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Book Review: Alone on Guadalcanal, a Coastwatcher’s Story

By Martin Clemens, LOM, MC, CBE, AM
Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 1998

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Reviewed by Ervin Kaplan, M. D.


Were we to seek the most pivotal individual, broadly involved in the Guadalcanal campaign, that man might well be Martin Clemens. He was an Aberdeen born Scot, the son of the choir master of Queen’s Cross Presbyterian Church, who died when Martin was nine years old. His supportive mother saw him through an English boarding school.. He was graduated from Cambridge and sent out to the Solomon Islands in 1938 as a member of the British Colonial Service, where he served a three year probationary period on the island of Malaita. He became a district officer on San Cristobal in November of 1941. With the advent of the Pacific War he volunteered for military status and was told that he was in a reserved occupation. After a brief leave in Australia he returned on the evacuation ship to evacuate the Europeans and Chinese. He became the District Officer and coastwatcher of Guadalcanal on 28 February 1942 responsible for 15,000 native inhabitants, various other white occupants on the island and reporting Japanese activities.

The Japanese juggernaut was rolling across the Pacific largely unopposed. The managers of the coconut plantations had fled Guadalcanal in panic, abandoning the native workers from neighboring islands, who were left to be returned by Clemens. He then established his radio station and coastwatching activities, the latter based upon his native police and helpers. Though commissioned a Captain in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate Defense Force He had no uniform, nor carried any military credentials. A likely catch for the Japanese, who had in early May occupied Tulagi, and in June had commenced the construction of an airfield on Guadalcanal, further isolating Clemens and his activities and forcing him to conduct them from native enclaves in the mountains. The Japanese move into the southern Solomons was an obvious attempt to establish a base for future disruption of U. S. contact with Australia and New Zealand. Guadalcanal thus became the site of a first and major offensive against the Japanese. Clemens was destined to make a significant contribution to this effort.

The coastwatchers were an integrated network of individuals at strategic locations throughout the Solomons, headed by Lt. Commander Eric A. Feldt RAN, the effort was designated Ferdinand. (John Brown, World War II, May 1998, p. 8) The 1st Marine Division and attached troops under Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift USMC were designated as the, “Cactus”, landing force. Cooperation between Ferdinand and Marine intelligence placed Clemens as the principal operative on Guadalcanal. A bare foot Clemens on his jungle shielded mountain, playing hide and seek with the Japanese, was running low on food, supplies, power for his radio and shoes as his had disintegrated. A delightful episode was the delivery by his islander crew, of a dressed duck to the deprived location and the ingenious approach to cooking it.

Despite this deteriorating status he continued to supply vital intelligence of Japanese activities. He maintained an information gathering network of natives, who reported to island police, this information was evaluated by Clemens and transmitted through Ferdinand operatives to Feldt. A significant addition to his islander force came in June, when Jacob Vouza, a retired Sergeant Major of the Colonial Constabulary, came back to Guadalcanal from Malaita. Clemens was kept uninformed of plans for the invasion, although suspecting that a large move was underway; meanwhile, his very life was in the hands of the Solomon Islanders, who were aware of his location. It is a tribute to Clemens and the Solomon Islanders, that they never informed to the Japanese. A constant fear existed that islanders of questionable loyalty would do so. Establishing and maintaining a close rapport with the native population, proved to be a significant asset in the coming campaign.

The assault landings in the Solomons under command of Rear Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner USN, which has recently been described, and was carried off as planned, occurred on 7 August 1942 (Michael D. Hull, World War II, January 1999, p 62). The description by Martin was made with considerably greater enthusiasm. Detailed information of the islands though sorely required, was not readily available. The Marines were poorly informed of local conditions, to compound this dilemma, the experts attached were of questionable competence and Lt. Colonel Frank B. Goettge USMC, the 1st Division intelligence officer was lost on an ill advised patrol beyond the Matanikau River to seek Japanese prisoners. Clemens who had retreated deeper and deeper into the bush to avoid the Japanese, could now make his entry into the Henderson Field beachhead, which he did with his loyal native staff on 15 August. Major General Vandegrift, on their first meeting was indeed positive, recognizing Clemens value as an addition to his staff and placed great responsibility upon him, ” —and told me to take complete charge of all matters of native administration and intelligence outside the perimeter. I was to attach myself to Colonel Buckley of D-2. collecting information through my scouts, on the whole Island and supplying guides as required—”. Clemens had moved from the relative security of his mountain retreat to the hazards of the Henderson Field beachhead, with only a Marine Division for protection.

Clemens to his credit quickly integrated into the headquarters group, interpreting local information and his scouts constantly supplied pertinent intelligence from beyond the perimeter. His scouts first detected the, “Ichiki Detachment” A reinforced Japanese battalion which attacked the beachhead from the east, along the Tenaru river on the 20-21 August 1942 and were annihilated by the Marines. Prior to the onset of this action Sergeant Major Vouza was captured by the Japanese, though tortured and repeatedly bayoneted he gave no information to them. Left for dead, he crawled through the battle lines and his life was saved by the US Navy doctors. He made a miraculous recovery.

In perhaps the most cleverly executed action of the Guadalcanal campaign, Clemens’ scouts detected the landing to the east, at Tasimboko, of a major component of the Japanese 35th Brigade. On 7-8 September Clemens and his scouts accompanied two companies of Merrit Edson’s 1st Marine Raiders, who scattered the rear echelon troops of Major General Kawaguchi, whose main force had departed to break through to Henderson Field, now operational. They destroyed the reserve supplies at that site. After returning by sea to the beachhead, Edson placed the Raiders on a high ridge to the east, with instructions to rest, along with a rifle company of the 1st Marine Paratroopers. From 12-14, 1942 September, in the severest and most intense ground action of the campaign, the Japanese were repulsed with very high casualties at the battle of Edson’s Bloody Ridge. The remnants fled without a rear echelon to which they could return.

Rear Admiral Turner felt that a second air strip should be established at Aola, 50 miles east of Henderson, the site of Clemens initial Headquarters on the island, despite information from engineers and Clemens that the terrain at that site was swampy and not a compatible location; in addition, it would split Vandegrift’s forces. The troops were landed at Aola and were spearheaded by the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion under the command of Lt. Colonel Evans F. Carlson. The decision was made with Clemens contributing that the 2nd Raiders should be recalled to Lunga, but should clear the area east of the beachhead of Japanese troop in the process. After the 4 November landing Carlson’s Raiders reinforced with many Clemens’ scouts and bearers under the Australian John Mather, made a 150 mile patrol in 30 days outside the Marine perimeter. Repeatedly engaging the Japanese, pursuing a major force across the Island, destroying their supplies and killing in excess of 450 of them, reconnoitering the east-west trail to the south of the beachhead between the headwaters of the Tenaru and Lunga rivers on Mount Austen, used as a path for the Japanese between the areas east and west of the perimeter The islanders, under the now recovered Jacob Vouza, in revolt against the Japanese, accounted for an additional number of dead The Raider dead were sixteen. The 2nd Raiders entered the Lunga Enclave on 4 December. The eastern part of the island was clear of Japanese, the Aola airstrip was not even a glint in Rear Admiral Turner’s eye and the command was in a single beachhead.

Clemens was promoted to the rank of Major and continued to make many more significant contributions to the Campaigns in the Solomon Islands. His book furnishes a broader perspective to the history of the major Guadalcanal offensive. It is well written, very readable, replete with a dry humorous style. It is exceptionally well documented, with an index, maps, photographs, glossary, explanatory notes and occasional quotations from a small volume of Shakespeare, which he carried throughout this magnificent adventure. This work is a subjective report, of the turn about of the island hopping war in the Pacific, compiled from his personal diary. As such it is concerned with one man’s reaction to maintaining a disciplined approach to an awesome responsibility in a fearful environment. It does not deal with a global view of World War II. To place the book in proper context to the Pacific War, one must praise the introductory chapter by Allen R. Millett, The General Raymond E. Mason, Professor of Military History, Ohio State University. The prefaces by General Alexander Archer Vandegrift, USMC and Sir Philip Mitchell, K.C.M.G., M.C. are highly complimentary. It is recommended as a must read, for all interested in the Pacific War.

Clemens was awarded the Legion of Merit by the. U. S., the Military Cross by the U. K., the Order of Australia and received the Order of the British Empire (OBE), and Commander of the British Empire (CBE). He managed to see that Jacob Vouza was granted knighthood in 1979 and became Sir Jacob Vouza. It is still not too late for the Crown to grant the same privilege to Martin Clemens a most distinguished citizen of heroic stature.