Lieutenant Commander Paul Edward Allen Mason

Lieutenant Paul Mason, RANR, with family members after recieving the DSC

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 wife Margaret (née Robinson). Margaret 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 but was largely self-taught. With his father disabled, he left home in January 1916 and headed north to the Shortland Islands in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, to help ease the family burden and also to assist his half brother Tommy, a local trader who was married to a Solomon Islander.

An unprepossessing, short, bespectacled youth, with fair, tousled hair and somewhat prominent teeth, Mason intrepidly managed labour-lines of former 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 local customs. He became a relieving manager and inspector for Associated Plantations Ltd (which owned Inus) and also became an expert navigator. Before World War II, however, he was regarded locally as an ill-kept eccentric, mostly genial but gauche and shy. He was distinguished only by navigational and ingenious mechanical skills, particularly with wireless.

Consequently he was invited to join Eric Feldt's coast-watching team. Mason was originally scoffed at for military service; being overage, undersized, slightly deaf, a bit short-sighted and with a malaria-induced slight impediment in his speech. But he remained on Bougainville in 1942 after the Japanese invasion even after most other officials and planters had departed. To safeguard him in the event of capture, he was made a Petty Officer in the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RANVR) on 2 April 1942. He was told to create observation posts behind Kieta and then later inland from Buin in the south.

With forces of the United States of America poised to invade Guadalcanal, Mason and Jack Read (his fellow coast-watcher in the north) were ordered to report all enemy aircraft and ships proceeding south-east. On 7 August 1942, 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 as to why such losses continued, the Japanese had their air cover destroyed. 'Tokyo Express' warships steaming down the Solomon Islands 'Slot' subsequently encountered a similar reception. Admiral William Halsey, US Navy, said that the coast-watchers "saved Guadalcanal" and Guadalcanal "saved the South Pacific". In October 1942 Mason was awarded the US Distinguished Service Cross, for extraordinary heroism in action in the South West Pacific Area. Mason was promoted to Sub Lieutenant in November 1942 and to Lieutenant in April 1943.

Eventually alert to the danger that Europeans posed on Bougainville, the Japanese moved to corral them. A squad of local natives, under Japanese command, harried Mason's party as he fled northwards, eventually reaching Read's camp 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 foot (1500 metre) Keriaka plateau saved them.

By July 1943 US submarines had evacuated the remaining Europeans, with the coast-watchers the last to leave. After a short period in Sydney, Mason returned to duty in late November 1943. He was selected to take a party of native scouts to Treasury Island, a hazardous and unsuccessful activity 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 so impressed the local population, 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 his higher headquarters over supplies and the deficiencies of regular soldiers probably led to his transfer to Australia in May 1945. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) in July 1945 for great skill and outstanding devotion to duty in special operations in the Far East.

Paul Mason was demobilised from the Navy on 20 May 1946 although in December 1951 he was promoted to Lieutenant Commander, RANVR (Special Branch) which was a matter of great 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 Plantation (Associated Plantations had rewarded him for his work 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 early 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, eulogies 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 Number 1 hero of World War II".