The 35th Battalion
Chapter Eleven — A Padre in the Pacific
A Padre in the Pacific
My experiences as a padre with the 35th Battalion are limited to the period from 2 August 1943 on which day Lieutenant Alan Hill and two of Monty's drivers, Jimmy Orr and Cavanagh, rescued me from the clutches of BRD, till 25 August 1944. This was but a year, but that it was a year long to be remembered I hope the following lines will tell. I took over my duties from Padre Hall who, besides being a Presbyterian, had the added virtue of being a South Islander. Little wonder then that I should find the spiritual life of the battalion robust and healthy.
We duly arrived at Nepoui where the battalion was then stationed. I was introduced to Colonel Seaward and I could see at a glance that if I was to be a worthy member of his battalion I would have to get cracking. I could detect that there was no room for passengers in this man's unit. I owe a lot to Colonel Seaward for the warm and hearty welcome he gave me and for the freedom and cooperation he allowed me in doing my work. The first few days were spent in a quick reconnaissance and in gaining an appreciation of the situation. In short I had to submit to that most embarrassing experience for all new comers to a unit, the ordeal of being summed up. But a padre also does some summing up and I very quickly came to the conclusion that I would have a good time in this unit. The atmosphere was genuinely friendly; there seemed to be the minimum amount of humbug about the place, and I had the feeling that if these chaps were given a worthwhile job to do they would do it all right. Subsequent events proved that beyond doubt. One of my first jobs of consolation was in connection with the carrier platoon. In my rounds I came across a very despondent group of men and a rather disconsolate Bruce Stronach, for their platoon was in progress of being broken up and Bruce assured me that it was the best b … page 90lot of men in the outfit. I quickly observed that they were imbued with the true 3 Division spirit, for when I went over to the carrier lines the men were assiduously assembling all the best kits of tools and other odds and ends from the carriers which were to be handed in. It was good to see that the art of 'acquiring' was quite highly developed in the 35th.
There was an air of expectancy about in those days. Everything was being pushed into crates, many of which were marked with the mysterious sign, 39/X/. At first I was a little astounded by such a display of hieroglyphics but I was soon to learn that all good things went into boxes bearing that mark. Yes, indeed, we were packing up in earnest, for the northern advance was about to begin. In those days also I remember that BHQ entrance was guarded by two of the most ferocious provosts that I have ever seen. I shall never forget an experience I had one night coming up from the YM roadhouse at about nine o'clock. I was wending my way homewards to BHQ meditating on the peacefulness of the scene beside the river when I was rather rudely challenged by two guards who seemed to come from nowhere. They challenged me with, 'Who goes there?' and before I could reply they began to jostle me in a manner which I thought was a little unbecoming. But anything might happen in the Fighting 35th, and so when I had recovered my balance I falteringly uttered that magic 'The Padre.' And from my assailants there came the startled exclamation, 'Oh h … it's the padre all right!' Then, muttering some expletives that men in my position dare not record, they disappeared into the darkness. Apparently they were jocular guards of the practical variety, but unfortunately their victim on this occasion was not who it was meant to be. And so Friday August the 13th arrived. For the more superstitious this was a disturbing portent for that was the day we left Nepoui for our thrust northwards. At 11pm I bundled into the back of a 15-cwt truck with the doctor and helped him to swallow all the dust of the convoy to Nouméa.
During their leisure hours the men constructed weird and wonderful craft. Here is a boating club on the lagoon of Nissan, the lake-like waters of which are admirable for yachting and boating. Below, two men display enemy medical equipment captured during the fighting on Nissan Island
Indian pattern tents, pegged high off the ground, kept out the tropical rain and were reasonably cool. On the opposite page Lieutenant-Colonel F. C. Cornwall, Brigadier L. Potter and Lieutenant-Colonel J. F. Moffat on Nissan Island discuss the action in which more than sixty Japanese were accounted for
Rude crosses marked the resting place of the fallen men in this tiny island cemetery, but later the graves were moved to a central cemetery in New Caledonia. Below, a Japanese machine gun which was captured in the advance on Nissan Island
Vella Lavella must forever remain a name of deep significance for the 35th for it was here that we were all unified through toil and sacrifice as never before, and it was here that we were to experience page 92that deep bond of fellowship which comes to men in action. Those first days in the jungle were a bit grim. Shall we ever forget the mud, that whistling bomb which Charlie dropped inconveniently close to us one night, and the hasty last minute preparations for action. Captain Johnny Rose excelled himself there and the lovely OS jungle suits and the dinky little caps finally removed any marks of distinction that might have remained to us. One of my last duties while we were over that side of the island was to go round the companies to administer the Sacrament for those who wished to partake of it. Amidst the most primitive surroundings those little services had a sincerity and reality about them which was both simple and impressive.
It was on the afternoon before going round to Mundi Mundi that an event of great significance for me and my work took place. It was then that Percy Burns made the great decision to come up with me to the battle front as my assistant. May I pause for a moment in this narrative to pay a personal tribute to Percy. He became my sincerest friend in the battalion and it was only through his unflagging zeal, his cheerfulness under all conditions, his prodigious energy, his grand Christian manliness and his constant inspiration that we were able to serve the battalion, at least in small measure, the way we would like to have helped it in those difficult days. From the moment Percy came with me till the time he left I was the 'victim' of his energy. In next to no time he had haversacks packed with the essentials for a good brew, petrol and water tins filled, primus stoves all ready for action, and with scant respect for my ecclesiastical status, if I ever had any, he proceeded to load this gear on to my back. And so away we went with our secret weapons for the overthrow of Japanese power in those parts. I'm sure the Nips never anticipated that the New Zealanders would be so up-to-date in their equipment as to have flame-throwing primus sets so handy to their lines. As we were going round in the barge to Mundi Mundi I gave Percy the nod to 'Whip her up'. That meant a cup of tea. You can only imagine my personal consternation when I found that the colonel's private primus set, with its limited supply of fuel, was being pressed into service by Percy and everyone who had the good fortune to be on that barge received a cup of good hot tea with milk and sugar to taste because old Percy was always able to produce the necessary from his amazing haversack. From that time forth whenever there was a halt the 'Chaplain's Dept.' as we humourously termed ourselves, page 93would swing into action with Percy directing operations and with me humbly carrying out his directions. That side of the work became increasingly important as the conditions became more grim and business began to increase until we were turning out the rather amazing amount of fifty gallons of tea a day under the most difficult conditions. Our supplies got very low at times but like the widow's cruze they were never entirely exhausted, and in some small measure we were able to minister to the needs of the men in difficult days.
The days we were in contact with the enemy on Vella were very trying and busy ones for all of us. Officially we were attached to the RAP and whenever a new move was made we would wait until our good friend Dr. Colgrave had chosen his site and then we would step off about five yards into the jungle and there establish the 'Chaplain's Dept.' This usually became the 'social' centre of the campaign, and it was simply amazing the number of chaps who found the time in passing for a cup of tea. Of course our primary concern was to assist the 'doc' in dispensing hot drinks and comforts for the men who had been wounded or who were brought in exhausted. But very shortly after the battle began it became obvious that we would have to extend our activities and in the latter part we endeavoured to get hot drinks up to the companies at least once a day. The gratitude of the men was more than once demonstrated by acts of helpfulness which were most appreciated. During the first hectic week our great concern was for Bill Beaumont's and Jack Albon's men who were carrying on under the most difficult conditions. The dramatic story of their rescue and their heroism has been told elsewhere, but there were one or two incidents of particular interest to the padre. None of us shall ever forget 'Fitz'. After the remainder of the party had been rescued one of their number was speaking to me about the events of the past days and during the conversation he handed me a little book which Fitz had handed to him before he made that last dramatic swim out to the barge there to meet his death still fighting. This little book proved to be a Roman Catholic prayer book. Undoubtedly Fitz was a man of deep faith and this had been his source of amazing strength in those days. Nor shall I ever forget the thanksgiving service which that little group of men spontaneously took part in behind the Iringila village Methodist Church on the Sunday evening after the rescue. It was with deep sincerity and with a sense of great gratitude for a wonderful deliverance that they raised voices in unison in the page 94words of the Doxology. I do not remember clearly what we talked about in that service, but I do recall that it was the most powerful and sincere time of worship that I have ever had been privileged to conduct.
Unfortunately throughout the battle there was a steady stream of casualties coming through. Our gratitude is due to the native chief, Silas, for making available to us a piece of hallowed ground in a beautifully quiet and peaceful spot for our cemetery. The homage and respect paid by all members of the battalion to their comrades who fell in battle was both touching and inspiring. Our cemetery became a place of quiet dignity and beauty. Colonel Seaward was particularly desirous that it should be so, and we all owe a great debt of gratitude to the men from those two platoons who, while they were resting, worked and planned to make the cemetery a place of quiet beauty. Yes, we left some grand chaps there, but their memory and their deeds will ever remain fresh with us. Of every one of them it might be said, 'Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.' And they did just that. No man can give greater service than this and in so doing they have all fulfilled their life's purpose most abundantly.
After the battle, when the different companies were distributed for garrison duty to different parts of the island, our work began in earnest for the very difficult task of entertainment had to be faced, and something very definite had to be done to arrest boredom, which was inevitable in those parts. With the battalion spread over seven different areas it was almost impossible to spend much time in each one, so we settled down at Wataro with a portion of headquarters and C companies and BHQ. Shortly afterwards there were big changes in the personnel of the battalion. We said farewell to Colonel Seaward and other officers and men and welcomed other reinforcements, a new commanding officer in Colonel Moffat and what was of particular interest to our welfare work, a new YM secretary in Rhys Williams. Ley Pycroft had left the battalion after giving it good service over a very difficult period. It was Colonel Moffat's earnest wish that all that was possible for the welfare and entertainment of the men should be put into operation immediately, so he called Rhys and myself into conference when the whole matter was discussed and a social and welfare committee was formed. A great deal of work was accomplished by this committee. Sports were page 95organised, concerts were put on by the various companies and in general the men responded with great enthusiasm to the work in hand. B D and A companies, which were somewhat isolated, did good work in their several ways. A company will always be remembered for its special work in the model yacht business, B company with its swimming pool and gala days. Incidentally that company was nearly responsible for my being excommunicated from the church for all time. It happened this way. I arrived to take the service on the Sunday afternoon and found that the company was in the midst of its regatta, but this was graciously interrupted to allow the padre to hold his service. But no sooner was that over than I found myself invited to strip off and get into a canoe with Robby, the adjutant, and take part in a race round the treacherous triangular course. I had visions of some of my more respectable Presbyterians back home being a little shocked by such frivolity. But B company was a hearty company and I always enjoyed my visits there. D company, which was situated in the beautiful setting of Paramata village, developed its entertainment to a high degree under the able leadership of Captain Noel Felton, assisted by the enthusiastic Nig Beazley and Mickey Rooney. C company, which had got off to a bad start through being bogged down in the mud of Wataro, came with a mighty rush in the finish to have an area and enthusiasm which was unsurpassed. Shall we ever forget those tennaquoit tournaments which were organised on those four courts. Rhys Williams and I entered ourselves as the 'Holy Joes' and to our utter amazement carried off the honours, having staved off even the challenge of the famous pair Nick and McDell of BHQ. And didn't we rock old Andy Sinclair and his mortars back on their heels when we beat their favourites, Kerr and Hunter. Old Andy gathered up his men and took them home a very dejected lot. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if there were not a few dollars on the mortars team that day, but then I don't know. Many and interesting were the contests we had over on those courts. Tennaquoit came into its own as an ideal sport under those conditions and many good players were discovered. Possibly the most artistic, graceful, and gazelle-like, and cunningly tricky exponent of the game was Major Moses. But once you managed to counter the cute roll of his eyes, the lift of his legs and the twist of his wrist, the rest was quite easy. C company was also responsible for making a very fine swimming pool in that area and we had many fine carnivals page 96there. In fact life was becoming quite exciting in those parts and the social and welfare committee was more than justifying its existence. Remember the tug-o'-war tournaments we had there too. A huge coil of very useful Jap rope was put to good use and many and strenuous were the duels. Of course the outstanding one was the day when a few broken down old South Islanders pulled the cream of the North Island almost inside out. I think Colonel Moffat was secretly pleased by that result, the padre elated, and the North Islanders disgustingly dejected.
During this period also our weekly concerts were instituted and they were amazingly successful. The jingle-jungle-jangle orchestra achieved amazing results with its home-made instruments under the able leadership of Bill Peritt and his trumpet. Possibly the most notable instrument in the collection was Jack Pearce's bull fiddle. This was a ferocious looking instrument made from a tea chest, a bit of stout stick and a piece of sigs wire. (Where would the battalion have been without Bob Walkley and his sigs wire?) By putting a glove on one hand and wrestling with this instrument Jack could produce a deep thumping sound which often went on into the night like the beating of Zulu war drums. Now the mortars were a platoon never to be outdone and so one of their number, Lionel Kerr, attempted an improvement on the 'bull fiddle'. Probably the only improvement was that if the skin on your hand was tough enough to pull the wire then you didn't need to use a glove. Undoubtedly the most hilarious piece of entertainment we ever had was one night when these two bull fiddlers were to give a duet. The duet soon developed into a duel with the contestants being vociferously encouraged by their supporters while the remainder of the audience were rocking in wild laughter on their coconut logs. The result was total exhaustion for all concerned. The contestants worked themselves up to the dizzy heights of artistic zeal while the audience was exhausted with merriment. Another outstanding item which had to be repeated at a subsequent concert before the popular clamour could be satisfied was that which was turned on by the BHQ officers, ably led by Colonel Moffat and Major Ronaldson, and Dr. Wishart when they presented the battalion anthem as composed by Dr. Wishart. This anthem is included in another part of this history. Generally speaking we were discovering much hidden talent, musical instruments of all shapes and sizes were making their appearance and the culturalpage 97stimulus led to the formation of a very creditable choir which went round the area on Christmas Eve singing carols and wafting our thoughts homewards to many happy times in the past. B company, too, had a fine choir with Jimmy Lees as leader. For Christmas services throughout the battalion the choirs combined and a good result was obtained. A very fine gesture on the part of the choir was when it stopped at the cemetery on Christmas Day and took part in a simple but impressive service with appropriate music.
Meanwhile arts and crafts were being developed within the battalion and an added stimulus was given by Brigadier Potter when he sponsored a brigade arts and crafts exhibition. The 35th put up a very creditable showing, carrying off a fair proportion of the prize money. The quality of the work produced under the most unfavourable conditions reflected great credit on the skill and patience of the craftsmen. Later on we held our own exhibition when the winning entries from the brigade competition were on display prior to being sent to New Zealand. A notable entry was a chair of archaic design and comfort made chiefly from canvas and fresh air and exhibited by Major Moses. Since it was in a class by itself no prize was offered nor was the chair sent on to New Zealand. There was another hobby developed in those days which would hardly be called an art or a craft, and that was the manufacture of 'plonk'. One day during my rounds, I think it was in the mortar lines, I happened upon quite a goodly collection of coconuts in which there was a seething, gurgling mass which, apparently by the judicious addition of mosquito repellent, became quite a stimulating beverage. It seemed to be quite a strong potion too, judging from some of its results. But then this is hardly within the padre's sphere so I had better withdraw according to plan.
Our Sunday services, which were always of a voluntary nature, were very well attended and were an inspiration to me personally. It was no light job to get round the battalion in one day, sometimes by barge, canoe and on foot. But the help and encouragement from the company commanders and men alike was very much appreciated. In B company I made Darky Haig my curate. He always rounded up a good attendance there and even 'Sarg', the well known mascot, was to be observed on the outskirts of the congregation. Darky was a good curate but the number of 'conversions' he had was rather disappointing!page 98
Enemy gun-boat grounded on the reef off Nissan Island. It was put out of action by gunfire from an American destroyer which supported the New Zealanders. Below: Solomon Island natives entering a chapel which they erected in the beautiful allied cemeterv on Vella Lavella
Giant trees matted together by a network of thick vines and among them, where sufficient space has been cleared to let in the light, a few tents in which to house the men; this photograph illustrates vividly a familiar scene in the dense tropical jungle of the Solomon Islands
In addition to Lake Ronaldson we also had the three tennaquoit courts known as the Moffat Courts after our respected and sporting CO. Unfortunately we were able to hold only two decent tournaments on these courts, one against the 37th and the other against the 30th which they won comfortably. We failed to win a set in this latter match and so our heads were bowed in humility. Our other activity was swimming. The construction of the pool in that river nearby was one of the most difficult and certainly the cleverest of amphibious operations ever carried out by the division. Dressed only in boots and bathing trunks we would assemble and set out for the day's work. The Julian Brothers and Benge of the mortars were again to the rescue and a tidy pool was soon at our disposal. For the brief space that we were there this proved a great boon to all swimmers and besides a carnival with the 37th and another with the 30th there were several interesting interplatoon competitions held.
Rhys Williams was conducting a very good YM here in spite of the very wet and trying conditions. On one occasion he produced an American hospital tent and his assemblage of tents made us fear that Rhys was perhaps going into the circus business. However, elephants did not appear and the good service which had characterised the YM throughout continued to be dispensed by him and his small staff. We page 100held our church services here and we had goodly congregations. Our thanks are due particularly to the members of the divisional band who frequently came up to our evening services and helped proceedings with several selections of sacred music which were much appreciated.
Our activities on Vella were brought to an abrupt close when it was announced that we were heading further northwards upon another expedition. Very careful and thorough arrangements were made by Colonel Moffat and his able adjutant, Captain Hopwood, for the welfare of the troops throughout this expedition. Rhys Williams was carefully husbanding supplies of tea and other comforts. With the assistance of Percy Burns, Sel Messenger, and myself he was able to take good supplies forward. I think the 35th can safely say that it was the first battalion to enjoy a good brew on D-day, because the first cup of tea was available at 10 am. From the first day until the end of the campaign an endeavour was made to provide all the battalion with a hot drink in the morning and in the evening. The Nissan engagement was immeasurably easier for the 35th than Vella had been. Again we were soon settled down in our company areas. After the road was completed the transport difficulties were much easier. Through our proximity to the American units, better and more varied entertainment was available to all, and so the work of the social and welfare committee was considerably reduced. But we did build a roadhouse known as the 'Kiwi Kosy Korner'. This proved to be a great boon to all who passed along the road. Again brigade came to our assistance in making available supplies of timber to make the seats with and to complete the job. It was an amazing structure, and in it's construction there is hidden a tale. Captain Hopwood was always most helpful in making men available to assist in any work which had to do with the welfare of the men and when the scheme was laid before him he gave us his fullest cooperation. And so construction began in earnest. It fell to the padre and Rhys to direct operations. The dimensions were to be 50 by 25 feet and so I proceeded to step out the distance in true ploughman's style. That was quite all right and operations were proceeding according to plan when Lieutenant McDonald, who was lent by Major Bell to help us came along and cast his expert eye over the job. He immediately objected to the slipshod methods of measurement which were being adopted and took charge with a tape measure. The main posts were erected accordingly, and when a check was made of the measure-page 101ments, to our mirth and Mac's indignation the building was now 60 by 25 feet. Under the old method we were only two feet out. But the building proceeded and when completed we all agreed that she was beautifully proportioned and stood square to all the storms which raged. Rhys and his staff did grand work in serving refreshments to all and sundry who passed by, and the roadhouse more than amply repaid all hard work which was put into its construction.
Again swimming, tennaquoits, and tug-o-war became the order of recreation. Another swimming pool was erected in the lagoon and a triangular canoe course was laid out. Much fun was had in the lagoon in many intercompany competitions. A battalion gala day was organised for the purpose of raising some funds to make a gift to the natives on Vella. Unfortunately heavy rain marred the early events but as the day wore on and competition became more lively and the weather improved, everyone was enjoying himself to the full. Certainly the most strenuous event which we organised up there was the famous harbour swim which was won in excellent style by Brian Mason. It was some considerable time before the last man, Bruce Norton, struggled gallantly in, only to be greeted by the cruel sarcasm of one of the BHQ wags who said: 'Hurry up Norton, the battalion is packed up and about to move'.
Only one other aspect of welfare work remains to be considered, and that is the good work done on our behalf by the AEWS organisation, under the capable direction to Lieutenant Athol Congalton and ably assisted by Alex Aitken, an old 35th man. I personally supervised the work in the battalion and as usual Percy Burns did most of it. We had the very creditable total number of 230 men doing study courses and all will agree that the service was well worth while. Meanwhile Percy had been up to his old pranks of visiting the Americans and one day he came back with the good news that he had procured a goodly supply of library books for use of the battalion. These, supplemented by supplies from Mr. Congalton, gave us quite a creditable circulating library.
Besides all these various battalion activities in which a padre finds himself engrossed, there were those numerous informal functions such as suppers in the tent when we all talked of home and other lovely places. Then there is that rare privilege of visiting men in their own lines and being the honoured guest and partaking of a sweet page 102morsel from home. Or else he is called upon to pass glowing comment upon the latest photopraph from home be it sweetheart, wite or bairn. All these little informal opportunities of being friends with all the men amidst their own surroundings is one of the padre's happiest memories, and as I look back I can truly say that I have made many true and sincere friends in those grand days we spent in the good old 35th together. The battalion is no more, but everyone of us has greatly enriched his experiences of life, increased his circle of proved friends, and deepened his sympathy and understanding of human nature with all its complex problems. As I look back over those months of work amongst you it is with a deep sense of gratitude to officers and men alike for all your help and friendship. To have been your padre was a privilege which I always cherished and the memory of our days together will ever be rich and happy. May you all have a prosperous and happy future and may God bless you all.