The British Empire Library

Alone on Guadalcanal: A Coastwatcher's Story

by Martin Clemens

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by R N Barlow-Poole CBE (Northern Nigeria 1947-68)
Guadalcanal is one of the six largest islands in the Solomon Islands, characterised (very relevant to this story) by precipitous, thickly forested mountain ranges, intersected by deep narrow valleys. At the time of the story in the book, it was part of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate and under the jurisdiction of the High Commissioner for the Western Pacific islands stationed in Suva, Fiji. A foreword to the book is written by Sir Philip Mitchell KCMG, MC in 1953. From 1942 to 1945 he was High Commissioner in Suva (before going on to be Governor in Kenya). Another foreword is written by General Alexander Andrew Vandegrift of the US Marine Corps, also in 1953. It has taken Clemens from the early 1950s to find a publisher for this book, which is an entirely personal story. The Naval Institute Press in the USA has done him proud.

Clemens was a great rower at Christ's and gained a place in the College First Boat, with Sam Taylor as cox. In 1937 he accepted an appointment in the British Colonial Service and stayed on for another year for the usual Colonial Office course. Then in 1938 he received a posting to the Solomon Islands for a three-year probationary appointment on the island of Malaita. In 1942 he was appointed District Officer on Guadalcanal, and took over coast watching.

The book has a section of 30 pages at the beginning on 'Guadalcanal and Martin Clemens' by Allan R Millett, Professor of Military History in The Ohio State University. He writes 'The Clemens diaries (on which the book is based) are the last great unpublished source on Guadalcanal from the allied side of the campaign. The work is one of the critical sources of analysis of the campaign since Clemens served as de facto assistant G-2 and chief of scouts for the 1st Marine Division. Clemens is a gifted writer and an astute observer of men and nature'.

It is very fitting that the book should become available for reading just when, in May 1999, the Commemoration of Her Majesty's Overseas Civil Service from 1837 to 1997 (i.e. when Hong Kong was handed back to China) is to take place, with a service in Westminster Abbey and a reception after the service in St James's Palace, Marlborough House, or Lancaster House. The book is a proud example of what one overseas civil servant had to do in an emergency and did so splendidly, and how he led, and was so well supported by the simple islanders of Guadalcanal whom he was there as District Officer to serve, and who, in return, served him and the Americans so well. It is a tremendous tribute to the Overseas Service of Great Britain.

It will be remembered that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, with the result that the mastery of the Pacific had, for the time being, passed into Japanese hands. In 1942 began the first attempts of the Japanese to sever Australia's lifeline with the United States. This was to include the capture of Port Moresby in New Guinea and the seizure of Tulagi in the Southern Solomons, opposite the large island of Guadalcanal. Tulagi was seized in May 1942. Meanwhile in February, Clemens had settled in at Aola, which served as the administration centre for Guadalcanal with the DO's house, the Cadet's house, the prison, police and hospital etc. Clemens withdrew later to a tiny village called Paripao on the 19 May, with 190 carriers to take every last useful thing off the station in one lift. Later still with the Japanese on the move, and reported landings, he withdrew higher up still to Vungana (3,800 ft) with .splendid views over the sea channel (but with a serious shortage of food), where they were able to give vital reports by teleradio to the Americans, before the Marines made their own landing, and Clemens was able to join forces with them.

After the Japanese came ashore at Guadalcanal they began building an airfield. Then the American 1st Marine Division came, took the Japanese by surprise, and won possession of the airfield. After that the Japanese poured in wave upon wave of attackers to regain possession of the airfield which they considered vital to their operations. In repelling the invaders, the Americans were constantly aided by the coastwatchers giving them vital information by teleradio about ship and aircraft movements.

You will have to read the book to understand all that happened between May and December 1942. 'The nigh impossible dealt with day after day'. Clemens writes. It is truly an amazing story of endurance. Those seven or eight months must have seemed like seven or eight years.

The High Commissioner for the Western Pacific, Sir Philip Mitchell, paid a visit to General Vandegrift's headquarters on 2 December 1942. The General suggested to Sir Philip that Clemens should be given leave. It was approved and on 3 December he left en route to Sydney, Australia. So the story ends.

After the war the muddy strip on Guadalcanal called Henderson's Field (christened in honour of a Marine squadron leader lost at Midway) became Henderson's International Airport and a new administrative centre for the Solomon Islands (in place of Tulagi which was in ruins from the war and the Japanese occupation) was built nearby called Honiara - a thriving town of 15,000 - standing where there was nothing but an especially perilous stretch of jungle during the campaign.

British Empire Book
Martin Clemens
Naval Institute Press


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