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Boye-Jones, Ruby Olive (1891–1990)

by Tim Barlass

Ruby Boye-Jones, n.d.

Ruby Boye-Jones, n.d.

photo from Royal Australian Navy

The controversial establishment of a military base on the Solomon Islands by China has thrown the spotlight on a Sydney woman who was the “unsung hero” of the islands during World War II.

Now, the preparedness of Ruby Boye-Jones to put her life on the line to prevent a hostile power establishing a base on the Solomon Islands seems, with a contemporary perspective, to have been in vain.

Boye-Jones refused to be evacuated from Vanikoro (in the Santa Cruz group of islands) with the outbreak of war. Instead, she learnt to operate the island’s radio and taught herself Morse code to maintain weather broadcasts used by Allied shipping and aircraft during the war in the Pacific.

The Japanese, aware of her presence, would broadcast night after night on the same wavelength: “Calling Mrs Boye on Vanikoro. We are coming to get you, Ruby. We are coming to get you.”

The potential for a Chinese military base on the Solomon Islands is now seen to destabilise Australia’s near northern approaches and is becoming an issue of the election campaign.

Rory Medcalf, head of the ANU National Security College, told the Herald’s international editor Peter Hartcher on Thursday: “It begs the question, if we can’t shape an outcome in a nearby small country where we’ve provided stability for decades, where can we?”

Now Boye-Jones’ grandson Phill Boye from Wollongong, who knew his grandmother well as she survived in Sydney to the age of 99, has likened the latest moves by China to the advance by Russia against the Ukraine.

“It is concerning the way this has been pushed through,” he told The Sun-Herald. “It is getting harder to trust some foreign powers, especially with what’s happening with Russia. You feel sometimes the Chinese are a bit the same, you know, the truth isn’t there.

“It is frightening to think that you can’t trust what they say. That’s the scary thing, especially watching what Russia is doing, and they are quite happy to just lie.” 

Asked if he believed Australia had taken its eye off the ball, he said: “I guess you could say that. That’s a fair enough statement. I think she [Ruby] would probably feel the same way. That was a very hard-fought area in that part of the Pacific, the battles right nearby were pretty horrific.”

Amid allegations of failure of foreign policy, the eve of Anzac Day merits the telling of the achievements of a remarkable woman who was Australia’s only female Coastwatcher during the Second World War.

Ruby Olive Jones was born in Sydney in 1891 and was working as a saleswoman when she married laundry operator Skov Boye, who had previously lived in the Solomon Islands. They had two boys, Don (Phill’s father) and Ken.

Skov accepted the position of island manager for a timber company in Vanikoro in 1936. Ships would arrive from Melbourne four times a year to collect the logs and deliver supplies. It was an island outpost, she said in an interview, where giant butterflies chased birds and crocodiles would snatch the pet cat.

With the outbreak of war in 1939, Vanikoro formed part of a Coastwatching network in the South Pacific. The two boys were sent for schooling in Sydney and the island was evacuated. When the radio operator left, a 50-year-old Mrs Boye took on the role. She and her husband were the only non-Solomon Islanders remaining.

In an interview on Snapper Island in Sydney in 1978, she said: “I learnt how to read the panel of instruments for the weather reports, there were plenty of storms and hurricanes. Soon after, there was news of Pearl Harbor being bombed [on December 7, 1941] and we were a bit scared about that.

“I was sending messages to Tulagi [in the Solomons] where they were compiled, then Tulagi was bombed, so I was advised through coded messages to use Morse code, which I had been practising since a ‘Jap’ had called me and told me to get out or else.

“They [the Royal Australian Navy] thought it was best for me to be in a uniform and the navy appointed me as an honorary third officer in the WRANS [Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service]. It was just in case I was captured because I would be classed as a spy otherwise. It was dropped by parachute and it came down like a big pearl into the sea. They also sent cosmetics. I sent a message back saying, ‘Thanks for the goodies, I am now a raving beauty.’

“It was very scary. We would hear the throbs of submarines on the reef. We would see ‘Jap’ planes flying over. Later on, they bombed one of the aircraft tenders that were in the harbour.”

When she received threats from a Japanese commander over her radio frequency, defensive action was taken. According to a chapter on Boye in the book Unsung Heroes and Heroines of Australia, “At that point the other Coastwatchers jammed the airwaves, blotted out the rest of the message and told the Japanese operator ‘in language they wouldn’t repeat to a lady’ exactly what the Japanese commander could do.”

At one point she was taken off the island for treatment for shingles and “four young American fellows” took her place while she was absent for three weeks.

Petar Djokovic, writing in the navy’s Semaphore publication, reports: “Such was the appreciation of Ruby’s efforts that Admiral William Halsey [a fleet admiral in the United States Navy] 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.’

She received the news via her radio that the war was over and was presented with the British Empire Medal in 1946 in a ceremony in Suva.

Ruby outlived Skov and also a second husband. She lived alone at her Penshurst home for 30 years before moving into a nursing home aged 96.

Phill Boye said his grandmother died at the age of 99 in 1990 and was always happy to talk about her experiences. “She was a pretty tough lady,” he said.

An accommodation block at the Defence Force Academy in Canberra is named in her honour.

Original Publication

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Citation details

Tim Barlass, 'Boye-Jones, Ruby Olive (1891–1990)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/boye-jones-ruby-olive-12242/text40294, accessed 5 July 2022.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Ruby Boye-Jones, n.d.

Ruby Boye-Jones, n.d.

photo from Royal Australian Navy