The 35th Battalion
Chapter Six — New Hebrides and Guadalcanal
New Hebrides and Guadalcanal
With the loading of the ship completed, organisation for disembarkation took place. Sufficient assault craft for the first two waves were carried on the ship. These craft returned to the ship for subsequent waves of personnel. Each LVCP load of troops had its route carefully explained, from sleeping quarters to disembarkation points. In the first and second waves some personnel would be fortunate enough in stepping from the ship into the LCVP and then being lowered to the water; others would have to climb down the nets, according to where their loading station was on the ship's side. From the third wave onwards all troops would have to climb down the nets. Heavy weapons like Bren guns and two-inch mortars would have to be lowered by light ropes. With this organisation completed, plus the experience of training in the climbing of nets, only a short time elapsed before the first trial disembarkation took place. It was on the same day, 16 August, that we first started taking atebrin— a suppressive drug to overcome the effects of malaria if we ever contracted it. The next two days were taken up with more practice disembarkations and landings on the harbour shores of Noumea. The second day a complete landing scheme was tried out, with a disembarkation landing, and the establishment of a beachhead. Promptly at 1600 hours (4pm) on 18 August, the convoy left Noum'ea. While at sea the usual fatigues were supplied, just as in a camp. Lectures on Japanese tactics were given and practice climbing of nets, rigged up on board, was given to those who found difficulty in executing this somewhat trying manoeuvre. At night, movies were screened for officers and men. This relaxation was perhaps the most popular item on board.page 36
At 0800 hours on 20 August the convoy dropped anchor in Vila Harbour, Efate Island, and immediately the assault craft left for a practice landing on Mele Beach. Next day a similar landing exercise was carried out, but this time at dawn. As Efate Island lies in the New Hebrides group, which is in the malarial belt, this dawn landing called for all the precautions such as sleeves rolled down, insect repellant applied to the face and hands, and trouser bottoms tucked into gaiters. Such precautions had been drummed into the troops over a long period. The following day a large scale exercise was held. At 0715 hours the first wave left the ship's side and was quickly followed by the other waves. Allied aircraft acted as the enemy and did strafing runs on the assault craft coming in to the landing beach and also during the actual beach landings. A brief outline of the day's happenings will give an idea of what transpired. It was a brigade exercise with the three full combat teams operating together to form a coordinated beachhead. The infantry, immediately on landing, pushed ahead to form a huge semi-circular perimeter, behind which the artillery, medical and other units set up. The ship was unloaded and all stores were stacked in dumps just off the beach. The artillery dug in their guns and the infantry dug their fox-holes. Night came and with it all the crawling insects in the world. Crabs by the thousand and mosquitoes by the million. There was no real need to post sentries that night for it is doubtful whether anyone managed to sleep. Early next morning the task of loading began and by the evening meal-time all troops and stores were once more safely on board. With the experience of the last exercise everyone felt that he was prepared for an amphibious assault against the Japanese. The following day was a day of rest which everyone thoroughly enjoyed.
The convoy set sail on 25 August, bound for Guadalcanal. During the voyage Major M. V. O'Connell, a member of the ship's staff, who had commanded a marine battalion in the first assault against the Japanese at Guadalcanal, gave a very enlightening address to all ranks. He left us all without any doubt about the malicious and bestial foe against which we were soon to be pitted. Each evening in the hot and fetid atmosphere of the troops' quarters parades were held for roll call and atebrin. No doubt every effort had been made to cool the various compartments on board, but such effort was of no avail. At night when all watertight doors were closed and only hatchways left open, little if any fresh air seemed to penetrate through page 37the compartments. Add to this approximately 200 perspiring bodies and then some idea of the comfort of the transport can be gleaned. Two days after leaving Efate the convoy hove-to off Point Cruz, Guadalcanal, and the day's work began of completely unloading the ship. In a few days we had come from subtropical to tropical weather and before many minutes had passed those who had not been to Fiji soon realised what it was like to work hard under merciless, blazing sun. At this time the air threat from the Japanese was still to be considered but this danger was forgotten in the arduous work of unloading.
As each assault boat hit the beach a small party went on board, while another party formed a chain-gang up the beach to the stacking point. A slight surf was running and this made the job rather diificult at times for those at the beginning of the chain. Immediately the ack-ack was landed, it was set up on the beach edge and kept a watchful eye on the skies. When the unloading was finished, troops trudged along the dusty coral road to their new camp sites. Passing through an allied camp we had our first introduction to the tent adornments which included grinning Japanese skulls and jars of gold teeth. Before settling down that night everyone took care to dig a fox 'hole for protection in case of aerial bombardment. The picks and shovels uncovered a wide variety of Jap helmets, skulls, web gear, ammunition, grenades and a host of other things bearing mute testimony of the carnage that had taken place before our arrival.
The combat team was now dissolved and each unit maintained its own camp and administration. Our previous day's hard work was well rewarded by the following message received from Island Command: 'Number 3 combat team set a high mark in proficiency for unloading and disembarkation, August 27th.' The previous record for unloading by white troops was 1041/2 tons an hour. Our new record placed the record at 119 tons an hour. We were justly proud of our effort.
The construction of our new camp sites was quickly got under way. Patrolling of the beaches started in order to prevent a surprise landing by the Japanese. Fresh water immediately became a problem, but budding water diviners came to the fore. Soon wells were being dug and to the joy of the diviners a brackish water was discovered in most of them; it must be admitted, however, that some of these wells produced quite a supply of decent water. This enabled page 38clothes and bodies to be washed without straining the supply of drinking and cooking water. Two companies, B and C, started off on a three day trek on 6 September. This enabled the men to prac tice forming company perimeters, constructing booby traps, and the method of making four-men fox-holes, not to mention the fact that Japanese shovels and American picks were acquired by one and all to replace the cumbersome and unsuitable tools supplied to us. The Jap shovel was small bladed and short handled and was thus easily strapped on to a pack and yet strong enough to burrow a few inches into mother earth for a fox-hole. Our square-mouthed or round-mouthed PWD shovels were far too heavy and big for easy handling through dense bush and up and down rope nets. While on the trek C company visited Geifu strongpoint; but not for long. Away off, some diligent person had selected Geifu as a target point for a mortar shoot, thus causing C company to retire in some haste.
After tumbling out of bed several nights for false air-raid alarms we were finally given an official welcome by the Jap who scattered bombs, but fortunately not in our direction. This was, for nearly all of us, our first experience of being bombed. As the bombs didn't fall near us, most of us enjoyed it, but others were not so fortunate. By now the camp sites were in order, with neat coralled paths between tents. Every afternoon a period was allowed for recreation. To most men this meant a dip in the warm sea. In the evenings the YMCA roadhouse proved very popular. Here we could obtain a cool lemon drink or a cup of hot tea and a bun, while the radio brought news from the outside world. For those who missed the news the intelligence section still supplied its daily News Flash, giving the war news from all fronts. Movies were also provided at a nearby theatre. The sky was the ceiling; seats were coconut logs, and there were no fire precautions to prevent the enjoyment of cigarettes during the performance. To watch a movie and enjoy a cigarette really provided a sense of relaxation after a day's work in the broiling sun. Bishop Baddeley, Bishop of Melanesia, gave an inspiring talk to all ranks at the theatre on 12 September. His talk outlined the lives of the natives before the advent of war and told also of the difficulties that could be expected after war had passed them by.
Further air raids were experienced, fortunately without any cost to the unit, and then on 16 September the battalion assembled at Kokumbona Beach for embarkation to Vella Lavella. Prior to this page 39there had been the usual bustle of striking camp and recrating all stores into two-men loads. On this occasion we travelled in APDs, LCIs and LSTs. It was the biggest convoy we had been in and some of us were provided with the thrill of being aboard an APD when it raced round the entire convoy. On September the general election was held and proved a busy day for the officers. As the convoy steamed slowly in a northerly direction the men filed through to a hastily commandeered election booth and registered their votes. Some amusing incidents occurred, one of which was caused by a chap, in all faith, voting for himself. That night the convoy passed close to Munda when 'Nippo' was paying his respects to our allies, who had just wrested the island from him. As the berthing compartments were so stifling, most of us were calmly seated on deck watching the whole terror of aerial bombardment as if it were but a sideshow.