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Coastwatchers

Summary of the locations of Coast Watcher Schools

  • The first coast watcher school taught Chinese operatives from June to December, 1944, on an island ten miles upstream from Foochow (now Fuzhou), Fukien (now Fujian) Province. The coastal intelligence nets were laid out during this period

  • In January 1945 the coast watcher school for Americans was established 120 miles northwest of Foochow at Kienyang (now Jianyang)

In June, 1944, SACO’s first coastal intelligence school was set up in a small temple that completely filled an island no bigger than a ship and was ten miles upstream from Foochow (now Fuzhou), Fukien (now Fujian) Province.  There was electricity nearby and a handy godown at the river bank; the monks were happy to leave for a small monthly retainer.  Commodore Miles chose the island at first sight; not only was it far enough from town to be relatively safe but it was so exposed and open that no one would suspect that the occupants had anything to hide.

Lieutenants Merrill Stewart and S. I. Morris took up residence immediately and set up the SACO coastal intelligence program.  The coast from Shanghai to Hong Kong, more than 800 miles with many bays and islands, was divided into five intelligence divisions, or nets.

The Lieutenants Stewart and Morris taught ship-and-plane recognition, aerology, radio operation, and radio repair.  By December, 1944, the Foochow school closed; 100 Chinese coast watchers had been trained and deployed.  As well, courses for small groups of Chinese coast watchers were being held at almost all of the SACO Camps.

In January, 1945 Lieutenants W. R. Simpson and J. A. Meyertholen were sent to Kienyang (now Jianyang), 120 miles northwest of Foochow, to start a school for U.S. navy coast watchers.  The men were trained in map and chart reading, coding, weather observation, and intelligence work in addition to ship-and-plane recognition, aerology, and radio operation and repair.

The coast watchers reported on ship and planes sightings, downed airmen, weather, troop movements, and other enemy activities.  This information went to their net headquarters or to other nets when needed.

Each coast watcher net contained five to a dozen Chinese observers equipped with small radios which were not activated except in extremely important situations.  The Japanese were on constant lookout for “spy” radio transmissions and often the observer had to move after each radio use.  Many reports were sent by runners who sometimes traveled days to reach their headquarters.

It was dangerous to place hard-to-hide Americans into the often-exposed sites.  The Americans not only wore Chinese clothes and sandals but ate sitting on their heels and walked with the jouncy cadence common to the Chinese with their springy yo-yo poles.  The Americans sunbathed and took Atabrine so that their skin looked more yellow than white.

Throughout the war only three Americans from SACO were taken prisoner by the Japanese; all were coast watchers. Radioman A. W. Parsons was captured December 21, 1944; Radioman J. Sexton and Gunners Mate Russomanno, July 16, 1945.

Coast Watcher Net #1, the furthest north net, covered the Shanghai area.  Lieutenant Hilton Jayne controlled Net #1 from Camp One near Hweichow (now Shexian or Huicheng), Anhwei (now Anhui) Province.

Net #2 covered about 300 miles of coast including Hangchow and Wenchow (now Wenzhou) ; it  was controlled from Camp Eight in Chekiang (now Zhejiang) Province.

Net #3 was controlled by Camp Seven at Tung Feng (now Dongfeng), Fukien Province. Net #3 covered 150 miles of coast around Foochow and was commanded by LT J. T. Nelson.

Net #4 was directed from the Camp Six Intelligence facility at Changchow (now Zhangzhou), Fukien Province. Lieutenant Carl Divelbiss was the first commander; this was the first net to be staffed by Americans. Net #4 watched about 190 miles of coast southward from Huian (now Hui’an) – 50 miles northeast of Amoy (now Xiamen). Of special interest was the harbor of Amoy, located on the west side of the island and “one of the very best harbors on the coast of China” (Miles, 1967, p 67).

Net #5   covered the approximately 350 miles of coast from Swatow to Hong Kong as well as 60 miles up the Pearl River to Canton (now Guangzhou). Lieutenant Robert Price was the commander and operated out of Meihsien (now Meixian), Kwangtung (now Guangdong) Province. Meihsien was 75 miles north-northwest of Swatow.

Sergeant William M. Stewart was the first American to serve alone as a coast watcher.  In the beginning of September, 1944, he occupied Sungsue Point overlooking Amoy.  During his second week he located a Japanese destroyer at anchor.  This target was reported to Chungking and forwarded to the Fleet which immediately sent three bombers.  Stewart not only directed the pilots to the destroyer, which was camouflaged as trees and not visible from the air, but also to a small freighter, fuel dumps, and an airfield.

Sergeant Stewart moved to nearby Ping-hai, which overlooked two bays shallow enough that Japanese ships felt protected from submarines.  On January 23, 1945 he observed 11 ships at anchor and sent a few of Chang Yee-chow’s pirates onboard for information; they reported time of departure, destination, and expected speed – eight knots since one ship was damaged. This information went to Chungking and then to the nearest U.S. submarine, the U.S.S. Barb, the captain of which made a daring surface attack the next morning at 4 AM and sank seven ships, three of which were destroyers, and damaged one destroyer. Radio traffic normally was coded but Sgt. Stewart complained, in the clear, that the attack was too early and it was too dark to take pictures.

An unused temple and pagoda on top of Nan Tai Mountain was an exceptional observation position. Not only were there unimpeded views of Amoy as well as  the islands of Quemoy (now Kinmen) and Little Quemoy but wild tigers in the forest below offered natural protection. The men rarely left and then only during daylight. The Japanese did not brave the defense and finally shot off the top of the pagoda to rout the men.

Coast watcher Nets #4 and #5 reported movements of 61 Japanese ships during the last two weeks of January and 92 during the first two weeks of February, 1945. These were ships traveling along the coast but not within Amoy Harbor.

At Camp Three a group of 28 Americans and 28 Chinese were trained to be coast watchers for the area north of Shanghai. These courses started in Mid April, 1945; the war ended before the men could be deployed.

In the earliest days of SACO, instructions were sent to all village officials, pirates, and fishermen to assist all downed airmen and escaped prisoners, protect them from the Japanese, and bring them to General Tai’s guerrillas or other loyal agents.

Air Ground Aid Service (AGAS) was a U.S. federal agency which had been organized during the initial stages of the war for the purpose of rescuing downed fliers. SACO loaned Air Combat Intelligence (A.C.I.) men to AGAS, usually on a temporary basis. Lieutenant Richard C. Scott, the first SACO man to be assigned, was so good at this job that SACO never got him back. Lieutenant Scott worked the area around Nanking and, later, Foochow.

In October 1944 twenty-five million Chinese dollars, in bills that would be accepted along the coast, were collected and distributed for the “ditching packs” of the U.S. Fleet aviators. By the summer of 1945 fifteen SACO officers were working for AGAS. Some went to the Philippines and Okinawa to notify the Navy pilots that the China coast was not solidly held by the Japanese.

The fliers should head for the hills if they bailed out over the land. At sea, south of Shanghai almost all fishermen were “friendly pirates” but to the north of the city the fishermen were less likely to be loyal. Sixty-seven downed Army and Navy airmen were rescued by AGAS in China.

During 1945 the coast camps picked up about twenty-five fliers, many of whom had first fallen into the hands of these pirate fishermen. Most men divulged nothing that could hurt their Chinese rescuers or hosts. Unfortunately, one well-known sports figure could not resist the urge to write about of his daring rescue; the Japanese read the story and executed all who had helped.

One A.C.I. officer, LT Frank Balsey, walked 1,000 miles while helping 20 downed Army and Navy pilots escape in the Hangchow Bay area. As well, he personally rescued three pilots from behind Japanese lines. In June 1945, LT Balsey found the remains of a Japanese “Emily” airplane which had been reported as damaged in an encounter with U. S. Navy airmen. He discovered that not only the plane’s crew but a Japanese vice admiral and other naval officers had died in the crash.

South of Hong Kong, Capt. Meynier, of the French Navy, and his wife, an Annamite Princess organized the city and port officials, lighthouse keepers, customs officers along the coast of northern Indo-China (now Vietnam) into an intelligence network.  Even after the departure of the Meyniers in mid 1944 this net supplied SACO with a wide variety of intelligence about weather, shipping, and Japanese troop movements.

Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr., queried SACO-Chungking for targets in Indo-Chinese waters.  The Indo-Chinese coast watcher net radioed Chungking with a list of ships in Camranh Bay, Saigon, and other ports under Japanese control.  One lighthouse keeper reported course and speed of a twenty-six-ship convoy he had seen that morning.  The reply to Fleet was so extensive and detailed that on January 11, 1945, bombers sank 40 ships for a total of 120,006 tons; among them were a Japanese cruiser and 11 other naval craft. 

Admiral Halsey told me later that it was embarrassing, in a way.  With so much information on which to work, he was compelled, to change many of his designations.  As it was, he detailed just enough planes for each target and as a result he managed to “cover the waterfront.” (Miles, 1967, p 424)

The coast watchers, with no more than cheap box cameras and pre-war film, snapped photos of ships burning or sinking as well as destroyed supply dumps.

 

Cited reference:

      Miles, M. E., 1967, A Different Kind of War: Doubleday & Co, Garden City, NY. 629 p.

 

Provided courtesy of Charles H. Miles on November 20, 2010

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