North as a Coastwatcher

Hence, I went back to the Coastwatcher training camp at Tabragalba, a farm that had been taken over for that purpose. It was near Beaudesert and the Jungle Warfare Training Centre at Canungra. At Tabragalba we underwent further Morse Code training and learned unarmed combat.

On some occasions, we traveled by truck to practice landings in rubber boats in the surf at Surfers Paradise. (As an aside, it is interesting to reflect that this ‘high degree of difficulty’ undertaking was the specific cause of the disastrous failure of the landing of the party into Hollandia in March 1944, which cost the lives of five coastwatchers! See below for details.)

So I had now officially joined the Coastwatchers.

Whilst at Tabragalba I had a close call!

The Americans had called for a party to infiltrate Hollandia to check out Japanese presence, prior to their planned invasion to retake it.

I was selected as the Signaller to go on that Hollandia (now Jayapura, the capital of West Papua) venture, led by Captain ‘Blue’ Harris (who had played a major role in repatriating hundreds of escapees from Rabaul to safety) but, at the last minute, the Signaller Jack Bunning replaced me after recovering from sickness.

Hollandia party of Coastwatchers in the submarine. Photo: Eric Feldt ‘The Coast Watchers’ p.347.

Hollandia party of Coastwatchers in the submarine. Photo: Eric Feldt ‘The Coast Watchers’ p.347.

On 22 March 1944, the party of twelve (including six natives) stood off the coast of Hollandia by submarine. Harris decided to lead a reconnaissance party of five (including two natives) ashore, but the surf had not been recognised as a threat and their rubber boat was capsized, losing much equipment. A prearranged signal to the submarine to abort the following party was misinterpreted as a possible native campfire, and the following two rubber boats were already on their way, with similar results!

The entire forlorn party of eleven (one who was ill had remained on board the submarine) was now all ashore, with little equipment or food, limited weaponry and no radio!

Unfortunately the local natives (who had been under duress from the Japanese occupiers) gave the party up and it was ambushed. After a four hour battle, ‘Blue’ Harris was tied to a tree, tortured and bayoneted to death whilst others were killed, including the signaller who replaced me, Jack Bunning!

Others in the party went ‘bush’ and suffered badly for many months to reach Allied territory: see also Native Troops. Of the eleven who landed, only five survived. So by a streak of luck, I lived to record the history of the Coastwatchers.

Anyway, from Tabragalba I was assigned to go north to New Guinea in the reliable work-horse, the DC3, but known in its air-force role as the C47. I remember those flights: we sat along seats at each side of the plane but had to dump our kit-bags up at the cockpit door so the pilot could lift the tail of the plane off the ground! Once airborne, we retrieved our bags.

I was to join Flying Officer Frank Leydin (RAAF) at the forward base at Nadzab: the forward US air-base up the Markham Valley from Lae.

I was ‘hauled over the coals’ here, when the leader charged me with keeping my Colt 45 and US Carbine from the Americans’ Amphibious Landing Force! I think I was fined, but kept the weapons anyway!

After several months I was transferred to rejoin Kirkwall-Smith’s party who I’d been with on Fergusson Island, and we landed at Madang on the memorable day (for other reasons!) of 6 June 1944, establishing our forward base on a small island off the coast.

My pencil sketch of inside my radio hut in Madang, 1944.

My pencil sketch of inside my radio hut in Madang, 1944.

We were, at last, provided with good food from an Australian supply ship the ‘Ping Wo’ and now had eggs, meat etc. Unfortunately, we also had lots of rats hanging around so we rigged up a kerosene square tin just below floor base, which we filled with water and had a jam-tin on a central wire shaft with food attached. When the rats leaned out for the bait, the jam-tin spun and in they went!

From here, we kept in radio contact with other coastwatching parties in the hinterland behind Wewak and Hollandia, for retransmission of messages to our base in Port Moresby. At this stage I had the popular AWA equipment which required wet batteries and therefore a Briggs & Stratton engine to re-charge them.

Those who are unfamiliar with the teleradio equipment which Coastwatchers had to use and carry will have difficulty believing an accurate description. This disbelief was also the first impression of those confronted with the actual unit! Here is 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. (Emphasis added). See Eric Feldt The Coastwatchers.

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!

After several more months, I was reassigned and transported by plane (coincidentally a Beaufort Bomber similar to the one my brother went down in) to Moresby, then to Lae where I was flown by US Marriner flying boat to Jacquinot Bay in New Britain.

Marriner flying boat

Marriner flying boat

Here I once again linked up with the party of veteran coastwatcher Fairfax-Ross and we moved up the south coast in advance of the Australian soldiers being landed at Jacquinot Bay. From there I went ‘bush’, with native carriers to carry our gear and food, joining a party led by Captain Malcolm English and another officer, and which included ten Allied Intelligence Bureau-trained Papuan soldiers.

On New Britain, I supervised our Papuan troops using the mortar gun.

On New Britain, I supervised our Papuan troops using the mortar gun.

It was then, coincidentally, that I ended up in the Baining Mountains overlooking Rabaul, where my two brothers had met their fate.