Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Read, William John (Jack) (1905–1992)

by P. A. Selth

This article was published online in 2016

William John (Jack) Read (1905–1992), coastwatcher and public servant, was born on 18 September 1905 in Hobart, the only son of locally born parents William George Read, hairdresser, and his wife Eleanor Elfridine, née Absolom. After attending Hobart State High School, Jack worked as a bookkeeper for the Electrolytic Zinc Co. of Australasia Ltd. In December 1928 he successfully applied for a cadetship in the public service of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. On 26 June 1929, the day before he left Tasmania, he married Gwenneth Ballantyne, a teacher, at the Holy Trinity Church, Hobart.

Arriving in Rabaul, Read was informed, probably by Harold Page, the government secretary, that his appointment would be cancelled because he was married. A subsequent investigation found that the job advertisement made no mention of a marriage bar and Read was allowed to remain. He initially served on New Britain under the district officer Ted Taylor. On patrols he was trained by, among others, Lance Corporal Ludwig Somare Sana, whose eldest son would become prime minister of Papua New Guinea. In 1931, together with two other cadets, he undertook a course in social anthropology at the University of Sydney. Returning to Rabaul in February 1932, he was assigned to a single-officer’s post ‘247 miles away up the dreaded outlandish Sepik River’ (SLV MS 14503) and promoted to patrol officer. He moved to Madang, from where he established a new post at Bogia. Suffering amoebic dysentery, he took leave in Sydney in December 1933. Next year he returned to Bogia accompanied by Gwen. Elevated to assistant district officer in August 1936, he served at Madang, Wau, and Lae.

At the outbreak of World War II, Read took Italian and German gold miners into custody before their internment in Australia. On leave, in mid-1941 he went to Australia with his wife and four-year-old daughter, Judith; he returned to New Guinea alone. Refused release for military service, in November he was sent to Bougainville, attached to the Buka Passage sub-district. His duties included coastwatching under the command of Lieutenant Commander Eric Feldt. As a former district officer at Madang, Feldt knew Read well, describing him as being of medium height and wiry in build, with a deep and somewhat harsh voice and an explosive laugh. His manner was ‘blunt and straightforward, with more firmness than tact in it’ (1946, 119).

From March 1942 Japanese military forces occupied Buka and Bougainville. Although Read had been mobilised as a sergeant in the New Guinea Administrative Unit in February, he preferred to go to Australia and enlist in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Feldt persuaded him to stay and on 2 April he was appointed as a lieutenant in the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RANVR). He quickly established a coastwatching network across Bougainville to provide information on enemy movements. On 8 August, the day after Allied forces had landed at Guadalcanal, he transmitted ‘forty-five dive-bombers going south-east’ (Feldt 1946, 144). His signals and those sent by a fellow coastwatcher, Paul Mason, gave the Allies time to disperse their ships and have the fighters fuelled and waiting. On 7 October Read and Mason were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (United States of America) for their extraordinary heroism.

On Bougainville the Japanese intensified their hunt for the coastwatchers with the support of some of the coastal people, and Read was lucky to escape alive from one attack. In late June 1943 he urged immediate evacuation. On 24 and 28 July the submarine USS Guardfish removed the coastwatchers, scouts and native police who had assisted them, military personnel, and civilians. Admiral William F. Halsey, the US Navy commander of the South Pacific Area, said that the intelligence forwarded from Bougainville had ‘saved Guadalcanal and that Guadalcanal had saved the South Pacific’ (NAA B3476, 68). Commissioned in the AIF in September 1944, Read was appointed as a major in the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit and served as acting district officer on Bougainville. In May 1946 he joined the provisional administration of the Territory of Papua-New Guinea as assistant district officer and moved to Kavieng, New Ireland. He transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 26 July and was mentioned in despatches for exceptional service in the field. Having retained his RANVR commission, he was promoted to lieutenant commander in 1950 and would be placed on the Retired List in 1963.

On 3 May 1951 Read left the Territory of Papua and New Guinea’s public service and took civilian employment with the Department of the Navy in Melbourne. Hating the winters, a year later he returned to a new position in the Territory as native land commissioner. In this role he investigated local histories of occupation and determined what land was the hereditary property of individuals or communities by customary right. Retiring in March 1975, he left for Australia soon after Papua New Guinea achieved independence. In Melbourne he continued his hobby of photography. After Gwen’s death in 1980, he moved with his ageing dog, ‘Hawke,’ to Ballarat to be closer to Judith. Survived by her, he died on 29 June 1992 at Ballarat and was cremated.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Feldt, Eric. The Coast Watchers. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1946
  • National Archives of Australia. A452, 1959/6070
  • National Archives of Australia. A518, F852/6/1B
  • National Archives of Australia. A6769, Read WJ
  • National Archives of Australia. B3476, 68
  • National Archives of Australia. B3476, 77
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, VX95356
  • Pacific Manuscripts Bureau. PMB 1309, Read, Jack. New Guinea Patrol Reports, Related Documents and Photographs, 1930–1940
  • State Library of Victoria. MS 14503, Jack Read collection, 1942–2009
  • Read, Jack. Coast Watcher: The Bougainville Reports 19411943. Port Moresby: Papua New Guinea Printing Co., 2006

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

P. A. Selth, 'Read, William John (Jack) (1905–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/read-william-john-jack-19062/text30649, published online 2016, accessed online 23 August 2019.

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