Lonely Vigil

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

The history of war in the twentieth century reveals an odd contradiction. Nations grew more populous, armies larger, and military death-toys more effective, yet warfare increasingly utilized highly individualistic small-group actions. World War I was a dreary, mindless confrontation of huge armies heaving mountains of lead and steel at one another from endless miles of trenches. The resulting breakthrough in military sterility yielded casualties reckoned in the millions and gains measured in yards. World War II signaled the return of combat fluidity. Armies moved; panzer divisions, airplanes, and tanks complemented rifles, shovels, and barbed wire, and the blitzkrieg won quick decisions from a vastly amused Mars.

On the fringes of these modernized armies were men who deliberately operated alone or in small units, relying on surprise, personal skill, and courage instead of numbers. Civilians were entranced by romantic “pursuit” pilots who rode their chargers through the clouds, jousting like medieval knights. Daredevils actually rode torpedoes to sink battleships and merchant vessels. Crews of “brave American submariners” competed against Germans in “treacherous U-boats” to clear the ocean’s surface of all signs of man. Even infantry participated in this style of warfare. In the East, partisans fought their enemies for “Mother Russia.” Germans, Englishmen, and Americans formed Commando or Ranger battalions and assaulted improbable odds at the Gran Sasso, Narvik, Normandy, and on Pacific island beaches.

The Bomb and subsequent push-button warfare should have ended this sort of thing, but a Cold War predilection for “police actions” and “limited” conflicts in small countries maintained combat individualism. America’s recent venture in Vietnam was essentially a war of bushwhacking and counterinsurgency patrols, not unlike the Revolutionary War of the Carolinas. Against this backdrop the Coastwatcher’s war against Japan in the Solomon Islands seems an appropriate activity for brave individualists.

The war for the Pacific began with a string of quick successes that made Japan the overlord of much of Southeast Asia, a thousand islands, and vast ocean reaches. But the Japanese forces that had mastered the ABCD powers (Australia, Britain, China, Dutch), fared badly against the United States. The assault on Pearl Harbor was a disastrous failure, destroying only the antique battleships (soon raised, floating monuments to naval vanity). It missed the aircraft carriers, submarines, and oil storage facilities that eventually determined the war, and failed to seize Hawaii, which could well have yielded victory. Worse, the surprise raid enraged the sleeping American giant, and Japan’s eastward marches were halted overnight. The Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway gave the initiative to the United States only a half-year after the Pearl Harbor raid.

Five hundred miles north of Australia lie the lovely but little-known Solomons, a chain of large and small islands crossing seven hundred miles of ocean along a northwest-southeast axis. Between the twin rows of green jewels—or hells, depending on the beholder’s circumstances—was a magnificent sound, soon dubbed the “Slot.” From its bases at Rabaul on New Britain at the northwest end and Tulagi at the southeast, Japanese forces controlled the Solomons, menacing the sea lanes to Australia and America’s offensive hopes in the South Pacific. The Allies’ worst fears were confirmed in 1942 when Japanese forces began construction of a forward airstrip on Guadalcanal Island.

The resulting landings of United States Marines on Guadalcanal and Tulagi began America’s island-hopping war, and launched a two-year struggle for the Solomons involving land, sea, and air forces. The evocatively named islands of New Georgia, Santa Isabel, Choiseul, Vella Lavella, and Bougainville witnessed scenes of war, but the cockpits were Rabaul and Guadalcanal, where the former Japanese airstrip was taken and renamed Henderson Field. Much of the outcome of these fierce assaults lay in the hands of one of the war’s more obscure assemblages, the Islands Coastwatching Service.

The Coastwatcher Service had been planned by the Royal Australian Navy not long after World War I, and given future responsibilities for New Guinea, the Bismarcks, the Solomons, the New Hebrides, and other islands. In the late 1930’s the Navy launched a centrally coordinated network of teleradio-equipped “island hands,” stationed at strategic passages and points along a 2,500-mile crescent of islands north of Australia. Headquarters, directed by the able Eric Feldt during the strategic years 1939-1943, was located in Townsville, Queensland. Four regional control centers collected and distributed information broadcast by Coastwatchers. By 1941 Feldt, who had named his network “Ferdinand” in honor of the Hollywood bull who preferred observing to fighting, was coordinator of a hundred stations.

Solomon Islands coast (and air and land) watchers relayed their reports to KEN, the area headquarters, located in a leaky former Japanese dugout at Henderson Field. KEN, directed by Lt. Commander Hugh Mackenzie, functioned well, and quickly. Warnings, notices, and other vital information were sent immediately to those who needed them. KEN’s staff, notes Walter Lord, wallowed in the approbation of the admirals, but,...

(The entire section is 2213 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Atlantic. CCXL, October, 1977, p. 107.

Best Sellers. XXXVII, October, 1977, p. 215.

Booklist. LXXIII, July 1, 1977, p. 1622.

Los Angeles Times. August 17, 1977, Section IV, p. 7.

National Review. XXIX, October 28, 1977, p. 1249.

New York Times Book Review. September 4, 1977, p. 5.

Time. CX, August 1, 1977, p. 72.