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Read, William John (Jack) (1905–1992)

by James Griffin

At dawn, 50 years ago today, Jack Read surveyed the Japanese occupying force in Buka Passage from his observation post and gave orders to his men to strike camp for a more secure eyrie in the mountains of North Bougainville.

Read did not know that the day before, the Americans had counter-attacked for the first time in the war. They were about to capture the former British administration headquarters at Tulagi in the Solomon Islands and had landed 11,000 marines at Guadalcanal.

Read was unaware also that his fellow coastwatcher, Paul Mason, 120 kilometres south, had that day observed 27 Japanese bombers flying to the battle from his post on a hill near Buin, in south Bougainville, and, thanks to his timely signal, that the Americans had been forewarned and only a fraction of the enemy aircraft had returned.

Around 7.30am, Read lined his carriers but, before dismantling his tele-radio, he decided to tune in to his usual early morning schedule in case something was happening. Aimlessly, he twiddled the dial to the seven-megacycles frequency and heard American accents indicating that the action for which he had kept silent for months was now happening. Communications between aircraft carrier and its planes told of the fall of Tulagi.

Read was absorbing this and had packed his gear when, at 8.20, his alert police sergeant, Yauwiga, heard a dull roar of engines. Firstly, 27 torpedo bombers raced over the break in the trees followed soon after by another 18 only 500 feet above him. The wireless was broken out again and after some fumbling and cursing, Read, at 8.40, tried to signal Port Moresby. He had to use voice because his Morse operator had gone. With his transmitter putting out maximum signal, he did not raise even static.

Exasperated, he tried a general attention call to anyone on X-frequency. Another coastwatcher in eastern New Guinea picked it up. It was a model of succinctness: FROM JER: 45 BOMBER HEADING YOURS. It was relayed to Port Moresby to Townsville to Canberra to Pearl Harbor and back to Guadalcanal by 9.10.

This gave ample time for ships to arm the guns and manoeuvre in the Solomons slot, even for an early lunch, and for the heavy-plated Grumman fighters, less agile than Japanese Zeros, to stack up at the highest possible altitude and, when needed, to pounce.

Read stayed tuned. His men cheered as they heard 'Orange Base' instruct pilots to refuel for "an expected bomber attack on the transport area". Then, two hours later, came a jubilant, blow-by-blow description of the air-naval battle culminating in: "Boys, they're shooting them down like flies! I can see one, two, three, four, six – eight, of them all coming down into the sea together".

The battle was over in 10 minutes. The Americans lost a destroyer and a transport. Only eight Japanese planes passed over Read on the way back to base. Read later wrote modestly in his splendid debriefing report of some 140 single-space foolscap pages, the best of the coastwatcher's writings: "Although at that time, I was on the easy end of the line, I felt that I had played some part, however minor, in the successful repulse of that attack." In fact, Read and Mason continued their reporting until Guadalcanal was secure in November. In later presenting them with the American Distinguished Service Cross, Admiral "Bull" Halsey said categorically that the intelligence signalled from Bougainville had saved Guadalcanal and that Guadalcanal had saved the South Pacific.

Yet Read was never honored by his own country, although he was "mentioned in dispatches" later in the war. Mason was at least honored by Whitehall with a DSC but with the fatuous citation: "For good work in the Far East". (He was so disgusted that he tore it in two and dropped it on the floor).

Two days before he died, aged 87, on 29 June this year at Ballarat, Read, a sardonic but not a bitter man, could still laugh at the "bum-polishers" at naval headquarters who were so grudging to "irregulars".

Read's exploits have been overshadowed by the temerarious Mason, who relished his loner's role and was eventually pursued throughout the island by Japanese and the local warriors who supported them.

A Tasmanian with a background in journalism, Read had taken a cadetship in the New Guinea field service in 1929 at the age of 24. As a kiap, he was noted for his hardiness, ability to get on with villagers and a thoroughness in desk work which was almost pedantic.

Unlike Mason, a planter who had walked through Bougainville since 1924, Read hardly knew the place and had been posted to Buka Island as an assistant district officer only in November 1941, a few weeks before Pearl Harbor.

He had tried to enlist in the AIF but had been told by his superiors that he would not be re-employed if he did so, and would forfeit superannuation entitlements.

Before the Japanese took control of Buka Passage in March 1942, Read had prepared to evacuate to Australia. In February, he was asked by radio by Lieutenant Commander Eric Feldt, who had set up the coastwatching service, to stay on.

After the Japanese began to occupy Bougainville and concentrate naval forces in Buka Passage and the Shortland Islands as part of their Solomons campaign, the two coastwatchers were ordered to consolidate their posts and keep silent until needed.

The Japanese, however, knew that Read and particularly Mason were there. So why did they not link them sooner to the disasters at Guadalcanal or, if they did, why did they not try to root them out until the end of 1942, when it was too late?

One explanation is that there was a lack of coordination between the branches of the Japanese services so they did not deduce that the Americans were always forewarned of their intentions. There was also the doubt as to how many troops the Australians had inland. One coastwatcher, who admired Japanese courage in set-piece battles, also maintained that their troops were often terrified of moving in the bush except in large numbers.

But there is also the intriguing fact that a Japanese named Tashiro, who had lived in Bougainville from 1929 till March 1941, had been sent back to Kieta as political officer.

Tashiro, who was a Christian, had migrated to Rabaul in 1917 at the age of 16 to trade in copra and engage in coastal transport. On Bougainville, he had been a popular trochus sheller and trader. He had also been a friend of Mason's.

Read, who took a down-to-earth view of his own plight, always maintained that Tashiro could have caught them if he had really wanted to because he had the trust of many Bougainvilleans. "A bloody good Jap in my book," said Read.

By December, however, the Japanese were aware that coastwatchers on Bougainville might hold a key to their reverses further south-east. Feldt also realised the danger. Tashiro was ordered to pursue Mason and his party.

On 21 December, Mason was ordered out of Buin and was soon pursued by a force of 40 troops and some 60 locals known as the "Black Dogs". They had been recruited from the Kieta area and given to understand that, if the Australians returned, they would be severely punished for their looting and disloyalty. Only intrepidity saved Mason, who signalled his plight to Townsville. He was told on 12 January to go north to Read.

After an arduous trek through the mountains, Mason reached Read's hideout on 28 January. They had met only briefly 12 months before. In their respective reports, they pay tribute to each other. Mason arrived, wrote Read, "only in what he stood up in – shorts and singlet – and with haversack and revolver at belt – and barefooted"– and with septic wounds.

He was impressed by Read's austerity: "A couple of thatched lean-to shelters: bedding down was a litter of sticks raised a few inches clear of the damp ground, and somewhat softened by layers of leaves; the bare furnishings of table and seating similarly improvised from bush material". Mason wrote: "I now realised the greatness of his achievement not only as a coastwatcher but as a public official and district officer".

By then, Read had already organised the first evacuation of 29 civilians by American submarine.

By February 1943, the Japanese had been driven from Guadalcanal but this meant only more vigorous operations in the northern Solomons. The die was now cast against the coastwatchers and their supporting troops.

Read organised further evacuations in March and April. He and Mason refused to be repatriated themselves until they were sure that their own scouts were looked after. By July 1943 their position was untenable. Read's hideaway was destroyed by Japanese. It would have been suicide to stay.

A rendezvous was organised with SS Guardfish on 24 July, which Read pretended he could not meet. It took Mason off and as many as could be fitted in. But no provision had been made in Australia for Sergeant Yauwiga and his men without whom, said Read, they could not have survived.

"There was no way I was going to leave without them," he said.

So Guardfish had to return, four days later. Now there was space for Yauwiga, eight other "native" police, nine "loyal native" civilians, two Fijians plus Read and another European officer.

Read went on to become a major in the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit, ANGAU. Post-war, he was appointed district commissioner and later, until Independence in 1975, a Commissioner for Land Titles.

I saw Jack Read two days before he died in Ballarat. He was bedridden and tired; "ready to go", he said. He shrugged off the idea that his own country might, even at this late stage, honor his wartime achievements.

Original publication

  • Age (Melbourne), 7 August 1992, p 15

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Citation details

James Griffin, 'Read, William John (Jack) (1905–1992)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/read-william-john-jack-19062/text31494, accessed 16 July 2019.

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