The First Time

The First Time

Originally published in 1977, The Lonely Vigil is the account of a forgotten band of men whose main purpose was to watch.  They watched the Japanese boats in the sea, the planes in the water and the soldiers on the ground.  From a strategic location on each island, the coastal watchers provided valuable information for the American troops on Japanese movement.  Even when the island was inhabited by Japanese forces, the coastal watchers, with the help of the natives, maintained their lonely watch and were instrumental in the rescue of many American pilots.

On page 16 of The Lonely Vigil, we find our first mention of Leo’s account documented as World War 2 history.  Walter Lord writes,

“Sailing in from his mission station down the coast, Thrift was accompanied by two American flyers from the carrier Yorktown.  Lieutenant Leonard Ewoldt and his radioman, Ray Machalinski had run out of gas and crash landed at sea after the raid on Tulagi.  Washed ashore on the southern coast of Guadalcanal, they had been taken by friendly natives to Thrift.  Now, as Clemens came forward to greet them, Ewoldt’s very first words were, “Could you please get us back to Pearl Harbor?”

“I’ll see what can be done,” Clemens replied in the best unflappable British colonial tradition.

 He was good as his word.  In three days Ewoldt and Machalinski were on their way south in a launch manned by Chinese volunteers.  At San Cristobal a schooner was waiting, which took them to New Hebrides, where they ultimately caught a ride back to their squadron.”

Not bad I guess.  This brief description is exciting yet it doesn’t quite match the awe that inspired Bill and I to start a book about this event.  Perhaps if Leo had sent his letter to Walter prior to publication, there might have been a more descriptive entry of their water landing. However, in reading The Lonely Vigil, it seems the distinction of Leo and Ray’s unplanned visit to Guadalcanal was not singular as the only water landing to be rescued in the South Pacific but rather it might have been the first one.  After mentioning Leo and Ray, Walter Lord goes on to describe more similar rescues and tallies the total number of water landings and rescues to exceed 120.  With so many rescues, this phenomenon is even more fascinating that so many pilots, whether shot down or run out of gas, can survive a water landing, rowing or swimming through shark infested waters to land on a foreign island.  Once safely on land, friendly natives will whisk you away into the jungle to meet with a coastal watcher who will arrange for your safe departure.

The knowledge of these island angels coming out from the jungle to feed and rescue pilots was a huge morale boost for American forces. As stated in Walter’s book, Navy Admirals would make it a priority to drop them supplies, evacuate the men they rescued and do anything else in their power to keep these men at their posts.  On top of pulling men out of the sea, the watchers gave the troops a 1 to 2-hour warning of incoming enemy forces.  Without the element of surprise, the strongholds of the Japanese occupation slowly eroded as their losses began to pile up.  As an anonymous force, coastal watchers made it possible for those heroic stories that have come to define the details of World War 2.  Should they survive being shot down in the South Pacific, rowing through shark infested waters and landing on an unknown island with no food, water or communication, these pilots had a better than average chance of a trip back to their squadron sometime soon.  So, while Leo and Ray’s story is still fascinating, they are a part of a much larger fraternity of aviation specialists to be rescued by those diligent men on their lonely vigil.


*Note: The picture up top is Martin Clemens taken from the following website: They have a lot of great information regarding the war in the South Pacific.

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