The Coastwatchers, also known as the Coast Watch Organisation, Combined Field Intelligence Service or Section "C" Allied Intelligence Bureau, were Allied military intelligence operatives stationed on remote Pacific islands during World War II to observe enemy movements and rescue stranded Allied personnel. They played a significant role in the Pacific Ocean theatre and South West Pacific theatre, particularly as an early warning network during the Guadalcanal campaign.
The Australian coastwatch organisation was led by Lieutenant Commander Eric Feldt, who was based in Townsville, Australia. Their actions were particularly important in monitoring Japanese activity in the roughly one thousand islands that make up the Solomon Islands.
Many personnel who took part in Coastwatcher operations behind enemy lines were commissioned as officers of the Royal Australian Navy Volunteer Reserve (RANVR) to protect them in case of capture, although this was not always recognized by the Japanese military, which executed several of them. The Coastwatchers' numbers were augmented by escaped Allied personnel and even civilians. In one strange case, three German missionaries assisted the coastwatchers after escaping Japanese captivity. (Germany was an ally of Japan).
Ferdinand ... did not fight but sat under a tree and just smelled the flowers. It was meant as a reminder to Coastwatchers that it was not their duty to fight and so draw attention to themselves, but to sit circumspectly and unobtrusively, gathering information. Of course, like their titular prototype, they could fight if they were stung.
In June 1942, "Ferdinand" became part of the Allied Intelligence Bureau, which was under the South West Pacific Area (command) (SWPA). However Feldt reported to both GHQ, SWPA, in Brisbane and the Fleet Radio Unit in Melbourne (FRUMEL), which was under the Pacific Ocean Areas (command).
In 1942, two coastwatchers on Bougainville, Read and Mason, radioed early warning of Japanese warship and air movement (citing the numbers, type and speed of enemy units) to the United States Navy. Coastwatcher reports allowed U.S. forces to launch aircraft in time to engage the attackers. Admiral William Halsey, Jr. was later to say that the two men had saved Guadalcanal.
One of the most highly decorated coastwatchers was Sergeant Major Jacob C. Vouza, who retired from the local constabulary in 1941, volunteered for coastwatcher duty, was captured and interrogated brutally. He survived and escaped to make contact with U.S. Marines warning them of an impending Japanese attack. He recovered from his wounds and continued to scout for the Marines. He was awarded the Silver Star and Legion of Merit by the United States and later received a knighthood as well as becoming a Member of the Order of the British Empire.
In August 1943, LTJG John F. Kennedy of the United States Navy—a future President—and twelve fellow crew members were shipwrecked after the sinking of their boat, the PT-109. An Australian coastwatcher, Sub-Lt Arthur Reginald Evans, observed the explosion of the PT-109 when it was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. Despite U.S. Navy crews giving up the crew as a complete loss, Evans dispatched two Solomon Islander scouts, one of them named Biuki Gasa, in dugout canoes. The scouts found the men; Kennedy scratched a message to Evans on the coconut describing the plight and position of his crew. The future U.S. President was rescued shortly after and 20 years later welcomed Evans to the White House. Gasa did not make the trip, later claiming he received the invitation to attend but was fooled into not attending by British colonial officials. Gasa left his village and arrived in Honiara but was not allowed to leave in time for the ceremony.
"After the rescue Kennedy said he would meet us again," Kumana says in 'The Search for Kennedy's PT-109'. "When he became President, he invited us to visit him. But when we got to the airport, we were met by a clerk, who said we couldn't go—Biuku and I spoke no English. My feelings went for bad."
In the musical South Pacific, a US Marine is sent to do a similar job.
In The Wackiest Ship in the Army (1960 film) Chips Rafferty played an Australian coastwatcher, and he apparently had a different role as a guest star in one episode of the 1965 TV series The Wackiest Ship in the Army.