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Ears and Echoes: Radio and radar in Wartime Norfolk

Ears and Echoes: Radio and radar in Wartime Norfolk

Story 1: James Yukio Tanabe

It was Christmas Day 1943 on Norfolk Island. It had been exactly one year since the first plane had landed at the newly constructed airfield. At Emily bay, the waves lapped gently on the warm sand. It is unlikely that there were many on the beach on this day. Most island families would have been at home, enjoying the Christmas festivities and talking about the changes that Wartime had brought to Norfolk Island.

When the war had moved into the Pacific, Australia had sent a small detachment to the Norfolk Island, aware of the need to defend the Anson Bay Cable Station, but had insisted that the island need only be a Naval responsibility. The Allied Command, however, had different ideas. General MacArthur himself had noted the strategic position of Norfolk Island and declared that the island would become an important staging post for aircraft flying north to where the main theatre of war was taking place. New Zealand has been given the responsibility of supplying a military presence. The 36th Battalion (known as ‘N’ Force), along with various other personnel, including a few appointed by the U.S. Command, had tripled the population of the island.

There was a young man, barely 18 years old, enjoying a very pleasant and relaxing day on the beach at Kingston. He was a long way from home. He may have been joined by other men temporarily located here in the course of duty, but most of the military would have been enjoying a Christmas dinner in the army mess.

The young man was James Yukio Tanabe, and he was an American citizen. If he had been seen by local Norfolk Islanders he would definitely have stood out among the hundreds of strangers occupying Norfolk Island, because James Tanabe was Japanese.

Tanabe’s grandparents had migrated to the United States, and his parents worked a large Rice Farm on leased land in California. On the outbreak of war in the Pacific, the Tanabe family were ‘relocated’ along with other Japanese citizens. Barely out of school, James was drafted to serve in combat duty in the military in April 1943. Early in the piece, it was discovered that James could speak a little Japanese, which he had learned from his grandparents, and he was recruited for counter intelligence duties. Part of his training involved working with top secret intelligence equipment.

In September, James Tanabe was shipped out to Australia as a Warrant Officer, and from there he was brought to the Allied Listening Station on Norfolk Island. According to James, at the time it was known as the “Ears of the Pacific.”Although everything was top secret, we are told that the communications headquarters was actually a cottage in Burglar’s Lane near the present hospital. It was disguised as a normal rural dwelling, complete with a fowl run. Due to the top level confidentiality of his task, it is probable that James needed to keep out of the public eye, and was therefore delighted to enjoy his Christmas Day on an empty beach. He would certainly have been an eager topic of local conversation – and local history – if this Japanese man had been noticed by the local population at that time.

In the course of his intelligence duties on Norfolk, Tanabe was later to recall that he had been engaged for 14 – 16 hours each day, monitoring Japanese radio communications, and sending vital information and extracts to the Communications Centre in Brisbane.

By January, James was moved at short notice to New Guinea to assist and train an Australian unit in the use of the American communications equipment. In later years he wrote that he had hoped and expected to return to Norfolk Island, which he had found a fascinating place. However this never eventuated, and he found himself involved in combat in New Guinea. Here he was wounded, and received a Purple Heart Award. After recovering, James became engaged with a number of assignments with Marine Units throughout the Pacific, intercepting Japanese Communications and interrogating Japanese Prisoners of War.

Tanabe went on to have a successful life back in the U.S. working as an electrical engineer, but he never forgot his assignment on Norfolk Island, in particular his memorable Christmas Day at Emily Bay.

Story 2: The Norfolk Effect

For our second story, we move forward to 1945. The Pacific war had shifted to the North, as the Allies gradually forced the Japanese back from the islands. The NZ Army was re-deployed to places under greater threat, and a smaller contingent from the New Zealand Air Force was now stationed on Norfolk Island.

Their task was less defensive and more focussed on the facility provided by Norfolk Island as a staging post for aircraft travelling from New Zealand to Vanuatu and the Solomons. A Radar Installation had been placed at the island’s highest point, at the peak of Mt Bates. Radar had been around for a while, but it had taken the realities of this war to convince many of the military authorities of its usefulness, and lead them to embrace the technology.

Although the authorities continued to be on the alert, it is unlikely at this stage that the island would be under any threat from the Japanese. However, there was considerable alarm one day when the radar unit detected what appeared to be a periscope off the coast near Anson Bay, where the Cable Station was located. The suspected submarine turned out to be the leg of a dead horse floating in the water!

However, the radar was proving extremely useful as a navigational aid for aircraft in transit, particularly at night and at times when bad weather had reduced visibility.

On the morning of 27th March 1945, Flight Officer Les Hepburn, who was in charge of the Radar Installation, began to note an increase in radiation readings. Over the next few days, he observed that this was happening around sunrise and sunset each day. His findings were sent to Wellington, New Zealand, to the Radio Department of the Scientific and Industrial Research Centre.

It was here that Hepburn’s observations came into the hands of a Dr Elizabeth Alexander. Elizabeth was an English born scientist, trained as a geologist, but now applying her considerable skills in work with radio and radar. She had been evacuated from Singapore where she had been working on Radio Directional Finding just prior to the Japanese occupation, and made her way to New Zealand.

Elizabeth was intrigued by Hepburn’s observations. The scientific world had suspected that ‘radio noise’ was coming from somewhere in space, but this was the clearest indication of its origin. Dr Alexander commissioned five radar stations around New Zealand to try and duplicate the Norfolk results, and it soon became apparent that sunspot activity was responsible for emitting radio waves.

The phenomenon was christened ‘The Norfolk Effect,’ and proved to be the foundation of the important science of Radio Astronomy. As it turned out, it was Australia and Australian scientists who lead the world in this field for many years.

Dr Alexander never visited Norfolk Island, and after the war she returned to research and study in the field of Geology. However, many years later in 2013 her daughter, Mary Harris, accompanied by many researchers in the field of Radio Astronomy, came to the island for a conference, and shared with the island’s people how important this little remote outpost had been in developing an important branch of science and communications.



Image Credit: Visualisation by Robin Nisbet


Article content disclaimer: Article first published in Discover Norfolk, Volume 02 Issue 02, 2018. Please note that details of specific travel, accommodation and touring options may be outdated. References to people, places and businesses, including operating days and times may be have changed. References to Government structure and Government businesses/entities may no longer be applicable. Please check directly with businesses and/or Government websites directly rather than relying on any information contained in this article before you make travel arrangements.



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