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Mason, Paul Edward Allen (1901–1972)

by James Griffin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Paul Edward Allen Mason (1901-1972), planter and coastwatcher, was born on 30 April 1901 in North Sydney, third child of Frederick Mason (formerly Mikkelsen), a Danish-born master mariner, and his native-born wife Margaret, née Robinson, who had been widowed before she married Frederick. The family was contented and domesticated, principled but not overtly religious, and valued practical skills such as sailing and horse-riding. Paul briefly attended Fort Street Boys' High School and was afterwards a keen but cursory autodidact. With his father disabled, he left in January 1916 for the Shortland Islands, British Solomon Islands Protectorate, to ease the family burden and to assist his half-brother Tommy, a trader.

An unprepossessing, short, bespectacled youth, with fair, tousled hair and somewhat prominent teeth, Mason intrepidly managed labour-lines of recently contacted warriors. He returned home in 1919 to help his family work an orchard at Penrith, but the tropics lured him again. In 1925 he accepted a job managing Inus plantation on Bougainville, after his predecessor had been hacked to death by labourers. He tramped the island to recruit workers, picking up unrivalled knowledge of the terrain and familiarity with custom. A relieving manager and inspector for Associated Plantations Ltd (which owned Inus), he became an expert navigator. Before World War II, however, he was regarded as an ill-kempt, unlettered eccentric, most genial but gauche and shy, with the taint—through Tommy's marriage—of having mixed-race relations, and distinguished only by navigational and ingenious mechanical skills, particularly with wireless.

Consequently he was invited to join Eric Feldt's coastwatching team. Although Mason was scoffed at for military service—'overage, undersized, slightly deaf, a bit shortsighted', with a malaria-induced slight impediment in his speech—he remained on Bougainville in 1942 after most officials and planters had scuttled. To safeguard him in the event of capture, he was made petty officer, Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve. He was told to create observation posts behind Kieta, and then inland from Buin in the south.

With forces of the United States of America poised to invade Guadalcanal, Mason and Jack Read (his fellow coastwatcher in the north) were ordered to report all enemy aircraft and ships proceeding south-east. On 7 August Mason's celebrated signal, 'Twenty-four bombers headed yours', brought disaster to the Japanese as American fighters swooped on them. Only one Japanese aircraft returned. Unsuspecting until too late why such losses continued, the Japanese had their air cover destroyed. 'Tokyo Express' warships steaming down the Solomons 'Slot' subsequently encountered a similar reception. (Fleet) Admiral William Halsey, U.S. Navy, said that the coastwatchers 'saved Guadalcanal' and Guadalcanal 'saved the South Pacific'. In November Mason was promoted sub lieutenant and learned that he had won the U.S. Distinguished Service Cross.

Eventually alert to the danger that Europeans posed on Bougainville, the Japanese moved to corral them. A squad of local 'Black Dogs', under Japanese command, harried Mason's party as he fled northwards, eventually reaching Read at Aravia after a gruelling trek through mountainous jungle. Mason arrived with merely 'what he stood up in—shorts and singlet—plus haversack and revolver at belt; and barefooted', wrote an admiring Read. Only his audacity and his rapport with villagers had saved him.

Fresh instructions came to set up another station in the south. Mason wanted to go alone: he was exasperated by soldiers whom he regarded as inexperienced and less resourceful—and he was exhilarated by his own unanticipated physical and moral fibre in spite of age and infirmities. But Read insisted that he be accompanied. In June 1943 Mason's men were ambushed en route and had to flee. An epic climb over the 5000-ft (1500 m) Keriaka plateau saved them. By July U.S. submarines had evacuated the remaining Europeans, with the coastwatchers the last to leave. From Sydney, Mason returned to duty in late November. He was selected to take a party of Black scouts to Treasury Island, a hazardous and unsuccessful sally from which he contracted near-fatal pneumonia. He was invalided to Australia in March 1944. In Bougainville villages, rumours spread that he was dead.

Mason's unexpected return in November 1944 impressed locals, wavering in their opposition to the Japanese, with his possible indestructibility. He recruited a small partisan band which terrorized the enemy and was credited with a record body count of 2288. Always he put his scouts' welfare before his own. His daring rescues were notable for the care taken of former prisoners, especially missionaries, and the lack of vindictiveness towards collaborators. His continued wrangling with headquarters over supplies and the deficiencies of regular soldiers probably led to his transfer home in May 1945 before final victory. He was awarded the D.S.C. In December 1951 he was promoted lieutenant commander, R.A.N.V.R. (Special Branch), a matter of deep pride to him.

After the war Mason grew into a self-confident celebrity. On 13 November 1947 at Rabaul he married Noelle Evelyn Taylor, a 30-year-old arts graduate in psychology and a journalist. He returned to Inus. Associated Plantations had rewarded him with shares. The plantation flourished with his recruitment of labour from the Highlands, where he and his wife founded a retail enterprise, Buka Stores, and the Chimbu Lodge. Becoming a spokesman for his 'Cinderella district', he sat on its advisory council and wrote articles for Pacific Islands Monthly. In 1961 he stood successfully for the Territory's reconstructed Legislative Council in order to oppose the emergence of political parties which he thought undemocratic. Although listened to respectfully, he was a political nonentity. By 1972 he had accepted the inevitability of early national independence, but feared the outcome.

While not a flag-waver, Mason belonged to the Imperial Service Club, Sydney, and the New Guinea branch of the Returned Sailors', Soldiers' and Airmen's Imperial League of Australia. He died on 31 December 1972 at Greenslopes, Brisbane, and was cremated; his wife, daughter and son survived him. Appropriately for a non-dogmatic Christian, panegyrics were delivered by both Methodist and Catholic clergymen. The Australian War Memorial, Canberra, holds his portrait by Olive Kroening. For the Catalina pilots who had supplied him, Mason 'represented the upper limit of continuous bravery' and was 'their No 1 hero of World War II'.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Stuart, Nuts to You! (Syd, 1977)
  • J. Griffin, 'Paul Mason: Planter and Coastwatcher', in J. Griffin (ed), Papua New Guinea Portraits (Canb, 1978) and for sources
  • A. B. Feuer (ed), Coastwatching in the Solomon Islands (NY, 1992)
  • A. McNab, We Were The First (Syd, 1998)
  • private information.

Citation details

James Griffin, 'Mason, Paul Edward Allen (1901–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mason-paul-edward-allen-11081/text19725, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 2 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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