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The New Zealand Dental Services



Because of her natural resources and her geographical position on Allied lines of communication, New Zealand was asked by the Allied authorities to undertake a greatly increased programme for the supply of food and other primary products as part of the general war strategy. This she could not do without reducing the number of her armed forces. She wanted men for farming, butter and cheese factories, freezing works, building and construction, sawmilling and coal mining, and she wanted them ready for work in July. Third Division was chosen as a source of supply and was to be whittled down to about a third of its strength, leaving only a cadre force to be built on in the future should occasion arise.

The method of selection need not be elaborated on at this stage, although later it concerned the Dental Corps intimately. Suffice it to say that the men were allowed to express a preference for the different classes of work and were asked to co-operate. The main concern of the Dental Corps when the GOC released the news in April 1944 was to see that all returned to New Zealand dentally fit, and this required a thorough knowledge of how, when, and to what they were going.

It was expected that they would return to New Zealand according to industrial priorities and that this would be spread over a considerable period. Meanwhile the cadre units would remain at their stations in the forward areas until the future of the depleted Division was known. Before returning to New Zealand, everyone would spend some time in New Caledonia while all trace of malarial infection was eradicated. On arrival in New Zealand they would have twenty-eight days' leave with other concessions, just as if being discharged from the Army, but at the end of this they would be placed on indefinite leave without pay and become subject to direction to some industry by a manpower officer. Although liable to be recalled to active service at any time, they were to all intents and purposes back in civilian life. The policy of the Government was that every officer and man, on discharge, should be in a satisfactory dental condition, and certainly in no worse condition than he was on mobilisation. While in the Navy, Army or Air Force this was the responsibility of the NZDC, but on discharge there was an examination by a civilian dental board which authorised any outstanding work to be done by a civilian dentist of the man's own choice. It was a point of honour with the NZDC that as little work as possible should remain to be done on handing over. Anything else was a page 334 reflection on its stewardship and as such deeply resented by every officer, NCO and man of the Corps.

At first sight it would appear reasonably easy to make all returning men dentally fit but actually there were many difficulties. One of these concerned the Department of Dental Hygiene, the Government department controlling the civilian board of examiners and the subsequent treatment of discharged men. Sensing the urgency of the situation, the Department asked the NZDC in the Pacific to act as the civilian board in any case that could not be made dentally fit before embarkation. There was some confusion caused by the Department's insistence on the use of an unsuitable form, but eventually the DDS persuaded the Director of the Division of Dental Hygiene to accept a certificate of dental fitness on the army form, except where further treatment was required.

A further anomaly concerned the right of men who still had work to be done to choose any civilian dentist from the list of those co-operating in the scheme. In principle this was right and, in the case of those men who were fully discharged from further service with their destiny in their own hands, it was not only just but was reasonable and convenient. Those returning from 3 Division, however, were not in this category. They were merely exchanging their army bonds for the shackles of manpower control. Of what use, therefore, was it to nominate the dentist they wished to attend if, after spending their twenty-eight days' leave, they were directed to an industry hundreds of miles away? Also, although the Dental Corps in the Pacific had been asked to assume the functions of the civilian board, there was neither a list of civilian dentists to submit to the men nor means of knowing whether the dentist selected was still in practice or even alive.

As a check on the dental health of the force, records had been kept according to sub-units such as companies, batteries or troops. With the decision to return men to New Zealand this system became obsolete overnight. Men were taken from all units and classified according to trade or occupation, collectively grouped as APR, that is Awaiting Passage for Return. Reclassification under this heading would mean complete re-examination of the whole force, which was impracticable. An attempt was made and about 400 men each day were collected for examination. The trouble was that, with medical boarding, working parties and the hundred and one things moving troops had to do, this was probably the only day the Dental Corps would see these men. As much treatment as possible would page 335 have to be done for them because next day they would be otherwise engaged and another 400 would be paraded outside the dental hut. The circumstances were exceptional, and although headquarters in New Caledonia were fully co-operative, nothing more could be done. To get anything done at all, it was essential to adhere strictly to whatever system was adopted by 2 NZEF (IP) Headquarters, even though conflicting with instructions received from Wellington.

The same thing happened in New Caledonia as had been noticed in Fiji. Wellington, instead of confining instructions to matters of policy, attempted to define the methods by which that policy should be carried out. Instructions were issued without full knowledge of the factors influencing the situation and were often quite impossible to carry out. The command had been decentralised and the ADDS should have been in complete charge of all administrative details. Consequently there was a certain amount of confusion and there were some acrimonious arguments.

By the end of June there were only about 9000 troops on New Caledonia but the ratio of dental officers to men had to be higher than one to 1000 as they were still dispersed. The Mobile Dental Section was no longer needed, the treatment being handled by the Camp Dental Hospital and sections detached from it to isolated groups. Only one maxillo-facial unit was now required. The Officer Commanding the Camp Dental Hospital was selected and coached as successor to the ADDS should the plans of the DDS materialise, which meant that Headquarters could be withdrawn at any time without embarrassment to the organisation.

Reduction of staff simply meant reducing the size of the Camp Dental Hospital. By the end of July, most of the stores were packed and from then until the middle of October, men and equipment were returning to New Zealand. All drafts of ‘Essential Industry’ personnel were returned dentally fit, with the exception of occasional men ill in hospital and the negligible few who refused treatment.

As from 5 p.m. on 20 October 1944 3 New Zealand Division ceased to exist. Some of its personnel went to essential industries and some to camps to await posting to other theatres of war. The Dental Corps emerged richer in experience, the joy of successful achievement tinged with the sadness of leaving a force whose reputation was second to none. Some of the Corps returned to civil life but most went on with the fight against dental disease in the Navy, Army and Air Force in New Zealand or overseas.

The Dental Corps comes into close association with more individuals of a force than perhaps any other service; how close is shown page 336 by the summary of dental treatment for the eighteen months in the Pacific ended 30 June 1944:

Number of patients examined 40,976
Number dentally fit on examination 22,966
Number requiring treatment 18,010
Number presenting for treatment 41,870
Number rendered dentally fit 27,427
Number of extractions 5,934
Number of fillings 42,034
Number of scalings and cleanings 7,515
Number of full dentures 973
Number of partial dentures 919
Number of remodels to dentures 2,796
Number of repairs to dentures 4,144
Total denture cases 8,832

From this it can be seen that, with examinations and treatments, at least 82,846 appointments were made in a force never in excess of 18,000. Truly can it be said: ‘Dens sana in corpore sano’.