The 35th Battalion
Chapter Seven — Vella Lavella
As the convoy drew near to Vella just after dawn, it split into two sections. Our party landed to the south of the other. It was not an assault landing in the true sense, for the landing was made in that part of Vella already held by the Americans. Yet it was carried out with speed, as if it had been an assault, for the danger of Japanese bombing was a greater likelihood here, in the most northern holding of the allies in the Solomons. It was vital that the convoy should get away as soon as possible. With that in view, speedy unloading took place.
The beach, such as it was, was backed by a sea of mud, through which we ploughed to a drier area. Here some of us saw our first Japanese prisoner. He was a forlorn creature, absolutely lost and completely bewildered. Foe he was, yet that did not prevent some of the boys from offering him cigarettes through the barbed wire enclosure. Then came the order to move. With packs (and heavy ones they were) shovels and other military paraphernalia draped on us, we trudged along the narrow track which had been cut through the jungle. Here there had been no attempt at highway making. The road was a sea of stinking, clinging mud. The coral layer, about one foot below the mud, was the only reason why the trucks could get through at all. In places where the coral layer was deeper, trucks became bellied on the mud and had to be winched out.
Such was the road we tramped. The exertion of carrying a heavy load, and pulling our feet out of the mud, made frequent halts necessary. Gradually we moved further up the road and finally settied down, thoroughly exhausted, on what was to be our new camp site. Just before reaching these sites we passed another landing page 41beach, where another battalion had come ashore. On seeing this beach there was a lot of grumbling as to why we couldn't have landed there, but everyone realised that enough space was not available to land the whole convoy there. Poor B company personnel had an unenviable day. By error, the LCI on which they travelled unloaded them on this top beach (Maravari). When all but a few cases had been unloaded the error was discovered. Back on board went all the gear and eventually they landed on the battalion's original beach. Imagine their feelings when they tramped past their original landing point.
No sooner had packs been discarded, than the sounds of aerial battle were heard. Out to the shore edge we dashed, being careful to keep in the shadow or cover of the bush edge. Somehow the Japs had heard of our convoy and had come across, complete with fighters and bombers to do their worst. The main part of the convoy was away, but the large LSTs which were still unloading presented a great target. Out of nowhere came our air force. RNZAF Kittyhawks flashed about the sky pressing home the attack. Down went a Zero in flames, with a Kittyhawk still on its tail. A spontaneous and rousing cheer went up from those on the ground. Again a Zero—one moment it was there—the next just a puff of debris in the air. Some invisible hand plucked it out of the skies. Down at the landing beach, when the first bomb dropped, those who had been unloading started the fastest race of their lives. One second the beach was a hive of activity; the next second, following a loud explosion, all human activity centred on a violent race for deep cover in the bush. Soldiering in earnest had started.
In the camp areas jungle undergrowth was being cleared for tent sites and gallons of perspiration were expended in endeavouring to dig splinter-proof shelters. The coral was as hard as granite and hours of hard labour were required before even a semblance of a hole appeared. Over the pit were placed coconut logs in criss-cross fashion. These were our funk-holes and to these we dashed, in no uncertain manner, once an air-raid started. Air cover during the day was supplied from neighbouring New Georgia, but at night our only protection was from our own and allied ack-ack guns. On the fourth day after our arrival, 21 September, orders were given for our projected fight against the Japanese and a band of picked men, under Lieutenant McNeight, left for Mundi Mundi on the opposite coast.page 42
The brief plan of action was this. The Japanese held the northern half of Vella with coastal positions, and had a radio station on Umomo Island, off Timbala Bay, on the western coast. The 37th Battalion was to push round the coast from the eastern side, in a series of amphibious assaults, while the 35th Battalion was to push up the western side, thus catching the Japs in a pincer movement.
Meantime hurried preparations for action were under way. Ammunition was checked over and distributed; grenades were primed and all weapons carefully oiled. Jungle medical kits, atebrin, insect repellant, C or K rations, and jungle suits were issued. There were, as usual, only two sizes of jungle suits—too large and too small. They were made of a heavy green material which did not help to keep the body cool and the hat was similar to a jockey's cap fitting the skull closely, with a small stiff peak for protection of the eyes from the sun. The web belt and small haversack containing waterproof cape, rations, spoon, tooth-brush, soap and spare socks completed the dress. The water bottle hung from the belt, to which two or three grenades were also fastened. At night the Japs continued their bombing, fortunately without loss to our unit although the near misses put more than the 'breeze up' some of us. On the succeeding days large parties moved by barge round the southern coast to land at Mundi Mundi. On 23 September the move was completed, without incident. Once or twice, as the barges moved round the coast, Jap bombers flew overhead, but fortunately for us they were more interested in bombing the air-strip which was being developed than in annoying a few barges.
A caricature of Lieutenant-Colonel C. F. Seaward, DSO, MC, who commanded 35 Battalion on Vella Lavella. The drawing-is the work of Lance-Bombardier Maxwell
As the battalion moved slowly through the jungle along the coast, patrols moved ahead, feeling their way through dense unknown country. Here one such patrol is crossing mangrove swamp. Inset shows a New Zealander leading ashore from a landing craft at Barakoma, his hat camouflaged and his pack well weighted with tent and rations. Combat troops of the first and second waves were more lightly clad
Native canoes made admirable craft for transporting troops across lagoons and slimy tidal creeks, as above. Below an infantry section is ready for action. During the hot daylight hours clothing could generally be discarded
From this perimeter patrols were pushed out in all directions, particularly along the coast as far as the next bay, Matu Suroto. The patrolled area being declared clear, the battalion advanced to Matu Suroto on 24 September. This area was really an inlet with a large storehouse and shed located just opposite a small jetty. A perimeter was set up and sentries posted. Fresh water was now in short supply and great demand was made on coconuts. Agile chaps clambered up the palms and, with a cry 'Heads below', down would come a shower of coconuts. Bayonets made short work of the outside husk and soldiers made short work of the refreshing liquid within. Up to this point respirators had been carried, and some of the men still had steel helmets. It was decided, to our great relief, to leave these articles at Matu Suroto so that, if necessary, they could be hurried forward.
The party of picked men who had landed on the 21st had established a small beachhead at Mundi Mundi, until the landing of the first large party. They had then pushed forward to Matu Suroto and patrolled to Pakoi Bay. When the battalion was at Matu Suro-to they established a forward listening and observation post to prevent a surprise attack. During their forward patrolling they had often seen the Japs. It was necessary, however, in order to achieve success, not to disclose their presence. On one occasion two members of the patrol, hidden behind a thick bush, calmly watched some Japs enjoying a swim. They had a few tense moments when the Japs retrieved their clothing from in front of the bush in which our men were hiding. Early next day five patrols set out to Pakoi Bay. Each patrol was accompanied by a native guide and two members of the signals platoon who were equipped with a No. 48 wireless set which proved useless. Following a compass course which leads up hill and down is no fun when behind each tree and mound one expects a Jap to appear suddenly. Native guides gave a lot of confidence to patrols as they slipped silently and easily through the tangled under-page 44growth. On occasions these natives would slip ahead and disappear from view, only to appear unexpectedly with a big toothsome grin adorning their faces, thus indicating that all was clear. Each guide faithfully carried a Jap rifle and ammunition and each told a varied and always bloody story of how these weapons were acquired.
No contact was made that day and the five patrols formed a perimeter for the night. The remainder of the unit had not yet moved from Matu Suroto. The following day the battalion moved to Pakoi and set up a perimeter defence. From this time onwards every pre-caution had to be taken, because it was known that in the next bay, Timbala Bay, there was a large Japanese camp. As a precautionary measure, smoking and loud talking were forbidden. Patrols were again sent out, this time to stay at rendezvous points until the companies reached them during next day. D company moved off to a position astride a track, blocking the chance of escape in a southerly direction, while two platoons, one under Lieutenant Beaumont, the other under Lieutenant Albon, were dispatched to guard trails leading northwards. Early on the morning of 27 September all ranks were fully informed of the plan for the morrow. Briefly it was as follows: B company on the right, C company in the centre and a composite force of Captain Stronach's bren carrier personnel and others on the left, would form a perimeter round Timbala Bay. D company and the two platoons previously mentioned would block any attempted escapes or prevent further aid coming to the Japs. After an artillery barrage on Umomo Island, B and C companies plus the composite force would close in on the bay to destroy the enemy force. A company was in reserve and was to be held in readiness just on the Pakoi side of Timbala Bay. The above is a general outline of the plan as it involved the battalion.
It would, perhaps, be best to say here that this history deals only with the 35 th Battalion and not with the 35th Battalion combat team, although we were so constituted for the fight. An artillery battery, an engineer section, an ASC section and a field ambulance company were also part of the combat team which was under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Seaward. The part these units played in helping materially in the success of the fight will not be mentioned here, other than the fact that the 35 th Battalion cannot praise highly enough their cooperation and work in the engagement. Brigade headquarters was set up at Matu Suroto, where the ASC handled all rations and stores which arrived in bulk from the other side of the island. That day, the 27th, all companies moved silently to their positions from which the assault would begin. It was a trying journey. Absolute silence was difficult to achieve, for a soldier must say something when, laden down with all his gear plus the weighty and page 46much-cursed anti-tank rifle, he tripped. No smoking was permitted and this, although necessary, didn't help to soothe tempers which were by now on edge. The hard daily treks, weighty loads, shortness of water, tropical deluges, mud, mosquitoes, crabs, insects and the detested and tasteless C ration, all contributed to building up the pitch of tempers. C ration consisted of two tins a meal. One tin contained four or five hard biscuits, two lumps of sugar, three or four boiled sweets and a small tin containing enough coffee for two cups. The other tin contained a meat and vegetable hash. The same thing three times a day, every day, soon became so sickening to the taste that before long everyone loathed the sight of the tins. K ration, though little more appreciated, was a welcome break now and again. K ration consisted of three cardboard cartons which were different for each meal. Five cigarettes, tinned cheese, biscuits, sugar, coffee or cocoa and sweets were some of the articles in these cartons.
But enough of rations, for tomorrow, 28 September 1943, was to be our testing day—the day that would prove if we had learnt our lessons well—the day that would see whether we would falter or step boldly forward. What thoughts flashed through our minds as we rested that night—thoughts of home, our loved ones, the past, who can tell. The day ended with an attack by eight Zeros on the positions at Matu Suroto, without loss to either side.
D-day, the 28th, and zero hour, 0630 hours (6.30 am) found all the battalion units toeing the mark on their allotted assault positions. C company, in the centre, was split by the Timbala River, one platoon being on the right bank. Umomo Island, a piece of thickly wooded land about 75 by 50 yards, lay 40 yards off the northern end of Timbala Bay. Intelligence sources stated that a radio station was maintained there and it was on this island that the first 25-pounder shells struck at 0630 hours. A distant booming followed by a whining sound heralded the hour. Shattering explosions, as the shells landed, told that the show was on. The barrage lasted one hour, at the conclusion of which the infantry started to close in on the bay. We were so new to this fighting business that we wondered just what lay before us as we pushed quickly through the lush undergrowth.
Before long the forward scouts reported that the Japanese bivouac area was only a few yards ahead. Now was the time to be extra careful. The slightest movement might bring forth a machine-gun page 47burst. Without incident the Jap bivouac area was reached and cleared, C company and Captain Stronach's force meeting on the fore-shore, neither force having seen or heard any Japs. A perimeter was quickly established pending word from B company and the platoon on the right bank of the river. Suddenly a large tree overhanging the right bank of the river moved. Brens, tommies and rifles from the left bank positions drew a bead on the point of disturbance. The leaves shook, parted and a large dugout dinghy glided out, manned by a green-clad individual. Friend or foe? Features were indiscernible, so fire was held. The dinghy drew nearer and the features of the paddler became clearer. It was the platoon commander of the right bank platoon. His report indicated that all ground his platoon had covered was clear, although three Japs, poorly clothed and apparently unarmed, had been chased without success. Areas had been found where Japs had been eating the roots of palms; a few crude shelters were also seen. These conditions contrasted strangely with the bivouac camp. Here there was food by the barrel full, tinned fish, chopsticks, and plenty of bush shelters which were fairly well made. Freshly opened tins with chopsticks sticking in the food and other goods strewn about indicated that the Japs had departed hurriedly during a meal. But which meal—the previous evening's or today's breakfast? It was difficult to tell.
The Timbala Bay area was declared clear at 0815 hours. As no contact had yet been made with B company, the platoon on the right bank was instructed to endeavour to connect up with them. This platoon then pushed forward, warily, along a well-worn track. In the soft mud of the track, imprints of the Jap 'split' boots were clearly seen, pointing away from the bay. Doubly cautious now, for it was along this track that the three Japs had disappeared, the platoon very slowly moved onwards. Topping a slight rise, movement ahead was seen and everyone quickly hugged the nearest piece of cover. Careful investigation proved that it was B company. As contact was established, single shots and then a few bursts ripped through the trees with an ominous cracking sound. Contact was also established with the Japanese. Time 0918 hours, 28 September 1943. This was when the first casualties occurred. These first few shots had killed one and wounded two. Jap opposition grew stronger and an hour later the position of B company had deteriorated slightly. One platoon, under Lieutenant Crawford, had become iso-page 48lated and ambushed. Runners brought only the vaguest information back, but sufficient to indicate that the officer had been wounded and others killed. Lieutenant Griffiths, the intelligence officer, located the platoon and took charge, Lieutenant Crawford being evacuated. The platoon of C company remained with B company to help strengthen its defence, while another platoon of B company attempted to out-flank the Japs. It seemed apparent that this position was one which the Japs had prepared beforehand and to which they had automatically evacuated from their bivouac area. This strong pocket of resistance could not be liquidated. In the early afternoon A company crossed the river and moved up to B company. The river being wide, deep and infested with crocodiles made the crossing an extremely slow one. About ten men at a time made the crossing in the dugout dinghy. By the time that A and C companies had moved up, there was only enough time left to move out to new positions, establish a perimeter and settle down for the night. The plan for the next day provided for an artillery barrage on the spot where the Japs were, after which A, B and C companies, forming an arc from shore to shore on Umomo Point, would close in and clean out the enemy. That first day proved all the lessons we had been taught and all the things we had heard about the Japs. It is doubtful if many of us saw a Jap that day, yet several lives had been lost and other men had been wounded.
The companies set up perimeters for the night and the plan of the next day was explained to all. Sentries were withdrawn just before dusk and after that no one moved. Of every fox-hole group of four, one man was awake. Thus all night a quarter of a company would be on the alert. The most nerve-racking part of the evening was the time when one's turn came around for keeping watch. From a fitful sleep you would be awakened by the pressure of a hand on your foot. Then it was your turn; your turn to peer through the inky blackness, and to listen to the disturbing noises of the night.
From eight o'clock to twenty minutes past, an artillery barrage plastered the spot where the Japs had been the day before. A few shells fell short and bits of shrapnel whistled and thudded overhead. While this was going on, mail arrived at C company and was hurriedly read. One of the men received a cable and he was noticed sitting quietly, with a glum expression. Somebody enquired if it was bad news. Passionately he swore: ' "Many happy returns of the page 49day". Listen to it! What a day! Who'd want to return of this!' Mail from home and news bulletins from all the war fronts were received regularly during the fighting. A large packet of mail reached us again during the first week, and once again on the day the action ceased. Parcel mail was also waiting for us when we came out of the line. It became a habit every evening for the personnel of the intelligence section to read over to groups of soldiers the day's bulletin of war news. Even though the news was a few days old it was greatly appreciated.
At the conclusion of the 20-minute barrage the three companies closed in. C company struck a sniper in the same area. How he had lived through the barrage is hard to say. Shells had acted like lawn' mowers, blasting great pieces of bush wide open. A 2-inch mortar was fired in the direction of a tree in which the sniper was suspected to be hiding. The first round was a dud; the second a wizard. The sniping stopped. At this moment B company linked up with C company. D company personnel stated that from where they were, on the flank, they had seen a Jap fall from the tree after the mortar shell had exploded. B company had lost contact with A company in the dense forest and it wasn't until 1115 hours that a. volley of shots were heard, indicating that A company had made contact. In a valley down which they were progressing a strong pocket of Jap machine guns had suddenly opened up. Three men were wounded immediately, one right in front of the gun position.
The leading platoon immediately endeavoured to complete an en-circling movement. One of the sections was trapped during this movement by heavy machine gun fire. Endeavours were made to rescue the wounded men. The company then attacked these positions. The leading platoon remained in position while another platoon went to the right flank on slightly rising ground, the remaining platoon and company headquarters guarding the rear. The right flanking platoon was then caught in heavy fire along well-concealed fire lanes. Corporal Clifford's section bore the brunt of this attack. The platoon, Lieutenant McNeight's, was skillfully extricated from the trap. The platoon commander, with Corporal Stewart and Private Cooper, voluteered to get the wounded from the tight corner in which they were caught. In carrying out this most courageous act, both Corporal Stewart and Private Cooper were killed. A company withdrew and spent the night with B and C companies.page 50
Meantime B and C companies had pushed on without much opposition and formed a joint perimeter for the night with A company on the top edge of a re-entrant. No word had been received from D company which had gone to locate Lieutenant Albon's platoon, now thought to be ambushed. Arrangements had been made with B company to take ammunitions and rations to a rendezvous at Marquana Bay. This was that unit's last contact. Two sergeants who were in charge of a party taking these rations to D company found New Zealand equipment, ammunition and stores scattered over a small area. No weapons were found. That night Private D. W. T. Evans reached battalion headquarters after wading down the coast, in darkness, and gave the first account of the ambush of Lieutenant Albon's platoon. He said that he had been captured, together with Private W. F. A. Bickley, by the Japs, but had made his escape when Private Bickley was keeping the Japs well occupied. Private Evans's account of the ambush was too vague to enable accurate information to be tabulated.
Happy Fijian children, who delighted to pose for amateur photographers, amuse themselves beating a native drum, the kind which has been used for centuries in the villages. On the right is a snapshot of Mr. Fred Brookes of Wagandra, White's Hill, who was an excellent friend to the battalion in Fiji
No reference to the western area of Fiji would be complete without some reference to the CSR express, the only railway system in the Island. It carried sugar cane from the fields to the factory. On the left a group of Fijians pose for the photographer outside a bure
Camps in the western area of Fiji were set up in the sugar cane where the men waged a constant "war against two nuisances-hornets and mosquitoes. A native type house, or bure, provided comfortable and cool accommodation
Despite the exhausting heat the men staged most excellent athletic meeting. These photograph taken during a sport's day at Nandi show a competitor in the high jump and the start of one of the well contested races
Early in the morning, at 0930 hours, Private Bickley was picked up by a barge. He said that he had finally escaped from the Japs, reached the coast and swum down in a like manner to his companion, Private Evans. His story was that the Japs had stripped him naked. One 'Nip' was so intent on twisting Bickley's indentity disc cord round his neck that Bickley was able to kick him between the legs with his knee, pick up the rifle, swing it at the others, and then go for his life through the bush to escape. Late that day, just after 4 pm D company returned to battalion headquarters, having had no rations for 48 hours and only half rations for two days. No casualties had been suffered but the company had several skirmishes with the enemy. No contact had been made with the ambushed platoons.
The month of September closed with three days of fighting, as a result of which the battalion suffered the following casualties: killed 8; wounded 11; slightly wounded 1. The first day of October saw no change in the weather. On the night of 29-30 September rain had set in and continued steadily. Fox-holes turned into mud baths. No words can give an accurate description of what it is like to lie down in a fox' hole with several inches of sloppy mud in the bottom of it; to have such unwelcome guests as land crabs crawling over the body, to have no hot drinks, no cigarettes, tasteless compressed rations and, despite the presence of so much water, only a sip per meal. Clothes stank and clung to the body, socks were wet and no one had shaved or washed for days. In addition it was depressingly cold whenever rain poured down.
Early in the morning Lieutenant Albon and two other ranks returned to battalion headquarters, but were so exhausted that they could give little information regarding the two ambushed platoons. C company patrolled forward 300 yards and was joined by the composite force under command of Captain Stronach. With the aid of canoes this force crossed to Umomo Island while C company held a position on the coast in support. The island was declared clear, the original artillery barrage having plastered the island with such effect that only dried blood and scraps of twisted radio gear bore evidence of the recent Jap occupation. Captain Stronach's force rejoined C company, which patrolled further ahead on the coast line. An enemy post was located and three 2-inch mortars brought fire to bear, but to page 52no avail. Time did not permit of an artillery barrage, so the company withdrew to conform with a general line held by the battalion and set up a perimeter with Captain Stronach's force.
The activity of A and B companies combined was confined to active patrolling and an attempt was made by the artillery forward observation officer to register on the Jap positions in 'Machine Gun Gully', as it was now called. Difficulty was experienced in wireless communication to such an extent that the artillery officer had a hard job to bring fire down on the exact spot required. D company rested at battalion headquarters.
During the afternoon the artillery officer went out along the coast: in a barge in an endeavour to get better observation of the firing on Machine Gun Gully. While off the coast, signalling was observed, and the barge nosed in as far as the coral ledge would allow. Private Davis swam out to the barge, thus bringing the first accurate news of the whereabouts of the two ambushed platoons. (For the full story of these platoons refer to article entitled Initiation to Battle'). D company, less one platoon, joined C company on the coast on 2 October. Patrols from these companies pushed forward to the limit of the previous day's patrols. Both companies then moved up to that point.
A further patrol located an enemy pocket upon which artillery fire was brought down. When this was done Jap snipers moved under the barrage towards the company positions, firing indiscriminately but mainly towards the sound of the artillery officer's raised voice as he hurled a mixture of oaths and corrections down the line to the battery positions. Another patrol was sent out but found that the Jap position was still intact. A Jap machine gun was being fired over a large log straight down a track. Any encircling movement by our troops was frustrated by vicious sniper fire from Japs up in trees. Private Bevin was wounded during this encounter and was evacuated by the company stretcher bearers under fire. Further artillery fire was brought down, but as time did not permit of further reconnaissance both G and D companies returned to their previous night's bivouac area. That sounds little enough for a day's work, but perhaps the time taken on a single patrol would be one and a half to two hours. Visibility was so limited and the undergrowth so thick that progress was made at snail's pace. The way things had been going meant that to contact the Jap and locate him a patrol had to page 53be fired at. He seldom, if ever, missed. After that, in true Jap style, any endeavour to evacuate the wounded men meant a fusilade of shots. It almost seemed as if the Jap policy was to wound one man so that others, in trying to evacuate him, would make a target of themselves, such was the Jap cunning.
Following a heavy and accurate barrage from the artillery in the morning A and B company patrols moved through the area containing the pocket of trouble. This time B company's patrol ran into a nest of snipers and suffered more casualties. A company's patrol swung round to the right, endeavouring to outflank this pocket, only to run straight into a machine gun post. Both patrols withdrew and the artillery once more registered on the area. Further deeds of heroism were enacted by the men as they rescued their wounded com-page 54rades, such acts of heriosm taking place on every occasion such as the above. Yet another patrol went forth, after the barrage, and located the tommy gun and ammunition belonging to the B company man who had been killed. Opposition was still encountered but rigorous patrolling brought forth much information.
In the early afternoon of this day the mortar platoon and the vickers platoon from the brigade company, all under command of Lieutenant Lockett, took up positions on Umomo Island. From here harassing fire could be maintained on enemy positions ahead of our troops and any direct target on the coast engaged. Later in the afternoon the vickers joined in the barrage being laid down to help in the evacuation of the ambushed platoons. That night harassing fire by artillery, vickers and three inch mortars was laid down in the general area held by the enemy. This fire continued throughout the night except when the Jap float-plane came over. Nobody wanted an 'egg' dropped on him; moreover the less the pilot learned of our positions the better. This harassing fire was repeated each night and must have caused the Japs to lose a lot of sleep, for they could not know with any certainty where the next shell would land.
On Sunday, 3 October, C company sent a patrol forward to reconnoitre the area that had been held by the enemy on the previous day. This area was declared clear. During the morning further patrols went out to ensure that the Japs had not come back to their previous position as it was impossible for C and D companies to move forward because of the heavy shelling in support of A and B companies. When the shelling ceased the two companies moved forward to the last known enemy position and established a perimeter. At 1600 hours they were joined by A and B companies which had finally succeeded in breaking through to the coast. A combined perimeter was then established. In an endeavour to move further forward, a strong reconnaissance party of two officered platoons was sent out to see if the area was clear of Japs and to locate a suitable bivouac area. With the coast as the left flank, the patrol moved forward some 300 yards before locating a clear suitable site. To ensure the safety of this area, the patrol intended progressing another 150 yards, but 1iad gone little more than a few yards when a whistle was heard. We had learned to recognise the Jap habit of signalling the approach of Our troops to their positions. This whistle was an imitation of the notes of jungle birds and the difference between that and the genuine page 55bird call was very difficult to detect at first. This was probably because the Japs used a small wooden instrument to disguise the normal tone of a human whistle.
Both platoons went to ground and a perimeter was established with the coast in the rear. Nothing happened. A small party from each platoon was then sent forward to search the ground. These men moved slowly forward and disappeared from sight. Suddenly the silence was shattered by two shots. A fusilade of shots followed. A runner came back and stated that two men had been hit. The party had withdrawn slightly, but were still covering the wounded men. A plan was quickly formulated for the rescue of these men and their weapons. Two fields of fire were laid down in the shape of a V, the point of the V culminating at the enemy positions. Inside this V a small party went in and collected one of the wounded men and his tommy gun. As they withdrew the V of fire was drawn tighter towards them.
Stretcher bearers, who had been hastily summoned forward, took charge of the wounded man and evacuated him, under guard, to the rear. At one place, just in rear of the patrol's perimeter, which was still being maintained as a precautionary measure against surprise, the stretcher bearers and guard entered a clear patch. Here they were fired on by a tree sniper. The guards replied to the fire, while the stretcher bearers hurried into the cover of the jungle. Once more the fire plan was laid down and the other man was recovered, but unfortunately he was beyond human aid. For once the Japs had failed in their tactics of wounding a man to draw others into their field of fire. During this scrap one Jap hopped up from his cover and ran back towards his own lines. He was fired at and bowled over several times before collapsing. He was definitely killed, yet next morning there was no trace of his body, thus proving that the Japs dragged their dead away, giving us little idea of how many casualties they had suffered. The 2-inch mortars had done a splendid job of work. In order to obtain an unobstructed flight for the bombs the mortarmen had waded into the sea. Only about three inches of the barrel could be seen above the water, yet all the bombs were successfully fired.
Another platoon of C company arrived and covered the withdrawal of the original patrol which returned to the safety of the joint perimeter. The artillery observation officer and the officer from the page 56patrol then made use of a canoe and, despite the likelihood of being fired on by the Japs, stayed in the canoe about 200 yards off shore, so that artillery fire could be brought down on the area where the trouble had occurred. After the terrific artillery concentration on Machine Gun Gully in the morning, A and B companies had moved down the gully and, without further opposition, had reached the coast, joining the perimeter of C and D companies as mentioned before. The next day, 4 October, two patrols were sent out and declared the area clear for 500 yards. With C company in front, all companies moved forward this distance and dug in for the night. No contact was made during the day.
It was not a pleasant move that day. All companies passed through the area of the previous day's fight and also the area where the two ambushed platoons had been on the coast before their evacuation. For once the Japs had not buried their dead, thus giving us a stinking, horrid and unforgettable sight of what damage had been done by our men. A large Jap bivouac area, the defences of which had been overcome the previous day, was passed through that day. The shots fired from the 2-inch mortar had played havoc here and evidently the Japs had abandoned the camp after the scrap. An interesting point to note is that not once could any Jap cartridges be found. Although known Jap gun positions were searched carefully, not a single cartridge was discovered. The enemy must have diligently collected all cartridges, perhaps with the idea of confusing us. From that night's perimeter two patrols went forward on 5 October to the point of land at the entrance of the long inlet forming Marquana Bay. As soon as this area was declared clear, all companies moved forward and dug in. Growing here was a small wild coconut plantation. Strewn everywhere were opened coconuts, showing that the Japs had been there. Evidently they were short of food and water as hundreds of coconuts littered the ground. Parachutes of red and white bands of cloth were found nearby. Food had been dropped by plane every night, but apparently not sufficient for all the Japs. From the shallow water off the coast several white parachutes were retrieved. Attached to these was the wellknown Jap knee-mortar, but no ammunition was found for these weapons.
At 1700 hours (5pm) friendly barges were seen entering Warambari Bay, which was the next bay up the coast. Shortly afterwards firing was heard; the 37th Battalion had struck opposition to their page 57landing. The fact that this battalion was so close heartened us considerably. The Jap force on Vella Lavella was now trapped between the two combat teams. The successful conclusion of the Veila operation was in sight. With the Jap force trapped in the area between the two bays, the artillery, vickers and 3-inch mortars of both combat teams were all set to give the Japs a night of unholy hell. They gave it to them.
Small patrols were sent out on the following day, but no contact was made. The only contact made was when the bombs dropped by 'Charlie the Grocer' on his nightly run, exploded on contact with the jungle. That night the artillery, vickers and mortars were all set to go again, but shortly after night had enveloped the island in a black blanket, a large number of Jap bombers started cruising over-head. This effectively prevented any activity on our side. Soon barges were heard and the high pitched jabbering of Jap voices came from across the bay. The barges moved in and out for a few hours and then all was silent. The planes overhead had gone and those not 'on sentry' endeavoured to catch up on a bit of sleep.
But what had happened? Had the Japs been evacuated or had they been reinforced? Too bad for us if the latter was the case. But we were past the stage of caring. Since 21 September—a year ago it seemed—we had been living in one suit of clothes; eating the same ration having little to drink and nothing hot; sleeping in mud' filled fox-holes with crabs and spiders for bed mates. Our skin was alive with a minute red bug that made us itch and scratch like mad-men. Our pals had died beside us. All we craved for was a comfortable bed, with tent overhead, a good wash, a shave, a piping hot meal— and peace! But there was to be no peace that night. A few hours after the Jap planes had gone the thunder of naval gun fire was heard and brilliant flashes and star shells were seen a few miles out to sea. Everyone awoke and speculation ran rife as to what was happening.
On 7 October further patrols were sent out. One patrol returned with a wounded prisoner who, on being interrogated, proved to be a cook who had been injured in the head from our artillery. He stated that he had had nothing to cook for days as the only food available was coconuts. He also stated that there were 500 armed Japs in the area between the two bays. They would now have been evacuated and left him behind. Bowing and scraping all the time, page 58he offered to go to his coxmrades and enjoin them to give themselves up. They did not understand that they would be treated decently as prisoners, as their officers had told them they would be tortured and slowly killed if caught. The other patrol returned with the information that they had discovered a large number of enemy dead and also the body of one of our men. The body of the New Zealand soldier had been mutilated, Next day leaflets were sent out calling on the Japs to surrender. These leaflets, which were to be left near Jap bivouacs, quoted the treatment they would receive if they gave themselves up. A company moved across Marquana Bay to the opposite side and set up a perimeter. From here A company patrolled actively until the 12th when moved they back to the southern side of Marquana Bay.
The remaining companies moved approximately 400 yards down the inlet to a point where barges were able to come in close to the shore. In the same area was a fresh water spring. Battalion head-quarters moved forward to this area and from here patrols were sent out. Early in the afternoon a barge picked up a wounded Jap air-man who was drifting past Pakoi Bay in an inflated rubber dinghy. He had been shot down and was badly wounded. That night, just before midnight, 'Charlie the Grocer' flew over and dropped his 'eggs' again. This time two large bombs landed 30 yards outside the battalion perimeter. Only one man received a slight scratch across his cheek from a piece of shrapnel, but everyone was showered with leaves and mud, while the fumes caused by the explosion were overpowering. That was too close for comfort; those who had been too tired to scratch out more than a few inches for a fox 'hole forgot their tiredness in a sudden burst of energy. The night the air was fiilled with the sound of blaspheming, digging, and picking as fox-holes were made deeper.
At 1000 hours on 9 October a message was received from Briga' dier Potter stating that the main force of Japs had been evacuated by sea on the night of 6-7 October, and that an allied naval force had destroyed practically all of them at sea. It was expected, though, that a few Japs might still be in the area. First contact with the 37th Battalion was made at 1010 hours that day when a patrol from each battalion met. Neither of these patrols had made any contact with Japs.
Jungle paths, slimy at the best of times, became quagmires in the torrential rains of the Solomons. Here is a patrol slopping back to bivouac in heavy rain and mud after searching an area for hidden enemy
The landing on Nissan Island, the Third Division's last venture, was prepared in infinite detail and executed like a battle practice. The larger illustration shows anti-aircraft gunners holding off attacking Japanese planes as the landing craft approach the island. Inset shows a heavy landing craft, which was grounded in the lagoon, discharging engineer equipment for immediate work on road construction
Even after most of the trees and vines had been removed there were still sufficient to make this excellent photograph, which shows tents overlooking the lagoon of Nissan Island, five degrees from the equator
In order to prevent the enemy from making fresh landings or landing coast watchers, the battalion was ordered to take up company positions at Marquana, Matu Suroto, Wataro and Paramata Bays, while a platoon position was to be held at Dovelli Cove. A company remained at Marquana Bay and B company moved to Matu Suroto on the 11 October. C and D companies moved on the 12th, G company going to Wataro and D company to Paramata. The carrier platoon of headquarters company went to Dovelli Cove. Battalion headquarters and the balance of headquarters company were stationed at Wataro Bay with C company.
Some mention must now be made of the sterling work of the Q side of the battalion. Throughout the length of the action the quartermaster and his staff had worked tirelessly in breaking down, from bulk, the rations and sending forth the right amount for each company. In addition to rations, ammunition had to be looked after as well as a hundred and one other problems of supply. The transport platoon, working in conjunction with the quartermaster, also did a great job of work. It was their responsibility to see that these supplies reached the forward companies. Until its move to Marquana Bay, forward battalion headquarters had been established at Timbala Bay with the Q staff and transport platoon. Tucked safely inside this perimeter was the RAP where the medical officer and his-orderlies tended the wounded as they were brought in. After being" treated at the RAP the wounded were evacuated by barge to the other side of the island where a hospital was established. Next door, and closely allied with the RAP, was the padre's department, which always provided a cup of hot tea for the wounded when they were page 60brought in. The padre did a wonderful job in comforting these wounded and helping the medical officer who worked under trying conditions all the time.
Settled in the various bays all companies were once more at the job of preparing camp sites. The lush undergrowth was cleared away and a few large trees felled to let the sunlight in and dry up the muddy ground. Tent sites were cleared and paths constructed. Barges were scarce at the time. This slowed up the tremendous task of shifting the entire battalion's gear, including such things as tents and personal gear, from the original camp site on the other side of the island. Depending on the weather and the speed of the barge, one trip might take anywhere from four to eight hours to travel round the coast from one side of the island to the other. This situation made conditions practically unbearable. We continued to sleep on the ground with only a leaf shelter above us; the same C and K ration was still eaten, and clothes could not be changed. Tropical deluges kept the ground in a continual state of slushy mud; thus we existed till such time as tents, personal gear and cookhouse gear arrived. Looking back, it is difficult to realise just how we managed to endure such uncomfortable conditions for such a long time. In most instances the complete gear for the companies did not arrive till the end of the month.
However, once tents were up and we were able to change our clothes and have a hot meal the morale gradually lifted from below mud level to something approaching normal. No longer was it necessary to soak a C ration biscuit in insect repellant to get a smoke less fuel so that we could brew a cup of something hot. Patrols, linking up each bay, were maintained daily, but despite this the camps improved gradually. Life returned to normal. On Sunday 24 October a memorable service was conducted by the padre at Wataro. The subject of his sermon was 'Living Sacrifice' and for his text he used 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends'. Each Sunday the padre set off by barge early in the morning and visited each of the companies where he conducted a service, returning to Wataro in the evening.
Early in November a radar station was erected on our side of the island and we were allowed to have lights at night for the first time. This alone lifted morale. It had been very depressing to have to retire to bed as soon as the sun sank below the horizon. On the page 61first day of November an issue of fresh meat, vegetables, fruit and butter were received. What a meal we had! Soon fresh bread arrived regularly. Life was not so bad after all. Two hundred cigarettes were issued with every ration break which occurred each ten days, while now and again boiled sweets and assorted candy appeared. Social and welfare committees were organised in each bay. Stages were erected and tennaquoit tournaments, swimming carnivals, card evenings, concerts and horse races were held. A totalisator always functioned when the races were on. An area of level ground would be chosen and marked off in lanes. These lanes were cut into squares. The first throw of a dice indicated the number of the horse to be moved. The second throw of the dice indicated the number of spaces the horse would move forward. This type of 'going to the races' proved very popular.
The Kiwi concert party arrived on 13 November and presented to us its first concert since Necal days. It was delightful entertainment. Few will forget Ralph Dyer, an ex 35th man and his 'Boogey Woogey Washerwoman' act. The concert party was followed two days later by Padre Voyce who was accompanied by a native choir. The padre gave a very interesting lecture on the Solomons, and the choir excelled itself singing several wellknown hymns. Three days later His Excellency, Sir Cyril Newall, Governor-General of New Zealand, accompanied by General Barrowclough and Brigadier Potter, visited the battalion area and spoke to all ranks. Before departing His Excellency shook hands with every man.
The end of an eventful month started off by the arrival of that man from the 'winterless north', Rhys Williams, who replaced Lee Pycroft as YMCA secretary to the battalion. Mr. Williams quickly 'caught on' with us all, and before long things happened around the YM tent. Rhys and the padre teamed up immediately and the social and welfare department hummed with activity. It hummed so much that it smelt—of Sel Messenger's cooking as he turned out his daily batch of scones and buns. In true American style we celebrated Thanksgiving Day. Our allies had us in the turkey issue and were we thankful.
On the morning of 18 October his Excellency, Sir Cyril Newall, at a special parade held on the other side of the island, had presented the following immediate awards to battalion personnel: Distinguished Service Order, Lieutenant-Colonel C. F. Seaward, MC; Distinguished page 62Conduct Medal, Sergeant J. Walsh; Military Medal, Private R. Armour. Citations to these awards appear later in this history. Lieutenant-Colonel Seaward relinquished his command on 26 November. Before leaving he visited all the company areas and spoke to all ranks, thanking them for their Cooperation during the recent trying action. Colonel Seaward paid his last respects to our fallen comrades at Iringila Cemetery when he visited C company. Under the careful guidance of the padre, volunteers from the two northernmost companies had transformed an area by the native village of Iringila into a decent resting place for those who had paid the supreme sacrifice.
On the 28th of the month a flight of Corsairs flew low over Wataro and, having circled, one of them peeled oif and crash landed in the sea. Immediately a barge was sent out and the pilot was picked up after he had been in the water for only a few moments. A change into dry clothes and the pilot was ready to get going again. Engine trouble had forced him down.
A month of interesting events was successfully capped when Lieutenant-Colonel J. F. Moffat arrived on 30 November to take over command of the 35th Battalion. Later in the day, Major C. W. H. Ronaldson arrived and took up his duties as the new second-in-command of the battalion. Colonel Moffat quickly won the admiration of all ranks. He immediately became 'one of us' and nobody held against him the fact that he came from a rival battalion. From now on the social and welfare activities of the battalion, under the sway of Colonel Moffat, the padre and the YMCA secretary, reached new heights. All men over the age of 41 years left the battalion for base on 3 December. With them went the first batch of officers on a tour of duty.
By this time patrolling had been reduced to a minimum and more time was devoted to making living conditions as pleasant as possible. The motto was 'Be as comfortable as you can, while you can'. Bush carpenters were kept busy every day while excellent cookhouses, messhuts, paths, showers (hot and cold), swimming pools and a host of other extras were constructed or improved. Card evenings, housie-housie, lectures and debates and 'Hyde Park' meetings became the main theme for the evening entertainment. A company's main specialty was model yacht construction and racing. This model yachting was only part of a definite craze for arts and crafts that took all page 63New Zealanders by storm. So popular did this form of hobby become that an island competition was arranged. Several entries from the battalion gained first, second, third and highly commended prizes. With pen-knives, razor-blades and other simple tools as the only means of construction, it was truly amazing to see the wide variety of excellently finished work that was produced. The wide variety of island timber enabled some fine grain work to be incorporated in most of the woodwork articles, the finished articles being as good as any seen in the shops in New Zealand. Bishop Gerard paid a visit to our unit on 15 December and gave a very interesting talk on his experiences in the Middle East.
An earthquake shook the island on 24 December. Just before dawn on this day a severe shake woke everyone up and for a moment we all enjoyed a free ride on our stretchers. No damage was done, but during the day the tide ebbed and flowed several times. On one occasion the tide went from full in to full out in just over 15 minutes. It was just as well that this shake occurred on the morning of the 24th and not the 25th. Had it been a day later several persons would have started 'signing the pledge' immediately. Christmas choirs had been trained in every bay and on Christmas Eve these choirs gave full and reverent voice to a choice selection of many famous carols. In Wataro Bay, under the leadership of Choirmaster Perrett and Director of Ceremonies Falloon, the choir complete with lanterns, did the rounds of the bay, thus officially opening the celebrations for the evening. A 'national hookup' of all bays was made by the signallers. By this means the choirs from every company were heard throughout the battalion.
Beer had arrived just before Christmas Eve, and this supply, plus the locally produced 'jungle juice', turned the evening into a bright and cheerful affair. Till late in the night (or was it early in the morning?) songs, laughter and whoops echoed across the bays. A certain padre was never so blessed as when, bright and breezy next morning, he clumped in his hob-nailed boots along the verandah of 'Taj Mahal' in Wataro wishing the 'nobs' a Merry Christmas. He and his boots were told very impolitely to go to—well, not to Heaven, but by midday everyone had recovered sufficiently to enjoy a Christmas meal that was a credit to the cooks. Following a traditional custom the officers and sergeants served and waited on the men. Christmas was rounded oif by a sports carnival.page 64
The year ended with the unit busily preparing all gear for a move from its present positions to a consolidated camp on the other side of the island. Something was afoot; that we could all guess, but whether it meant a move further on or a move in the only direction we really cared about—south—we could not tell. To quote from the battalion anthem:
Bougainville or Necal we really do not know,
But there's a land far in the south to which we'd rather go.
This short verse was cut out, in the light of subsequent events. The 'anthem' was written by Captain P. Wishart and presented by the battalion headquarters officers at a concert in Wataro Bay. The words are reproduced further on in this history.
During the first week in the New Year the battalion moved to a camp at Ruravai, leaving D company to guard the radar station at Pakoi. Our new camp was in a coconut plantation on top of a small plateau, with a river close by. For awhile it was the same old story—mud everywhere, and new cookhouses, mess 'halls', roads and paths had to be constructed again. At Maravari, a few miles south from this camp, an island cemetery had been constructed. The Vella Lavella natives had built a chapel, the grounds of which were well laid out, with imposing gates placed at the entrance. The island authorities decided that all allied soldiers who had been killed on the island should be buried there and with that purpose Padre Falloon and the divisional graves registration unit moved the remains from Iringila Cemetery to the main island cemetery. At an imposing ceremony in which allied commanders and padres took part, the chapel was officially opened and the ground consecrated. The natives of the island, who were thankful to us for their liberation and to whom we were thankful for their great cooperation and work as guides, are caring for this cemetery under the guidance of the Methodist Mission.
Slowly the camp improved. Showers were erected, tennaquoit courts, basketball courts and a YMCA came into being. The best of our basketball courts was named Lake Ronaldson. In dry weather it was a mud-flat and in wet weather it disappeared under a few inches of water. For those who were keen on sport, however, this court provided all the thrills, spills and laughter necessary. In the best of circumstances basketball is a tough game, as Brigadier Potter could testify after Captain Batty had accidentally sat on him. Our page 65neighbours joined in with us in the big job of constructing a picture theatre. A stage was built, backed by the frame for the screen, and coconut logs were arranged to form the seats. It was a big job, but when finished it gave many entertaining evenings to hundreds of men. Like all other Pacific theatres it was in the open air. As the summer season is the wet one rain capes were always taken to the theatre. They served a twofold purpose—as cushions to soften the hard seat and as covering in case of rain. Locally organised concerts were held before the pictures on a few occasions and the divisional band also favoured the theatre with several visits. The Jap had not stopped bombing us all this time and it was a common occurrence to have the pictures rudely interrupted by the shriek of the air raid siren. In order to maintain security, it was necessary to send a platoon patrol by barge to visit the bays on the side of the island we had vacated. This patrol was carried out as a training exercise, for it had already become clear to all of us that another job of work had to be done. The unit had its own arts and crafts competition on 15 January. The exhibition of the entries was thrown open for inspection to all units. On view at the same time were the entries for the brigade competition. Training was inaugurated again, this time concentrating on amphibious lines. Initial ground work was conducted through the bush nearby, and an extensive programme of range work was carried out. D company was transferred from Pakoi and joined the battalion at Ruravai on 21 January. From this time on preparations for a move north were put into operation. Company seconds-in-command concentrated on the crating of all gear into sturdy crates of not more than two men loads, and company commanders concentrated on moulding their company into an efficient fighting team. Battalion headquarters staff worked hard on load tables, embarkation rolls and the like while the intelligence section did mysterious things in a tent hidden from the prying eye. The quartermaster saw that the battalion was fitted out to the best possible standard and the padre and YMCA secretary scrounged and begged until they had a full quota of patriotic comforts, tea, sugar and dried milk.
At the end of the month the unit carried out landing exercises. Captured Jap barges were used for transportation. Embarkation was carried out on Ruravai Beach in accordance with loading principles. A section at a time embarked, so that a full barge load carried a platoon which was lined up in three rows each of a section, with the page 66bren guns at the bow to give covering fire for the initial landing. As soon as the barge touched the landing beach the ramp was dropped and the sections dashed off in succession, each covering the other. The first company formed a perimeter which the second company entered and expanded. The same occurred when the third company landed. Battalion headquarters then landed and formed a triangle defense inside this perimeter while the fourth company, on landing sealed the perimeter across its base. This idea of establishing a perimeter from an amphibious landing was the battalion's own patent and worked extremely well.
The mysterious doings of the intelligence section were at last revealed. A complete sandtable model of Nissan Island had been constructed. On this model every scrap of information was placed. First the colonel took the company commanders, who in turn took their officers over the model until everyone was in possession of all known information. Subsequently every man in the unit was taken over the model several times. Excellent vertical and oblique aerial photos of Nissan Island were available. These were studied at length by the intelligence section and all officers. Large scale maps were drawn and given to company commanders and when the plans for the landing were known, every member of the unit went over the sand model again, having all the various plans carefully explained. After another battalion of our brigade had executed a successful 'commando' raid on the island the information available was all that could be wished for.
Preparations for the embarkation were well under way by the second week in February. Drawn from personnel of headquarters company, a guerilla platoon and a defence and employment platoon were formed and became part of battalion headquarters for the landing. This had the effect of transforming battalion headquarters into an independent fighting group should such become necessary. The culmination of weeks of preparation came on 12 February when the first LSTs were loaded with a small number of jeeps and trucks. A final check was made on every point pertaining to the movement. Air liaison officers and allied naval officers gave lectures on their job and how the cooperation of air to ground and naval firing worked. At last we were prepared. The first personnel boarded LCIs on 13 February and the balance of the battalion boarded APDs on the following day.