex RAN Coder, Ron (Dixie) Lee. We were exceedingly pleased to receive a telephone call from Dixie on his 93rd birthday, Tuesday 4 July 2017, and from this beginning we have recorded his story.
From Tassie to Flinders
Ronald George Lee, universally known as Dixie, was born at Ulverstone, Tasmania on 4 July 1924. As a boy he remembers that whenever RAN ships visited Burnie he would go aboard and was often given cakes from the galley. Thinking back to those times Dixie remembers he liked everything about the navy, including its cakes. With the aid of his father he enlisted in the RAN in Hobart on his 17th birthday on 4 July 1941. His occupation at this time was given as draughtsman, as shortly before he had joined Burnie Council as a junior draughtsman.
A month after enlistment Ronald George Lee S/N 24856 joined the Flinders Naval Base, HMAS Cerberus, where he was allocated to a new category, an adjunct to the Naval Signals Branch, known as Coder. These were specially selected bright youngsters who could be trained in crypto analysis. You can almost see the Recruiting Petty Officer being told to find some youngsters with clerical and language skills, and in comes a Draughtsman – near enough! He joined as an Ordinary Coder IIand in time became an Ordinary Coder, equivalent to an Able Seaman. While he enjoyed life at Cerberus, Dixie might be termed a high spirited young rebel, and here and throughout his service career he did have trouble with discipline, getting into his fair share of scrapes.
His first ship was the Armed Merchant Cruiser HMAS Manoora which he joined in Sydney on 12 November 1941. In Manoora he was to either witness, or be very close, to some of the most dramatic incidents in the wartime history of the RAN. They sailed on 22 November for Darwin where the First Naval Member, Vice Admiral Sir Guy Royle, was embarked en route to the Dutch East Indies and Singapore for urgent discussions with Allied leaders. Just after reaching Singapore on 8 December 1941 they witnessed their first air raid when Japanese aircraft bombed the city in an early morning raid. Immediately Britain and the Dominions declared war on Japan. Manoora did not linger and was underway for convoy duties in the Bay of Bengal, not a moment too soon as this became a happy hunting ground for Japanese submarines. They had passed the pride of the Royal Navy’s Eastern Fleet, HM Ships Prince of Wales and Repulse, only days before they were sunk by the might of Japanese air power.
They remained mainly in eastern waters until 25 May 1942 then returned to Cockatoo Island for a scheduled docking. A few days later on the night of 31 May the Japanese found Sydney when midget submarines attacked shipping in the harbour.
On 4 July Manoora embarked 1,007 Australian troops, mostly of the 35th Battalion with supporting elements, and proceeded in convoy, on an uncomfortable voyage south of Tasmania to Fremantle. Again in convoy, they back-loaded with 626 United States troops from the 19th Coast Artillery, taking them from Fremantle to Sydney. A few more convoy duties were performed in home waters before returning to Sydney on 28 September. The troop transport must have worked well as shortly after arrival it was announced that the ship would be paid off on 26 October for conversion at Garden Island Dockyard into a Landing Ship Infantry.
HMAS Moreton and Coastwatching
Dixie was posted to the Brisbane base, HMAS Moreton, for duties in General McArthur’s new temporary Brisbane headquarters at the AMP Building in Queen Street. He remained here for about a year, mainly involved in coding and decoding signals. Dixie, in common with a number of other Coders, because of their signalling/morse and radio skills, was encouraged to volunteer for coastwatching duties. While a coastwatching training facility had been established at Tabragalba near Beaudesert in southeast Queensland this was a recent initiative and was not available to Dixie. So without any formal training the boy from Tassie, who had rarely seen an aircraft, was sitting in the back of a RAAF version of the B24 Liberator bomber en-route to Vila in the Solomon Islands.
Dixie spent about four months inserted in Combined Operations Intelligence Unit gathering information ready for the next big push to take Guadalcanal with its strategic Japanese air base. Following the United States Marines landing on Guadalcanal the Intel Unit established a small office near Henderson Field. After the fierce fighting here and the eventual withdrawal of the Japanese, it was on to the Treasury Islands about 15 miles south of Bougainville. The Treasury Islands were held by a Japanese garrison and were taken in an amphibious assault led by the New Zealand 8th Brigade, the first such landing by NZ forces since Gallipoli.
In the Treasury group the Japanese had an airstrip on Shortland Island and the Intel Unit was established on nearby Stirling Island. With the move north it was next on to the large island of Bougainville, where a base was established at Torokina. When activity quietened down Dixie was posted back to PNG, firstly at Finschhafen and later at Milne Bay. While most of his moves in the Solomons had been by air, in New Guinea they used RAN ships including HDML 1321.
Time has not favoured Dixie’s service records which are in poor condition, often illegible, and of little use in deciphering his postings which mainly relate to an extended posting attached to the Brisbane base of HMAS Moresby. What can be gleaned from these is that he was in Vila 10 September 1942, Lae on 1 October 1944 and with No 8 Squadron RAAF on 9 May 1945. No 8 Squadron was in PNG during the latter part of the war, including Goodenough Island; in April 1944 they moved to an airstrip at Nadzab, near Lae and from June 1944 took over the ex Japanese air base at Tadjii, near Aitape.
‘Snowy’ Rhoades – a Coastwatching Legend
Within the Coastwatchers rank did not matter and for survival they all worked as a team. The team leader with whom Dixie spent most of his time and greatly admired was LEUT ‘Snowy’ Rhoades, RANVR. Dixie and Snowy, widely separated by background and age, were kindred spirits, both in their own way rebels against authority. In quiet times when they relaxed the two, more like father and son, played chess. Snowy recommended Dixie for promotion to Leading Coder, but with their combined lack of regard for service discipline this came to naught.
Snowy was fearless but also smart and resourceful, he was the glue that kept the team together in difficult operations. He recalls the dangers of the job in which they relied on the help of the local community. In most cases this was freely given and they were especially helpful in providing information on airstrips and gun emplacements which often they had been involved in, providing labour during construction. However care had to be exercised as a few locals would also offer information on coastwatching operations to the Japanese, which could result in capture and death.
Frederick Ashton ‘Snowy’ Rhoades served as a trooper in the 1st AIF during WWI and was later employed by Burns Philp as manager of their copra and rubber plantation at Lavoro on the northwest coast of Guadalcanal. With the Japanese invasion he became a Coastwatcher and was commissioned as a SBLT RANVR. Coastwatchers were taught to, where possible, avoid direct contact with the enemy, they were an unseen reporting arm. Not so Snowy, whose plantation, which he named HMAS Brush-Turkey, gave him a birds eye view of any advancing enemy. Snowy helped to lead an attack upon a Japanese outpost and for extradionary heroism was awarded the United States Distinguished Service Cross and later, for gallantry in action, the United States Silver Star. While the Americans who were on the ground clearly recognised his qualities, no Imperial honours came his way.
Eric Feldt mentions Rhoades in his epic work The Coast Watchers where the impression is gained that the irreverent Rhoades was not one of his favourite sons. Feldt’s rather proscriptive narrative is not given to lyrical descriptions but in one instance it expands with the following wonderful pen portrait.
Of all the Coast Watchers, Snowy Rhoades was the only one who looked the part. With his unruly hair, his deeply lined face, his cold blue eyes peering out from under his bushy brows, with his head hung like a prize-fighter tucking his chin in, he looked the complete jungle fighter. He took charge of the jungle training and rather enjoyed it.
Geographically Bougainville is the largest of the Solomon Islands although it was administered by Australian New Guinea. It is over 120 miles (194 km) long and 40 miles (64 km) wide, a mountain chain forms the backbone and heavy rainfall feeds short but swift rivers and streams leading to forested hinterland and coastal swamps where mosquitoes abound.
The island was seized by the Japanese in March 1942 and they established major bases in the north and south. In November 1943 United States Marines landed in the poorly defended centre of the west coast and established a beachhead at Torokina. This was expanded into a small defended perimeter in which the US built bomber and fighter air strips. As this was remote from Japanese bases it was not until March 1944 that the Japanese moved sufficient men and weapons to mount a counter offensive. With almost no roads they used motorised barges, creeping along the coast under cover of darkness. In fierce fighting the enemy was repulsed with devastating losses of about 5,000 men. Afterwards there was a stalemate with the Americans, with complete domination of the air, and on the land rarely venturing beyond their perimeter. The Japanese remained well clear but established gun emplacements at strategic points against any breakout.
In mid 1944 the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed to a plan that allowed General MacArthur to fulfil his dream and return to liberate the Philippines. This called for the majority of American forces in New Guinea and the Solomons to be relocated to Leyte and the void backfilled by Allied, mainly Australian, forces. In November 1944 the US forces in Bougainville were relieved by five battalions of Australian infantry and support troops. The USAAF was relieved by RNZAF squadrons flying F4U Corsair fighter/bombers.
Dixie in Bougainville
It was in this environment that Dixie was sent back to Bougainville to be reunited with Snowy. Because of their local knowledge and ability to operate behind enemy lines, Coastwatchers were engaged in finding small isolated units and reporting enemy positions. In December 1944 raiding parties were taken to Choiseul Island which was defended by about 500 Japanese marines. Snowy Rhoades was attached to of these patrols in which the commanding Army lieutenant became sick and for eight days Snowy led the patrol which conducted guerrilla warfare and guided air strikes from NZ squadrons. This harassment led to the Japanese withdrawing by barge to the relative safety of Bougainville.
Dixie’s summary was that the so called ‘mopping-up’ campaigns in Bougainville and New Guinea were seen to be of limited value by the troops on the ground and the Australian public at large who could all sense the war coming to an end. They questioned the need for further casualties. At this time the Japanese were passive and wanted to go home, and the Australian aggression demanded by their superiors just stirred up a hornet’s nest. It was dangerous work as the enemy, malnourished and in poor health, did not give up without a fight and sold their lives dearly.
Life without the Navy
After nearly five years in the RAN, over half of which was as a Coastwatcher, Dixie was discharged on 4 March 1946. After such an adventurous early life it would not have been easy settling down to a steady job. However this he did and become a successful land surveyor. In the 1970s he first hand-built a 30 ft wooden ketch, but gave her up after forever chasing leaks occurring after rough weather. He next had a larger, and dryer, steel-hulled 45 ft ketch custom built, and sailed in her for three years through much of the South Pacific retracing some of his wartime adventures. He was especially anxious to reach the Treasury Islands and Bougainville and for a time gained work there as a surveyor. Here it was like stepping back in time and ‘Masta Dix’ was reunited with many of his wartime friends.
In 2015 Dixie was one of a small number of WWII veterans who were chosen to visit PNG as part of a commemoration marking the 70th anniversary of the Victory in the Pacific.
Dixie has now eased into retirement with his fifth wife Mem, they have been together 44 years. They live in the Melbourne suburb of Werribee, having 10 children, 17 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren. Wife No 4, Robin, was the daughter of an ex-New Guinea patrol officer who earned fame as a Coastwatcher, LEUT Malcolm Wright, DSC, RANVR. Dixie remains in contact with Phillip Rhoades, a nephew of the great Snowy. Dixie has now given away yachting and involves himself with the odd game of chess and remembering those coastwatching days in amateur radio, using call sign VZ7HP.