The 35th Battalion
Now comes the story of the men behind the scenes; those who kept the wheels turning, those who built the mess rooms, and those who fried the 'spam'; those who kept the flies at bay and those who ran the mail. The administration platoon of the battalion, often known as No. 4, lived a full life throughout the history of the unit-full in that, wet or fine, in action or in rest areas, on holidays or on work days, the personnel of the platoon rarely knew rest. At all time the cry of the unit for food and clothing from the Q and for stores from the canteen was insatiable. The wheels of twice the amount of unit transport could have been kept turning twice as long to supply the demand. Schemes for employing the pioneers on bigger, brighter and better bures were endless.
But alone midst the ceaseless activity around them stood two whom the remainder of the unit heartfully wished could have been extended more often—the butcher boys, Hank and Stan. These two stalwarts really felt for the unit as the piles of empty meat tins round the cookhouse grew, but when the ASC, in the fullness of its heart, sent fresh meat then Hank and Stan really earned their pay. But unfortunately the meat came not as often as we could have wished! Hank and Stan also carried No. 4's banner into the firing line and they are not likely to forget their experiences when their tiny force was ambushed by the Japs on Vella, and cut off from the battalion for a week.
Never far from the butchers, no matter where we were camped, was the boot repairing shop where Gordon Attwood and Jacko and the other shoemakers reigned. Here the boots came in and the boots page 107went out and the work seemed to go on for ever. Even so, the odd minute could always be snatched for Arts and Crafts or for obliging a fellow with a hair cut, at a price! From here, too, could be heard the cry of 'Veek', the call of the ration sergeant, Doug Watts, to his henchman, Vic Lovell. To these two and the team of cooks, the gratitude of the unit has never been fully expressed, for the difficulties of ration supplies and ration scales and the preparation and cooking in the kitchens are not always apparent nor appreciated by those 'not in the know'. High morale in a unit can be linked up to a large degree with the satisfaction of physical needs and in particular by the ample provision of good wholesome food. Our rations in quantity and quality were not, at times, all that could be desired and even now the dull monotony of the staple diet of Fiji days, corn cobs, dried peas, taro root, sago, and little else, can be vividly recalled. Although at first it was a real pleasure to go on to American rations, with their tins of fruit cocktail and grapefruit juice, we soon longed for real food into which we could dig our teeth. However, grimmer days were ahead; days when the thought of real meals was only a tantalising memory, and the very look of C and K rations had a revulsion and indigestibility about them that only experience can teach. And so to Sergeant Cook, Tom Coath, Corporal Snow Atkinson, and their band of cooks and kitchen hands who, under often poor and varying conditions did their best with the food for the boys, we now say 'Thanks'.
And thinking of cookhouses brings a picture to mind of incinerators and piles of burnt tins, of fly traps and grease traps; and from there we go straight on to our old friend with the pipe, Corporal Jim Ashby, head of the sanitation and hygiene detail. Jim was a conscientious and willing worker and really revelled in the job. Thanks to him and to 'Flash' Parminter conditions round our camps were truly hygienic. A daily visitor to the cookhouse, too, was the water duties man. A number of MT drivers were associated with the water-cart, and never were they so busy as on Nissan Island, where the total absence of fresh water meant long trips to the CB distillation plants and late hours on coral studded mud tracks.
Earlier we spoke of Hank Jesson, but of his love of firearms we left the telling till now. Hank was an acquisition to any armourer's shop, and Armourer-Sergeant Snow Bruns found him a willing and able help. Snow came to us shortly before our move from Necal to page 108the Solomons, staying with the unit throughout its remaining life, and the award of a mention in dispatches for his work during the Vella operations was a reflection of his conscientious efficiency. In January 1945 he was in hospital with his fourth bout of malaria and we hope he will not have any lasting effects. Snow was the first change of armourer since Fiji, when Bert Adamson, Bill Pearson, and Sid Withers all wore the hammer and pincers badge in succession. Armourer-Sergeant Bill Pearson was killed in action while attached to another battalion during the landing on the Treasuries, and though his stay with 35th at Namaka was not long, those who knew him well remember his pleasant personality. One of our lone workers was our one and only unit tailor, Bob Drummond. The work he did in Necal was so valuable in patching clothing and mending bedcot canvasses that we often wondered how we would have got on without him at that stage, when new clothing and equipment were so difficult to come by. When the battalion moved north Bob was transferred to Base and when last seen was a happy member of the tailor's shop at BOD.
Corporal Ben Bennett will need no re-introduction. The battalion post office was the source of those comforting and long awaited letters from home, and who in their turn has not clustered round the Post Office tent and asked, 'When's the next mail due, Ben?' Sorting of inward mail was the one task within the unit for which fatigues did not require to be detailed—there were always volunteers in plenty to speed up the job. Ben is now wearing civilian clothes with distinction and we only hope that his re-acquaintance with 'Gorgeous' on arrival back in New Zealand came up to expectations. Bulk canteen work was another responsibility covered within the platoon and Pat Cameron had many cares with the provision of the creature comforts of beer and cigarettes, and the hundred and one other items that were obtainable from the American PXs. and which made all the difference to our Spartan standard of living.
One section of the platoon which really knew the meaning of the Divisional motto, 'Improvise', were the Pioneers. Many were the bures and huts that went up and were held together by wire and old nails salvaged from ration cases; and will they ever forget crate building out of the odd pieces of timber gathered as flotsam along the foreshore at Népoui? And think of the magnificent sets of black-smith's and artificer's tools sent so regularly to the unit by ordnance page 109despite the total absence of any utility for the tools! Yes, from building concert stages to repairing Coleman lamps; from target frames to officers-mess arm-chairs, Sergeant Morton and Sergeant De Latour and their band of merry men were ever on call. Most of the gang are now plying their civilian trade but we only hope that they are not now faced with some of the difficulties they knew when 'On Active Service!'
The boys of the Q store received much good-natured abuse and yet, with all, in few other units within the limit of outside supply, were troops better provided with clothing and equipment. Those who reigned on and off in the battalion store, Bert Bull, Ralph Potter, Ken Spiller, knew that work and responsibility was their lot, but the room for initiative and interest of the work more than compensated. The Q sign indicated many stores over the years—from outbuildings on McNicholl's farm at Te Aroha to the copra sheds at Joro Plantation on Vella Lavella, and from a cabin on the ill-fated President Coolidge to dugout and outrigger canoes during the action at Timbala Bay.
Few of the battalion realised the nature and extent of the work done on paper by the Q office. The difficulty of the detailed accounting procedure with an inadequate war accounting staff, and more often than not office conditions, necessitated many extra hours of work night after night. It was a continual fight to get on top of the returns demanded by DADOS, but there was always the hope that 'some day' the work would be up-to-date and that never a file would be found sitting on a desktop, marked 'for action' or 'pending'. Unfortunately the millenium was never reached! But Ron Barker, Curley Power, Harry Rowe, Hugh Murray, and Joe Johansen all qualified the hard way, through the lessons of experience, as first class Q M clerks.
Now comes the saga of the MT boys, the largest group within the platoon. Only those who have sweated the length of a coral-strewn track behind the wheel of a six-by-four; or eased it over the wreckage of the jungle following in the path of the tanks; or driven axle deep in the sea from LST to shore, can truly appreciate the task to be credited to these boys. Yes, the MT boys have memories! Who among them will forget the joyful homebound convoy, Namaka to Suva, and the wagers laid as to which trucks would make it, of the thrill of excitement of receiving jeeps of our own at Paerata and their page 110tryout at the Kaimais; of the corrugations and red dust of Necal and Percy the Pig and Fanny the Fawn; or the seaside camp at Maravari the envy of all troops on Vella Lavella; or the hard slogging from. Green 2 to South Point at the fair time of a mile an hour! And who has not heard of the time when the MT forsook their trucks and, with barge and canoe and captured Jap punt and the Queen Mary, kept the supplies moving forward in Vella. A word must be said here of the platoon's only battle casualty, Private R. J. Fitzgerald, of the MT drivers who was killed in action on Vella. Fits volunteered at the start of the operations to join the guerilla platoon and was with it as a rifleman when it was cut off by the Japs. The story of his endurance and example during those desperate days makes stirring reading, and it is an irony of fate that he should have swum out to the comparative safety of the evacuation barge only to receive a sniper's bullet while manning a bren gun and giving covering fire to the remainder of the platoon.
We used to wonder where the unit would have been if there had not been the efficient group of mechanics and fitters to work on, among many other things, the portable cookers which seemed to give endless trouble. Sergeant Scott and his mechanics performed wonders with few tools and inadequate stocks of spares, and to this group lies the credit for 'keeping the wheels turning' when the abused vehicles had just about 'had it!'
Now our story comes to an end and the thanks of the officers responsible for the various sections at different stages of the platoon's history go out to the personnel for a good job well done. The Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant, WO II Bob Buckland, was awarded the MBE for his services in the last honours list for the force, and the citation which reads in part, 'During the whole length of his service he has never spared himself and has shown great dilligence and devotion to duty thus contributing very materially towards the successful organisation of his unit', may be taken to cover all the personnel of the administrative platoon. Major Moses, Captain Johnnie Rose, quartermasters; Lieutenants Bill Small, Allan Hill and Mont-gomery (Monty) of the transport; and Lieutenants Len Harvey and Colin Becroft of the pioneers; all know that without the cooperation and loyal support and the disregard for personal comfort and long hours of the men of the platoon the story of the 35th Battalion in the Pacific might not be making such happy reading.page 111
No doubt, whenever two or three of No. 4 gather in freezing works or in Italy, in the city or on farms, there will be many a toast, silent or otherwise, to the days on Bure Hill, Te Aroha, the grave-yard camp on the 'Canal', and South Point on the 'gem of the Pacific', Nissan, and to those lifelong friends we made during those hectic days.