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- June 2021 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Right Man, Right Place, Worst Time. By Betty Lee, Boolarong Press, Tingalpa, Queensland, 2019. Paperback, 318 pages, with sketch maps and photographs. Available from booksellers and publisher rrp $32.00.
Along Buka Passage. Japan he go bush. Wamaru he go too, along. By and by Japan man he come up. Wamaru him call out. Japan man he call out. Wamaru he shoot, plenty musket. Two fellow Jap he die, finish. This fellow good fellow. He all time work. Thus spoke Private Wamaru of M Special Battalion, one of Eric Feldt’s loyal native Coastwatcher companions as Wamaru was being decorated in Brisbane in February 1946.
Eric Feldt’s family originated from Helsingborg in southern Sweden. His father, Peter, left his homeland in 1878 and made a beginning at Ingham, Queensland. Eric’s mother, Augusta, arrived from Sweden several years later. In their early married lives, they experienced heart breaking and demoralising events as they struggled to survive in this remote cane growing community.
Eric, born in 1899, won a scholarship to the prestigious Queensland Grammar School and from there obtained a coveted entry into newly established RAN Naval College at Osborne House, Geelong. Eric was one of 28 cadets who formed the first entry into the College in 1913. Among his colleagues in this ‘Pioneer Class’ were John Augustine Collins (later Vice Admiral) and Harold Bruce Farncomb (later Rear Admiral). Also present was Rupert Basil Michael Long who was to play a significant part in Eric’s life in the development of the coast watching organisation.
Eric thrived at the Naval College in both academic and sporting attainments and graduated as a Midshipman in 1917. Along with his contemporaries he proceeded to England for further training with the RN during WWI. He served in HMS Canada, a cruiser based with the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow. In 1918 he was promoted Acting Sub Lieutenant and transferred to the destroyer HMS Sybille operating out of Harwich. He then spent six months at the Greenwich Naval College before promotion to Lieutenant in 1920. Upon return to Australia, after lengthy consideration, Eric elected to leave the Navy, and in 1922 he was placed on the Retired List.
He became a clerk in the Public Service of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea, later becoming a patrol officer, and then a district officer. During this service he developed an in-depth knowledge of the geography and of the people of New Guinea. He was becoming uniquely equipped for his future great venture. Eric married Nancy Echlin in Brisbane in 1933.
On 26 August 1939 his old term-mate and now Director of Naval Intelligence, Commander Rupert Long, requested Eric accept a new post as Staff Officer Naval intelligence at Port Moresby. The work involved establishing Coastwatcher teams to help defend Australia’s north eastern approaches. The now Lieutenant Commander Feldt travelled widely around the islands carefully selecting areas of strategic importance and personnel suitable the role of gathering military intelligence. They were equipped with bulky tele radios for communication with Port Moresby.
With the advance of the Japanese military into Oceania the ‘human island screen’ became Australia’s front line. Feldt’s duties increased considerably over his primary intelligence role to that of logistics, organising the supply of radios, food, equipment and the movement of aircraft and small boats to support the coast watchers. Many of his new charges, who were soon operating behind enemy lines, became members of the RAN Volunteer Reserve.
In January 1942 the Japanese attacked Rabaul with their victorious commander ordering the surrender of the population. Many of those captured were to lose their lives when being shipped to Japan in Montevideo Maru, mistakenly sunk by the submarine USS Sturgeon. A number of Coastwatchers surviving in the jungle became ill with complications from malaria, scrub typhus and dysentery but bravely managed to fulfil their intelligence duties. In April a daring but successful operation was carried out to remove some of the sick coast watchers and their colleagues.
Coastwatchers were crucial to the Battle of Guadalcanal. As Japanese aircraft and naval vessels traversed ‘The Slot’ between the Solomon Islands their positions and courses were transmitted by Coastwatchers. By this time the now Acting Commander Feldt had given the Coastwatcher operation the titular name of ‘Ferdinand’ after the Disney character, Ferdinand the Bull, who liked to sit under a tree and watch rather than exert himself in fighting. But there could be deeply tragic events in just ‘watching’ and those caught by the enemy were brutally tortured and killed.
Over the years Eric Feldt suffered from bouts of malaria but in 1943 his physical health deteriorated with a near fatal attack of typhus which was followed by a heart attack. Eric was shipped home from his beloved New Guinea, being relieved by LTCDR James Cathal Boyd McManus.
General MacArthur expressed his high opinion of CMDR Feldt’s operation and wished him a speedy recovery. Admiral William Halsey said ‘I could go down on my knees every night and thank God for CMDR Feldt’. At another time he said ‘the Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal and Guadalcanal saved the South Pacific’.
Back in Brisbane Eric gradually recovered and by late 1943 assumed light duties but he had to revert to the rank of LCDR. In the New Year Honours List of 1944 Eric Feldt was awarded the Order of the British Empire. In 1944 Eric began writing of his war time experiences in his book The Coast Watchers which when published in 1946 became an instant success and led to a Hollywood movie.
In February 1945 after 12 months of sedentary work at HMAS Moreton in Brisbane, Eric was considered fit enough to resume full duties and again as an Acting Commander was appointed as Naval Officer in Charge (NOIC) Torokina in western Bougainville. But this success was not to last long as medical complications resulted in another heart attack and he was shipped home for hospitalisation. On 28 September 1945 Eric Feldt was assessed as being physically unfit for further naval service and was discharged from the RAN. He lived the remainder of his life quietly in Brisbane and died at home in 1968 from another heart attack. There is a lighthouse standing on a promontory at Madang as a magnificent memorial to the Coast Watchers and the achievements of ‘Ferdinand’. Fittingly Eric Feldt’s ashes were scattered here.
There is much detail presented in this story written by Dr. Betty Lee, the grand- niece of Eric Feldt. Readers will not be disappointed in delving into the Right Man, at the Right Place, at the Worst Time.
Reviewed by Kevin Rickard
By Editor: It is perhaps fitting, but completely unplanned, that we should start and end this 50th anniversary edition of our magazine with stories on the remarkable Commander Eric Feldt and his Coastwatchers.