The 35th Battalion
Chapter Five — New Caledonia
Two days later we transhipped in mid-harbour to a small Dutch ship and arrived in the early afternoon at Nepoui, which is half way up the south western coast. It was here that we first set foot on French soilor should I say dust? Almost typical of Fiji clouds of red dust enveloped the convoy as we were transported to Nepoui Valley camp for an overnight stay. The barrenness of the land impressed all of us, for most of us had expected something more fertile. Nothing could be seen but dried grass broken only by stretches of niaouli and gaiac. The niaouli tree has a bark like several layers of fine tissue paper, and is used by the natives for thatching. The bark is cut round the tree in whatever length is required and then peeled off in one section. It was used for roofing canteen huts,'mess buildings and cookhouses. One often wonders what the army would have done if such materials had not been growing on the spot.
After the stay in Nepoui Valley, transport took us to the Taom Valley. The road was a never-ending ribbon of winding dust, passing through native villages or French settlements every few miles. Finally the trucks took an abrupt turn off the main road into a mass of gaiac trees. Surely, we thought, this won't be our future camp. Yes we might have known it. There, waiting to give us a welcome was Lieutenant Rust and his advanced party, who had left us during the Kaimai exercises. The various company camping sites were chosen and once more the task of selecting tent sites, erecting cook-houses and a multitude of other jobs was begun. The Taom River ran alongside each company's area and it was not long before the small amount of water in the river was dammed up to form swim-page 27ming pools, each company having its own. What a boon these swimming pools were after a hot day's work. A road was surveyed and the infantry-man turned pick and shovel labourer for a few days. This was a necessary bit of work so that trucks could get water and rations to the cookhouses.
The engineers, with extra labour from the battalion, constructed a rifle butt and practices in all arms were fired before long. At night compass marches appeared on the training schedule and certain members of one group will remember the night they were caught in the wilderness by a tropical deluge. For a while it was a touch and go in getting across a once dry stream bed which had become a raging; torrent. That was a really exciting swim back to camp.
The end of the first month on French soil saw training in full swing. This was a new style, and calculated to be the best for the fighting that lay ahead of us. Most of the training consisted of what was termed jungle shooting. Targets resembling Jap faces were placed in the bush so that they appeared suddenly either to right, front or left and high or low. This taught us to have keen sight as well as the ability to use in a flash all weapons from any position, such as standing, kneeling and from the hip. This type of training, plus deer stalking, undoubtedly helped in no uncertain manner to give us a superiority over the enemy later on. Larger scale exercises of a like manner were conducted as a sequence, with the engineers cooperating with land mines and battle noise effects.
Tropical downpours were becoming more frequent and on 2 February we had a really wet day. The river banks opposite C company's site were approximately 25 feet high and the danger of 0flooding was therefore thought impossible. After the downpour started, several members of this company watched the water rising, but thought little of it except that their fine swimming pool was being washed away. In less than an hour the river overflowed its banks-and invaded the area occupied by two platoons, plus the quartermaster's store tent. The water rapidly rose higher until only the tops-of the tents could be seen, while an assortment of hats, sandshoes, beds, towels and other gear drifted away in the flood. All hands-stripped off and swam about retrieving the floating articles. Just after darkness had set in the colonel came along to inspect the damage done by the flood. He decided to cross the flooded area at a place where the water was about five feet deep. Unfortunately he wasn't aware of a ditch that lay across his path-one second there was the page 28colonel; the next, just an expanse of dirty swilling water, but a moment later the colonel reappeared, very wet, but with his torch still going.
In the middle of this month the battalion was moved by transport to Nepoui Valley, the site of its first night in Necal, as everyone now called the island. In the battalion's new position the companies were widely dispersed. One company guarded an airfield about five miles away, another did training in the Mosquito Valley, approximately two miles from battalion headquarters, while the other infantry company did dock unloading and general fatigues, being based in Nepoui Valley. Headquarters and D support companies plus battalion headquarters, were permanently situated in Nepoui Valley. The system was that the three infantry companies changed round every so many weeks. This, then, was the general set up of our unit from February till August. Nepoui Valley was surrounded by wooded hills with a river running to one side of a grassy flat. Except for battalion headquarters, the camps were constructed in the shelter of the trees on the slopes of the hills, thus providing shade and good drainage for flood or rain water. Battalion headquarters camp was on the flat in the corner of a U-bend of the river. A stately (and hallowed) edifice was erected here and promptly labelled 'Taj Mahal' by the boys. The grassy flat lent itself ideally to sports purposes and before long hard labour had converted a large area into first-class rugby, soccer, hockey and cricket grounds, not to mention a full scale 'Kiwi Stadium-. This stadium was complete with grandstand, totalisator, a 440 yards circular track, jumping pits and a straight stretch for the sprint dashes. A swimming pool was also constructed in the river, complete with push boards for turning.
Muéo, or as it was more commonly known, Mosquito Valley, was selected as the camp site on which a company would be based for training. The original idea was that the campany would sleep under tarpaulins and bush shanties, having a minimum of cooking gear. Fortunately this state of affairs didn't last very long before a fully tented camp, complete with cookhouse, mess hut and YMCA, was in existence. The biggest drawback to the camp was the mosquitoes. They were vicious and numerous for 24 hours a day; the deer fly was also a persistent nuisance. The main asset of this valley, besides its scope for training, was the Mueo River. This was a shallow crystal clear, cold stream which was appreciated by all ranks after page 29a long day in the sun. A deep pool in a corner of the river was the favourite spot and ingenious hands soon had a tip top board erected. An access road was gradually built from the main road to the camp; a football field was cleared and two tennaquoit courts laid out, so that when the time came to move northward quite a decent camp had been constructed.
The Plaine des Gaiacs camp was, as the name implies, situated among the gaiac trees on a large flat area. The gaiac was so thick that no sports areas were available, but at the same time the job of providing guards for the drome was so big that very few men were available for such things as sports. The camp itself did not measure up to the other company sites, but the job of guarding the 'drome was always interesting and a change from other work, especially as there was an open air cinema only a few hundred yards away from the camp. As mentioned previously, the main job of work for the infantry company at Nepoui was that of unloading cargo from ships berthed at the Nepoui wharf. When no ships were unloading the company could be used on fatigues such as improving the sports ground, building a grandstand, or metalling roads to make them more fitted for all weather purposes. An assault barge which was stationed at Nepoui provided many a good day's fishing trip for small parties from the battalion. Even if no fish were caught, the relaxation of a day in the sun was appreciated.
At the end of March the brigade held a sports day. The battalion sent a team to compete and several members of the unit were transported to Taom to attend the gala day. Following this, the battalion held its own sports day when the Kiwi Stadium was officially opened, and many fine finishes were witnessed. The tote was opened on certain races, thus providing an extra thrill to the backers. This day's outing was brought to a fine conclusion by a locally organised concert held that evening in headquarters company's lines. The 37th Battalion pipe band contributed items that stirred the heart of many a Scot while Ralph Dyer's skit on a certain person with a stick was very well received.
The next event of any importance on our programme was the Styx exercise held at the end of April. This exercise consisted of an approach march; an assault across a river, and consolidation. The approach march, as far as we footsloggers were concerned, was just a glorified route march. When darkness had set in a compass route page 30was followed across open fields to a belt of bush fringing the river.. The night was pitch dark and once the belt of bush had been entered it was a case of hanging on to the chap in front or be lost. Heavy rain and hundreds of feet all following the same path churned up the mud to knee depth. One soldier stumbling forward lost his tin hat. (battle bowler to the troops) in the mud and despite groping in the surrounding slime for a few minutes he was unable to locate it, much to his joy. That gives a rough idea of what the conditions were like. Eventually the bank of the river was reached and collapsible assault boats carried the troops across to the other bank where they disappeared and later consolidated in defensive positions. Next morning, before being withdrawn prior to returning to camp, a rum issue was made. Fortunately somebody had forgotten to add the water and despite the coughing and spluttering it went down very smoothly. All troops were then withdrawn across a bridge built by the engineers and transported back to camp.
Early in May the newly formed Kiwi concert party presented its-first concert at the recently constructed open air theatre in Nepoui Valley. They were very well received and put on an excellent performance despite the handicap of inadequate costumes and stage facilities. A large party from the battalion visited Moindah early in May for the divisional sports meeting. Several battalion members were successful, particularly the late Lieutenant M. M. Ormsby, who showed something of his school day prowess.
Brigadier Potter started jungle courses for all officers for the: purpose of finding out, from discussion, just what improvements in weapons, etc., could be made in adapting our equipment to jungle fighting. These courses were very interesting, each move being fully discussed before another phase opened. At the conclusion of these courses a general discussion would be held and then each officer-would write a full report on his ideas of jungle fighting, weapons, foods, clothing and tactics generally. Such courses as these undoubtedly helped to give the officers that extra 'something' which enabled the subsequent campaigns to be carried out so well.
The mobile cinema paid regular visits to the Nepoui Valley, but on those nights when it did not appear transport took a large quota of men to an American theatre at the Plaine des Gaiacs airfield. Meantime a large recreational bure was being constructed in the valley to provide hot suppers and entertainment at night.
Early in June the celebrated march to Taom began. On 10 June the battalion arrived at Taom and rested. The following Sunday a brigade parade was held and this was followed by a march past for Brigadier Potter. Many were the comments passed when the divisional paper Kiwi quoted something about the forty miles marched. These are well summed up in a piece of doggerel which is published elsewhere in this volume. While the battalion was on guard duty at the Plaine des Gaiacs airfield the leader of the Second Division, Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg, VC, passed through on his way to New Zealand, on 16 June. Unfortunately, his time was so limited that he was unable to visit any of the nearby New Zealand troops.
A change in the status of D company came about on 25 June. Hitherto D company had been a support company, being equipped with medium machine guns (vickers) and three inch mortars. From this date, D company became a purely infantry company, the three inch mortars becoming a seperate platoon under headquarters company, while the medium machine guns disappeared as a battalion weapon and were merged into a company on a brigade basis. This indeed was a sad blow to D company, particularly, for they had, in their own minds, been the pride of the battalion with their vickers. Because of this new status being arranged, the battalion lost some fine members. During the month of July it became increasingly evident that the move was in the offing. 'Battle bowlers', repirators, and web equipment were given a coating of camouflage paint and all gear was crat-page 33ed into two-men loads. All ranks were given practice in climbing' rope nets, firstly without gear, and afterwards with full web and arms. Before long our anthropoid nature became evident and much skill was acquired in climbing up and down a swaying rope net with full pack on. Each man's web equipment was arranged so that, if he fell into the water, it would slip off his shoulders and free him immediately of all encumbrance.
The semi-final of the Barrowclough Rugby Cup was played on the battalion's number one ground on 31 July before approximately 3000 spectators. Special grandstands had been built for the day and a wonderful display of rugby was witnessed. The 37th Battalion decisively defeated the 29th Battalion by eleven points to six. Several of the 8th Brigade supporters of the 29th Battalion went home that night a lot lighter in the pockets after the 14th Brigade supporters had collected their bets.
And lo! there stood amongst us a man. Behold Padre Falloon. The battalion was surely not aware of the never-to-be-forgotten personality that came amongst us on August the second. It did not take long for him to be known and remembered, as he always will be, by all members of the 35th Battalion. A week later personnel who had been selected for the RNZAF left the unit. On. 11 August the first party for the move north left for Noumea. They were followed by other parties, with the main body travelling on the 13th. Few of us will forget that nightmare journey. Crammed into the back of heavy transport, plus heavy gear, it was impossible to keep warm, comfortable, or to prevent the dust from choking us. On and on through the night the trucks rumbled and in the early morning we stopped at a transit camp for breakfast. Out tumbled various apparitions clad in a motley assortment of sweaters, raincapes, and American jackets, but all very thickly coated with grime and dust. One wag had put on his repirator in an endeavour to keep the dust from clogging up his nostrils and throat. All aboard again and a short run brought us to a strip of beach alongside the nickel docks. Here we were introduced to assault craft and the alphabet that went with them LCPs, LCVPs, LCMs and APs somewhat mystified us till we learnt what it was all about. Our transport, a wellknown pre-war liner, now fully converted to an amphibious assault troop transport, lay at anchor in the stream.page 34
The assault craft sped out to the ship and brought us up along-side a rope net that seemed to keep on going heavenwards. Fort Unately our training stood us in good stead, but what a climb it was from water level to deck level. The remainder of the day was occupied in loading the ship with both personnel and cargo. While some of the troops were loading the cargo others busied themselves in becoming familiar with their quarters and the general layout of the ship. The personnel on board made up what was known as a combat team, which consisted of a full infantry battalion plus attached artillery, both field and ackack, engineers and medical. Thus each ship contained a fighting team able to look after itself in any circumstances.page break
Last rites in the jungle on Vella Lavella The battalion padre conduts a burial service after an action while the dead soldier's companions pay their last tribute
Going aboard a troop transport from small landing craft in the New Hebrides where men of the battalion practised amphibious exercises on their way to the Solomons. These provided valuable experience
Tidal creeks such as this hindered the advance of patrols in the jungle, particularly on Vella Lavella, but crossings were made by small parties in any craft available. Companions covered the opposite banks in case of ambush by the almost invisible Japanese
These three pictures tell an admirable story of jungle warfare. Above, two members of a patrol take a rest while a third keeps watch. Below is a camouflaged bivouac, abandoned by the Japanese. On the opposite page the artist has conveyed an impression of the part nature plays in this confusing type of warfare where men fought in tropical heat