Behind Enemy Lines: An Amateur Radio Operator’s Amazing Tale of Bravery
Sixty-six years ago on February 9, 1943, the United States announced the ultimate defeat of Japanese forces in the hard fought battle of Guadalcanal in the South Pacific.1 The news spread rapidly and soon had everybody talking. What is not so well-known is the major contribution of ham radio operators within the Coastwatchers organization that helped make that victory possible. In this article, we will follow the life of one such ham radio operator, Paul Mason, STO, who was very much involved with this action.
Paul was born in Sydney, Australia, attended school there and became interested in radio, where he was largely self-taught. We know that as a young man he was proficient in Morse code, repaired his own equipment and wound his own coils. In fact, his diary tells us that he made his first transmitter in 1936. Before the commencement of World War II in Europe, he spent 20 years in the Solomon Islands as manager of the Inus plantation, which gave him a great understanding of the layout of these islands and the culture of its people.
Preparing for War
With WWII commencing in Europe in 1939, it would be probable that German raiders would again (as in WWI) be frequenting the Pacific and Indian oceans. Australia, with a huge landmass and small population, recognized that it would be most important to monitor ship and aircraft activities in the northern islands to warn of such approaching dangers. Consequently, in 1940, the Coastwatcher concept was born and was supervised by Lt Commander Eric Feldt (Naval Intelligence Australian Navy) covering a huge area, much of which makes up Indonesia and Melanesia today.
The arrival of WWII in the South Pacific found Paul Mason as a short, unassuming man with glasses in his early 40s, whose looks suggested he would be more at home in a bank or insurance office. With the unfolding of future events it was soon discovered nothing could be further from the truth
Consequently Mason, with his ham radio experience and radio knowledge, was recruited as an unpaid civilian by Lt Feldt and assigned to the Kieta area (near his plantation) where he positioned himself on a high ridge in order to observe movements from many directions.
The Japanese Occupation Begins
Flushed with success after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the capture of Singapore and Indonesia, it wasn’t long before the Japanese armed forces spread out to the Solomon Islands and Guadalcanal. Mason was then given the call sign STO (the first three letters of his sister’s married name of Stokie). He then moved to a better lookout at Malabita Hill where he could observe the Shortland Islands, Fauro Island and the Bougainville area, which was used by the Japanese navy to assemble naval groups. Sometime later his call sign was changed to LQK for security reasons.
Mason successfully reported Japanese naval activity by radio to the base in Port Morseby, which resulted in the bombing of enemy ships. The Japanese intelligence, feeling the effects of these bombings, became aware that there was a coastwatcher in the area and sent out a party to find him at Malabita Hill.
The enemy search party was kept under observation by Mason’s loyal Solomon Islanders as he retreated further in the bush. Being unsuccessful in finding Mason, the Japanese search party finally left Malabita Hill whereupon Mason again took up residence. You have to understand that moving radio equipment around in those days was extremely difficult (Paul’s diary said it took six men) with a heavy chassis, breakable valves (tubes), heavy lead-acid batteries with even heavier generators and benzene to keep the batteries charged. Compounding those problems in the operation of this radio equipment were noisy generators, high temperatures and humidity (never a good combination) and an environment of tropical diseases like malaria and beri beri, all of which made life very difficult.
With Mason being at the south end of the island and another coastwatcher called Read (call sign JER) at the northern end of the Island, they had most of the bases covered for visuals of shipping/aircraft activity in that area.
Morse Messages Turn the Tide
Eventually Paul got his big break when he saw a formation of Japanese aircraft heading towards Tulagi and Guadalcanal and radioed the following famous message — which could be the most important message ever sent by a radio ham:
FROM STO, TWENTY-FOUR TORPEDO BOMBERS HEADED YOURS
A few hours earlier, US forces had landed at Tulagi and Guadalcanal and were in the midst of unloading their human and equipment cargo. If the landing marines were caught unprepared in the middle of this process the carnage and destruction would have been terrible. Now with time up their sleeve (2 hours), the US naval forces went into battle station mode while fighter aircraft from the aircraft carriers climbed to 27,000 feet, ready to pounce on the oncoming enemy. With the surprise element now reversed, the ensuing dogfight became very much one sided with all but one Japanese bomber being destroyed. More importantly, no US ships were damaged or lost. It was truly a great victory for Allied radio intelligence.
The next day, Read, in the north of the Island, sighted 45 dive bombers heading southeast and radioed the following message:
FROM JER, FORTY FIVE DIVE BOMBERS GOING SOUTH EAST
Two hours later, Mason and Read tuned into the frequency of the US aircraft carrier and heard a commentary of the battle by the carrier’s radio operator:
WOW WHAT A SIGHT ENEMY AIRCRAFT ARE BEING SHOT DOWN LIKE FLIES
Can you imagine the morale booster for Read and Mason in getting immediate feedback for their efforts? Again, the same afternoon and the next day, Mason reported over his radio more enemy planes, which were dealt with in a similar way — complete with commentary. It was clear that the Japanese strategy had been to allow the US forces to land, then surprise and catch them while doing so, thus inflicting a major American defeat. Radio messages from Mason and Read reversed this strategy.
In August 1942, Mason radioed to base evidence of an airfield being built at Buin. He had some of his Solomon Islanders mix with the workers on the up-and-coming airfield and sent the following message to Townsville, Australia:
Our scouts being employed at Kahilli state aerodrome is expected to be completed in a week’s time. Many hundreds of natives being forced to work. – 27 lorries, 6 motor cars, 10 horses, 6 motor cycles, 4 tractors, aerodrome working equipment. Stores and fuel under tarpaulins along foreshore from mouth of Ugumo River to mouth of Moliko River. Two antiaircraft guns near mouth of Ugumo River and another such gun on N/W boundary of aerodrome. Wireless station on beach in front of aerodrome, also eight new iron buildings. Priests and nuns interned in iron buildings on beach. Enemy troops in green uniforms with anchor badge on arm and white hats. Scouts state 440 enemy troops. Weather too hazy to observe ships today.
What a complete report on enemy activity.
Mason and Read received regular supply drops by Catalina aircraft — usually on moonlit nights where they would light a signal fire upon hearing the engines.
Medals and Promotions
In early October 1942, General Douglas Macarthur awarded the Distinguished Service Cross to Lt Read and Petty Officer Mason and two other coastwatchers for their valuable contributions to the war effort. Around this time they were given a naval rank to provide supposedly some protection if captured (not likely) and some income for their services.
By the end of October 1942, the Japanese were preparing for an all-out attack on Guadalcanal and realized that they had to get rid of the coastwatchers once and for all if they were going to be successful. They consequently brought in a large number of tracker dogs in addition to 100 troops in Buin to track them down. Mason then arranged for a Catalina to bomb Buin and successfully killed off all the dogs in their cages — much to his relief.
Around this time Paul Mason demonstrated his superb knowledge of the culture of the Solomon Islanders. An important village had indicated some leaning towards the Japanese invaders. Wishing to keep the village on the Allied side, he made his point by marching into the village with a few loyal natives and singled out the tull tull (tell tell) man (the village interpreter, a type of second in charge to the chief).2
He explained to the villagers that he was symbolically humiliating the entire village by tanning the tull tull man’s backside with a lump of wood for their indiscretions — then proceeded to do so. To reinforce his authority he also arranged for a Catalina to drop a bomb close by without causing any damage. He had no more trouble with that village staying on his side.
Coastwatcher Message Defeats the Japanese Armada
Then commenced a major escalation of enemy activity. A big naval buildup was in force, requiring Mason to radio in twice a day, indicating an imminent attack on Guadalcanal.
One report, with the aid of pages from Jane’s Fighting Ships, was as follows:
At least 61 ships this area viz 2 Nati, 1 Aoba, 1 Mogami, 1 Kiso, 1Tatuta, 2 sloops, 33 destroyers, 17 cargo, 2 tankers, 1 8000 ton passenger liner.
Read had also radioed in a similar buildup in his area in the north.
On November 10, 1942 the Japanese armada launched itself toward Guadalcanal but was surprised by four US cruisers under the command of Admiral Callaghan. In the ensuing battle Admiral Callaghan was killed and one American cruiser was lost but the Japanese fleet suffered a major defeat. Dive bombers from Henderson field on Guadalcanal, together with Admiral Lee’s battleships, finished off the Japanese Armada, thus ending Japanese hopes of resupplying their troops and taking Guadalcanal.
On February 25, 1943 the following signal was sent to the coastwatchers:
FROM ADMIRAL TURNER COMMANDING AMPHIBIOUS FORCES
LARGE SHARE CREDIT OUR SUCCESSES AGAINST ENEMY DUE SPLENDID MEN IN COASTWATCHING SERVICE
FROM GENERAL PATCH, COMMANDING GENERAL OF GUADALCANAL
YOUR MAGNIFICENT AND COURAGEOUS WORK HAS CONTRIBUTED IN GREAT MEASURE TO SUCCESS OF OPERATIONS ON GUADALCANAL.
A Desperate Escape
Japanese activity increased greatly now with the sole intent of finding Paul Mason. He was instructed from base to dodge the numerous patrols looking for him, avoid the enemy-friendly natives and join Read in the north of the island, over 100 miles away through thick mountainous jungle, for pickup by submarine — a very difficult job indeed. With the tell-tale footprints of Japanese patrols everywhere (the big toe and other toes are separated) Mason ditched all his heavy radio equipment and headed west to climb the 5000 foot mountain range with his loyal group of police boys. Because of the mountainous region, getting supplies by air was now out of the question and continuously dodging enemy patrols was a real problem.
After many days of walking, Mason developed a festering sore on his foot. He removed his boot and as he removed his sock, to his horror, skin and flesh came away with it. Mason rested up for 2 days to gather his strength. Moving on with several more days of walking, Mason met up with Read for the first time in person and rested up at his camp for 2 weeks. The relentless Japanese pursuit made life very difficult where they were engaged in regular exchanges (almost daily) where some Japanese and some police boys were killed. Enemy patrols would allow themselves to be seen with few or no weapons with the view to draw fire from Mason and his men and expose their position. They always tried to avoid such situations.
While at Read’s they were then instructed to go to a coastwatcher called Keenan for disembarkation, which required them to climb a 5000 foot limestone range. The temperature was freezing at night and they had to light fires to keep warm. Travelling by night required Mason to use his luminous compass and he and his companions attached luminous fungus to their backs so they could follow the person in front of them.
Four nights later after arriving at Keenan’s camp (no food for the last 33 hours), the American submarine USS Guardfish (SS-217) picked up a ragtag bunch of coastwatchers, police boys, Chinese, shot down pilots — totaling 59 (originally going to be 14). Finally USS Guardfish was able to transfer their human cargo to USS Subchaser SC-761 and then Guadalcanal — to fight another day.
The Kennedy Connection
As a final note, it was a coastwatcher called Reg Evans who rescued Jack Kennedy (ultimately to become President of the United States) and his crew after their PT boat was destroyed. Coastwatchers were truly a unique breed with ham radio operator Paul Mason being the best known, because of his bravery, reliability and ability in keeping his radio operating under most difficult conditions.
The authors wish to express their thanks to Ingrid Mason, daughter of Paul Mason, for allowing us access to Paul’s diary, from which much of the information in this article was derived.
1Front Page, New York Times, Feb 9, 1943.
2In Pidgin English the world is described in 500–600 words from their experiences. For example a piano would be described as “dis fella black n white teeth and you push him he sing sing.”
Reg Hardman, VK4XH, an ARRL member, has been a licensed ham for just over 50 years operating from Brisbane, Australia. He has been maried to his spouse, Shirley, who is from San Jose California, for 44 years. They have six children and 20 grand children. Reg started out as a radio technician in Australia after high school and moved to then USA in 1964 where he worked as a specifications writer for Philco Ford for 18 months. Reg then undertook a Business degree at Brigham Young University and achieved a MBA from the University of Utah in 1968. He set up the marketing department at the Queensland University of Technology (Brisbane, Australia) in 1971 as well as a consulting company — finally retiring in 2004. Reg now enjoys ham radio pursuits, church activities, as well as travel writing. Reg has always been active in public service most notably supporting emergency communications for the island of Samoa in 1991 when it was devistated by cyclone Val. Reg can be contacted at 18 Sunningdale Rochedale QLD-4123 Australia, email@example.com.
Carmody Sagers, KD5ZON, is a senior in high school. She is planning on attending Brigham Young University. Carmody received her Amateur Radio license in 2003, along with her mom. Carmody’s dad Richard, W7YC, an ARRL member, has been a ham for 42 years and she basically has grown up with ham radio. Her father also taught Carmody Morse code when she was in second grade so they could pass secret messages at the dinner table. Carmody enjoys being around ham radio. It’s reassuring to know that you have an optional way to communicate, whether it’s for fun or in times of disaster.
Reg Hardman, VK4XH, and Carmody Sagers, KD5ZON