The New Zealand Dental Services
Dental Treatment of the Royal New Zealand Air Force in Fiji
The first detachment of the Royal New Zealand Air Force to arrive in Fiji consisted of 10 officers and 55 airmen, who sailed in HMNZS Monowai and SS Rangatira on 11 November 1940, arriving in Suva and Lautoka respectively on 14 November. The Army page 293 Brigade Group had arrived a fortnight earlier, complete with attached Dental Corps, so it was arranged that, for dental treatment, the Air Force should be added to the Army strength.
Royal New Zealand Air Force Headquarters was established at Government Buildings, Suva, with four officers and eleven men. Subsequently it was moved to Garrick House in Cakabau Road (pronounced Thakambau), where an underground operations room was built. In the western area, the remaining six officers and forty-four men formed No. 4 General Reconnaissance Squadron, the first in the south-west Pacific, and were quartered at Namaka Camp until January 1941. An airfield was opened at Nausori, some 20 miles from Suva, in November 1940 as a refuelling base for patrolling aircraft, and in March 1941 the first RNZAF station in the Pacific was established at Nandi, close to Namaka. Nandi was later to become, and still is, one of the big air stations of the Pacific, but at that time it could be used only for small planes.
With the limited flying facilities, the number of men was small, at least not large enough to keep a dental section fully employed; but, even before Japan entered the war, it became obvious that this would not be so for long. A Civil Construction Unit came from New Zealand to make runways at Nandi so that Hudsons could take over the long-distance patrols and the Ferry Command could use it as a link between America and Australia. No. 2 Mobile Heavy Construction Squadron, 7 Composite Works Squadron and 6 Works Maintenance Squadron also became based at Nandi. The two dental officers struggled through 1941, but when the dental service was reorganised in early 1942 to meet the large increase in army strength, the rapidly expanding Air Force was excluded from this organisation. A dental section arrived from New Zealand specially for the Air Force. Commanded by Captain J. P. S. Stocker, the section was responsible to the DDS in Wellington through the officer commanding the Air Force in Fiji and was in no way under the direction of the ADDS.
It is questionable whether this separation of command was wise, as the Air Force was not all in the same area. The men were on both sides of the island and, as the dental officer could not be in two places at the same time, he had to have the co-operation of the Army Dental Service if large numbers of men were not to be deprived of attention while he was away. If the Navy, Army, and Air Force in Fiji had been looked upon as so many men to be treated, and the ADDS had been given the authority and the staff to carry this out, he could have made all necessary dispositions with reference to the changing conditions, something which could not be accurately assessed in Wellington.page 294
The reasons for the decision can only be guessed. Possibly the Air Force thought that the large amount of army work might prejudice its chance of regular attention. If it had its own dental officer he could not be used to help the Army catch up with arrears. Possibly the DDS thought the ADDS already had enough on his hands and hesitated to saddle him with the extra burden of 1000 men, even with another section at his disposal. The system of accounting which kept the costs of the two services separate may have had something to do with it. The value is not so much in speculating as to the reasons but in analysing the results.
The ADDS was in Suva in close touch with Army and Air Force headquarters, in closer touch with the latter than the Air Force dental officer could be. If he could not see the wood for the trees, he was not capable of holding his command, a state of affairs contradicted by the efficiency of his organisation. He could have added the Air Force to his responsibility and still have had only a fraction of the command held by the ADDS in the Middle East. There is no doubt that the Dental Service is most efficient when its sections can be quickly and easily moved to the different units needing treatment. Only unified control within the whole force can accomplish this. Fortunately in Fiji there was close co-operation between the ADDS and the Air Force Dental Officer, but there might not have been, and petty jealousies or a too rigid adherence to the letter of the law could have resulted in one or other of the services suffering.
Captain Stocker arrived in Suva in the first week in January 1942 in SS Wahine, somewhat hurriedly according to his account:
The ‘Wahine’ was poorly equipped for tropical troop-carrying, having no forced ventilation to the cabins, which became almost intolerable, with ports sealed from well before dusk to dawn. It was so stifling that the men in the lower cabins made no attempt to sleep there, preferring the open deck instead….
Approaching Fiji we became increasingly conscious of heat and humidity, …. [and of] steep craggy hills shrouded in misty cloud…. We had had no time to get suitable clothing and, in that hot humid climate we were soon in a sorry state. The ADDS was most helpful in getting an issue for the men and some speed out of an Indian tailor on my behalf….
My first impressions of Suva were of heat, sweat and smells, with at night hordes of cockroaches. Long months afterwards I was to develop quite an affection for Suva, the smells gradually fading and the heat, which at first had made my shirt wringing wet, becoming tolerable.
It was a relief to be up in the cooler air again as we skirted around Suva, being careful not to annoy ack-ack batteries, and proceeded around the Southern coastline. There were many attractions and novelties on that first trip—rice fields, swamps, small farms, plantations, neat native villages, fish page 295 traps and many more, but the most striking were the gorgeous colours of the sea and coral reef. Mile after mile we flew, right down close to the beaches, following the line of the coral reef which encircles the island.
Nothing was ready for it at Nandi where, although a large building programme was in progress, there was no sign of a dental surgery. The section used a Public Works tent as a makeshift until the Works Squadron moved on and took it with it, leaving the section to find an Indian pattern tent more suitable to its requirements. The dental officer at Namaka had been working consistently on Air Force men but there was still plenty to do, especially for the construction squadrons, who complicated matters by employing many of their men on night shifts. The will to work was there, however, and this, combined with a sense of humour, seems to have overcome most of the difficulties, for the dental officer's reports are full of descriptions such as the following:
At one stage they were building a large water tower about thirty yards from our sleeping quarters. We soon got used to sleeping through the din of a motor-driven concrete mixer but, every time they took an eight pound hammer to jar loose the concrete sticking to the sides, we came back to earth smartly. The mess kitchen at Nadi was of interest if visited late at night as everything, stores and all, seemed absolutely alive with cockroaches. If you gave a box of currants a smart jolt, those which did not scurry off were the currants.
It was not long before the framework of the new building, which was to be an extension of the medical one, was erected but shortage of labour and building materials prevented its completion for several months. Windows, lining and plumbing were hard to get, and small things, such as screws and hinges, sent the dental officer on frequent shopping expeditions to Suva. The interior fittings were made by Chinese workmen. They made excellent joinery with the most elementary tools and built all the benches and cupboards in their workshops from blueprints. They were not particular, however, whether the prints were read from the front or back so that when it came to fitting things into the building, an aptitude for jigsaw puzzles and a judicious use of the saw were necessary.
The finished building consisted of two rooms, workroom and surgery, with a covered verandah running the full length of the medical and dental departments as a waiting room. The lack of an office, which Captain Stocker suggested could easily have been supplied by partitioning off part of the verandah, was a decided disadvantage. Except in the field, where recording and reportings should be kept at the lowest figure, there is enough clerical work in a dental section to warrant the provision of a separate office, apart from the inadvisability of using the surgery for other than its proper function.page 296
With permanent quarters, the section settled down to serious work. There were many men transferred to the RNZAF from the Civil Construction Unit who had not been previously treated by the Corps and who had allowed their mouths to get into a bad state. They added a heavy burden to the dental officer, already responsible for 1000 men, and also added to his diagnostic problems. With initial treatment there was more need for such aids as X-ray which he did not possess at Nandi. The medical hospital at Namaka had one with the same head and tube as the average dental model but without the same range of movement. A little contortion on the part of the patient produced quite good results from this machine. In the western area, however, all the men were not conveniently concentrated in Nandi. The Works Squadron was scattered all over the country, for instance, twenty-three men operating a radar post on the island of Malolo, west of Nandi Bay. As these units could not come to Nandi to be examined, the dental officer had to pack up his chair and visit them, arranging for those needing treatment to have it done on their leave trips.
Soon the Americans arrived in increasing numbers with Fortress and Liberator bombers, a welcome sight but raising a problem in accommodation, which squeezed the dental section out on to a corner of its verandah until a camp was built for the newcomers a mile or two away. These Americans were ahead of the main body of United States troops and had no Dental Corps of their own until June 1942. The New Zealand dental officer attended to their casualties in the meantime. Here are his comments:
It was interesting to note the Americans' enlightened ideas about dental surgery. A surprisingly large number of them came to me asking for treatment or a check up ‘Just in case’. What is more, some of them had the courtesy to come back and tell me that when their own dental officer arrived he had expressed favourable comment on my work.
Although I may be in error here, I gathered that, despite the lavish scale of equipment available to the Americans, the NZDC could learn little from them about keeping the men up to the mark as regards dental treatment. We in the Corps have had years of great opportunity to get in some quiet propaganda for dental health and oral hygiene. How well we have carried out this obligation to our profession, only time will tell. Although the average American mouth which I saw generally had a more attractive dentition than that of the average New Zealander, I also saw some shocking mouths and … some very mediocre work.
He also commented that the enamel of the Americans' teeth did not appear to be so ‘glassy hard’ as ours, giving his opinion that this may have been due to the continual chewing of candy, gum or peanuts.
It was now March 1942 and the Air Force Dental Officer was still busy at Nandi. The ADDS had been doing what he could for the page 297 Air Force in the Suva area but, owing to the pressure of army work, had to withdraw his offer to attend to anything more than casualties in the future. The futility of expecting one dental section to give adequate attention to a divided force was exposed. There was still plenty to do at Nandi but, on 4 April, having arranged for casualties to report to Namaka, the section, complete with panniers, set off for Suva. It set up in a room at the Boys' Grammar School with the chair on a wide, well-lit verandah, with a packing case for the mechanic, and completed treatment in a month.
From early May to late August the Air Force dental section divided its time between Nandi and Nausori, striving, without ever quite succeeding, to keep up with the work. Finishing one station, it would arrive at the next to find new arrivals from New Zealand, Canada or Singapore with a lot of outstanding work to be done. While this was being done, the dental health of the others was gradually deteriorating.
At this stage the American Forces took over the defence of Fiji, but it seemed certain that, at the same time, the numbers of the RNZAF would increase. The Administration Officer to the Air Force realised the hopeless position of the dental officer and asked him for a full report of the situation to back up a request to Wellington for an additional officer. Wellington had few officers and many commitments' and was apparently embarrassed by the request. A somewhat acrimonious correspondence passed between the DDS and the Air Force Dental Officer which suggested that the former was not fully appreciative of the difficulties of the situation. Possibly some delay in the receipt of reports led to the misunderstanding, giving the DDS a false picture and making him believe that the hurdle was not so insurmountable as the dental officer made it out to be. Possibly the extreme shortage of dental officers suggested that a spur to increased effort was the solution. Whatever the reason, the result was a happy one with assurances of mutual respect and trust and a reorganisation of all three services in Fiji on a slightly more co-operative basis. It is emphasised that there would have been no misunderstanding if all dental arrangements in Fiji had been under the direction of the ADDS.
This brings us to the point at which we left the army story, and from now on the description applies to all three services.
It will be remembered that when most of the New Zealand troops left Fiji, Nos. 17 and 18 Dental Sections were retained to treat those remaining, with the exception of the Air Force. The dental health page 298 of the Air Force had deteriorated for the reasons just mentioned, but reports showed that the Army and the Navy were in a satisfactory condition. It was decided to restudy the whole position but, in the meantime, the two army sections were put at the disposal of the Air Force dental officer to establish dental fitness there as soon as possible. This was in September 1942, when the Air Force strength in Fiji was 1007, 491 being in the eastern area and 516 in the western.
In October, after consultation between the DDS and the heads of the Army and Air Force in Fiji, there was a complete reorganisation. There was still a disinclination to regard the three services as one dental problem, but the new organisation was not so rigidly divided into compartments as previously. Three sections were established.
RNZAF Station, Suva.
A dental hospital was built at Laucala Bay (pronounced Lauthala), just out of Suva, where there was a flying-boat base. The section here was responsible to the DDS through RNZAF Fiji Headquarters for the dental health of all RNZAF men in the eastern area.
This was 18 Dental Section, which now became attached to the above command to be responsible for the dental health of all 2 NZEF and naval personnel in the eastern area. The dental officer was instructed to co-operate closely with Lauthala Bay.
No. 4 General Reconnaissance Squadron.
No. 17 Dental Section ceased to exist, its dental officer returned to New Zealand and its other ranks went to Lauthala Bay. Its stores were divided between the two sections in the eastern area and another officer was sent from New Zealand for 4 GR Squadron.
The Senior Medical Officer of the American Forces was approached with a request that his dental officers should do all conservative treatment for the Fiji Defence Force in both areas. The NZDC would do prosthetic work for this force and also for the Americans themselves, it being understood that they had no facilities for this class of work at the time. The reply was that shortage of supplies and staff prevented the Americans from doing anything except emergency treatment for the Fiji Defence Force. As the NZDC was also short of staff, the Fiji Defence Force had to be content with only emergency treatment from that source too.page 299
Captain Stocker became Senior Dental Officer in Fiji and adviser on dental matters to the three services. The position at the end of 1942 was that 4 GR Squadron had moved to the eastern area, leaving only about fifty Air Force men behind, divided between the island of Malolo and a camp at Viseisei, halfway between Nandi and Lautoka. One dental section remained in the western area to look after these men and about 569 of the Army. The headquarters section in Suva was responsible for about 924 Army and Navy and the Lauthala Bay section for 1000 Air Force. All the Dental Corps buildings except that at Lauthala Bay had been taken over by the Americans, who also controlled all building materials. The result was that in most cases, such as at Nausori where 4 GR Squadron was stationed, converted buildings, tents or bures had to be used.
The organisation was ample to treat the three New Zealand services, but the Fiji Military Forces were expanding rapidly and the island had no Dental Corps of its own. In January 1943 the estimated strength of the New Zealand and Fiji Military Forces was over 9600.
Most of these troops were Fijian natives whose dental condition, according to a long and comprehensive report by Mr H. S. Mount, a dentist practising in Suva, had been steadily deteriorating for some years due to adoption of the European diet. Next to nothing had been done by the Fijian Government to check this. The men were serving under New Zealand command and as such could be considered New Zealand troops, qualified to receive full treatment from the NZDC. On the other hand, the Dental Corps had only limited resources and was being asked to accept a responsibility rightly belonging to and totally ignored by the Fijian Government. Before committing himself to anything, the DDS decided to look into the position himself and arrived in Suva on 5 March 1943. With two of his officers, he examined a cross-section of 150 to 200 men from each of the battalions to find out how much work would be involved. On his return to New Zealand he recommended a new organisation with clearly defined limitation of responsibilities.
The new organisation, which was additional to the existing Fiji dental organisation, came into force in September 1943. It was called the New Zealand Dental Detachment, NZDC, Fiji Military Force, and consisted of three officers, one in the rank of major, and nine other ranks. Two field dental outfits were provided and stores were taken over from 18 Section, which had seen eighteen months' service and was broken up, its officer returning to New Zealand. A 3-ton Chevrolet truck was fitted out as a mobile laboratory and a heavy motor-cycle was included in the establishment. page 300 According to Major R. M. McDonald, NZDC,1 the commanding officer, the transport needed some acclimatisation to local conditions as, the first time the truck was used on the rough roads, it nearly fell to bits and had to be sent to the workshops to be strengthened. It was also unpleasant to work in owing to bad ventilation. The motor-cycle took a dare-devil to ride it and luck to keep him out of hospital.
Although there was some dispersal of troops, the main concentrations were at Suva and Nausori in the eastern area, so the headquarters section was set up at the New Zealand camp at Tamavua in a house occupied by the medical section. There were two surgeries, prosthetic room, orderly room and large storeroom, electric power and water, facilities enough for all troops south of Nausori. The other section went to Naduruloulou Camp (pronounced Nanduruloulou) near Nausori to treat all units at and north of Nausori. It found a house used as 1 Bearer Company headquarters and lived in tents, but soon got better accommodation by having a native hut constructed. These huts were very satisfactory in the hot moist climate, being better than tents except when frequent moves were contemplated.
Huts of bark, bamboo or palm leaves are used almost exclusively by the natives of the Pacific Islands. They are easy to build, everything growing close at hand, and, although varying slightly in the different island groups, are generally similar in design. The Fijian bure has a framework of native timber lashed together and on this are constructed sides of native grass or caneleaf thatching, the roof being thatched with the same material. They are cool, waterproof if well constructed, and resist most weather conditions, even hurricanes. Certain modifications can be made without sacrificing these advantages, such as incorporating windows or doors, providing floors of wood or concrete and installing electricity, running water and drainage. There is a certain risk of fire as, in areas with little rainfall, the materials get tinder dry, but this did not apply to Nausori with its constant rain, and in any case, modern extinguishers and ordinary care made them safer than for the natives, who used candles and kerosene lamps and seldom had a fire.
At this time Fijian troops were being used in the Solomon Islands. Though the policy was to give only limited treatment for these men, it was necessary to reduce the possibility of dental casualties as much as possible by eliminating gross lesions before they left Fiji. An examination of seven hundred native troops gives some idea of their standard of dental fitness and an indication of the policy adopted by the Corps:page 301
|Dentally fit||28||Perfect teeth and membranes.|
|Reasonably fit||41||Men who will not seek treatment for nine months, have small cavities and in many cases heavy calculus deposits with slight marginal gingivitis.|
|N.B. They were very happy about their dental condition and the detachment did not call them up except for occasional fillings and scalings.|
|Requiring extractions||27||Immediate, extraction of 480 teeth which when completed would place most of them in the ‘Reasonably fit’ category. Some required full clearances.|
|Other treatments||4||Scaling, fillings and dentures.|
It needed accurate diagnosis and sound judgment to assess a standard of reasonable fitness and long hours of work to establish it. Brigadier Dittmer,1 in command of the Fiji Military Forces and the Fiji Section of the 2 NZEF, showed his appreciation of the work of the Corps when he wrote:
I would like to draw attention to the excellent job of work that has been done by the NZ Dental Detachment here. The Detachment has at times been called on to work hard and continuously over fairly long periods to ensure that the teeth of all ranks of units proceeding overseas were in a satisfactory condition; the work has always been done on time and done well, as well as to the satisfaction of those receiving treatment.
While appraising the application of the detachment to the task in Fiji, he was not fully appreciative of the dental position as a whole. The fact that there were 2225 Fijian troops in the forward area, in the same locality but some distance from 3 NZ Division with its dental services, worried him. He applied in March 1944 for permission to send part of the dental detachment to them. Reports from the forward area which afterwards proved to be misleading probably influenced him, coupled with the knowledge that the United States Forces did little dental treatment in the forward areas. He could not send the detachment without permission from Wellington because the DDS had stipulated in September 1943 that it was for service in Fiji only.
1 Brig G. Dittmer, CBE, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Maharahara, 4 Jun 1893; Regular soldier; Auckland Regt 1914–19 (OC 1 NZ Entrenching Bn); CO 28 (Maori) Bn Jan 1940–Feb 1942; comd 1 Inf Bde Gp (in NZ) Apr 1942–Aug 1943; 1 Div, Aug 1942–Jan 1943; Fiji Military Forces and Fiji Bde Gp, Sep 1943–Nov 1945; Commander, Central Military District, 1946–48.
In justice to Brigadier Dittmer, he could not have known at that time that considerable changes were mooted in the dental organisation in Fiji. The sections with the RNZAF at Lauthala Bay and Nausori were not fully employed. There was still an acute shortage of medically Grade I dental personnel for service in other theatres of war which weakened the justification for the detachment's presence in Fiji. The DDS gave instructions in June 1944 that it should return to New Zealand forthwith. This stirred up a veritable hornets' nest. There was a storm of protest and voluminous correspondence between Fiji and New Zealand, which lasted in one form or another almost to the end of the war.
The DDS was adamant and his decision was upheld by Headquarters in Wellington. To understand the position it is necessary to go back a little to bring into the picture certain activities of the Fiji Government. The Fiji Department of Health started a scheme at the beginning of 1944 to provide a dental service at the Colonial War Memorial Hospital in Suva and a mobile dental clinic. Mr Vosailagi, a Fijian graduate of the Otago University Dental School in New Zealand, was attached to the hospital. He was treating inpatients, staff and native civilian casualties, and it was also rumoured that he was lecturing, or about to lecture to, eight Fijian dental students. This tardy recognition by the Government of some responsibility was probably inspired by the refusal of the New Zealand Dental Corps to give other than limited treatment to the Fijian native troops but was worthy of encouragement as a step in the right direction. Without assistance, however, it could be nothing but a gesture. There were no dental supply houses in Fiji, each dentist importing his own stock and equipment and keeping his own bulk store. The Fiji Government, having hitherto had no dental service, had practically no stock at the inauguration of the scheme and was still in that position in June 1944 when the DDS decided to withdraw the detachment from Fiji.
The DDS held that the NZDC had fulfilled its mission in the interests of the dental health of the Fijian natives and European soldiers for three and a half years, more especially in the last two. page 303 The whole force had been periodically examined and treated, was reported on 30 June to be in a reasonable state of dental health and should require little maintenance. The Corps was short of dental officers for its obligations to its own forces and he considered that the time had arrived for the Fiji Government to accept the responsibility of further maintenance of dental health in its forces. It was agreed that the three complete dental outfits belonging to the detachment, together with the mobile laboratory, would be sold to the Fiji Government. The fully equipped dental quarters in the New Zealand camp at Tamavua were to be made available to Mr Vosailagi. The RNZAF dental officers would undertake all treatment for the 2 NZEF and Royal New Zealand Navy at no cost to the Fiji Government, would help Mr Vosailagi in cases of emergency and would continue treatment for about one hundred full Europeans of the Fiji Military Forces who had hitherto been accepted on the same basis as our own troops. The Fiji forces in the forward areas would continue to be treated by the NZDC.
The dental detachment returned to New Zealand in July 1944, leaving the treatment of all troops in Fiji to the two Air Force dental officers and Mr Vosailagi. In addition, the dental officer at Nausori was instructed to visit Tonga at regular intervals to look after a limited number of troops still stationed there. The stage was now set for what developed into a protracted argument in which the Fijian natives' dental treatment was the centrepiece. It is as well, therefore, to have a clear idea of the obligations of the two NZDC officers in Fiji. As the following figures show, they were up to the limit considered reasonable for the maintenance of dental health:
Of the Army figures, 104 were on furlough in New Zealand and 72 were in forward areas where they were receiving treatment.
The relative Army figures for each section were liable to variation.
The coverage of these men was adequate and in accordance with the usual custom of the NZDC. The position of the Fijian native, however, was more confused. It is obvious that the ideal would have been to establish complete dental fitness throughout the whole force but this was beyond the resources of the NZDC, quite apart from page 304 the injustice of expecting it to neglect its own obligations to undertake a responsibility belonging to the Fiji Government. The confusion arose in assessing the urgency of the work and the degree of dental fitness required. In one of his reports Major McDonald stated:
My opinion is that 90% of the natives and half-castes (European) are not really concerned about their dental condition but will report for extractions only when in pain. This is the only type of treatment they appreciate. The Fijian Government have shown no interest in our work nor have they requested that they receive a higher standard of treatment. I have observed that extensive dental caries does not affect the natives' health or physical fitness to the same extent as the Europeans. In fact, before the detachment arrived the Europeans and natives received no organised treatment from the Army, the Europeans reporting to the local dental surgeon and the natives to the Fijian dentist attached to the Colonial War Memorial Hospital.
In view of this report it would appear that there was little to be alarmed about in the dental condition of the natives, nor was there more work than could be reasonably expected from Mr Vosailagi, equipped as he was with full facilities. Brigadier Dittmer, however, was not happy about it. He maintained that there would be about 6000 Fijians to cater for at an early date, that it was doubtful if the first and third battalions would be dentally fit on return from the forward areas and that the three hours daily, from Monday to Friday, were interfering with Mr Vosailagi's civilian duties. He backed up his request for dental reinforcements by expressing doubt about the accuracy of Major McDonald's reports:
I regret having to say that, if the withdrawal of the complete dental detachment was assisted or brought about in any way by the reports of Major McDonald, that officer either did not fully appreciate the situation here or he was anxious to have the dental detachment return to New Zealand for some other reason.
Presumably there must have been expert opinion to back up this statement and it is proper to investigate the source. The Air Force dental officers, whose reports are quoted later, substantially agreed with Major McDonald. The only other sources were Mr Vosailagi and/or the Fiji Director of Medical Services, to both of whom the arrival of a dental detachment from New Zealand would be a distinct advantage, and the Senior Medical Officer of the New Zealand Forces. The last part of Brigadier Dittmer's statement must be considered as his personal opinion, which in the absence of any evidence is impossible to substantiate or refute.
Actually, the dental situation in the forward areas was satisfactory, as shown by a cable to the DDS:
Dental condition F.M.F. first battalion, Europeans fit, all necessary extractions for natives done. Third battalion and first Dock battalion, Europeans fit, natives have had emergency treatment, more required.
In view of this the Brigadier was informed by the DDS that the dental officers in Fiji had the local situation well in hand, the men in the forward area were reasonably fit and it was regretted that the resources of the NZDC would not permit sending reinforcements. He asked Brigadier Dittmer to explain the position to the Colonial Secretary by assuring him that the services rendered by the NZDC to the European and native members of the Fiji Military Forces over the last three years had been considerable, with far-reaching effects not only on their dental but on their general health; that with the dental equipment handed over to his Government and the facilities at the New Zealand camp at Tamavua, the task of maintaining them in their present state should not unduly encroach on the civilian duties of his Government dental officer, provided that arrangements for implementing a regular, though necessarily restricted, maintenance service were not unduly delayed.
The Fiji Medical Service failed to cope with the situation. Mr Vosailagi would do no prosthetic work and gave only limited time to his army duties. The Fiji Government would not commission him on a full-time basis and made further determined efforts to hand the responsibility back to the NZDC. The matter was not handled very tactfully as the first move was a report from the senior officer of the New Zealand Medical Corps to the ADMS, which was forwarded to the Director-General of Medical Services:
I am informed by the Senior Medical Officer that there is the greatest difficulty now in obtaining dental treatment for New Zealand Army and Fijian personnel, particularly as regards prosthetic work, and it is felt that there is a definite need for a dental section to be attached to the New Zealand Camp. Might this question be taken up with the Director of Dental Services with a view to the provision of a satisfactory dental service.
Somewhat naturally this antagonised the two dental officers in Fiji and the Senior Medical Officer later modified his report, admitting that the service to the Army was eminently satisfactory, except for transport difficulties which were out of the control of the dental officers, and that he only meant it to refer to the men of the Fiji Military Forces. Also, the DDS naturally expected that complaints about the dental service would be conveyed to the dental officers in Fiji rather than reach him in a roundabout way through the Medical Service. In fairness to the Senior Medical Officer, the figures of a recent examination of 113 men of a Fijian company made the situation look serious and he can hardly be blamed for being affected by the general panic. Neither could he be expected to know without advice that, although there had undoubtedly been some deterioration, it was not as serious as the figures might indicate. He was not in a position to interpret the figures correctly and his chief error was page 306 in not accepting the advice of the dental officers in Fiji. Their reports are full of interest:
In November, at the request of the Senior Medical Officer of the Fiji Military Forces and in company with Mr. Vosailagi, I examined one Company of the third battalion of the Fiji Military Forces, the personnel being wholly Fijian and the number 113. The examination was thorough and disclosed a considerable amount of conservative work to be done. For the 113 men, a total of approximately 500 cavities were found. This figure is not so alarming as it sounds because, included in it, were large numbers of deep pits and fissures, which may or may not be carious. The amount of advanced caries was not very great. A notable feature of the men's mouths was the large amount of heavy calculus deposit with accompanying gingivitis. The number of extractions and dentures required was very small.
To include only the figures without the explanation would certainly reveal a serious state of affairs.
To get all these men dentally fit on the New Zealand Army standards would require the services of a number of officers for some considerable period, particularly when it is realised that it is impossible in the Fijian climate to maintain the same rate of work as in New Zealand.
The present set up seems adequate to give the Fijian troops sufficient treatment to keep them in reasonable dental health and free from pain and their present condition is incomparably better than it was on their enlistment.
I found the general condition of the native members of the Fiji Military Forces to be very good and I think the position as regards the dental fitness has been erroneously reported. This is particularly evident in denture work required as, from observations, it appears that they have expected partial dentures where there are perhaps two anterior teeth missing and thirty perfectly formed teeth remaining, a very common condition amongst them. Oral hygiene generally is only fair and to remedy same would, in my opinion, take some time and in the majority of cases would be time wasted.
Dental condition of all battalions Fiji Infantry Regiment very serious. Urgent need two dentists and three mechanics for repair and denture work. Work required extensive and urgent. Government dental service quite inadequate here and no prospect of improvement locally in dental service for battalions. RNZAF officers can undertake only European personnel.
Obviously the Fiji Medical Service had made no serious effort to give an adequate dental service to the Fiji Force, had ignored the advice of the DDS, had adopted the report of the Senior Medical Officer in preference to those of the dental officers and now wanted the NZDC to undertake a task beyond reasonable demands and one that arose from its own neglect.
What followed is an excellent example of the wisdom of placing the control of the Dental Corps in its own hands. The Director-General of Medical Services in New Zealand, finding that the DDS page 307 refused to be stampeded into hasty action, approached the Adjutant-General. He repeated the assertion he had made on many occasions that the dental services should come under medical control as a specialist branch, and it is reasonable to assume that, if this had been the case, dental officers and mechanics would have been withdrawn from important posts to be sent to Fiji. As will be seen very shortly, this would have been a complete waste of valuable manpower. The decision was left to the DDS.
He agreed to take over the responsibility for the natives up to a specified standard only, by temporarily neglecting the RNZAF, who at that time were all dentally fit. He therefore instructed the Air Force dental officers to do the work. The standard laid down was:
No insertion of metal or cement fillings.
Extraction of teeth only where considered necessary to obviate pain or to remove septic conditions.
The provision, remodel or repair of artificial dentures. Partial dentures to be provided only where there is insufficient masticatory efficiency without them.
Prophylactic treatment up to a point if the Government dentist cannot cope with this phase of the work.
The RNZAF dental officers had very little difficulty in doing what was necessary for the natives and it was only a fortnight before the Senior Dental Officer cabled Wellington:
Third and Fourth battalions completed to standard required except small amount of denture work. First battalion to be treated by Vosailagi. No assistance required.
All denture work for the first battalion was also carried out by these officers free of cost to the Fiji Government.
By adopting a common-sense standard instead of ‘Crying for the moon’, the Fiji Government, through its own dentist, could have held on to the satisfactory state of dental fitness established by the dental detachment before it left for New Zealand in July 1944. As it was, the New Zealand troops had to be neglected for two weeks by their own dental sections and, had it not been for the perception and tenacity of the DDS and his advisers, two dental officers and three mechanics would have left the war effort for a labour of Sisyphus. The state of the natives' teeth was only related to their service diet in those cases where they had not been in touch with European civilisation before the war. The deterioration in the mouths of the others had been known to the Fiji authorities for a long time and mobilisation had merely served to highlight this fact. It was not the duty of the NZDC to correct these page 308 defects, and it had already done more than might reasonably have been expected of it.
From March 1945 onwards there was a gradual retrenchment, beginning with the closing of the Nausori dental section and the return of that officer to New Zealand. At Lauthala Bay work continued till September, when the Fiji Military Forces were demobilised and the New Zealand troops were expected shortly to return home. There was then a duty to see that all three services, whether returning home or remaining for duty in Fiji, were dentally fit. Added to this was an accumulation of prosthetic work for the natives, which it will be remembered Mr Vosailagi declined to do. To hurry on this work the DDS sent over an extra officer and three other ranks.
Everything was finished by 23 October 1945 and the extra personnel returned to New Zealand early in November, leaving Lauthala Bay in charge of one dental officer. For five years the NZDC had worked in Fiji, and though the conscientious discharge of duty is its own reward, to it may be added the satisfaction of leaving the Fijian native the better for its presence.
Little has been said of the Navy in Fiji. At no time, however, were there enough of them to need a dental section of their own. When they were in port they reported to the nearest Army or Air Force section, except on one occasion in June 1942. One of the biggest minesweepers, with a large complement, spent most of her time at sea so No. 17 Field Dental Section went to sea too. It is a question who enjoyed it the more, the ship's complement or the dental section. Judging by the warm welcome given to the dental officer and his men, it was probably the latter.