Origin of Australia’s “Ferdinands” in the Pacific

From Target: Rabaul: The Allied Siege of Japan’s Most Infamous Stronghold, March 1943–August 1945, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2013) Kindle Loc. 4766-4787:

THERE WERE SEVERAL mastas [white men] on New Britain and many of the other islands in the Bismarcks and Solomons, all linked by radio to a secretive unit called Ferdinand. Developed at the beginning of the war by two officers in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), the organization took its name from the 1936 picture book The Story of Ferdinand. The Aussies were more familiar with Walt Disney’s cartoon adaptation, “Ferdinand the Bull.” By the time the cartoon reached movie houses in Australia, Europe was on the threshold of war.

Enter the naval intelligence director, Cmdr. Rupert Basil Michel Long, RAN. A World War I veteran, he realized that the hundreds of landowners along Australia’s coast and those living among the islands in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea could be organized into a network connected by two-way radios. Most already had the equipment. At the time, the state of the art in long-distance communications was low-frequency (LF) radio, known to most Australians as “wireless.” Compared with high-frequency radio waves, which provide excellent clarity over short distances (but quickly loose strength and are easily bent or turned by obstacles), low-frequency signals travel great distances without degrading. The government had a monopoly on two-way radio equipment in those days, having purchased a majority share of Amalgamated Wireless of Australasia (AWA) stock in 1922. So the company was obliged to provide communication services across the continent as well as to the hundreds of populated islands in the mandated territory. Two-way radios were essential for relaying messages and news among the plantations, airstrips, mines, and settlements across the Pacific islands, many of which were separated by hundreds of miles.

Commander Long aimed to organize hundreds of civilians into a unified coastwatchers organization. In 1939 he appointed Eric A. Feldt, then a government administrator in New Guinea, to run the network in the islands from a headquarters in Port Moresby. A former RAN officer, Feldt was given a lieutenant commander’s stripes and spent several months traveling “by ship, motor boat, canoe, bicycle, airplane, and boot” along the coast of New Guinea, through the Bismarcks, down the Solomon chain, and finally to the New Hebrides. His four-thousand-mile journey achieved brilliant results. In the coming years, the coastwatchers would provide useful intelligence and perform extraordinary feats, many at the cost of their lives.

Who chose the organization’s name is unknown. Feldt later explained the logic: “The code name, Ferdinand, was … an order to the coastwatchers, a definition of their job. It was a reminder … that it was not their duty to fight, and thus draw attention to themselves; like Disney’s bull, who just sat under a tree and smelled the flowers, it was their duty to sit, circumspectly and unobtrusively, and gather information. Of course, like Ferdinand, they could fight if they were stung.”

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Filed under Australia, Japan, military, Papua New Guinea

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