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Guadalcanal: An American victory aided by a British hero


I WROTE recently in TCW how victory for Britain in the Second Battle of El Alamein in November 1942 was a turning point in the war against Germany.   

Commenting on the article, one of our American readers, D A Christianson, noted that the pivotal moment of the war in the Pacific for the US also came in 1942, with the battle for the key island of Guadalcanal.   

He was right to remind us. The hard-won victory there after a bitter six-month struggle from August 1942 to February 1943 is probably little remembered now in Britain, but it halted Tokyo’s military juggernaut, which until then had seemed unstoppable.   

Also in danger of becoming lost with the passing of the years is the remarkable story of how the US forces were aided during the campaign by a courageous group of Allied spies called the Coastwatchers.   

Formed in Australia in the 1930s, recruits to the Coastwatchers were initially civilians such as planters, traders, miners and missionaries, based in remote locations in northern Australia and on adjacent Pacific island chains.   

With an increasingly volatile international situation, their job was to keep watch for any potentially belligerent sea or air activity and radio the information back to naval intelligence headquarters. When the war in the Pacific started after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, they were supplemented by military personnel and native islanders, boosting their strength to more than 600.   

The Coastwatchers were to prove their worth time and again monitoring enemy movements and giving early warnings, particularly during the Guadalcanal campaign. And it was there that one of their number, an intrepid British colonial administrator named Martin Clemens, became something of a legendary figure.  

Guadalcanal, in the southern Solomon Islands – about 1,000 miles north-east of Australia – had been a British protectorate since 1893. When the Japanese swept southwards across the Pacific in early 1942, they gradually encroached on the island, at first sending small probing parties ashore.   

Clemens, a 27-year-old Scot, was the island’s District Officer – effectively its ruler, with extensive executive and legal powers. He was also energetic and resourceful. With the enemy approaching, he increased his small police force of native officers and recruited a network of trusted local tribesmen as scouts to keep watch on Japanese activities and carry messages.   

They were his most valuable asset. But his most vital piece of equipment was a teleradio, used by Coastwatchers for sending coded telegrams, or simply communicating ‘in clear’. However, it was a cumbersome and temperamental device which needed heavy batteries and a battery-charging generator. In rough terrain, several men might be needed to haul it.   

Clemens moved his headquarters from the coast and into Guadalcanal’s almost impenetrable jungle-clad mountains, which rise to 7,600 feet. Assailed by oppressive heat and humidity, struggling up precipitous slopes and lashed by torrential rain, his situation became desperate.    

As food and other supplies ran low, he ended up famished, barefoot and totally exhausted, losing three stones in weight. But he had promised the native islanders that he would stay with them and that deliverance would one day come. And as ‘a token of faith’, he ran up the Union Jack wherever he was – usually under a tree to avoid detection from the air.   

Despite the difficulties, and inspired by the tenacity of his scouts, Clemens struggled on, keeping in touch with two other Coastwatchers elsewhere on Guadalcanal and relaying vital information to the Allied forces.   

Then in early July, the Japanese were spotted landing in strength on the northern coast of the island and their intentions became dramatically clear – they were starting to build an airfield.   

This was a major threat to the Allied war effort. If the Japanese were able to deploy planes from Guadalcanal, they could intercept ships from the US, cutting supply lines to Australia and New Zealand – which the Americans planned to use as a springboard for their Pacific fightback.   

Conversely, if the Allies held the island with a functioning airfield, it would be a vital asset for future operations, including against the main Japanese base at Rabaul on the island of New Britain, Papua New Guinea.   

Clemens and his comrades continued to feed intelligence to the Allied military authorities. However, the Japanese now knew the Coastwatchers were operating from the jungle, and hunted them with dogs and radio detection finders. It would be a close-run thing to hold out until help arrived.   

Then finally, on August 7, 1942, the Ist US Marine Division launched an amphibious assault on the island, codenamed Operation Watchtower. The Japanese defenders were quickly overwhelmed and the marines seized the almost completed airstrip, naming it Henderson Field. It was partly operational by August 13.   

However, unlike Alamein, which was effectively over in about 11 days, the struggle for control of Guadalcanal would last six months as the marines, later reinforced by US Army units, battled a fanatical foe who launched numerous assaults and counter-attacks.   

(The savagery of the Guadalcanal fighting was graphically recreated in the 2010 HBO television mini-series The Pacific , partly based on the book Helmet for my Pillow, by Robert Leckie, a marine veteran of the campaign).   

In October, Marine Sergeant John Basilone won America’s highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor, for fending off a Japanese infantry assault near Henderson Field. As well as the ferocious combat onshore, there were seven major naval battles and almost constant clashes between warplanes.   

When the US forces landed, Clemens came down from the mountains and offered his services. He had by then been commissioned – via radio – into the British Army with the rank of captain.   

The Americans quickly realised he would be invaluable to them with his knowledge of the island and his band of loyal scouts, and he was appointed British liaison officer to the marine division. He combined the new role with his ongoing colonial duties as District Officer.   

Clemens’s irregulars were integrated into the US forces and helped guide them on operations. They rooted out Japanese intelligence-gathering posts and garnered information which thwarted a determined enemy attempt to retake Henderson Field. Clemens also opened a jungle warfare school for US reconnaissance and commando units.   

Meanwhile, other Coastwatchers continued to support the US campaign from afar. Units on the island of Bougainville, some 350 miles away, were able to give the Americans advance warning when they sighted Japanese aircraft heading for Guadalcanal.   

In the end, the Japanese were ground down, unable to supply their forces, and finally withdrew from the island on February 7, 1943. The Americans had lost 1,600 dead and 4,200 wounded, while around 24,000 Japanese were killed.   

Later in 1943, Clemens led a trek into the jungle on the island of New Georgia to liaise with a marine raider regiment which had become isolated. For this exploit he was awarded the US Legion of Merit – having already been decorated by Britain with the Military Cross for his actions on Guadalcanal.   

In his memoir, Alone on Guadalcanal , published in 1998, Clemens told how, when he returned to England after the war, he was appalled at how little the public knew of British involvement in the war in the Pacific and Far East and the contribution they had made to victory. ‘I felt genuinely ashamed of the abysmal ignorance displayed,’ he wrote.   

However, the Americans knew full well the measure of their ally’s crucial part in their campaign. The US Admiral of the Fleet, William ‘Bull’ Halsey, said: ‘The Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal saved the South Pacific.’   

Martin Clemens stayed in the colonial service after the war, earning a CBE, before settling with his wife and family in Australia, where he became a rancher and took citizenship. He died in 2009, aged 94.   

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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