- Downs, Ian G F
- History - general
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- January 1972 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
In all this, there are some lessons for the future – if coastwatching has any future – which are surely self evident. The politics of nationalism will now always be a factor in the South West Pacific and reliance upon the support of local populations must be discounted even if future coastwatchers are themselves Melanesian. This factor of loyalty has been overstressed and was generally unreliable when the tide of war was against us in the Japanese war. At its best, it was personal loyalty. This is not a criticism but a realistic recognition that inhabitants of places under occupation by an armed force are not only under great pressure and fear of reprisal against their families but often not able to clearly distinguish between a government de facto and a government de jure. Local knowledge will remain important but local contacts are likely to be hostile.
Future Coastwatchers will have to be self sufficient and able to operate and subsist on what they can carry by themselves. Hopefully this would be concentrated rations, communication equipment of longer range and of a size and weight comparable to a fully packed medium sized suitcase. Those who are unfamiliar with the teleradio equipment which Coastwatchers had to use and carry will have difficulty in believing an accurate description. This disbelief was the first impression of those confronted with the actual unit. The following description is quoted from Commander Feldt’s own account – ‘All parts were enclosed in three metal boxes, each about two feet long by one foot deep and one foot wide. Power was supplied by batteries such as a car uses, which were charged by a small petrol engine. This charging engine, weighing about seventy pounds, was the heaviest part of the set. The 3B teleradio was to be our mainstay in the coming operations, and a grand instrument it was, standing up to the heat, wet and amateur handling. It had a range of up to 400 miles on voice and six hundred miles if the key was used to transmit morse. It had one disadvantage – it was difficult to carry and needed twelve to sixteen carriers for its transportation.’ (The bold is mine). I can only add that the three heavy boxes were usually slung on poles from the handles designed for this purpose so that human porterage could be shared by two men and that petrol was an added requirement for carriers. There were always two batteries and the noise the charger made while giving new life to them was just something else. It may be difficult to believe, but these units were frequently carried for more than one hundred miles to bring them into a new position and that ten miles of porterage in a day was commonplace. The reluctance of carriers will be understood.
A voluntary system of coastwatching breaks down under war conditions when a large percentage of what are necessarily part-time observers find that they have conflicts of duty, some thought to be of greater priority. In the event of war, the tendency is for particular areas to require a concentration of reporting. There may be a case for having a dozen trained and properly equipped teams of four or five men standing by for delivery to those places where they will be most useful. Those who planned ahead for the coastwatching operation did so against the background of stringent budgets and were forced to make plans which would avoid cost by co-opting resources of men and equipment which the navy could not provide. There was certainly no money available for experiment and no staff nucleus available until after the outbreak of hostilities.
In the Japanese war, the first Coastwatchers were self located human outposts of early warning at a time when neither reconnaissance aircraft nor radar were available. Modern electronic devices may have made them obsolete, but at the time their contribution was unique and effective.
They were perhaps best understood and are best remembered in the words of Admiral William F. Halsey, USA, who said of them:
‘The Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal. And Guadalcanal saved the Pacific.’