Obituary - Martin Clemens: Solomon Islands wartime district commissioner

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  1. syscom3

    syscom3 Pacific Historian

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    Martin Clemens played a lonely but key role in the recovery by a US task force of the island of Guadalcanal from the Japanese in early 1943.

    Lying towards the southern tip of the Solomon Islands archipelago, 1,200 miles northeast of the Australian coast astride sea and air communications with the US, the island was occupied by the Japanese in May 1942. Two American divisions with supporting aircraft were deployed to Queensland to counter any enemy landing and, after the US naval victories of the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June, a concerted effort to recover the Solomons was planned; but intelligence on Japanese strengths and dispositions was virtually non-existent.

    As far back as 1919 an Australian coast-watcher service had been established and by late 1941, when the Japanese attacks in the Pacific and South-East Asia were launched, a cordon of observers had been pushed out to islands extending in an arc from New Zealand to the Solomons.

    Clemens, serving as the British district commissioner on the island of St Cristobal in the Solomons, was instructed to cross over to Guadalcanal to help with the evacuation of Europeans. When the Japanese arrived he took to the hills with a group of Melanesian scouts, evading all Japanese attempts to locate him until the Americans began to arrive in July 1942.

    His intelligence- gathering during the intervening months on Guadalcanal was reliant on co-operative islanders reporting on Japanese activity to the indigenous island police officers, who relayed the information to Clemens in the hills for communication by radio to the American naval task force under the command of Admiral Robert Ghormley.

    In the run-up to the naval battle of the Eastern Solomons at the end of August 1942 both Ghormley and his opponent, Admiral Nagumo, lacked reliable intelligence of the other’s casualties and sea deployments. The coast-watcher service in which Clemens was a significant link provided Ghormley with details of enemy naval movements, contributing significantly to the eventual US victory at sea.

    Ashore, the Japanese were equally short of information, but in anticipation of a largescale US landing they reinforced Guadalcanal with small contingents of troops in a widely distributed and piecemeal manner. Observed by Clemens and his scouts this was reported to Major-General Alexander Vandegrift commanding the 1st (US) Marine Division. Aerial photographic reconnaissance targeted on areas identified by Clemens provided Vandegrift with the intelligence essential for a successful landing on Guadalcanal. By that time, Clemens had received the Marines authenticating codes to allow him to work as their principal intelligence- gathering officer until the island was finally cleared of the enemy in February 1943.

    When he came down from his mountain-top coast-watching eyrie to meet the Marines in August 1942 Clemens was gaunt, bearded, dressed in rags and barefoot. Through the reporting of his Melanesian scouts, he was able to report the dispositions of the Japanese 35th Brigade and guide the US 1st Raider Battalion and elements of a US Parachute division during a three-day battle resulting in the capture of the vital Henderson Field airstrip.

    Subsequently, he served as the British liaison officer with the 14th (US) Corps in the Solomons with the rank of major. He was awarded the Military Cross for his contribution to the recovery of Guadalcanal and later appointed to the US Legion of Merit.

    Warren Frederick Martin Clemens, the eldest of the four children of Warren and Blanche Clemens, was born in Aberdeen, where his father was a church organist and choirmaster. Educated in England, he won scholarships to Bedford School and Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he took an honours degree in agricultural and natural sciences. He rowed for Cambridge and was a reserve for the winning eight in the British team at the Empire Games in 1938, the year he joined the Colonial Service.

    After the war he served with the Colonial Service in Palestine, during the final years of the British Mandate (1946-47), serving first as Deputy District Commissioner in Samaria and then as District Commissioner in Gaza, for whose Palestinian population he established a lasting sympathy.

    On leaving Palestine, he went to Cyprus, first as District Commissioner for Nicosia and then for Kyrenia, during two periods between 1948 and 1957. Finally, he became Defence Secretary on the island from 1959 to 1960, when the EOKA terrorist campaign for union with Greece reached the climax that was to lead to Cypriot independence.

    On leaving the island, he was advanced to CBE from the OBE to which he had been appointed in 1956 when he was a District Commissioner.

    When offered a foreign service post in Burma, he decided instead to move to his wife’s family home at Dunraven, Melbourne, taking Australian citizenship on arrival. Subsequently he devoted his energies to his wife’s family holdings in Queensland and community activities.

    Many community groups have reason to be grateful for his guidance, including Austcare, the International Council of Social Services, the Red Cross and the Australia-Britain Society, where he helped to initiate the Plain English Speaking Award. He was active in the local Liberal Party and served as a director of a number of companies.

    His concept of “community” remained pivotal to the conduct of his life. At social gatherings he was invariably at the centre of an animated group, in his later years with a glass of the best Scotch whisky parked on his walking frame.

    He was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for service to the community in 1993. He also published his war memoirs as Alone on Guadalcanal. He had prepared the manuscript by the 1950s but was unable to find a publisher until 1998, when the US Naval Institute Press in Maryland heard about it by chance.

    His wife Anne, née Turnbull, died earlier this year. He is survived by two sons and two daughters.

    Martin Clemens, CBE, MC, OAM, was born on April 17, 1915. He died on May 31, 2009, aged 94
     

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  2. RabidAlien

    RabidAlien Active Member

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    :salute:

    I've read about him before....someone should shoot a movie about him (and others like him!)....a "Band of Brothers"-style miniseries....
     
  3. Catch22

    Catch22 Well-Known Member

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  4. Gnomey

    Gnomey World Travelling Doctor
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  5. vikingBerserker

    vikingBerserker Well-Known Member

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  6. Wildcat

    Wildcat Well-Known Member

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    :salute: One of WWII's greatest heroes!
     
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