VAN STOCKUM: Part 2: 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 last of a series, a Japanese leader is located and killed.

By Ron Van Stockum

Several months before the amphibious assault of Bougainville in November, 1943, by the Third Marine Division, Naval intelligence services had decoded an intercepted message regarding the plans of Admiral Yamamoto to visit three bases near that island. The information provided was so exact that on April 18, 1943, the Army Air Corps’ 339th Fighter Squadron, flying P-38’s based on Henderson Field, Guadalcanal, was able to intercept and destroy Yamamoto’s plane in the air over Bougainville.


Thus perished the brilliant Japanese naval officer who had planned the attacks on Pearl Harbor but had earlier expressed these serious reservations about war with the United States:

As Gordon Prange quoted in his book At Dawn We Slept:

“Should hostilities once break out between Japan and the United States, it would not be enough that we take Guam and the Philippines, nor even Hawaii and San Francisco. To make victory certain, we would have to march into Washington and dictate the terms of peace in the White House. I wonder if our politicians (who speak so lightly of a Japanese-American war) have confidence as to the final outcome and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices.”

The killing of Yamamoto was yet another example the roles of coast-watchers and code-breakers played in the Pacific during World War II, roles that are highlighted in the musical South Pacific, which will be performed starting this week at the Shelby County Community Theatre.

Retired Judge Henry Meigs of Louisville was a pilot in this fighter squadron at the time of Yamamoto’s interception. Although he did not participate in the mission, he later became a fighter “ace” by shooting down six enemy aircraft.

In view of the possibility of capture, the pilots were not informed of the source of the intelligence that made this interception possible, so that under interrogation they could not reveal the vital fact of the breaking of the code.

Their “cover story” was that a coast-watcher had spotted an important high-ranking officer boarding an aircraft at Rabaul on the nearby island of New Britain. The pilots were not even informed as to the identity of their target. American news agencies were given the same cover story.

The crashed plane and body of Admiral Yamamoto were found the next day in the jungle near Buin, Bougainville, by a Japanese search-and-rescue party. The wreckage and crash site are now a memorial.

Battle of Koromokina Lagoon, Bougainville Nov. 7-8, 1943

Six months later, the First Battalion, 21st Marines, 3rd Marine Division, in which I served as commanding officer of a heavy weapons company (about 260 Marines manning machine guns and mortars), landed on Bougainville at Empress Augusta Bay.

Shortly after landing, we learned that a Japanese force of an estimated two battalions, perhaps 500 in all, had made a counter-landing to the west of our lines.

This report had been attributed to “coast-watchers,” however its accuracy leads me to believe today that this information may have been obtained from deciphered Japanese radio messages.

The First Battalion (about 1,000 Marines) was transported by boat to an assembly area on the west flank of the beachhead, prepared to pass through the Marine front lines and spearhead an attack the following morning.

Reaching our final assembly area, immediately behind our front lines, we quietly assumed our frequently rehearsed combat-imminent formation and quickly dug shallow protective trenches. Then we rested.

Promptly at 9:55 a.m. on Nov. 8 the shells of supporting artillery commenced shrieking overhead and the chatter of machine guns joined the crescendo to signal two minutes to go. I made a quick visual check of my weapon and equipment, being unconsciously joined in this by a thousand tense, serious and determined men. As I glanced at my watch, the minute hand seemed to race toward 10 o’clock. An enormous silence signaled “H-Hour,” the time of our attack.

Jungle attack

The battalion sprang to life, attacking to the west with its left flank on the shoreline. Small patrols moved out and soon were swallowed by the dense jungle. They were followed by the battalion in seven columns, each in single file preceded by scouts and a team of machete-wielding Marines to clear away the dense jungle growth.

Immediately behind the cutters of the center column was the battalion executive officer, compass in hand, navigating, as in a ship upon an unknown sea of jungle. With him was a pacer to determine the estimated distance, which, together with the compass course, provided the basis for “dead-reckoning” navigation.

Then followed a team laying telephone wire, the lifeline of the battalion, providing contact with supporting units in the rear and marking the main axis of the advance.

Maintenance of formation and direction depended upon visual contact, between individuals and between columns, focused ultimately towards the center column, which was led by the navigator and the wire line dogging his footsteps. This requirement of contact caused a compression of the battalion to a frontage of about two hundred and fifty yards.

The attack continued as planned, little indication being evidenced initially of the presence of the enemy, but after an advance of about 1,500 yards, the explanation for the lack of opposition became suddenly apparent.

A deadly scene

It was an awesome sight! Covering an area the size of a football field was a ghastly tableau – a Japanese assembly area, where at least 300 of the enemy lay dead in all sorts of grotesque positions.

Some had died clutching shovels, desperate in the act of digging in. Some had been surprised surprised by the shelling while eating what would become their last meals. Others were stilled in the act of undoing their packs.

The stink of putrefaction was not yet in the air, but dominating the dreadful scene was the specter of death. I wondered that men could be so dead and yet so free of blood.

A well-equipped Japanese landing force had been destroyed by our artillery and other supporting fires before it could extract its deadly toll from the ranks of our battalion. The Japanese were fierce fighters, ready and willing to die for their emperor.

And so the information about the enemy, whether provided by coast-watchers or through deciphering of the Japanese Naval code, had been accurate, contributing immeasurably to success in holding the Bougainville beachhead.


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