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:https://pacificwrecks.com/people/veterans/clemens/scouts.jpg. They have a lot of great information regarding the war in the South Pacific.

A Letter to Walter

A Letter to Walter

At the end of Leo’s first person account is a faded handwritten note to a man named Walter dated March 13, 1975.  In the note, Leo clarifies some of his exploits at Guadalcanal and his departure.  The G.F. Jones was Martin Clemens’s personal launch that ferried Leo and Ray from Guadalcanal to San Cristobal.  Once at San Cristobal, they boarded a Chinese schooner with “a crew of limited nautical abilities.”  Leo took charge of the Chinese schooner and was appointed skipper at the time of voyage.  They headed back to New Hebrides and then Villa Efate, two islands east of the Coral Sea controlled by American forces.  Once on board the destroyer John Paul Jones, Leo and Ray were headed back home to Pearl Harbor.

According to the handwritten note, Leo and Ray re-joined VT-5, torpedo squadron 5, at Pearl Harbor for the Battle of Midway where the USS Yorktown was sunk.  Following Midway, VT-5 was disbanded with some of the pilots joining VT-3 and others headed to Pensacola, Florida to help with training.  Leo doesn’t specify which path he took.  In comparing his written account to the transcribed one, we seem to have some contradictions as Leo and Ray listened to the Battle of Midway on the carrier back to Pearl Harbor after Guadalcanal.  I’ll have to do some research on the Battle of Midway to see if they make an appearance.

Besides pouring on some additional details, Leo mentions that he is sorry for the delay in responding to Walter’s letter and knows that his book already went to press.  Intrigued, I googled Walter South Pacific World War II and came across Walter Lord’s canon of books.  An accomplished historian, Walter wrote on a variety of World War 2 subjects such as the Battle of Midway (Incredible Victory) and The Coastal Watchers of the Solomons (Lonely Vigil) but is best known for his minute by minute account of the sinking of the Titanic (RMS Titanic).  It seems, by some simple deduction, that Walter had contacted Leo to do some research for a book and Leo responded by mailing Walter a recorded reading of his personal account on cassette tape.  Bill found this tape in his parent’s stuff while helping them move a few weeks ago.  Now we are getting closer to the origin of the tape and why Leo took the time to record his water landing at Guadalcanal.  I checked out both Incredible Victory and Lonely Vigil from the library and, according to the index, Leonard “Spike” Ewoldt is on page 15 of the Lonely Vigil.   Looks like we will be starting with that one.

Guadalcanal

Guadalcanal

Leo waved in their direction again before looking down at his coconut.  The natives took their time in deciphering Leo and Ray.  New to this cataclysmic clash of civilizations, they were beginning to learn the differences between the Japanese and the Americans.  After much deliberation, the natives emerged from the jungle confident that they were safe.  A gang, much larger than Leo expected, of Black Polynesian men with red hair, black teeth and calico loin clothes walked out of the brush.  They made their way over to Leo as he was still fiddling with his coconut.  The man in charge, his authority marked by a black shirt, walked out in front of the group and stood over Leo. As Leo switched his attention from the coconut to his visitor, a machete quickly emerged and was hurtling in his direction.  Leo had no time to react as the machete screamed past him smashing his coconut in half.  Dinner was served.

While Leo and Ray sipped from the island fare, one of the Polynesians began speaking to them in English.  He had spent some time with the Methodist Mission on Guadalcanal and they were able to communicate quite effectively.  After some lengthy introductions, the man, who would come to be known as “the chief”, dispatched a runner to the British District Officer to let him know of their arrival.  Another runner was sent to the Roman Catholic Mission to send horses to the chief’s village.  Leo and Ray would spend the night at their village before proceeding on their journy to meet British District Officer, Martin Clemens.

“How far to the village?” Leo asked.  He and Ray were carrying their shoes after three days of being soaked in salt water.  “Close up,” the chief replied.  Leo and Ray continued on, following the natives barefoot as they entered into the jungle.  Over sharp rocks and thorny bushes, the two men thought the village was just around the next corner.  After about a mile, they arrived at the village with some bruised feet.  Leo and Ray hobbled up to a thatched hut elevated six feet off the ground by bamboo floor joists.  This was the chief’s hut and, as Leo later found out, he turned his family out for the evening to feed and shelter his new guests.

The next day, a tall, blond young man from the Roman Catholic mission arrived with some horses.  Leo and Ray gratefully said goodbye to the chief and translator, taking down their names and mailing addresses for future correspondence.  Next, as was custom in their culture, Leo and Ray shook the hands of every man, woman and child in the village. On to the next legs of their journey: a quick stop at the Roman Catholic Mission and then to the boy’s school at the eastern end of the island.

Leo and Ray were brought to the British District Headquarters the following evening.  As the surprisingly large, ornate building came into view, no one came out to greet them.  The two men walked around the headquarters with their guides and, noticing the beautiful view of the surrounding islands, saw no one in sight.  After a while of wandering around, Martin Clemens appeared out of nowhere in particular.  Unsure of who was paying him a visit, Martin used this time to practice his evacuation manuevuers.  Everything was gone; clothes, baggage and radio equipment out of the headquarters and into the jungle within 15 minutes he boasted.  Just enough time to evade any intruder looking to pay him a unwanted visit.

Martin Clemens, as described by Leo, “ was tall, about 6’2, young, red – haired, red – bearded and apparently the kind of fellow who enjoys life thoroughly wherever he is and whatever is coming at him.”  Living in a large, frame house abandoned during the war, Martin seldom thought of life when the Japanese would come to occupy the island.  His job was to govern what was left of his district on Guadalcanal and contributed to the war by being a member of the coast watcher organization.  All this was done in the most civilized matter that the current conditions would permit.

The three days spent with Martin Clemens comprised of drinking his remaining gin and figuring out a way to get Leo and Ray back in the action.  Martin had arranged for the men to travel to San Cristobal by launch, where the British District Office at San Cristobal arranged passage on a Chinese schooner.  Eventually, as the details are fuzzy in Leo’s account, they boarded the four stack destroyer, the USS John Paul Jones in route to Pearl Harbor.   While on board, Leo and Ray listened to the play by play account of arguably the most important battle in the South Pacific, the Battle of Midway.

Thus ends Leo’s account of his adventure in the South Pacific.  They are dropped off at Pearl Harbor sometime after the Battle of Midway.  Now, moving beyond the account that started our journey, filling our hat with some substance to go along with the dreams, is the question what happens next?  I’m not sure where Leo goes after Pearl Harbor or his role in the rest of World War II.  There is still a lot of fighting left before the Japanese sign an unconditional surrender on September 2, 1945 and I imagine that he is still involved in some way, shape or form.  As Bill continues his search with his family members, I have taken on the task of reading the stack of books in my room that contain the name Leonard “Spike” Ewoldt in the index.  Hopefully amongst this stack, our next clue emerges.