Paul Edward Allen Mason, born on April 30, 1901 in North Sydney, was the third son of Frederick and the former Margaret Robinson. His family was a contented group who valued sailing and horseback riding as acquired skills. Although he only briefly attended Fort Street Boys’ High School, Mason developed an extraordinary skill to teach himself many skills, which included an extensive knowledge of geography. When his father became disabled, the 14-year-old Mason traveled in January 1916 to the Shortland Islands to relieve the financial pressure on his parents. He went to work for his half-brother, Thomas, who was an active trader.
He was a modest, serious, short young man with fair, somewhat unkempt hair. As a young man, Mason showed outstanding management skills when he supervised the warlike natives who worked for his brother. He returned to his home in 1919 to help family work in an orchard in Penrith, New South Wales. Nevertheless, he had developed a strong affection for the tropical islands and returned in 1925 to manage a plantation on Bougainville. He relentlessly traveled all over the big island to recruit workers and used his learned skills to gain an outstanding knowledge level of Bougainville’s topography and native culture. He developed a reputation as an expert navigator and affinity to wireless communication. Nonetheless, Mason attained an unfavorable reputation for being a slovenly dresser, frequenting native labor quarters to satisfy his sexual needs, and generally an ill-kempt, ignorant, and unconventional person. However, his skills as a navigator and radio communicator were the best.
His reputation earned him an invitation to join Eric Feldt’s team of coastwatchers. Career military officers said he was “overage, slightly deaf, a bit shortsighted,” and possessed a speech impairment caused by malaria. When most planters and government official left Bougainville in 1942, Mason remained on the island to carry on his coastwatcher responsibilities. The RAN gave him the rank of petty officer in the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RANVR) to protect him from the Japanese shooting him as a spy.
Just before the Americans invaded Guadalcanal, Mason and his fellow coastwatcher in northern Bougainville, W. J. “Jack” Read, received orders to report any Japanese ships and aircraft heading for Guadalcanal. Mason warned the Americans on August 7 of impending danger when he sent one of his most famous messages, “Twenty-four bombers headed yours.” The result of that warning was the Americans intercepting the Japanese bombers and shooting down all but one of the attackers. That pattern continued not only for Japanese aircraft but also for any Japanese ships trying to run the “Tokyo Express.” The ships met similar fates as well. Rewarding his heroism, the RAN promoted Mason to Sub-Lieutenant, and the Americans awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross.
The Japanese soon realized that Mason was a dangerous presence on Bougainville. They sent soldiers to find and capture or kill him. Nevertheless, he escaped capture by moving northward through the dense, treacherous, and rugged jungle until he joined Read at Aravia. Read recorded his friend’s exhausted condition – “what he stood up in – shorts and singlet – plus haversack and revolver at belt, and barefooted.”
Even after the Americans captured Guadalcanal, Mason stayed in Bougainville and continued to help the Allies as they advanced up the Solomons’ chain. He returned to Australia in May 1945. More than six years later in December 1951, the RAN awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross and promoted him to Lieutenant Commander (RANVR). This recognition was a great source of pride to Mason. He had married Noelle Taylor in 1947 at Rabaul and, after returning to Australia, tried his hand in politics. After trying election for several local offices, he was not successful in that endeavor. He was skeptical over Australia’s independence movement but bent to its inevitability.
Mason passed away on December 31, 1972 in Brisbane. His portrait now hangs in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. The pilots of the Catalina planes who dropped supplies to Mason paid tribute to him by saying he “represented the upper limit of continuous bravery” and was “their No. 1 hero of World War II” – a fitting tribute indeed.