Commander Eric Augustus Feldt

Eric Augustas Feldt

By JCH Gill

Eric Augustus Feldt (1899-1968), naval officer and colonial official, was born on 3 January 1899 at Cardwell, Queensland, eighth child of Swedish-born parents Peter Feldt, cane-farmer, and his wife Augusta, née Blixt. Educated locally and (in 1912) at Brisbane Grammar School, Eric won selection for the 1913 entry of Cadets into the RANC, Osborne House, Geelong, Victoria (subsequently at Jervis Bay). He was Chief Cadet Captain and gained colours for Rugby Union and athletics before graduating as Midshipman in January 1917.

Sent to England, in April 1917 Feldt joined HMS Canada. In October 1918 he was posted to HMS Victory and in March 1919 to HMAS Swordsman, in which he returned to Australia. He was promoted Lieutenant in February 1920 and in January 1921 transferred to the cruiser, HMAS Melbourne. Seeing little future in the severely reduced RAN, he resigned on 30 October 1922 and was placed on the retired list.

On 15 February 1923 Feldt became a clerk in the public service of the mandated Territory of New Guinea. By 1924 he was a Patrol Officer. Rising to District Officer, he served in different parts of the Territory. At St Andrew's Anglican Church, South Brisbane, on 10 January 1933 he married Nancy Lynette Echlin, a journalist; they were to remain childless. Appointed acting Warden (Morobe Goldfields) on 12 November 1935 (confirmed April 1936), Feldt lived at Wau and administered the mining ordinance as the Territory's Chief Warden. A staff of inspectors, geologists and surveyors assisted him; the giant Bulolo Gold Dredging Ltd was one of the companies under his jurisdiction.

In 1928 he had been promoted Lieutenant Commander. He transferred to the emergency list in April 1939. Four months later the Director of Naval Intelligence, Lieutenant Commander RBM Long [q.v.], offered him the post of Staff Officer (Intelligence), Port Moresby. Feldt's assignment would be to activate and extend the coastwatching screen across the north eastern approaches to Australia which would warn of hostile incursions by sea or air. Having accepted, he was mobilised on 8 September and arrived in Port Moresby that month. Travelling by air, sea and on foot, he visited key sites in Papua, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and the New Hebrides, meeting coastwatchers and bringing officials and civilian planters into the service. Additional 'teleradio' sets were distributed.

Feldt was appointed Supervising Intelligence Officer, North Eastern Area, in May 1941 and transferred to Townsville, Queensland, with a naval intelligence officer in, respectively, Port Moresby and Rabaul, at Tulagi in the Solomon Islands and at Vila in the New Hebrides. When the Japanese entered the war in December, the coastwatchers showed their worth by transmitting warnings of air raids to defenders in Rabaul - before its capture in January 1942 - and then to those in Port Moresby. After the Americans invaded Guadalcanal in August, coastwatchers alerted them to the approach of Japanese aircraft from Rabaul and Kavieng, New Ireland, enabling American planes to be in position to outfight the faster Zeros.

From early 1942 the majority of the coastwatchers were in enemy territory. Because of naval parsimony, Feldt experienced difficulty in supplying them with stores and equipment. The cooperation of the RAAF in dropping supplies was one source of encouragement. Initially, Feldt had only one staff member at headquarters; often compelled to leave Townsville, he had to delegate the supply operation and routine intelligence work to his assistant. The stress and strain of the work began to affect Feldt's health. While visiting Guadalcanal in March 1943, he suffered a coronary thrombosis.

After recovering, Feldt was stationed in Brisbane and carried out duties with the Allied Intelligence Bureau. He had been promoted Acting Commander in July 1942, but the RAN reduced him to his substantive rank in August 1943. In February 1945 he was appointed Naval Officer-in-Charge, Torokina, Bougainville, and in May regained the rank of Acting Commander. Returning to Brisbane in June, he was demobilised on 29 September. He had been appointed OBE in 1944, his only reward.

Feldt retired from the New Guinea administration and lived in Brisbane on a pension. In 1946 he published 'The Coast Watchers' (Melbourne), the definitive story of the service. That year he was Secretary of the United Service Club. He described himself as "that oddity of inheritance, a dark Swede, thin, bull-necked and with thinning hair, vehement and forthright...[who] never yet called a man a stupid bastard unless he failed to adopt my views within five minutes of my expressing them". Survived by his wife, he died of myocardial infarction on 12 March 1968 at his New Farm home and was cremated; his ashes were scattered at sea near the Coastwatchers' Light, Madang, Papua New Guinea. Feldt had been remarkable for his ability to get the best out of his coastwatchers, those rugged individualists popularly known as 'the Islanders'. Expecting loyalty, he also gave it and never spared himself.