My name is Jim Burrowes, VX136343. I served as a coastwatcher in the South Pacific during World War II. I have always been interested to tell the history of the coastwatchers because their secretive and specialist operations were ‘hush hush’ during the war. I have now decided to publish it, including some of the details of my own role during the war, so that the vital role that coastwatchers played in winning the war in the Pacific is not lost to posterity.
As a coastwatcher, I was also a signaller and I was proud to play a key role in coastwatching operations, as acknowledged by coastwatching founder, Commander Eric Feldt, on page 99 of his book The Coast Watchers. Commander Feldt declared that:
I am the last signaller coastwatcher to tell the history of the coastwatchers. These are my stories.
The Coastwatching Organisation originated at the commencement of World War 11 in September 1939, when Australian Naval Commander Eric Feldt flew to Port Moresby. He was responsible for recruiting expatriate Administrators, District Officers, plantation owners, miners and others as Coastwatchers, supplying them with Teleradio equipment, and training them in their coastwatching role and the use of the equipment.
The purpose of the Coastwatching Organisation was to form a cohesive body to alert Australia of any military threat from the north. The organisation was administered entirely by the Royal Australian Navy through the Navy Intelligence Division, Melbourne.
This was 2¼ years before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor thus starting the Pacific War.
At the outbreak of war, training of the Independent Companies (later the commandos) at Tidal River in Victoria was undertaken in earnest and their units were then deployed to Timor, Rabaul and Ambon, as part of the ‘Bird Force’ defence outposts against any enemy attack from the north. As the Imperial Japanese Navy drove relentlessly south after the attack on Pearl Harbor, operational Coastwatchers were infiltrated into Japanese invaded and occupied territories throughout the South Pacific.
In July 1942 the Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB) was formally established with two ‘arms’: Intelligence (which operated as M Special Unit: the ‘Coastwatchers’), and Sabotage (which operated as Z Special Unit).
As it turned out, the Coastwatchers played a vital role in winning the war against the Japanese Navy during World War II. For example, the commendation of the Coastwatchers offered by General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in the Southwest Pacific Area, reads as follows:
I have decided to tell this story for three reasons.
First, so that Australians and others understand the vital role that Coastwatching parties played in defending Australia and winning the war in the Pacific during World War II. These Coastwatching parties were led by expatriates from New Guinea and vitally supported by a multi-grouping of Services and other personnel which was unique in the history of the war. Established under jurisdiction of the Royal Australian Navy by Commander Eric Feldt, the Coast Watching Organisation comprised the following personnel: Royal Australian Navy (RAN) 178, Australian Imperial Force (AIF) 174, Royal Australian Air force (RAAF) 10, Soloman Islands Defence Force 8, United States Army 28, Civilians 13 and Native peoples (estimate) 150, for a total of 561 personnel. The indigenous peoples are the only personnel unidentified in the organisation, but without them the Coastwatchers could not operate.
Second, so that people also know that many indigenous peoples of the South Pacific served as native troops and played a vital role in defending their own countries and defeating the Imperial Japanese Navy. The names of those indigenous Coastwatchers who served and died on duty, including Bougainvilleans, Papuans, Solomon Islanders and Timorese, proudly appear on memorials throughout Australia and the South Pacific alongside the names of their fallen Australian comrades.
Finally, I have included some mention of my own role and that of my family, including my brothers Bob (who was captured at Rabaul in 1942 and drowned on the doomed prison ship Montevideo Maru) and Tom (who was a Wireless Air Gunner in the RAAF, shot down on his first mission over Rabaul in 1943) who were killed on active service in the South Pacific, so that the story is told through the eyes of those who fought, and some of whom died, during the war. Coincidentally, my own role as a Coastwatcher in Japanese-held territory included ten months over-looking Rabaul where the fate of my brothers had been decided.
In each of the chapters that can be read by clicking on the links above and in the sidebar, I have explained a part of the role of the Coastwatchers in World War II. I have illustrated the text with many photos, documents and maps for the purpose of telling this part of South Pacific and military history. As the chapters have been written over the many years since the war’s end, there is occasional repetition of certain events as exclusion may have compromised the context of a particular text. These occasional repetitions may be ‘skipped’ by the reader if they prefer.
It should be noted that because I served in enemy territory in New Britain my articles do not adequately cover the enormous contributions, nor details, of the Coastwatchers who served in Guadalcanal. Their service, and specifically that of the legendary Coastwatcher Martin Clemens C.B.E., M.C., L.M., was exemplary and worthy of full praise and recognition. You can access details at ‘The Coast Watchers – Guadalcanal 1942’ (part 1).
I would also like to note that these articles are entirely about the Australian Coastwatchers and those with whom they worked, including a small Australian army signals unit, the New Guinea Air Warning Wireless Company (NGAWW), which existed as a single entity between February 1942 and 1945, and the members of which served in the valleys, highlands and around the coastline of New Guinea and nearby islands as signallers; this unit’s members are commemorated with a plaque in the grounds of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Nevertheless, the articles are in no way intended to ignore or detract from the wonderful contribution to the war effort of the small band of New Zealand Coastwatchers, nor the sterling Coastwatchers of the Gilbert and Marshall Islands, many of whom were captured in early 1942 by the Japanese and spent the remaining years as POWs in Japan. Similarly, the service of the coastwatchers in the Soloman Islands, called ‘scouts’, is also acknowledged without further discussion here.
I know of one other comrade in Victoria and there may be others still living elsewhere around Australia and the Pacific islands to the north and I would be pleased to hear from any ex-M Special Unit personnel either by email <email@example.com> or on my mobile phone: 0409 255 530 (within Australia) or +61 409 255 530 (from outside Australia).
The chapters that follow (in the menu bar at the top, and in the sidebar) tell the stories of the Coastwatchers.
Acknowledgment: I would like to thank my son Bob for his kind assistance in the development and production of this website.