The New Zealand Dental Services
The Brigade Dental Officer carried out both staff and executive duties. In addition to being responsible to the Brigade Commander for all dental arrangements for the force, he was the only dental officer in the Suva area and, as such, was responsible for the actual treatment of about 2000 men. His staff consisted of one clerk, who also acted as storeman, two orderlies, one mechanic, one mechanic's orderly and a batman (officially called ‘Orderly General Duties’). He needed them all. Although properly attached to Brigade Headquarters, most of his time was spent in his surgery at Samambula, page 284 so for convenience he lived with the Training Battalion in ‘B’ camp. The dental officer at Namaka was attached to 7 Field Ambulance and was responsible through the ambulance commander to the Brigade Dental Officer for the dental health of the troops on that side of the island. His staff consisted of one clerk orderly and a mechanic. He also had about 2000 men to treat. As soon as the dental hospitals were established, the work began to pour in, not because of serious deterioration in individual mouths but because of the large number of men each officer had to look after. If the men had not all been made dentally fit before leaving New Zealand, the task would have been impossible. As it was there had been valuable time lost waiting for accommodation and arrears of work had necessarily banked up. Fortunately, apart from an acute appendicitis for the batman and a skin rash for one of the mechanics, which were treated by the NZMC without evacuation to New Zealand, there were no casualties. The larger part of the work was prosthetic, as was so often the case with New Zealand troops. New dentures had to be made for those who had lost or damaged them; immediate dentures which had been inserted at the time of extraction in New Zealand were becoming unserviceable; repairs were made to broken dentures and some remodelling done.
On 20 February 1941 there was an unexpected interruption which might easily have been more serious. Everyone had heard about the hurricanes that periodically visited Pacific islands and most men felt that they would be cheated of an interesting experience if Fiji failed to produce one. Fiji did, but the men asked for no encore. It is impossible for anyone who has not experienced a hurricane to imagine that wind is capable of such devastating force. As the Brigade Dental Officer reported:
The Samabula telephone rang at 0930 hours and a voice announced that a hurricane was expected. Immediate steps were taken to protect all equipment and personal gear. Two men were detailed to look after the men's belongings in their quarters, a Staff-Sergeant to look after the gear in the Sergeants' hut and a sergeant and private to remain with the Brigade Dental Officer in the dental hospital.
Very little time elapsed between the warning and the onset of the storm. Windows to windward were boarded up and those to leeward kept open, and a very difficult job it proved to be, as they were of the type which were hinged at the top and pushed outward at the bottom, being held out by wooden bars. No sooner would they be propped open than they would shut again and most of the day was spent, soaked to the skin, trying to keep open windows which just wouldn't stay that way. The object in keeping windows open on the leeward side is to allow the wind, or some of it, to pass through the building. This reduces the force applied to the windward side which might otherwise be enough literally to push the building over.
The storm reached its height at midday and from then on gradually page 285 decreased. We were fortunate in sustaining little damage even in the bulk store, mainly due to the stores sergeant who worked like a Trojan to protect his beloved stores. Just before the storm reached its peak the workers in the dental hospital received reinforcements as the staff-sergeant had been forced to evacuate the sergeants' quarters, the hut having developed such a lean as to be voted by all present as unsafe.
As the hurricane abated in the late afternoon a sigh of relief went up all round. It had been an eventful and very tiring day and preparations had to be made for the night. The dental hospital became sleeping quarters for our sergeants and several Field Ambulance men whose quarters had also been destroyed. Planks and trestles were used to sleep on as the floor was covered in slimy mud to a depth of two or three inches. One feature of a first class hurricane is that the wind picks up fine silt with the result that everything is covered with a film of mud when the show is over. It took days to wash everything down after the storm.
In the evening, as everybody was preparing for an early night, the camp fire-alarm rang and fire was found to have broken out in one of the stores containing a lot of inflammable material. Unfortunately for us, the hut occupied by our men was close to this so all personnel and gear had to be moved out until the fire was under control.
Many of us had expressed the wish to experience a hurricane about which we had heard so much but few want to repeat the experience. A few days were sufficient to repair the damage to the dental hospital, mainly some panes of glass ruined by amateur and over-enthusiastic carpenters and general cleaning and drying out equipment.
The big motor transport field workshop, less than a hundred yards from the dental hospital, was flattened out but the Corps escaped lightly. Loss or damage to the equipment would have seriously affected its programme.
With the arrival in January 1941 of Royal New Zealand Navy and Royal New Zealand Air Force units, these also became the responsibility of the Dental Corps. There were not enough of them to justify asking New Zealand for another dental officer. In the western area the airfield, now well known as Nadi (pronounced Nandi), was close to Namaka Camp and in Suva the Air Force was not as yet dispersed. Later the Air Force grew large enough to have a dental service, but the Navy at no time had more men than could be conveniently serviced by either the Army or Air Force dental sections.
One of the difficulties arising out of the shortage of staff centred round the dual appointment held by the Brigade Dental Officer. Besides being dental officer of the section at Samambula, he was responsible to the Brigade Commander for the work of the dental officer at Namaka and had to pay occasional visits to the western area. While he was away, 2000 men were without the services of a dentist. Up to the middle of 1941 the Air Force was always willing to take him across the island on routine flights, which meant that his business could be easily completed in one day. Instructions were page 286 then issued from Brigade Headquarters that army officers were not to be carried on the planes. Some of the aircraft had been destroyed in the hurricane and apparently there had been some abuse of the limited remainder by joy-riding. The instruction was unfortunate for the Brigade Dental Officer and for the men in the Suva area as, using motor transport, each visit to Namaka took at least three days.
By the middle of April all troops in both areas, with the exception of some artillery at Momi Bay, were dentally fit. Momi Bay was some 15 miles from Namaka, so the dental section moved out and treated the gunners under field conditions. This was the first time the section had had an opportunity to work in the field, although it had been on manoeuvres with 7 Field Ambulance at Caboni (pronounced Thamboni) for a week in March as an exercise. At Momi Bay it worked in bell tents with coconut palm leaves as a floor covering and commandeered a Fijian bure, or thatched native hut, as a laboratory. In a week the section returned to Namaka. In accordance with policy, the first relief for the force arrived from New Zealand in May 1941 and with it a new dental section for Namaka. Captain A. A. Heath1 relieved Captain Cox but Major Fitzgerald was not relieved until July, when Major T. V. Anson became Brigade Dental Officer.
The new relief brought increased work for the Corps. All the men had to be examined and there were the inevitable late postings who had not received treatment in New Zealand. There was plenty of work, but life was made pleasant by the hospitality of the people of Fiji and by organised sport such as cricket, boxing, running and even horse racing. There were cinemas; shops full of goods not seen in New Zealand for a long time and at prices unbelievably low; kava ceremonies and Indian fire-walkers; stockings to gladden the hearts of the women at home; tortoise-shell, Indian jewellery and Chinese silks; pineapples, pawpaws, mangoes in profusion and plenty of good Scotch whisky. Discipline, though strict, was not oppressive and the men of the Corps were fit, busy and happy, with no time to be affected by that apathy known to the Fijians as malua. As yet only the distant rumblings of war were heard and there was some resentment by the New Zealanders at being condemned to stay in a backwater, however pleasant, while their friends in the Middle East were already blooded.
All ideas of limiting service in Fiji to six months were discarded and men and equipment poured in as fast as ships could bring them from New Zealand. From being a quiet backwater, Fiji was now New Zealand's front line of defence. On 14 January two officers and seven other ranks arrived at Lautoka to staff the dental hospital at Namaka, forming 14 Brigade Dental Hospital, which was responsible to the Brigade Commander and the ADDS and no longer part of 7 Field Ambulance.
Both brigade dental hospitals were now fully equipped to look after themselves. They were their own accounting units and indented on the bulk store for their dental requirements and on the Ordnance Department for their other needs. The western area, defended by 14 Brigade, was large and the units were scattered. Headquarters with one battalion and some smaller units occupied Namaka, one infantry battalion was at Momi Bay and another at Sabeto (pronounced Sambeto), a new camp not far from Namaka but over poor roads. There were also field and anti-aircraft artillery spread over the whole area. The total strength was approximately 5000, a big task for two dental officers.
The 8 Brigade dental hospital in the Suva area needed less reorganisation and, despite shortage of staff, the position was not so acute, for even with the addition of the divisional units to the number of the brigade troops, there was an extra dental officer to do the work. At this time No. 17 Field Dental Section was formed as a separate section, responsible direct to the ADDS. This could be used for treating outlying units as, for instance, 29 Battalion stationed at Nausori, some 20 miles from Suva. Its success depended largely on the ingenuity of its staff as it seldom operated where there were reasonable facilities and, although fully equipped, had to search for its own accommodation and improvise its own comfort. Later this improvisation led to a change in the design of the standard tent to make it more suitable for use in tropical climates. There was no mechanic with the section and prosthetic work, carefully wrapped in banana leaves, arrived regularly at Samambula by despatch rider.
With the expansion of the New Zealand Forces, the Fiji Defence Force of one infantry battalion, the Suva Battery for coastal defence, the Fiji Naval Force and other subsidiary units came under the General Officer Commanding the New Zealand Forces. The Dental Corps found itself responsible for a number of local Europeans, Fijian natives, Eurasians and Indians for whom there had been no organised dental treatment of any kind. Their condition was not as bad as might have been expected considering that few, other than the Europeans, had had any previous treatment. The first thing was to extract neglected teeth, or, more accurately, teeth that had been ruined by the white man's diet. Weston Price's world crusade against the over-refinement of natural foodstuffs and his indictment of civilised man for introducing this evil to the native races were fully borne out by the dental examinations in Fiji. There was a marked difference in the incidence of caries between natives recently arrived from the back country and those who had spent a year or so near a European centre.
The ADDS asked that his establishment be increased by one officer and five other ranks, as, with the Fiji Defence Force added to the two New Zealand brigades, each officer had to treat and maintain 1900 men. With men recently made dentally fit and all conveniently concentrated in one area, at least one dental officer to 1000 men was considered essential to maintain dental fitness. Some of the men in Fiji had had no treatment at all and many of them were scattered all over the island. The answer from New Zealand was that dental officers were not, repeat not, available. Major Fitzgerald page 289 knew something of the acute shortage in New Zealand and was not altogether surprised at the answer, but it was cold comfort when he had to ask more from his staff than anyone had a right to expect from them. He suggested that native dental practitioners, trained in Samoa, could be co-opted to treat fully mobilised Fiji Defence Force troops under his direction. An assurance was received from the Director of Medical Services in the Fijian Government that there would be no friction between the Fijians and the Samoans, but Army Headquarters in Wellington turned the scheme down, deciding that the NZDC must accept the responsibility. The staff willingly accepted the added burden and found some compensation, at least at first, in the interesting study of the native dentition.
I found that both Fijians and Indians had enamel which was comparatively easy to cut, and what a pleasure it was to work on a Fijian, you could just about walk into his mouth, he had such well-developed jaws. Their lips were surprisingly soft and flexible and they were usually very good patients. My only complaint was that their huge mop of fuzzy hair pricked my left forearm making it quite itchy.
One of the early problems was that of motor transport, a problem shared with practically every unit on the island. The war equipment table laid it down that each Brigade Dental Section should have one 2-ton truck and one motor-cycle, but even these modest demands could not be met until the end of March 1942, when two 30-cwt trucks and two motor-cycles were received. One truck and one motor-cycle were immediately sent to Namaka and the other truck was sent to the Motor Transport Field Workshops to be converted into a mobile prosthetic laboratory. The canopy was raised, benches, cupboards and drawers were fitted and a water tank and sink installed. This took so long that the truck was only ready for use just before the existing organisation came to an end. The conversion of this truck into a specialised vehicle at this time leads to speculation as to whether the lessons of the war were being fully digested. A year before, a similar though more elaborate vehicle had been lost in Greece, and in the reconstruction of the Mobile Dental Unit in Egypt the wisdom of building another mobile laboratory had been questioned in the light of war experience. The trend was towards standard vehicles, which could be easily replaced, carrying the special equipment which must be capable of being easily and quickly transferred to a new vehicle. The truck in Fiji complied with neither of these requirements.
There was no provision for Army Service Corps drivers to be in charge of the Dental Corps vehicles as was the case with most mobile dental units. Dental orderlies with previous experience of heavy trucks were given a course of training in driving and maintenance, while others were instructed in the handling of motor-cycles. This was not considered a disadvantage by the ADDS, who wrote as follows:
New Zealand Dental Corps transport was therefore the responsibility of NZDC personnel, an ideal state of affairs. Being driven and maintained by the ‘Firm’ they take a good deal more interest in their vehicles and in the job as well as ensuring unification of control.
It is difficult to agree with this opinion. No doubt the NZDC drove and cared for its vehicles well, but it cannot be denied that it was lucky to have had men in the Corps with previous experience of heavy trucks. It is unfair to the Army Service Corps to suggest that its drivers would not have been equally enthusiastic and possibly more efficient. The record of those ASC drivers attached to dental units in other theatres of war rebuts the statement. A risk was being taken in entrusting valuable and essential transport to the care of page 291 semi-trained men. The risk was justified in this case because of the shortage of ASC drivers but does not commend itself as a regular practice.
On 24 March 1942 one officer and two other ranks arrived from New Zealand to complete the establishment and were immediately sent to Namaka, receiving a warm welcome from that overworked unit.
A recent addition to the organisation in the western area was a commando school at Vatakoula where men were trained in bush warfare. They were specially selected Fijians, officered by Europeans, and their task was to establish themselves in the hinterland and, in the event of invasion, to infiltrate into the enemy's lines and harass him. Their standard of physical fitness had to be exceptionally high and the Dental Corps, by reducing the possibility of dental casualties, could play an important part in the success or failure of the operation. First, all the men had to be made dentally fit while training at Vatakoula, for when they left there they would be in wild country where dental treatment was impossible and their only communication with headquarters would be by wireless. The Officer Commanding 14 Brigade Dental Section, relieved of some of his duties by the arrival of an extra officer, undertook the work himself. Even with the most meticulous care, however, it was impossible to guarantee complete immunity from dental trouble and some arrangements had to be made to meet these emergencies. Although, where possible, the troops lived off the land, they had to send down occasionally for some rations. There were pre-arranged points for these rations to be picked up, and if treatment was needed the commandos could send a signal and a dental officer with emergency haversack would meet them there. Actually the number of casualties was very small, a tribute to the work of the Brigade Dental Officer. Just after completing the work he was evacuated to Namaka hospital with acute tonsillitis, and then to New Zealand for surgical treatment. The ADDS attributed his condition to overwork and again expressed his concern at the pressure at which dental officers were expected to work in that trying climate.
At this time 17 Field Dental Section was with 1 Battalion, Fiji Defence Force, a few miles south of Suva working in tents, and it was here that its dental officer designed improvements to the standard tent which were afterwards adopted by all sections working in the field in tropical countries. The small Indian pattern tent had a ground measurement of 14 ft by 14 ft and only a 2 ft wall, giving insufficient head room. It was a double-thickness tent and double-thickness fly of the ridge-pole type with three upright poles. Besides being cramped, it was hot to work in. The whole tent was raised page 292 by putting blocks under the poles and the space left between the tent wall and the ground was filled by a latticed wall of bamboo. The blocks were round posts, six inches in diameter and eighteen inches long, countersunk to take the base of the tent pole. The latticed wall was made in eight pieces about seven feet in length, one of which had a gateway in it. It was lashed to posts 4 in. by 4 in., driven into the ground at the corners of the tent and halfway along each side. With the existing tent pegs but longer ropes, the tent could be erected in much the same way as the original one. A slightly more elaborate modification was to use a stout 15 ft ridgepole in place of the usual divided bamboo one. This could be threaded through the canvas loops of the tent and drilled at each end to take the uprights. This did away with the centre pole. In place of tent pegs a rail was erected at a height of 3 feet to which the ropes were tied, giving more space between the fly and the tent and more ventilation. Apart from the added comfort, this preserved the tent material which, under rainy, humid conditions, tended to mildew and, under dry hot conditions, ‘lost life’.
As time went on it became apparent that big changes were imminent. The Americans were expected to undertake the defence of Fiji and the New Zealand Forces, with some exceptions, would be going home. Stores and equipment were reassembled at Samambula. Certain non-expendable equipment, six months' supply of expendable equipment and two field outfits were kept and the rest was packed ready for shipment to New Zealand. This was in June 1942. No. 17 Field Dental Section was detached from the Division and made responsible to the Commandant of the Fiji Defence Force. In the western area, the field section was merely a detachment from the Brigade Dental Section, so it was divorced from this and became 18 Field Dental Section, attached to the anti-aircraft unit of 3 Division, 2 NZEF. Each area would then have its own section responsible for New Zealand and Fiji navy and army personnel.
Meanwhile, the American dental units had arrived, with Lieutenant-Colonel Semons as Senior Divisional Dental Officer. The ADDS took him with him on his final tour of the island to show him what facilities were available, after which most of the Corps returned to New Zealand. This is a convenient point at which to pause while the story of the dental service to the Air Force in Fiji is told.