Two School Friends in the War in Papua New Guinea The Brave Coastwatcher with the ‘Golden Voice’: Leigh Vial 1909–43
Leigh Grant Vial, patrol officer and coastwatcher, was born on 28 February 1909 at Camberwell, Melbourne, eldest of four sons of Victorian-born parents, Stanley Browning Vial, school proprietor, and his wife Mary, née Smith. Educated at Wesley College, Leigh worked in retail stores before beginning a commerce degree at the University of Melbourne in 1932. In November of that year he applied to be a cadet patrol officer in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. Stocky, self-reliant, quiet and earnest, he was one of ten chosen from 1,659 applicants, and in June 1933 was sent to Morobe District.
In August–October 1934 Vial accompanied assistant district officer, Gerry Keogh, in chasing the murderer, Ludwig Schmidt, through unexplored country between the Lai and Sau Rivers in the western Highlands. Vial attended a patrol officers’ course at the University of Sydney in February to August 1935. Judged ‘very solid and thoughtful’, he was promoted patrol officer on 7 June. He returned to Morobe and was posted first to Otibanda then in July 1936 to Buki, south of Finschhafen.
At Salamaua on 26 November 1936 he married Marjorie Kathleen Strangward in a civil ceremony. They went to Buki, but Leigh was rarely at home, patrolling for months in the mountains. He was transferred to Salamaua in late 1937 and Madang in June 1938, and on 31 August 1940 was made assistant district officer, Rabaul. On 15 August 1938 he had become the first European to climb Mount Wilhelm, the Territory’s highest peak, and during his town postings he wrote fifteen articles on the peoples of Morobe and the Highlands, most for Walkabout or Oceania.
A day before the Japanese occupied Rabaul on 23 January 1942, Vial led one hundred ground crew of No. 24 Squadron, Royal Australian Air Force, to Put Put on the east coast of New Britain, where two flying boats took them to Townsville, Queensland. He was appointed pilot officer, RAAF, on 28 January and assigned to coastwatching in New Guinea. Reaching Salamaua on 20 February, he took his cumbersome teleradio inland, and on 28 February, his thirty-third birthday, he and two New Guineans set up an observation post (OP) looking north-east over Salamaua and Lae. He wrote later that OPs should be positioned in terrain that confused radio direction-finders, and have well-concealed lines of withdrawal, cloud-free views and a water supply.
New Guineans pronounced Vial’s name ‘Well’; his post became ‘Well’s O-Pip’. From it his clear, calm voice sent as many as nine messages a day on the weather and on Japanese aircraft, ship and troop movements. He was nicknamed ‘Golden Voice’, and an American pilot was to recall, ‘We all felt a closeness to him.’ In the dank jungle, constantly wet, beset by leeches and mosquitoes, he suffered tinea so badly that he had to crawl to send reports. The Japanese attempted to bribe local people to betray him, and two patrols passed under the tree in which he was hiding, but he remained until 12 June, when he moved closer to Salamaua to get under cloud.
The new post was extremely dangerous, and on 24 June Vial suspected that a Japanese aeroplane had located it. He moved to what became known as Vial’s OP, and later admitted to a ‘bad scare’ once a week on average. On 28 July he was promoted flying officer, but poor food, privation and the constant use of binoculars were blinding him, and he was relieved on 11 August. He walked to Wau in two days, then flew to Port Moresby. His intelligence officer reported that ‘not on any single occasion did he neglect to get his messages through’. In 1942, for his extraordinary heroism, he was awarded the United States’ Distinguished Service Cross, that country’s second-highest bravery decoration and its highest for non-citizens.
On leave in August to November 1942, Vial wrote a handbook on jungle survival. He then took command of the Port Moresby section of the Far East Liaison Office, which made propaganda broadcasts, dropped leaflets—some of which Vial wrote—and supplied allied patrols in Japanese-occupied territory. The following January he was promoted to flight lieutenant, but on 30 April, 1943 on a supply drop, the Liberator carrying him crashed near Bena Bena in the Highlands. All twelve on board were killed. Their bodies were recovered and buried in Lae War Cemetery. Vial’s wife, and their son and two daughters, who had been evacuated to Melbourne, survived him.
Written by Bill Gammage, published in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 16, (MUP), 2002