- Wright, Ken
- Biographies and personal histories, Naval Intelligence, WWII operations, History - WW2, History - Between the wars
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2009 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
As part of Allied operational plans, Operation Cartwheel was designed to contribute to the increased isolation and harassment of Rabaul and to give the Allies free access through the Straits separating New Britain and New Guinea. To ensure that the Japanese could not send reinforcements and supplies to their forces at Cape Gloucester, the American 112th Cavalry Regiment began operations against the Japanese forces at Arawe on the island of Bougainville’s south-central coast on December 15. Then, sixteen days later US forces landed at Cape Gloucester in New Britain about one hundred and twenty miles west of the Coastwatchers location.
While the fighting on Arawe was taking place, a routine search of a village by pro-Japanese natives found some tobacco Wrights group had given to the natives as payment for work or traded for food. A little later, two young boys were handed over to the Japanese by a renegade tribal chief. The boys knew all about the Coastwatchers from the time of their arrival at Baien to their new position and after the Japanese had beaten the boys almost to death, they obtained the information they required. Lt Wright got word through the native grapevine that a party of approximately fifty Japanese soldiers and some renegade natives were on their way towards their camp.
For the first time, the Coastwatchers could no longer rely on native assistance for fear of reprisals. Hiding as much as they could, the group moved their base with what supplies they could carry and re-established camp two miles away. On 22 December, the Japanese, after searching the nearby village of Kupi, began moving up the track towards their old position two days later. The Japanese found the abandoned camp, burnt it and the village. Once the Japanese had left the area, the Coastwatchers returned to their old camp and salvaged a surprisingly intact amount of gear and were back in business almost straight away.
Four days later, the Allies began their invasion of Cape Gloucester with an intense naval bombardment by Australian and American warships and bombing by the Royal Australian Air Force and United States Army Air Force planes. This was followed by a beach landing by Marines from the US 1st Division. On New Years Day the last sighting of any importance was transmitted from Wright’s position. It was dawn when two enemy destroyers were observed standing off the coast just near the village at Malalia and khaki clad figures were streaming aboard. Once the loading was complete, the destroyers raced off in the direction of Rabaul. GHQ was informed immediately. They were to learn later that the Japanese General Officers Commanding and staff from both Arawe and Cape Gloucester had been evacuated by these destroyers but no follow up action was taken.
From Coastwatcher to fighter
The burning of the village and the deaths of some of the villagers had ignited a tribal war between the Nakanais tribes of the central mountains and the village of Kokiso closer to the coast whose men had helped the Japanese. Wright felt it prudent to move his operation into the village of Kotou which was more or less protected by the neighbouring Nakanais natives. The big question was would the Japanese fight to the death at Cape Gloucester or retreat to Rabaul. If they did, they would have to pass through the Coastwatchers’ area of control. It was now obvious their usefulness as Coastwatchers had run its course so all team members agreed the time had come to take the fight to the Japanese rather that keep trying to evade them.
While the natives were in a fighting mood, a meeting of the local chiefs was arranged by the Coastwatchers and it was explained that they were no longer going to avoid the Japanese but were going to stand and fight. It was explained the Americans were fighting at Arawa and Cape Gloucester and that many retreating Japanese would be attempting to get to the safety of Rabaul. Some might come into the mountains and take food from the native villages and gardens or they might send patrols to search for the Australians. All the chiefs agreed to join in the fight against the common enemy.