Coastwatcher’s last mission

James Burrowes OAM, 97, of Blackburn South, has one last mission, to raise awareness about how vital Australian Coastwatchers were to the outcome of the Second World War in the Pacific.

9 July 2020

A World War Two veteran man named James Burrowes. He is wearing a dark suit, green beret and a green and black tie with gold accents. Five service medals are pinned on the left of his chest.

James Burrowes OAM, aged 97.

He believes he’s the last of his kind, the last Coastwatcher left of the Allied Intelligence Bureau’s ‘M’ Special Unit and he’s using whatever means he can to tell the Coastwatcher story.

In 1943-45, Mr Burrowes was among a network of Allied military intelligence operatives stationed on remote Pacific islands close to and behind enemy lines to observe enemy movement and rescue stranded Allied personnel.

They were there to watch and report, not to engage the enemy. In fact, the Coastwatchers were codenamed “Ferdinand” after the popular children’s book character Ferdinand the Bull, who sat among the flowers and refused to fight.

The intelligence they gathered has been often credited with playing a significant role in the Allies’ prosecution of the Pacific war, with their radioed reports giving the Allies a significant advantage in some of the most crucial battles.

‘I have always been interested in telling the history of the Coastwatchers because their secretive and specialist operations were “hush hush” during the war,’ Mr Burrowes writes on his website. ‘I have now decided to publish [this story], including some of the details of my own part in the war, so that the vital role that Coastwatchers played in winning the war in the Pacific is not lost to posterity.’

Mr Burrowes enlisted in 1942, and served for two and a half years as a signaller Coastwatcher in ‘M’ Special Unit of the Allied Intelligence Bureau, nine months with the US 7th Fleet Amphibious Landing Force and 10 months in enemy-occupied territory overlooking Rabaul.

‘As the 75th anniversary of the Japanese surrender in the Pacific approaches, I would like to discuss the key way in which Australians and the people of New Guinea played a vital role in the defeat of Japan,’ Mr Burrowes said.

In his book, War at the End of the World, US historian James P. Duffy credited two Australian Coastwatchers, Lieutenant Jack Read and Major D.G. Kennedy, one on Bougainville, the other on New Georgia, who separately reported to their Port Moresby headquarters on 2 May 1942 that ‘a large force of enemy ships was departing from Queen Carola Harbour … en route to invade and conquer Port Moresby.’

These warnings contributed to the Imperial Japanese Navy’s fleet being located and forced to withdraw after heavy losses by naval and air forces from the United States and Australia in the Battle of the Coral Sea, the first major setback for the Japanese navy following their rapid advance through Asia and the Pacific.

Shortly after the Battle of the Coral Sea, Coastwatchers were vital to the American success in the six-month long battle of attrition between Japan and the US for control of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.

An Islander man standing and James Burrowes, an Australian coastwatcher, sitting down in a base radio station dugout in the Solomon Islands during World War Two.

The base radio station dugout of the Coastwatchers Ken network in the Solomon Islands. Photo: Australian War Memorial.

They regularly sent two-hour warnings of enemy bombers with supporting fighter squadrons ‘headed your way’, from their campsites in enemy-held jungles of New Britain, New Ireland, Bougainville and surrounding islands, to the US forces on Guadalcanal, and the Australians at Port Moresby.

These early warnings gave Allied aircraft time to prepare to meet the enemy, place Navy battleships on ‘general quarters’ and ensure that anti-aircraft weapons were ready. Coastwatchers’ warnings meant US forces at Guadalcanal were able to defend hard-won territory, and the enemy’s losses of men and equipment were important to the outcome of the battle.

Five-star US Admiral of the Fleet William F. ‘Bull’ Halsey, declared that: ‘the Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal saved the South Pacific’.

Mr Burrowes said had the Japanese captured Port Moresby it would have ‘virtually severed the maritime lifeline between Australia and the United States, and provided the Japanese with an air base from which to attack northern Australia.’

Defeats on Guadalcanal and at Port Moresby would have made it more difficult for United States troops to prepare for and carry out their drive through the Pacific to islands within aircraft range of the Japanese home islands.

General Douglas MacArthur declared that: ‘[Coastwatchers] are officially credited with being a crucial and decisive factor in the allied victories of Guadalcanal and Tulagi.’

In addition to intelligence gathering the Coastwatchers also rescued many from becoming prisoners of war or internees, including downed Allied airmen, civilian missionaries and hundreds of local people and others who had risked their lives for the Allies.

These included the future US President, US Navy Lieutenant John F. Kennedy, whose PT 109 Patrol Torpedo boat was carved in two and destroyed by a Japanese warship in the Solomon Islands. After the sinking, Kennedy and his crew reached Kolombangara Island where they were found by Coastwatcher Sub-Lieutenant Reg Evans who organised their rescue.

In 1959, a memorial lighthouse was erected at Madang, on Papua New Guinea’s north coast to honour the Coastwatchers. The memorial plaque bears the names of 36 Coastwatchers killed in enemy occupied territory while risking their lives in the execution of their duties. The plaque also bears this inscription: They watched and warned and died that we might live.

In a cruel irony, as a Coastwatcher Mr Burrowes spent 10 months in Japanese-held territory overlooking Rabaul from 1944-45, where his two brothers — one an airman who died on his first mission, the other a soldier shipped on the ill-fated POW ship Montevideo Maru — had been stationed before they died.

Written using material provided by Jim Burrowes, his website: The Last Coastwatcher and from the Australian War Memorial’s blog article: ‘We just had a job to do, and we did it’ by Claire Hunter.