VAN STOCKUM: Part 1: Coast-Watchers and Code-Breakers

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The Broadway musical South Pacific is based on two key elements of the war with the Japanese: breaking codes and watching activity. In the first of a 2-part series, early warnings lead to big victories.

By Ron Van Stockum

South Pacific, the next performance at the Shelby County Community Theater, will open on July19. I recall seeing this highly popular musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein on Broadway shortly after its opening in April 1949. Manhattan was an easy subway commute from my duty station at the Naval Training Center on the Throggs Neck Peninsula in the Bronx.


It was possible in those days to buy tickets to Broadway productions at a reasonable price, particularly if one was willing to sit far from the stage and use military binoculars. Often, nearing the end of a long run, tickets for a highly popular play could be bought at the box office at two-for-the-price-of-one – they were called “twofers.”

Mary Martin, a highly popular actress of the day, played Nellie Forbush, the Navy nurse, famous for her “Wash that man right out of my hair.”

She later solidified her position on Broadway as lead actress in Peter Pan in 1955 and in The Sound of Music (1960).

Playing the role of French planter Emile de Becque was famed Italian opera singer Ezio Pinza, who had spent 22 seasons with New York's Metropolitan Opera, appearing in more than 750 performances of 50 operas.

This musical is an account of living and fighting in the South Pacific during World War II, adapted from James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Tales of the South Pacific.

Michener arrived in the South Pacific in 1944, a year after my arrival with a Marine infantry battalion in early 1943. A lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, he was serving as a Naval historian, with license to travel as necessary.


The Solomon Islands

The locus of the musical is the Solomon Islands, where the Marines had landed on Guadalcanal on Aug. 7, 1942, finally stemming the heretofore irresistible tide of Japanese military expansion, unchecked since the attack on Pearl Harbor exactly 8 months earlier.

The Solomons are expressly mentioned in the script for South Pacific, including Cape Esperance on Guadalcanal, The Treasury Islands, Choiseul, New Georgia and Empress Augusta Bay in Bougainville, where the Marines landed on Nov. 1, 1943.

The script creates the impression that the plot has been cobbled together from events that occurred in the Solomons in 1942 and 1943.



The central military theme of South Pacific is the employment of coast-watchers, often Australian planters who, having lived in the Solomons, were acquainted with the local inhabitants and had their support.

After the Japanese had overrun the Solomons, many had fled. Some returned, secretly landed by submarine or PT boat. Equipped with radios, they were able to report Japanese ship and troop movements, vital intelligence to the U S and its allies.

However, important as the coast-watchers were, the U.S. Navy gained most of its significant intelligence as a result of its success in breaking the most secret of Japanese naval codes in the early days of the war.


Battle of Midway: June 4-7, 1942

“The most crucial battle of the Pacific War”

 – Admiral Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet

The Japanese were shocked by the Doolittle Air Raid on their homeland on April 18, 1942. Although it caused negligible material damage to Japan, it had a significant moral effect, exposing their vulnerability to attack. President Franklin D. Roosevelt taunted the Japanese by proclaiming that the attack had come from Shangri-La, the mythical site of the popular 1937 movie, Lost Horizon, starring Ronald Coleman.

Roosevelt would not have known that the Japanese already had learned from the eight captured pilots, three of whom were executed, that Lt. Col. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle’s B-25’s had flown off the American Carrier USS Hornet.

This surprise attack caused the Japanese to advance the date of their planned attack of Midway Island. On May 5, 1942, Imperial General Headquarters directed Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander-in-chief of its Combined Fleet, to occupy Midway Island and the key points in the Western Aleutians, in cooperation with the Japanese Army.

Having intercepted and decoded Japanese Naval messages, the U.S. Navy had knowledge of the enemy’s plans in detail: his target, his order of battle and his schedule. Accordingly, when the sea battle opened off Midway on June 4, the U.S. Pacific Fleet would have 3 aircraft carriers lying in wait.

The U.S. Fleet surprised the Japanese forces, sinking four of the Japanese aircraft carriers,Akagi,Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu,that had attacked Pearl Harbor only 6 months before, while losing only one carrier, the USS Yorktown. After Midway, the Americans and their Allies took the offensive in the Pacific.


Naval Battle of Guadalcanal:

 Nov. 13, 1942

The script of South Pacific contains the following coast-watcher report:

“Surface craft –19 troop barges headed down the bottleneck, speed about 11 knots. Ought to pass Banika [in the Russell Islands] at about 2000 [8:00 pm] tonight, escorted by heavy warships.”

The term “bottleneck” obviously refers to the “slot,” New Georgia Sound,the body of water that runs approximately through the middle of the Solomon Islands. It is bounded by Choiseul Island, Santa Isabel Island and Florida Island to the north and by Vella Lavella, Kolombangara, New Georgia and the Russell Islands to the south.

Bougainville and Guadalcanal are located at the western and eastern ends of the sound, respectively.

This “coast-watcher report” may have referred to the night battle off Guadalcanal in the early morning hours of Nov.13, 1942.

Rear Adm. Hiroaki Abe was dispatched with two battleships, Hiei and Kirishima, one light cruiser and 11 destroyers to bombard and destroy the expeditionary airfield established on Guadalcanal by the Marine 1st Division, following its invasion the previous August.

If he accomplished his mission, Japanese transports could land troops to retake the island, unopposed by American aircraft. He headed down the slot to Guadalcanal.


‘Barroom brawl with the lights out’

Shortly after midnight on Nov. 13, 1942, a U.S. Navy force of five cruisers and eight destroyers, with Cmdr. Edward Nelson “Butch” Parker in the lead destroyer, USS Cushing, met Abe head on, driving him back in a desperate and bloody night action.

Abe had come close to accomplishing his mission. His forces had sunk Cushing so close to the Marine Airfield that Butch Parker was pulled out of the water by a boat from the Advanced Naval Base at Guadalcanal.

In this ferocious night battle, the U.S. Navy lost two light cruisers and four destroyers. The Japanese lost a battleship, two destroyers and seven transports.

While interception of Japanese dispatches may have enabled the American Navy to make such a remarkable interception, in the close waters of the slot, coast-watchers may well have reported, before nightfall, the approaching enemy forces.

Parker, winner of his third Navy Cross in this engagement, and later a vice admiral, was asked what it was like in darkness to engage Japanese ships at close range.

His answer: “It was like a barroom brawl with the lights out.”


Note:Reggie Van Stockum, who plays the role of Captain Brackett, USN, the Island Commander, in “South Pacific,” has assisted me in the preparation of this column.


Next: On to the jungle


Ron Van Stockum’s latest book, Remembrances of World Wars, as well as his others, Kentucky and the Bourbons: The Story of Allen Dale Farm and Squire Boone and Nicholas Meriwether: Kentucky Pioneers, may be purchased at Terhune Style Shop in Village Plaza Shopping Center or from Amazon.com.