Often performing their jobs in remote jungle outposts, the Coastwatchers were possessed of both mental and physical courage. Their knowledge of the geography and peoples of the Pacific made them invaluable additions to the Allied war effort.
The concept for this service originated in 1919 in a proposal by the Royal Australian Navy to form a civilian coastwatching organization to provide early warning in the event of an invasion. By the outbreak of war in September 1939, approximately 800 persons were serving as coastwatchers, operating observation posts mainly on the Australian coast. They were, at the outset, government officials aided by missionaries and planters who, as war with Japan neared, were placed under the control of the intelligence section of the Australian Navy.
By 1942, the system of coastwatchers and the accompanying intelligence network covered an area of 500,000 square miles, and was placed under the control of the Allied Intelligence Bureau (AIB). The AIB coordinated Allied intelligence activities in the southwest Pacific, and had as its initial principal mission the collection of all possible information about the enemy in the vicinity of Guadalcanal.
Coastwatchers proved extremely useful to U.S. Marine forces in providing reports on the number and movement of Japanese troops. Officers from the 1st Marine Division obtained accurate information on the location of enemy forces in their objective areas, and were provided vital reports on approaching Japanese bombing raids. On 8 August 1942, Coastwatcher Jack Reed on Bougainville alerted American forces to an upcoming raid by 40 Japanese bombers, which resulted in 36 of the enemy planes being destroyed. The "early warning system" provided by the Coastwatchers helped Marine forces on Guadalcanal to hold onto the Henderson Field airstrip.
The Coastwatchers also rescued and sheltered 118 Allied pilots, including Marines, during the Solomons Campaign, often at the immediate risk of their own lives. Pipe-smoking Coastwatcher Reed also was responsible for coordinating the evacuation on Bougainville of four nuns and 25 civilians by the U.S. submarine Nautilus.
It is unknown exactly how many Coastwatchers paid the ultimate sacrifice in the performance of their duties. Many died in anonymity, without knowledge of the contribution their services had made to final victory. Perhaps they would be gratified to know that no less an authority than Admiral William F. Halsey recorded that the Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal saved the Pacific.—Robert V. Aquilina