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  • Published: 3 August 2021
  • ISBN: 9780143775966
  • Imprint: Puffin
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 272
  • RRP: $19.99



They were still 400 yards from the strip of white beach and the crammed jungle behind it when the fighter planes came.

Thirty men crouched in the bottom of their landing barge as it tossed and pitched. Any time one of them began lifting his head to peer over the high steel sides, Sgt Doney yelled, ‘Keep down, you stupid sod! You want to make target practice for the bloody Japs? If you need to be sick, do it in here. The Navy’ll mop it up.’ Hunched behind his single machine gun at the barge’s stern, the naval rating muttered something Frank couldn’t hear, but could guess at.

They’d been dipping and lurching on the waves for more than an hour now. The tropical sun was so hot that anyone who laid a hand on the clumsy craft’s metal walls snatched that hand away and swore. How much longer was the recce platoon going to take? Advance

into the jungle for 30 yards or so; make sure no crazy Japanese had stayed behind to fight; set up a cordon; then signal the other barges in. It couldn’t take this long, surely?

When he heard someone shout, Frank thought it must be the signal they were waiting for. Either that, or another hand on burning steel. Then others started bawling. ‘Fighters! Eight o’clock! Coming for us!’

He twisted around, glimpsed the hurtling black specks. Three . . . four, flashing towards them. Americans, from Guadalcanal to the south, the big island it had taken months of fighting and thousands of lives to rip from the enemy. Now the Yanks were striking day and night at the last Jap positions in the northern Solomon Islands, strafing and bombing troops and ships as the enemy retreated — except for those who stayed and fought suicidally to the end.

The planes hurtled closer, straight at the cluster of barges. Frank stiffened. Those weren’t — At the same moment, a voice howled from behind him. ‘Zeros! Look out!’

Frank flung himself down on the metal floor. His face rammed into someone’s shoulder, while men around him yelled and scrambled. He hunched his back, tried to squeeze himself into a ball. Guns began crashing from the support ships, a hundred yards behind. Too late: the Zeros were almost on them. He’d be shot to bits.

He snatched a look upwards, just as the first enemy fighter tore overhead, glimpsing the round stubby wings with their insignia of the white-edged red sun of Imperial Japan, the twin cannons and machine guns. He wrapped his arms around his head, as if flesh and blood could somehow stop the bullets about to tear into him. He was 19, and going to die. ‘No!’ he heard himself gasp.‘No!’

The Zero sped past. The others followed. No bullets. No cannon shells. He was alive. Unhurt and alive.

Their support cruisers and destroyers kept blasting away. He peered up again; saw dirty black explosions in the sky as the flak shells burst. The Jap fighters were already dwindling towards the northern horizon.They hadn’t fired a shot. Frank swallowed, tried to understand.

‘Keep your bloody heads down!’ Sgt Doney bellowed again as men scrambled to their feet, staring over the barge’s side at the disappearing enemy. ‘Get down!’ Frank crouched once more. His heart still thumped; he sucked in breaths. His body streamed with sweat,and it wasn’t just the oven heat of their barge. He hadn’t been touched. He couldn’t believe it. ‘They must be out of ammo.’ Wally Ropata was hunched beside him on the floor. ‘Been on a raid somewhere and used it all up. Hope they don’t radio their base to send other planes, eh? Zeros with cannons against our rifles and tommy guns.

Don’t feel too keen on that.’

Frank managed to nod. He stared around, at squatting forms, scared faces, weapons clutched in sweaty hands. Another glance at his watch. How much longer was that recce platoon going to take? Hurry up, he begged under his breath. Hurry up!

And yet . . . he felt a flicker of disappointment there hadn’t been any shooting. He could see himself whipping up his rifle, aiming well in front of the hurtling Zero like they’d been taught in training, putting a bullet through its engine so it went somersaulting into the sea. He’d promised himself he’d be a real soldier when the testcame, show people there was one man in his family whocould face up to things.

When would he get his chance? The barge rolled again. Over in a corner, someone was noisily spewing up. Hope the Navy’s got a decent-sized mop and bucket, Frank thought.

Their engine boomed, and they surged forward. Hehalf-cried out. Others in his platoon were exclaimingand swearing. Sgt Doney shouted, ‘Ready! Soon as the ramp’s down. Go like hell! Spread out like we practised. Get to the trees, and form a line!’

The squat steel box churned towards the shore. Blue sky burned above. Frank twitched as shapes showed in front. Tree-tops. They looked strange: hardly any leaves on them.

The barge juddered, slewed to one side. They thudded into one another; a rifle barrel whacked Frank’s shoulder. They’d hit a coral reef? He’d heard of boats being caught like sitting ducks on hidden underwater ledges. Then their craft shook, charged on another few yards. The trees towered above them now. They must be almost there.

The bows ploughed into something else, and they tumbled forward again, grunting and mouthing. Chains roared, and the whole front of their landing craft smacked down into the sea with a blat! of spray. Light poured in. Frank saw the dazzling white beach just 20 yards ahead, the dark ragged jungle behind. ‘Go!’ Sgt Doney urged. ‘Go!’ The men of 3 Platoon jerked to their feet and started sprinting forward.

Down the ramp, boots clanging, and thigh-deep into the sea. It’s warm, Frank half-realised. Beside him Wally grunted, ‘Left, pal. Go left!’

Yes, the direction they’d been given, so they didn’t bunch up and make an easy target, but were spacedout to form a perimeter line, like they’d been taught in training. Around him and Wally, others were also wading left as fast as they could, or floundering towards the right. A few sloshed straight ahead. Everyone stared at the jungle in front. 

There’d been landings in the Pacific where Japs still held on, after days of being blasted by Allied naval guns and bombers, and by rocket batteries that blazed straight into the jungle, turning trees to splintered stumps, sending jagged metal scything in all directions. Shells the size of oil drums had plunged down from battleships and cruisers a mile offshore, exploding with blast waves that knocked men flat 50 yards away.

In spite of that, some Jap defenders had survived. Their machine guns sent bullets tearing into the troops storming ashore. Mortar positions on ridges rained bombs down on the sand. White beaches and blue shallows were strewn with dead and wounded. When he heard, Frank wondered if he could ever handle such a terrible thing.

Intelligence reports had said there was no enemyleft in this area. There’d been no gunfire from the recce platoon. But Frank still panted, gasped, knew his eyes were bulging as they swept the beach and treeline ahead. He clutched his .303 rifle in both hands, safety catch off. Identify Before Firing, they’d been told over and over intraining. Identify Before Firing. It was so important in the tangled jungle. But if you couldn’t be sure . . .

Wally splashed forward, two yards away. Bruce Priest was farther along. Suddenly, over to their right, someone fell. Frank flinched. A sniper!

Frank’s body hunched again. He felt his mouth go dry; his breath catch. Any moment, a bullet might slam into him. He’d never have the chance to show what he could do.

Then the man struggled to his feet, dripping water, shaking it from the barrel of his rifle, cursing and hurrying on, while Sgt Doney yelled, ‘Watch where you’re going, for Christ’s sake!’

They were onto the beach. Tiny white, gold and pink grains glittered in the sunlight. He sprinted across the sand towards the jungle edge only 15 yards away, Wally still immediately on his left, followed by Bruce and Mac.

Engines roared behind them. The Jap planes had returned! Frank twisted, saw the landing craft, ramps lifting like great metal jaws, foam at their sterns as propellors churned the water, beginning to back and swing towards the support ships. A hundred yards out to sea, more barges were heading for the shore.

The first trees were just ahead. Smashed trunks, splintered limbs: a battle had swept through here, too. Stooped over, eyes searching, rifles and tommy guns pointing, the spread-out line of 3 Platoon began pushing into the jungle.

They struggled forward ten or 12 yards, enough to hide them from enemy aircraft. Frank slumped against a tree trunk, panting. His clothes clung to him, sodden with sweat and sea water. He peered around, saw Bruce and Mac crouched on the ground by the next, splintered tree, squinting into the greenery ahead.

At his shoulder, Wally let out a sigh. They’d made it this far. They were alive. For the moment, anyway.


Coastwatcher David Hill

No training could have prepared Frank for a dangerous coastwatching mission against the Japanese in this WWII novel by David Hill, winner of the 2021 Prime Minister's Award for Fiction

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