SUBCHASER SC 761
3RD FLEET U.S. NAVY
RESCUES AUSTRALIAN COAST WATCHERS
DURING WW2

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U.S. Navy Subchaser SC 761 was selected by Admiral Wilkinson to carry out a top secret mission which involved rescuing a large number of Australian Coast Watchers from Bougainville. SC 761 left its mooring at 1100 hrs on Sunday 25 July 1943 and proceeded unaccompanied to the Russell Islands.

SC 761 rendezvoused after midnight with the U.S. Submarine USS Guardfish (SS-217) at a location five miles south of Point Pleasant, on Rendova Island. They were due to receive 15 Coast Watchers who had been extricated form Bougainville.

SC 761 spotted USS Guardfish on their radar about 7 miles away at 0355 hrs on Monday 26 July 1943. Due to the heavy seas they both moved to the lee side of Rendova Island. SC 761 pulled alongside USS Guardfish at 0510 hrs to transfer the Coast Watchers.

Instead of the expected 15 passengers there were 59 personnel who took 30 minutes to transfer to SC 761. Many of the extra unexpected  personnel were Chinese. Commander Norvell G. Ward of USS Guardfish said that these Chinese had assisted the Coast Watchers to hide from the Japanese. USS Guardfish had to send their rubber raft back to the beach many times to rescue the 59 personnel rather than leave any of them behind to be captured by the Japanese. USS Gato had experienced a similar incident back in March 1943. Edward Douglas "Slim" Otton was one of the Coast Watchers rescued from Bougainville by USS Gato.

USS Guardfish (SS-217)

SC 761 was now overloaded with its human cargo. Lt. Commander John R. Keenan, RAN was in charge of the group of Coast Watchers. Of the 59 personnel there were about 20 Australian and New Zealand Coast Watchers, some native Police, some loyal natives, 2 or 3 Fijians, a large number of Chinese, plus two survivors of an RAAF Catalina crash.

SC 761 left USS Guardfish at 0540 hrs and headed for Guadalcanal. The 59 passengers were very hungry and tired. The Commander of SC 761, Lt. Ronald B. Balcom, USNR, asked "Frenchie" their cook, to feed their hungry guests. The ship was overstocked with Salmon which they were always required to draw from stores at their Naval supply facility. The crew of SC 761 were sick of Salmon, so "Frenchie" took this opportunity to reduce their stocks. John Keenan offered some of his Chinese to assist in the galley. Using hand signals "Frenchie" to communicate with the Chinese, they served up several cases of Salmon and large helpings of rice. After this hearty meal, the Chinese meticulously cleaned the galley, and all the plates and cooking and eating utensils. They even cleaned the aft crew quarters where many of them had eaten. "Frenchie" would loved to have kept a few of these Chinese in his galley for the rest of the war.

Lt. Comdr. John R. Keenan consumed a pot of hot tea while he relived some of his experiences on Bougainville. The Japanese would constantly track them while they were broadcasting with their teleradios, so they were constantly on the move to avoid capture. The Coast Watchers had their photograph taken on the forecastle of SC 761 after they had showered, shaved and eaten. Lt. Cmdr. Keenan advised that he had lost two men who were captured by the Japanese and thereupon beheaded.

The Coast Watchers on the forecastle of SC 761 after they had showered, shaved and eaten.

SC 761 arrived back at Lunga Point, Guadalcanal just after sunset. Commander Price Jones of the Royal Australian Navy came on board and organised the transfer of the passengers ashore. Lt. Balcom reported to Admiral Wilkinson the next morning and received orders for another secret mission.

SC 761 proceeded to Tulagi to take on fuel and water before it headed again on 29 July 1943, for another rendezvous with USS Guardfish near Rendova Island to pick up more Coast Watchers. They established radar contact with USS Guardfish at 0345 hrs as it surfaced. They both proceeded again to the lee side of the island to carry out the transfer. They took on board approximately 23 personnel this time and managed to get rid of some more of that Salmon!! And some rice. They returned to Lunga Point, Guadalcanal and discharged their precious human cargo.

The following morning they proceed to Koli Point where Lt. Balcom again reported to Admiral Wilkinson, who personally commended Lt. Balcom and the crew of SC 761 for accomplishing their secret missions. At the same time the crew of SC 761 received the following message by blinker signals:-

"301218 Gr 17 BT Both were seamen-like jobs performed by a smart ship X Well done to all hands  X Wilkinson X

These were indeed some very special men that they had rescued. Admiral Halsey indicated that the intelligence signalled from Bougainville by two of these Coast Watchers, W.J. Read and P. E. Mason, had "saved Guadalcanal and Guadalcanal had saved the South Pacific." 

Subchaser SC 761 had originally travelled across the Pacific Ocean to Australia in convoy with Subchasers SC 518, SC 641, SC 648, SC 698, SC 701, SC 730, SC 739, SC 751, SC 760, SC 761 and SC 982. They were attached to a larger convoy of others ships possibly including infantry-landing craft, tank-landing craft, minesweepers, etc. They all arrived in the Noumea area by the end of March 1943. SC 641, SC 730, SC 761 and SC 982 were sent to Guadalcanal/ Tulagi area, and the others were sent to Brisbane and the west coast of Australia.

 

REFERENCE BOOKS

"Subchaser in the South Pacific - A Saga of the USS-761 during World War II"
by J. Henry Doscher, Jr., Captain, USNAR, (ret.)

"The Coast Watchers"
By Eric Feldt

"Lonely Vigil: Coastwatchers of the Solomons"
by Walter Lord [Viking Press, 1977]

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

I'd like to thank Henry Doscher for his assistance with this home page. On 17 September 1943 orders were received that 21 year old Ensign J. Henry Doscher, Jr. would take over as Commanding Officer of Subchaser SC 761. Henry located Lt. Cmdr. John R. Keenan in 1993 who assisted him with information for his book.

 

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This page first produced 16 November 2003

This page last updated 11 April 2004