Coastwatchers played a vital role in the Pacific war

Name: Frederick Ashton 'Snow' Rhoades
Date: 1942-1945
Unit: Coastwatchers, RAN
Location: Solomon Islands

Coastwatchers in the Pacific played an important role in the Allied victory in World War II. They defied the odds and constant danger of being caught by the Japanese to feed vital information to the Allies.

Many of the coastwatchers fell into the role by accident. Frederick Ashton 'Snow' Rhoades was manager of Burns Philp's copra and rubber Lavaro Plantation on the north-west coast of Guadalcanal Island in 1942.

When the British Solomon Islands Protectorate (BSIP) capital Tulagi was attacked by the Japanese, the Solomon Islands were evacuated but Snow decided to stay put and to become a coastwatcher.

He was no stranger to danger, having ridden with the 1st Light Horse Regiment, Australian Imperial Force, in the Middle East during World War I. A boy from the bush, Snow was an expert horseman and a crack shot - an ideal candidate for the Light Horse.

He was twice wounded in action and suffered constantly from malaria but took part in the long campaign from the Sinai Desert to Jordan. After the war he spent some time as a jackeroo and seven years as a soldier settler near Inverell, NSW, before walking off the property in the middle of the Depression.

It was then he joined Levers Pacific Plantations in the Solomon Islands as a plantation overseer. He soon made a mark for himself and was promoted to manager three years later. He became very popular with the local people, taking them hunting, using his marksman skills to kill wild cattle and distributing much of the fresh meat among the locals. He also formed cricket teams from the locals and organised regular matches.

So when he decided to stay after the evacuation, he had a solid support base among the local population. His initial plan of defending his plantation against the Japanese was abandoned when he realised that his small native force was no match for the well-armed and trained Japanese.

He acquired a 3BZ AWA short-wave radio and knowing there was no way he could leave the island until it was recaptured by the Allies, he began his new role in life. The one down side to the operation was that as a civilian, he would certainly have been shot if captured. He was offered the position of unpaid sergeant in the BSIP Defence Force but declined. In April 1942 he was made a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RANVR).

Commander Eric Feldt, the coastwatchers' commanding officer, made it very clear that their mission was to observe and report enemy activity, stay alive and only fight in self-defence. Their reports on enemy movements and losses were a lot more important to the Allied cause that the deaths of a few Japanese soldiers.

The Japanese were very active in the area and Snow with a fellow coastwatcher, Leif Schroeder, a Norwegian, would call up US air strikes on the ships and barges operating in the area.

On one occasion, Snow was returning by motor launch from a trip to nearby islands when they were spotted by a Japanese aircraft. As dawn approached they saw a Japanese destroyer heading for them. They quickly disappeared through an opening in the reef and the destroyer headed back out to sea. On their next broadcast they reported its presence and the ship was attacked and sunk by US aircraft.

Expecting enemy patrols to find their bungalow at any time, Snow prepared a number of safe houses at strategic intervals in the bush. The radio equipment was big and heavy and required about 20 carriers to move it from place to place, so they needed early warning for any move.

Snow gave up wearing shoes so his footprints would not give the game away. He decided to burn his plantation buildings, including all the rubber in store, and move away from the coast to the Hylovo River where he could count on the support of Chief Pellissi.

The Japanese were now seriously tracking broadcasts using flying boats fitted with direction finding equipment and had placed a bounty of $100 on Snow's head, a huge attraction for the local people.

Meanwhile, the Japanese began constructing a huge airfield on a grassy plain that was part of Lunga Plantation. The coastwatchers were in an ideal position to report on all activities and later, on aircraft movements.

But some of the local people believed that the Allies were losing the war, and were prepared to kill the coastwatchers and claim the reward. Chief Pellissi talked them out of carrying out their threat.

He also advised Snow to move his hide-out to a more secure cave. By now, food was running low and both Snow and Schroeder were having health problems, the constant stress having made them exhausted and quite ill.

In August 1942, the Americans realised from coastwatcher reports that the enemy airfield at Lunga was ready for use and decided to capture it. In a surprise attack, which included HMAS Canberra, the area was heavily bombarded from the sea and the US 1st Marine Division landed at Tulagi and Lunga Point.

They captured the airfield with little resistance from the Japanese, most of the personnel on the site being construction corps workers. The taking of Lunga, however, did not improve the position of Snow and Schroeder, because now the Japanese were spread out further along the coast, making it harder for the coastwatchers to move around.

Reports came through of atrocities carried out by Japanese soldiers, including the murder of two priests and two nuns. Snow and his helpers kept track of Japanese movements and called in air strikes which disposed of many Japanese.

At the same time, the Allies didn't have it all their own way, with three US cruisers and HMAS Canberra all sunk in a surprise Japanese Navy night attack. The airfield, renamed Henderson, was under heavy attack from Japanese aircraft and casualties and aircraft losses were mounting.

It was becoming harder and harder for Snow and Schroeder to operate. Finally a request was made to US Marines commander General Vandegrift to get them out. He refused to help and forbade the senior coastwatcher, Lieutenant -Commander Hugh Mackenzie, from mounting a rescue mission.

Mackenzie decided to disobey the order and sent Sub-Lieutenant Dick Horton and a crew in a borrowed government schooner, Ramada, to pick them up. They successfully ran the gauntlet of enemy shipping during the night and collected Snow, Schroeder, 13 missionaries and a shot-down airman, as well as Snow's radio equipment.

After eight months dodging the Japanese, Snow spent some time at the receiving end of a bombardment by Japanese heavy bombers and then by the Japanese Navy that destroyed most of the Marine aircraft on the ground at Henderson.

The arrival of a US fleet of light cruisers (8-inch guns) and destroyers, under the command of Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan, brought relief to Henderson Field, after they defeated a much larger force of Japanese Navy ships, including two Kongo Class (14-inch guns) battleships. The gallant Callaghan was killed in this almost suicidal attack.

Snow Rhoades then returned to Australia where he had a month's leave and a month's sick leave, during which he married his long-time friend, Edna Norman. He also learned he had been awarded the US Distinguished Service Cross, the highest decoration that could be conferred on a foreigner by the US Forces, for his services as a coastwatcher.

But his role was not yet ended. He insisted on returning to Lunga in March 1943 and played an integral part in the successful capture of Rendova. His intimate knowledge of the area, where he had been a plantation manager, was invaluable in the operation.

In the next few weeks, Snow was involved in many small actions while patrolling the Rendova perimeter or hunting down parties of escaping Japanese. For gallantry in action during the Rendova operation, Snow was awarded the US Silver Star.

In 1946, Snow and Edna took up residence in Rabaul where he became a plantation inspector for three years. Then, in 1950, he was requested to return to the RAN with the rank of Lieutenant-Commander to reorganise the coastwatcher organisation in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, a position he held until 1954.

He returned to New Guinea as Senior Produce Inspector for the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. At the age of 60, while still working full-time, he commenced planting a cocoa plantation and after retiring officially when he was 72, ran the plantation until 1973 when he sold up and moved to the Sunshine Coast in Queensland.

The material for this article was supplied by Mr R E Rhoades from New South Wales, nephew of 'Snow' Rhoades.
8/01/2002 10:51:17 AM


Last updated: 3 June 2019

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Coastwatchers played a vital role in the Pacific war, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 25 October 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/coastwatchers-played-vital-role-pacific-war
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