The 35th Battalion
Chapter Two — To Suva and Back
To Suva and Back
To most of us Fiji was our first visit to the tropics. Was this going to be the paradise the films had led us to believe, or were we to be disillusioned. The day of our arrival—our welcome—impressed us no whit. For an hour or so we stood on the decks of our transport gazing at our new home. The heat was unbearable, water was in short supply and came out of the taps in a tepid trickle; the decks seemed to burn through the soles of our boots. This was the tropics with a vengeance and there we stood, dressed up in our best ill-fitting drill uniforms while the old hands on the wharf below looked as cool as the proverbial cucumber in sensible shorts and shirts. After what seemed to be an eternity we finally started to move off the transport and were marched a short way to the CSR's toy railway. Every one scrambled aboard the open sugar cane trucks and with a pathetic whistle the miniature engine slowly moved off. This was the start of a trip that most of us will always remember. The twisting line ran through acres and acres of sugar cane, plantations of pineapples, Fijian villages, hornets and mosquitoes.
The Hindu engine driver seemed to appreciate our thirst, but the officers had a trying time trying to round up everybody from a pinapple plantation beside which the train had stopped. The journey took us through a few Fijian villages, and it seemed as if the whole village turned out to give us a reception. The youngsters took delight in jumping on to the trucks and going a short distance with us. It was our first introduction to these carefree, smiling islanders. At Namaka camp we were introduced to the PWD four-men hut, and the sometimes nauseating smells coming from a neighbouring Hindu village. But who will ever forget that first night on Fijian soil? The page 13mosquito army's intelligence section must have watched us unpack and informed all mosquitoes on the island that we had no nets. They descended on us in thousands. Few of us managed to get any sleep on that or any of the following nights till mosquito nets finally arrived on 17 January.
On 10 January the balance of the battalion arrived at Lautoka after an uneventful and calm voyage. They enjoyed the same exciting trip on the railway and joined the battalion at Namaka. The battalion was now complete except for twelve men who had stayed aboard the last transport as ack-ack defence for the trip back to Suva. These men enjoyed a unique journey in that through a submarine scare when just off Suva the transport made direct for New Zealand's shores and so, without touching the Fijian soil, they landed back in New Zealand to their great delight. 'Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun,' became a live reality when on 19 January companies moved out to their areas in Nandi Bay and began the dreary task of siting and digging weapon pits of the slit trench variety. The forward companies on the beach worked hard with the limited supply of tools available and constructed a formidable tank trap. This ditch was dug out in record time but the powers-that-be forgot to install a modern 'Canute' and when the tide came in the tank trap collasped.
As time went on living quarters were made more comfortable and company cookhouses took shape. Despite these amenities that dreadful tropic 'sore' of monotony came upon us. Every day work was the same—digging pits and more pits; putting up miles and more miles of barbed wire fences and entanglements. There seemed to be no end to the work. C company, which was in reserve, had perhaps some slight lightening of its task as the 'Lautoka Express' passed through its area. On the days when the CSR ran the passenger train (the only free railway in the world we imagined) C company men would stop work for a few minutes and watch the amazing sight. Every colour in the rainbow had its share in dresses and saris. Fijians, Hindus, Chinese and an occasional European filled the quaint carriages while the shrieking whistle of the engine almost curdled the air. The most comical sight of all was to see a Fijian hop off the end carriage and run along to a front one to see a friend. After the conversation he simply dropped off and waited for his carriage to come along. Did you say 'express?' For all their 'puff-puff' appearance, page 14the length of laden cane trucks that these small engines could pull was an eye-opener.
Before long a leave system was inaugurated and most men were able to visit Lautoka, Mba, Nandi and other villages. Sunday trips to Saweni Beach were also arranged and proved very popular. This beach was just outside Lautoka and, as a beach, conforms very nearly to the films idea of swaying palms and silvery sands. The CSR provided a train for these trips but as the carriages were flat-top cane trucks it was a case of having to take your seat with you. On weekdays a small percentage of the troops was allowed to go on leave. The only transport available consisted of what were commonly known as 'wog wagons'. These wagons are identical with the vehicle known to most New Zealanders as station wagons, and a trip in them was something of an adventure. The drivers had only one idea of speed, and that was full speed—up hill, down hill or round corners; another thing was that on the various stops along the dusty, twisting road passengers of all sorts, sizes and shapes would cram in the small space. Passengers, even unto fowls and goats, covered everything.
The days passed on rapidly and in February work commenced on the camouflaging of weapon pits and defences. Large numbers of nets were made from vau bark and used for this purpose. The Fijians aided the war effort in many ways and this is only one of them. They collected, treated and dried the bark. Selected personnel were trained in net-making, and so these vau bark nets gradually hid from view, both from air and land, the weapon pits from which we were, if necessary, to defend this 'front door' to New Zealand. Early in February we suffered a number of alerts. Suffered, yes, for at night the mosquitoes attacked us ceaselessly while toads chorused approval. We were green soldiers, too, and although an outward calm pervaded, a good number of us surely have examined our feelings and wondered how we would stand up to fighting conditions.
In Fiji the 35th Battalion was stationed at Nandi, in the dry western area, as part of the 14th Brigade
One of the highest expressions of friendship—a whale's tooth— was then presented to the commanding offcer. He replied per medium of an interpreter, thanking the Queen and her people for the ceremony and for the Cooperation they had shown, and assuring the Queen of the continued protection of her people and lands from any enemies of Britain and New Zealand. During this same week the first sufferers from island complaints were returned to New Zealand, leaving a few gaps in our ranks. However a week later the first batch of reinforcements arrived and once more the battalion was up to strength.
Precious petrol tins of water were carried into the jungle and natives acted as guides for the men. Transport was an overwhelming problem, solved by the use of water-craft, as below, where a wounded man is being carried out to the LCVP which has grounded on the coral in Timbala Bay, Vella Lavella
Early in April, unfortunately, someone discovered that our work was done as far as digging and wiring were concerned, and that army horror—training—started. Although it was training, most of the trips were quite pleasant. Each company went out into the foot-hills behind Nandi Bay for three days at a time, taking rations with them. Nearly all of these trips involved passing through Fijian villages, the sites of which had been well chosen. Often one of those villages appeared like an oasis in a desert of driedup grassland. On one occasion a company decided to bivouac for the night beside a Fijian village which was situated on a level grassy stretch of land in the U-shaped bend of a river. On all sides of the village site were dried up fields of grass on rising ground, yet the site itself was cool, shady and possessed a fine garden with a variety of plants and many fruit trees. The small river was crystal clear and free of impurities. That night the chief invited the company over to the large bure and there they were entertained by items from the younger generation and the inevitable kava ceremony. The company in return rendered many choruses, and without a doubt both Fijians and New Zealanders enjoyed themselves.
On yet another occasion Fijian hospitality came to the forefront. The same company had a long day's march ahead of it and had only completed half of it when a tropical rainstorm set in. The march had to be completed, and at the end of the day the company, very-much bedraggled, finished up at a large village. The Fijian chief immediately made a number of huts available and the weary soldiers piled into these to enjoy a good night's sleep under a dry roof. This village was on the coast and many soldiers saw with interest the native method of making salt from sea water. That evening the usual impromptu concert took place, but this time the New Zealanders took second place. One of the best efforts on the part of the soldiers was Three Blind Mice sung in rounds. Imagine the surprise, then, when the Fijian youths put on their next item—none other than Three Blind Mice in rounds, but this time in the Fijian language.
The month of May quickly came along and plans were well un-page 18der way for a large field sports day. With an energetic committee under Captain E. L. Barker this proved to be one of the grandest days of our Fijian term. The Nandi cricket grounds were used for the big day. Jumping pits were constructed, lines and circles marked off, and on 8 May the preliminary events were run off. The day —the ninth—was a tremendous success. At the conclusion Brigadier Potter presented the prizes and the topical talk for days after centred on sports day. Competitors from all the units in the Namaka area entered in the open events, the contest at times reaching an exciting pitch for both soldiers and civilians. European, Fijian, Hindu and Chinese races were represented in a motley (no other word could be used) throng to watch the contests of speed and brawn. Detailed results of this day appear further on in this narrative.
The monotony of the balance of the month was broken by only two events. One was the arrival, on 19 May, of further reinforcements for our depleted ranks, and the other the visit of the Governor General of New Zealand, Sir Cyril Newall. On the day of his visit, 28 May, the battalion was drawn up in inspection order on the concrete runway of the Nandi aerodrome, which was in the battalion defence area. The Governor General inspected all ranks and spoke to nearly every soldier on the parade. After a short speech which stirred our hearts to hopes of an early return to New Zealand, the Governor General departed.
By this time the American forces were arriving in large numbers and it seemed obvious to all that they were to take over our job of defending Fiji. Various visits were paid to our area by American officers, some of whom distinguished themselves later in the New Georgian campaign. On 28 June the Americans officially took over and after several trial packs we finally pulled out from Namaka in the early morning of 30 June.
The popular conception of a tropical beach was realised at Saweni, some miles from Lautoka, in the western area of Fiji. Here, where the creamy coral sand made bathing a joy, graceful coconut palms grew to the water's edge and threw pools of shade on the grass. Here at weekends and on holidays, men from units of 14 Brigade spent many lone happy hours 'getting away from it all'
This structure was known as 'HMS Niaouli' and on it men learned to master the difficult art of embarkation and disembarkation to and from small landing craft. Such lessons were invaluable in the Pacific.
The trip to Suva was hot and dusty and little can be said of it, except that for many of us it was the first time we had seen further than Singatoka village. Later in the day we arrived at Suva, and were issued with the kitbags we had left behind, containing our great-coats and jerseys. When everybody was complete with kitbag we boarded our transport, a beautiful ship which has since been sunk. While waiting for more personnel to embark leave was granted and everybody made the most of the opportunity to 'do' the town of Suva. It was the first decent bit of civilisation we had seen for six months. The transport pulled away from the dock at Suva on 3 July and sped southwards. Each day it became colder but who cared? We were headed for home. The journey was uneventful, being a flat calm with sunny weather all the way.
Tuesday the seventh of July was the day of days and many of us gave up having breakfast for the sake of gazing over the rail at New Zealand. Our arrival, as with all wartime shipping movements, was a secret—a secret that was shared by thousands of Aucklanders who were waiting at Princes Wharf for the ship to tie up. In true military fashion we were bustled into a waiting train. Now where and what, we wondered, little knowing the grand surprise in store for us. C company remained on board to clean out the ship and few Aucklanders from that party didn't manage to slip past the sentry that night.