Right Man, Right Place, Worst Time
Commander Eric Feldt His Life and His Coastwatchers
Dr Betty Lee
Boolarong Press 2019
Paperback 330pp RRP 32.99
Reviewer: Neville Taylor, October 2020
We have again been blessed with an impressive work by a descendent of a wartime serviceman. Dr Betty Lee is the grandniece of Eric Feldt, and after reading his The Coast Watchers (1946), and despite never meeting him, she developed a great interest in his life.
Peter Feldt migrated from Sweden to Ingham, QLD in 1878, to be joined by his Swedish fiancé some years later. Eric was the eighth of their children, growing up on a cane field that was worked by Pacific Islanders and learning Pacific Islander Pidgin English.
Eric was a member of the inaugural class of 28 at Australia’s Royal Naval Midshipman’s Course in 1913, the year before the completion of the Naval College in Jervis Bay. He was very successful both academically and in sport and was selected for leadership positions during his four-year course. In 1917 he was at sea with the British Navy for the last two years of the First World War. With the winding down of the RAN in the post-war years, Eric opted to resign in 1922. Late the following year Eric was appointed an administrative clerk at Rabaul in the New Guinea Territory.
There was little difficulty in being accepted for training as a patrol officer, with his first task being in the Sepik River area to quell fighting. When promoted to Assistant District Officer at Aitape taking the census, tax collecting and hearing court cases were the major tasks. In 1928 he was posted to Salamaua to resurrect a station in poor condition and spent four years in the area. By 1932 Eric found he had lost some of his normal fitness. The following year he married in Brisbane, just after being promoted to District Officer in Madang. After a very severe bout of scrub typhus and malaria, Eric opted to leave the District Services and become Warden of Wau.
The Australian Naval Board established a Coastwatching Organisation around Australia’s coast and in adjacent island territories to the north at the end of World War I. Communication with the Territories was by cumbersome AWA teleradios. Rupert Long and John Collins, Naval College classmates of Eric, sought Eric’s re-engagement in the Navy in September 1939 to head the Coastatchers from a new Naval Intelligence Centre in Port Moresby. Embarking on sea and air visits to those manning the outermost posts, Eric, with personal contact and the distribution of the Coastwatching Guide to those he recruited, the North East Area network covering over half a million square miles was now manned. The delivery of the final teleradios in August 1940 put the Coastwatchers in the position to provide vital early intelligence on naval and air threats to the Allies. The ‘Old Boy’ networks from both Naval College and PNG time had become invaluable in manning and logistics. In May 1941, the Area Combined Headquarters from Port Moresby was moved to Townsville. Eric continued to visit his ‘watchers’ – in case of invasion, those who were naval officers could be ordered to stay but civilians were told to bury their radios and escape.
The first spotting, on 9 December 1941, was a Japanese aircraft reconnoitring Rabaul. In the ensuing debacle that followed next month, the few civilian and military personnel managing to escape were greatly assisted by the knowledge and communications provided by the coastwatchers. Eric’s network enabled vessels necessary for evacuation to be put in place. Eric worked strenuously to have watchers in place along potential enemy approaches, as well as organising their evacuation when their position became untenable. A number of watchers were to pay the ultimate sacrifice as islands were invaded and they were captured and never heard of again. In the ensuing months that saw the Japanese aerial bombardment of Port Moresby and later the naval attempt to capture it via the Coral Sea, early warnings by the embedded coastwatchers were invaluable to the Allied forces.
With the arrival of General MacArthur in April 1942, the Allied Intelligence Bureau was established in Melbourne in July. Eric remained in Townsville, still commanding the Coastwatchers while fulfilling his naval intelligence duties. Many of the coastwatchers opted not to be withdrawn and replaced, thus reducing Eric’s ability to staff his office with experienced officers. After visiting Guadalcanal in March 1943, he suffered a heart attack and was hospitalised in Brisbane from April to June, then deemed unfit for active duty. Light duties followed in Brisbane in 1944, then in February 1945 he was appointed Naval Officer in Charge Torokina (west Bougainville). Bad health again ran him down and this led to his discharge to the Retired List in September 1945.
The Coastwatchers numbered almost 400 Caucasians with a matching number of natives. In charge were 90 skilled Coastwatchers, and casualties suffered were 36 Caucasian and 20 natives lost. Following Eric’s command, their role changed to meet the demands of the conflict. Coupled with their surveillance task, they became responsible for ridding New Guinea and the Solomon of residual Japanese, with native police and scouts killing in excess of 5 000 and taking over 70 prisoners. They rescued over 300 downed airmen and 280 naval men from sunken ships including one J F Kennedy, but their greatest contribution was in enabling the Allies to gain air supremacy.
Eric was a recipient of an Order of the British Empire in the 1944 New Year’s Honours List. Two years later he released a highly-detailed book, The Coast Watchers. A memorial lighthouse to the Coastwatchers was unveiled in Madang in August 1959 with Eric in attendance. No doubt his attention to detail and the tireless efforts and concern for those under his command was responsible for his ultimate ill health. A third heart attack in March 1968 finally claimed an outstanding and inspirational leader.
Betty Lee has sensitively treated her biography of Eric Feldt and the work of the Coastwatchers under his command. They have been brought to life as their exploits have been described. A generous number of photographs have been included, as have easy-to-follow maps showing both the Japanese approaches to targets and the location of Coastwatchers along those approaches.
This is a work that has brought so much detail to its readers and is an asset for any military library.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the author for making this work available for review.