- Wright, Ken
- Biographies and personal histories, Naval Intelligence, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2010 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Although it is undeniable that the contributions of all the men and few women Coastwatchers helped to ensure the eventual Allied victory, it is a sad fact of life that only a select few are remembered. The rest have historically faded into the background. The two Coastwatchers who are usually the most remembered are William John Read (better known as Jack Read) and Paul Edward Mason, who were stationed on the island of Bougainville during the period December 1941 to August 1942.
Lieutenant Commander Feldt knew both Read and Mason personally and asked them to join his Coastwatching organisation. Both agreed and became members of the Royal Australian Navy Volunteer Reserve, Read as a Lieutenant and Mason a Petty Officer although later he was also made a Lieutenant.
The Emperor’s Imperial armed forces had been extraordinarily successful. They had managed, within a space of six months, to occupy Thailand, Singapore, Burma, the Philippines, Indonesia and parts of Papua New Guinea. In early July 1942, information about the construction of a large Japanese airstrip taking place on the island of Guadalcanal spurred the American forces to move into the southern Solomons. Approximately 400 miles north west of Guadalcanal on Bougainville, Read was in a position covering the northern end of the island, including the Buka Passage down to the main town of Kieta located a little over halfway down the eastern coast. Mason covered the area to the south.
On August 7, 19,000 men, mostly from the US 1st Marine Division, began landing on Guadalcanal and nearby Tulagi. The small Japanese garrison of 2,200 on Guadalcanal and 1,500 on Tulagi were taken completely by surprise and quickly scattered. They did, however, regroup and clung with determination and tenacity to what little area they controlled. In response to the American landing, on the same day Japanese Vice Admiral Gunichi Mikawa launched a bomber attack on the transport ships unloading troops and supplies. Fortunately for the Americans, Mason had signaled ‘27 bombers headed south east’ giving the American time to prepare and in the ensuing battle, sixteen Japanese bombers were shot down. The following day it was Read’s turn to signal a warning; ‘45 bombers now going south east.’ Only eight returned.
Lieutenant Commander Feldt wrote in his book, The Coastwatchers:
‘So secret was this organisation of Coastwatchers, operating behind enemy lines, that its existence was never admitted during the war. Few realised that when the first waves of US Marines landed on the bitterly contested beaches of Guadalcanal, Coastwatchers on Bougainville, New Georgia and other islands were sending warning signals two hours before impending enemy air raids.’
The euphoria of a victory by the Allied forces was about to be violently cut short on 9 August at 0138 hours. Vice Admiral Mikawa with seven cruisers and a destroyer somehow managed to get unnoticed within striking distance of the American ships guarding the landing force. In what is known as the Battle of Savo Island, the Japanese, characterised by excellent gunnery and ship handling, in 32 minutes sank one Australian and four US heavy cruisers and damaged a fifth. One US destroyer was also lost. Fearing an Allied retaliatory air attack Vice Admiral Mikawa broke off the engagement and headed for Rabaul, leaving the thinly guarded transports alone. It was the most humiliating defeat ever suffered in a fair fight by the US Navy. Allied casualties totalled 1,270 officers and men killed and 709 wounded. By comparison, the Imperial Japanese Navy losses were 37 killed and 57 wounded. The only Japanese ship lost was a heavy cruiser, sunk by the American submarine S-44 on the journey to Rabaul.
During the following weeks, the Japanese managed to send in scattered reinforcements and supplies to their small beleaguered force on Guadalcanal. This was mostly achieved by fast destroyers travelling at night down the 400 mile long waters between the Solomon Islands. The Americans called this method of delivering supplies ‘The Tokyo Express’ doing a run down ‘The Slot.’ Through most of October, despite Japanese attempts to retake lost ground, the Americans still owned most of Guadalcanal’s real estate. Near the end of October, in a desperate bid to remove the American forces from the island scheduled for November, Rear Admiral Raizo Tanaka assembled a large Japanese naval force of troops and supplies in the Caroline Islands and began moving towards Guadalcanal. From their vantage points on Bougainville, Jack Read and Paul Mason independently radioed early warnings to the United States Navy that a number of Japanese transports, tankers and a passenger liner escorted by destroyers were en route towards Guadalcanal. Forewarned, US forces used their tactical advantage and launched air and sea strikes against the enemy shipping resulting in a major defeat for the Japanese and shattering any hope of their retaking Guadalcanal. When the fog of war had lifted, the Japanese had only managed to land 2,000 of the original 15,000 troops and 260 cases of ammunition plus 1,500 bags of rice out of 10,000 tons of supplies. The tide of war in the Pacific was finally beginning to swing against Japan.