In 1940, in one of his most celebrated speeches, Winston Churchill praised the Allied airmen who fought in the Battle of Britain: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
I believe the Coast Watchers were the Pacific equivalent of the Battle of Britain’s famous “Few”.
Just like the gallant fighter pilots over Britain, the Coast Watchers were a tiny gallant band, which had an impact far out of proportion to their numbers. And, like the fighter pilots, the Coast Watchers changed the course of the war.
The Coast Watchers volunteered to stay behind the enemy lines in the Pacific islands when, all around them, others were fleeing in the face of a seemingly invincible invasion force. When they volunteered there was no guarantee – or even likelihood – that the Allies would ultimately prevail in the conflict. The only certainty was that if they were captured they faced torture and death.
Indeed, at least 30 Coast Watchers were captured and executed, mostly by beheading.
They were remarkable characters. Most were ‘old hands’ in the islands, who knew the land and the people intimately. They stayed on, in their jungle posts, after the Japanese swept through the islands, constantly moving camp, living off the land, working with their islander comrades, all the while on the lookout for enemy patrols intent on hunting them down.
They made their reports using the then ‘state-of-the-art’ communication system the ‘portable’ AWA 3B teleradio, an absurdly cumbersome set of gear that weighed 150 kilos and needed between 12 and 16 men to move it.
Many Coast Watchers died heroically, like Con Page on Simberi Island off New Ireland, who continued to radio reports, even when the Japanese were closing in on him.
Greg Benham and Bill Kyle stayed behind, refusing the last chance to escape when a group of civilians left New Ireland by boat, to keep reporting.
Just last week, speaking at Camden Library, I met Greg Benham’s nephew. He showed me his uncle’s last letter to his family, taken out by the escaping civilians.
In it he wrote that he stayed behind because his mate Bill Kyle had been ordered to stay behind with the radio: “I felt it my duty to volunteer to stay with him instead of going on the boat to the Solomons and thence to Sydney. I know I owe you all a duty to return and to dear Lillian – however I know you all realize the decision I made was the only honourable one.”
Both Bill Kyle and Greg Benham continued to send their reports until they were captured by the Japanese, just hours before they were due to be rescued by submarine. They were both beheaded.