SAMFORD VALLEY, QLD - In late July, the Brisbane branch of the Naval Association of Australia, in collaboration with the DVA, hosted a public event to recognise the Coastwatchers of WWII.
This was held at Jack Tar Place on Brisbane city's South Bank, immediately adjacent to the Queensland Maritime Museum. Jack Tar Place is dominated by a statue of a sailor and the whole area is dedicated to honour all who served in the RAN, including the Coastwatchers.
The very active Naval Association of Australia holds regular monthly activities at Jack Tar Place and the July event featured a number of speakers, including a presentation by US Ambassador Caroline Kennedy.
As is well known, the Ambassador's father, President John F Kennedy, was rescued by Coastwatchers and Scouts during WWII after his patrol boat, PT-109, was sunk in a collision with a Japanese destroyer on the night of 1 August 1943 in waters near Kolombangara in the then British Solomon Islands Protectorate (BSIP).
The presence of Kennedy and his surviving crew on a small island was discovered by two local men, Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana, both being Scouts in the team of Australian Coastwatcher Lt Reg Evans.
Kennedy carved a message into a coconut and this was delivered by Biuku and Eroni to Evans, who sent them back to take Kennedy and his crew, under hazardous conditions, to a safe place from where they were later rescued by the US Navy.
Given the efforts to date by the Naval Association, DVA and others to recognise the Coastwatchers and the fact that Jack Tar Place overlooks the much-visited Queensland Maritime Museum (holding many RAN artefacts, not the least being the iconic frigate HMAS Diamantina), perhaps the proposers of the new memorial might wish to consider reaching out for additional support to these organisations and institutions.
For example, would that part of South Bank, or even the museum itself, offer more potential as an appropriate memorial site?
I am a Board Member of the Solomons Scouts and Coastwatchers Trust, a Honiara-based NGO dedicated to remembering and documenting the role of Solomon Islanders and Australians operating in the BSIP during WWII.
I can assure readers that much is being done to ensure that Coastwatching is not forgotten in the overall history of that nation.
It goes without saying that, but for local Solomon Islanders, the entire Coastwatching network would not have survived days, let alone weeks and months. Of course, the same rule applied in Papua New Guinea.
Over the years, I have had the honour and pleasure of meeting personally with several Coastwatchers, such as Lt Jack Read DSC (Bougainville), Lt Dick Horton US Silver Star (Rendova/New Georgia) and Major Martin Clemens MC (Guadalcanal) and they all attested to this truism.
Local Scouts to whom I have spoken often speak kindly of the expatriates, but are mostly too diplomatic and guarded to point out the human frailties or cruelty of some, such as the regular floggings ordered by Captain Donald Kennedy DSO (Segi) for any infractions of discipline.
Provided with food, shelter and secure locations from which to operate, the Australian Coastwatchers relied upon the loyalty and service of local people.
Solomon Islanders were also the key gatherers of intelligence of enemy activities, often entering the Japanese lines and posing as carriers, cooks or general labourers to bring back vital information.
Unfortunately, the history of the entire Coastwatching period has primarily been recorded and written in dozens of books and journals by expatriates (including both Coastwatchers and historians alike), with the role of Solomon Islands Scouts sidelined to a role as helpers, rather than key figures of courage.
The Trust seeks to redress this historical imbalance.
Through donations, the Trust has initiated a permanent 'Pride of Our Nation' memorial in the centre of Honiara. The statue, designed and built locally, features a Coastwatching and Scout team looking out to sea.
This structure has now become a focal point for annual military related commemorations (Armistice Day, Anzac Day, US Marine landings on Guadalcanal 1942 etc.).
In addition, the Trust has developed an oral history recording program to document the testimonies of the last remaining Scouts still with us, as well as the memories of their families.
Given the paucity of local materials and the lack of general knowledge amongst Solomon Islanders themselves of the loyalty, courage and resilience of their forebears during the most traumatic days of WWII, when Japanese Imperial forces invaded the BSIP, appropriate educational materials have also been printed and distributed by the Trust to secondary schools throughout the country.
The Trust is also now on the verge of obtaining a habitable space in Honiara in which to establish a museum/interpretive centre where the general public, including overseas visitors, can access information on the key role of Coastwatching and to view equipment from that era, including an original AWA 3BZ Teleradio, the key to the success of wireless intelligence during those times.
One complete set of the AWA 3BZ Teleradio (transmitter, Morse key, headphones, receiver, batteries, engine to charge batteries, fuel for engine etc.) required the strength of at least 14 Solomon Islands men to carry.
It had to be manhandled to mountain tops along muddy and precipitous paths, and often dismantled and moved rapidly into the deep bush when Japanese patrols with tracker dogs came close to a secret Coastwatching station hideout.
The men and women of this vital period in WWII, when Australia's very shores were under deepest threat, should not be forgotten.
John F Kennedy never forgot. When he became US President, he invited Evans, Biuku and Eroni to his inauguration in Washington DC. Only Reg Evans made it.
Biuku and Eroni were held back by British colonial officials in the BSIP who felt that being village men with little command of English they should not attend such a grand occasion. So, the British substituted two other Solomon Islanders.
A final act of colonial bastardry still not forgotten amongst the people of the home area of Biuku and Eroni in the Western Province of Solomon Islands.
Nor by me.