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Third Officer Ruby Boye

“Calling Mrs Boye on Vanikoro.”  So began a message from Japanese forces to Ruby Boye in 1942.  What followed was a terse and direct threat for Ruby to discontinue her operations.  Over the course of World War II, Ruby Boye operated the radio at Vanikoro in the Solomon Islands as Australia’s only female coastwatcher.  Her service warranted a personal visit to Vanikoro by Fleet Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey Jr, USN, and earned her a British Empire Medal (BEM).

Ruby was born Ruby Olive Jones on 29 July 1891 in Sydney, the fifth of eight children.  She was working as a saleswoman when she married a laundry proprietor, Sydney Skov Boye who had previously lived in Tulagi in the Solomon Islands, in Sydney on 25 October 1919.

Skov returned to Tulagi, with Ruby and their son, Ken, in 1928 to take up his old position with Lever Brothers. Their second son, Don, was born shortly afterwards and the two boys would spend most of their school years in Sydney. In 1936 Skov accepted the position of Island Manager for the Kauri Timber Company’s logging operations on Vanikoro in the Santa Cruz group. Vanikoro is a mountainous island surrounded by a treacherous coral reef. There were no roads. The timber logged in the mountains was hauled to the harbour by rail tractors where they were rafted together to await shipping to Australia. Ships would arrive from Melbourne four times a year to collect the logs and at the same time delivered mail and supplies for the loggers. Around 20 Kauri employees, including a radio operator and a doctor, came to Vanikoro from Australia and New Zealand on two year contracts in addition to about 80 islander labourers.

The family lived in the island’s main village, Paeu, on the south-west coast of the island on the southern bank of the Lawrence River where crocodiles were common. A suspension bridge over the river led to the main part of the village as well as the company store, office, machine shop and living quarters for the company’s workforce.

Upon the declaration of World War II, Lieutenant Commander (later Commander, OBE) Eric Feldt assumed responsibility for the naval coastwatching network in the South Pacific. Vanikoro formed part of the network; however, the operator wanted to return to Australia to join the RAAF. He suggested that Ruby could take over the operation of the radio until a replacement arrived. Ruby agreed and so learned how to operate the radio and compile weather reports using a panel of instruments and her own observations. She sent weather reports by voice four times a day, providing vital meteorological information for both ships and aircraft. No replacement was ever sent; there was no need as long as Ruby kept sending her reports. Ken and Don, meanwhile, returned to Australia to stay with relatives.

Timber production at Vanikoro ceased when the Japanese entered the war, and staff and their families left by ship. Skov decided to stay to look after the company's interests while Ruby considered it her duty to continue operating the radio. With the departure of the doctor, Ruby also took on the responsibility of the health and welfare of the local islanders.  They had to act as Doctor treating the sick, sometimes a wasted effort as the natives would take off their bandages and re-wrap the wounds with banana leaves.  They extracted teeth and arbitrated disputes between the natives. Serious offences had to be reported to the district officials at Santa Cruz.  Many of the natives travelled between the islands by canoe and brought Ruby information about Japanese movements and dispositions.

It was a courageous decision. Ruby was 50 and Skov was older, and they were the only non-Solomon Islanders left on the island. If the Japanese did invade the island, and Vanikoro was in a precarious position, they were defenceless. They received supplies infrequently and were often short of rations. No mail, newspapers or magazines were delivered, and the radio was strictly for intelligence use only. Ruby only ever received three personal messages over the radio; to advise her of the deaths of her father, mother and a sister.[1]

Ruby initially directed her reports to Tulagi but when it fell to the Japanese in May 1942 she was directed to send her reports to Vila in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu). It was at this time in early 1942 that Ruby received the first of several threatening messages. One of her fellow coastwatchers, listening on the same frequency, responded to the Japanese operator “in language which they wouldn’t repeat to a lady.”[2] For her part, Ruby remained unperturbed; “I felt just a little bit queer when I heard that voice but somehow I felt he was bragging... The mere fact that I was annoying them sufficiently to have them warn me off was somewhat gratifying.”[3] Shortly afterwards Ruby’s radio was changed to a different frequency and she was instructed to transmit only in Morse Code, which she had taught herself.

After the Japanese landed at Tulagi, Charles Bignell, a Solomon Islands plantation owner, called at Vanikoro in his ketch for fresh water and food to enable him to reach the New Hebrides. Charles warned Ruby and her husband that a Japanese ship was in the Santa Anna area. Charles’ wife, Kathleen, and son, Ted, both good friends of Ruby’s, had been captured by the Japanese at Rabaul. Margaret Clarence’s book ‘Yield Not to the Wind‘ covers this episode. Between 4th and 8th May 1942, the Battle of the Coral Sea took place. Ruby, at Vanikoro, some 700 miles away from the Coral Sea Battle area, was sending out coded meteorological data, and acted as an emergency relay station in communicating reports between coastwatching stations in the Solomons and Vila, the US Navy base receiving station, in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu).

The US Aircraft Carrier Lexington was lost while the Japanese carrier Shoho was sunk. HMA Ships Australia and Hobart took part in the battle.

The Japanese main object, the capture of Port Moresby, was denied them, nor did they ever get as far south again, after the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Even so in 1942 Japanese naval forces were operating north, south, east and west of Vanikoro.

Ruby was on duty during the Battle of Savo Island in August 1942, when HMAS Canberra was lost, together with the US Cruisers Astoria, Vincennes and Quincy.

Guadalcanal, where the Japanese fought until early 1943, was only some 500 miles north by west of Vanikoro and during that critical period, Ruby was in easy range of Japanese aircraft which flew at low heights over the Island on many occasions.  For safety reasons it was decided to relocate the tall radio mast and equipment across the river from the living quarters.  After the move had been successfully completed, a native helper said ‘My word. Missus, you savvy too much.’ After the suspension bridge crossing the river from the residence to the radio shack was destroyed in a cyclone, four times a day, often in torrential tropical downpours, this indomitable lady had to cross the crocodile-infested Lawrence River by punt, and then often walk through ankle-deep mud to transmit the important meteorological data obtained from her own readings. She had to be ready to relay messages right on time as some coastwatchers were at about the limit of radio range to the Naval Base at Vila.

The night transmitting session was the most hair-raising, because the crocodiles became active at dusk. Spotlights would sometimes reveal the evil eyes gleaming like two orange lights in the dark. In fact a number of dogs and cats were killed and fowls perched under Ruby’s residence were often seized by the crocodiles.

In one horrifying incident before the war, Ruby tells of a Solomon Islander whose whole breast was bitten off while she was in the water. On the lighter side, Ruby has seen crocodiles in the Solomon Islands, basking on the river bank, their mouths wide open and birds going flat out cleaning the croc’s teeth as the crocodiles have no tongue to clean their own teeth.

As civilians, coastwatchers were advised to cease their operations and evacuate as the Japanese advanced into their territory.  The vast majority of them, like Ruby, chose to continue their activities in the knowledge that capture could result in their execution. In March 1942, following the execution of an elderly planter, the coastwatchers were given ranks or ratings, mostly in the Volunteer Reserve, in the hope that this would provide them some protection in the event of capture. From 27 July 1943 Ruby was officially appointed an honourary third officer in the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS). Her uniform was later airdropped to her. The US Army also offered Ruby’s little outpost official recognition as 3rd Army Outpost. Those appointments would, in reality, offer Ruby little protection if she ever were captured. She and Skov agreed that if the Japanese ever did land on Vanikoro they would head into the jungle and, if it came to it, take their own lives rather than be captured. Ruby also provided a vital intelligence link in the South Pacific and often relayed messages from other coastwatchers when they were unable to reach the US base at Vila. She is credited with passing on vital information during the Battle of the Coral Sea, as well as from Leyte and Guadalcanal.[4]

Japanese reconnaissance planes were often heard overhead and on one occasion during the night, lights were seen and boat engines were heard around the reef lasting for around four hours. Ruby believed that the Japanese were trying to find the entrance to the harbour but abandoned their attempt to land when they were unable to do so. For safety reasons it was decided to move the radio equipment across the river away from the Boye’s home. After the suspension bridge across the Lawrence River collapsed, Ruby had to make the journey to the radio shack across the crocodile-infested river by punt and through ankle-deep mud four times a day.[5]

Ruby at her radio on Vanikoro

In 1944 a Catalina flying boat refuelling station was established on the island. This meant an improvement in conditions for Ruby as supplies were delivered on a more regular basis; however, the station was also a target for Japanese air raids which occasionally damaged aircraft and tenders in the harbour.

Such was the appreciation for Ruby’s efforts that Admiral Halsey personally called on her at Vanikoro. He arrived in a flying boat and a small group of officers came ashore to be met by Skov. Halsey introduced himself; “Name’s Halsey. Not stopping for long, just thought I’d like to call in and meet that marvellous woman who runs the radio.” Halsey told Ruby that he was “playing hookey” by visiting.[6]

It was around this time, in 1944, that Ruby developed shingles and Halsey arranged for a USN Catalina to fly her to Sydney for treatment. Four US servicemen were assigned to take over the operation of the radio during her convalescence; four men assigned to do the work that Ruby had been doing on her own. After three weeks in Australia, she re-joined Skov at Vanikoro and resumed her coastwatching duties.

In 1944 Ruby was awarded the BEM for meritorious service as a Coastwatcher in the Solomons.  In addition, she received the 1939/45 Star, the Pacific Star, the War Medal and the Australian Service Medal, the Returned From Active Service Badge and is a Life Member of the WRANS Association.  However, because she held only an honorary rank, she received no payment for her work during the war.

The letters of appreciation, the photos and autographs from Admirals Nimitz, Halsey and Fitch and an invitation to Texas for the Grand Opening of the Admiral Nimitz Memorial meant more to Ruby than money.

As the Japanese were slowly pushed northwards the Americans withdrew from Vanikoro in 1945 but Ruby diligently continued her work until until the news was received, via her teleradio, that the war was over. The Kauri Timber Company resumed logging operations after the war and Ruby was officially employed as secretary to the manager while continuing to send weather reports to the Bureau of Meteorology. Ruby was presented with her BEM in 1946 in a ceremony in Suva.

In 1947 Skov fell ill and both he and Ruby returned to Sydney in August for diagnosis and treatment. Two weeks after being diagnosed with Leukemia, Skov passed away. Ruby briefly returned to Vanikoro to finalise affairs there before returning to Australia for good.

Ruby married Frank Jones in 1950 and took on the name Boye-Jones; but 11 years later, Frank too passed away.

Ruby lived alone at her Penshurst home for the next thirty years during which she had diabetic problems and as a result had her left leg amputated below the knee.  A hip operation followed a year later.  At her age she could only have an epidural (regional anaesthesia) so was able to talk to the nurses and listen to the surgeons as the operations progressed.  At age 90 she learnt to use an artificial leg.  Ruby looked after herself doing her housecleaning, washing and some cooking.  To keep her mind active she read, viewed TV and listened to the radio. She finally moved into a nursing home at the age of 96.  She remained active and enjoyed the company of a vast network of friends and family.  In her own words; “Age is a matter of mind and if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” 

The then Chief of Naval Staff, Vice Admiral Mike Hudson, wrote to her on her 98th birthday saying; “Your name is synonymous with the finest traditions of service to the Navy and the nation.  We have not, nor will not, forget your wonderful contribution.”

Ruby passed away on 14 September 1990, aged 99.

In recognition for her work as a coastwatcher during World War II Ruby Boye was appointed to the Order of the British Empire (Civil) on 25 July 1944. She also received the 1939-1945 Pacific Star and War Medal and was made a Life Member of the WRANS Association.  In 1985 the Navy named Boye House, one of the accommodation blocks in the Joint Defence Force Academy at Duntroon, in her honour.  The ex-WRANS Association has dedicated a page to her in the Garden Island Chapel Remembrance Book.

WO Marty Grogan OAM, created the WRANS room in the Cerberus Museum and a mannequin of Third Officer Ruby Boye takes pride of place.


Ruby Boye – Coastwatcher Heroine by Alan Zammitt (lifelong friend of Ruby) - Naval Historical Society of Australia

Semaphore issue 7, 2017 by Petar Djokovic (Sea Power Centre - Australia)

[1] Recollections of Mrs Joy Wade, Ruby Boye-Jones’ friend and neighbour.

[2] Baldwin, Suzy, Unsung Heroines: Coastwatcher Ruby Boye – One Woman’s War, Australian Women’s Weekly, February 1988, p.229.

[3] Unknown periodical extract, Boye family collection.

[4] Transcript, Oral History of Ruby Boye-Jones, Coastwatcher, Admiral Chester W Nimitz Museum, 1981

[5] Zammit, Alan, Coastwatcher Heroine of the Pacific War, Naval Historical Review, August/September 1984, pp.7-14.

[6] Australian Woman Commanded Island Outpost, The Armidale Express, 15 August 1945, p.11.