The 35th Battalion
Chapter Eight — Operations on Nissan
Operations on Nissan
Gradually Vella Lavella disappeared from view. It is doubtful if anyone was sorry to see the last of the place. The weather was glorious and even the worst of sailors could look forward to a good trip. The convoy was in three sections. The slowest ships had left Vella two days previously, while another group had left the day before. This last and fastest convoy came abreast of the Treasury Islands late the same day. On through the night we steamed up the coast of Bougainville, passing Empress Augusta Bay where the Americans were still locked in combat with the Japs. During the night the Japs bombed, without success, the slower moving ships ahead, providing in some cases too much of a thrill for the New Zealand passengers. On land when the bombers were overhead a fox-hole provides some measure of safety, but at sea there is nowhere to go; one just sits tight and hopes for the best.
As the night paled and merged into dawn the APDs passed through the other convoys. A low blur on the horizon rapidly dev eloped into Nissan Island, Overhead droned the planes of the covering force, ready to lend support to the landing or fight off an enemy air attack. The final murkiness of dawn passed away giving clear vision. As far as one could see were ships of various shapes and sizes, all bearing down on the same island. Right on the horizon were the LSTs with their barrage balloons floating above them. Suddenly the quick booming of guns was heard and simultaneously the sky above the huge convoy was full of puffs of black smoke. The Jap air force had come to 'welcome' us. Quickly the puffs came nearer to the front of the convoy and guns on nearby escorting destroyers took up the defense. Then we saw them; Jap Zeros weaving about page 68in an endeavour to escape that destructive hail of death as it sprayed among them. Down they would come in a streaming dive: a ship would swerve violently; a large splash would appear alongside—and another Jap bomb missed its mark. At least five or six enemy planes crashed into the sea near us. Each time a Zero 'hit the drink' a spontaneous cheer went up. Through the Barahun Passage went a minesweeper followed by several LCI gunboats. There were no mines and no shots fired against the ships. All was clear so far. In rapid order the assault barges poured through that narrow channel and entered the lagoon, from where they fanned out and headed for the various landing beaches. So well had the sand model portrayed the island that we all felt that we had been there before. There ahead of us was the conspicuous tree; to the left the Salipal Church; down at the south end of the lagoon was the Roman Catholic Mission.
The battalion was split into two forces for the original landing. Two beaches called Green 1 and Green 2 were our unloading points. In the first wave for Green 1 were A and D companies, who were followed by battalion headquarters in the second wave. At Green 2, corresponding with the second wave on Green 1, B company landed. As the assault barges pulled out and sped back to their ships, the LCIs grated over the coral and lowered their extensive gangways. At Green 1 landed the battalion mortar platoon, one platoon of vickers and one section of engineers who were attached. At Green 2 landed C company and one detachment of the medical corps. The battalion and attached troops had landed safely and accordingly a coloured smoke flare was lit, indicating the successful landing. Where the LCIs had been but a few moments ago, there were now LSTs. At Green 1 we hastily moved out of the way of unloading operations as a bulldozer roared down, the ramp and charged the group of us. Meantime at Green 2 C company turned to and unloaded the LST on their beach.
But what of the troops? As the barges touched the beach they poured off and went straight into the jungle, automatically forming the perimeter they had practiced so often, just before leaving Vella Lavella. No opposition was encountered and patrols were immediately sent out on predetermined courses to search the area. One company from Green 1 patrolled through the Tangalan Plantation to connect with a neighbouring battalion, while the other company page 69patrolled to the opposite coast and to the right, to the company on Green 2. When all patrols had returned and reported no contact, the battalion swung right and proceeded to south of Green 2 where a line of defense, stretching from one coast to the other, was established. In front of these positions the engineers laid booby traps. Within the battalion headquarter's perimeter was harboured one troop of tanks which was under command. All companies were connected by phone. The first day's operations had gone without a hitch and had followed the original plan to perfection. The country we had travelled through was exactly as we had expected to find it. Booby traps set in front of the positions gave an added sense of security from surprise attack while the phone connections ensured getting immediate notice of any happenings, plus the speeding up of reports from front positions. Each man had half a pup tent so that when it rained at night he could, with a partner, erect a shelter and keep dry.
What a difference from Vella Lavella. The things mentioned above are only a few instances of the difference between the Vella and Nissan Island operations. Such instances could be cited for pages on end. Let the above suffice to illustrate the point. On this, the first night, the Jap air force ventured overhead to bomb and strafe positions. They missed us. Looking back on the situation, it is a great credit to the New Zealand and American Air Force that the only attacks made on the island were within the first 24 hours of landing. With Rabaul, the largest enemy strong point in the South West Pacific only 100 miles away, we had expected fierce opposition to our occupation of this coral atoll. So well had our allied air forces done their job that we were never troubled again, apart from alerts which never developed into actual bombing or strafing attacks. The second day, after the engineers had lifted the booby traps, A company, plus a troop of tanks, moved forward to Halis as an advanced guard. Behind them, searching carefully, the other three companies moved abreast. Battalion headquarters with which were three jeeps and two trucks, followed along what remained of a one time road. The jeeps proved invaluable for scouting and they carried heavy wireless equipment, water and rations, while the trucks carried the men's packs and brought forward bulk water and rations. Once the tanks had smashed a way through the lush undergrowth the jeeps and trucks had no trouble in following their tracks. After attending a page 70conference at rear brigade headquarters, Colonel Moffat returned to Halis with the plan for clearing the island. Information from the natives indicated that the Japs had retired to the Roman Catholic Mission, where their headquarters was established. It was planned to trap the Japs between our battalion and another, which was moving southwards from Pokonian Plantation on the other arm of the island. An artillery barrage on the mission would precede a concerted drive from both sides of the area by the two battalions. A second troop of tanks came under command and advanced brigade headquarters joined up, to remain with us till we reached the mission.
On Thursday, 17 February, two companies, supported by one troop of tanks, moved forward from Halis to a position 500 yards west of South Point. As the advanced guard reported progress and moved from bound to bound, the balance of the battalion moved in rear at a slow pace. The tanks at one stage had a spot of bother with the mangrove swamp, but managed to get through before dark. Down the track made by the tanks came the jeeps and trucks so that everbody had water, rations and packs before settling down for the night. The engineers laid the booby traps across the front as usual. The width of the island at this point was only 150 yards, the right flank ending in a mangrove swamp. The advanced dressing station was established at Halis, as also was the quartermaster and his staff. The guerilla and defence employment platoons remained at Halis to guard the above two important groups. Halis had a suitable barge landing beach, which was important for the evacuation of wounded and unloading water and rations. There was not a drop of fresh water on the whole island, so that all water had to be distilled and then transported to the battalion. This alone was a tremendous problem and much praise is due to the quartermaster who never failed to get this supply of fresh water to us. Rations were better too; in addition to our old friends, C and K, we had received the more palatable and enjoyable jungle ration. This ration contained such things as a ready mixed cereal, dried apricots, prunes, cocoa, cigarettes, toilet paper, candy, sugar, dried milk, cheese and tinned meat.
The battalion mortar platoon and the attached vickers platoon were placed on the lagoon shore, just south of Halis, opposite the mission. This was in readiness for the attack on the mission scheduled for early on the morning of Saturday, the 19th. All positions were linked with battalion headquarters by phone. At 6.46 pm B com-page 71pany reported sighting a heavily-laden barge moving south from the south-western corner of the island. This barge was also sighted by battalion headquarters and a report was sent to brigade immediately. Next morning at 3.30 am four flares were observed at sea in a southerly direction. These were apparently dropped by our night fighters to locate enemy barges off Buka. Three officered fighting patrols were sent out after breakfast to search the area up to the vicinity of the native village of Torahatup. No contact was made, but evidence of Jap bivouacs was found in many places. The patrols brought back a collection of booty taken from these bivouacs. The colonel attended a brigade conference where the supporting fire plan for the attack on the mission was 'tied up.' In order to give the battalion less ground to cover to the mission after the barrage ceased next morning, it was decided to move forward. This was done and the battalion took up a defence perimeter on a line from the Torahatup village to the lagoon shore. D, B and C companies formed the front, with A company, advanced brigade headquarters and battalion headquarters in rear.
Between this position and the one we had left earlier were several clefts in the coral strata. The smallest of these was far too wide and deep for the tanks to cross. After reconnaissance had proved that the tanks could not follow us, they returned to South Point and harboured there. The guerilla and defence platoons were sent from Halis to form a perimeter round the tanks for overnight protection. Brigade was advised of the position and the tanks were ordered to come under command of the battalion closing in on the mission from the other side. To do this the tanks left at first light next morning and were taken by barge across the lagoon to the other side, the guerilla and defence platoons returning to Halis.
The failure of the tanks to follow us also prevented water and rations from being brought up. This problem was quickly solved by bringing these things across by barge, but the water was so shallow that all the goods had to be carried about 100 yards to the shore. This was one occasion when the 'phone connection speeded matters up. Had wireless sets been the only method of communication information might never have reached the quartermaster of our needs. The laugh of the evening was had at the expense of the second-in-command and the intelligence officer. Those two worthy gentlemen placed so much reliance on the tanks getting through, and consequently the jeeps, that they had left their haversacks in a jeep. They page 72had neither rations nor a pup tent. At about 3 am it rained, hard and steadily. The small strip of beach they were on was well trodden as they paced back and forth waiting for the day to break.
On Saturday 19 February, at 7.30 am, all troops were ready to advance towards the mission. Promptly on time the artillery barrage started. The vickers and mortars chopped down screening trees at the last moment and joined in. For half an hour this combined barrage was laid down on a large area which included the mission. During this period an allied barge stood off Mission Point. Suddenly, as we waited for the barrage to finish, we were fired on from the barge. Fortunately the shots were falling short and no one was in great danger. Two high members of the general's staff never heard the last of their attack on their own troops.
As the last shell exploded at 0800 hours D, C and B companies moved forward slowly, converging on the mission. No opposition was encountered. C company's patrols entered the area just under an hour after the barrage ceased. Under the mission house waa found a large quantity of abandoned Jap gear. This included three outboard motors, two medium machine guns, one anti-tank gun, two radio sets and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Much more gear than is enumerated above was found, but the list is too long to repeat.
On Nissan Island the 35th Battalion took part in its last action before returning to New Zealand to be disbanded
Brigadier Potter visited the mission area and outlined the arrangements for the defence of the island. Advanced brigade headquarters returned to rear brigade headquarters. That night the position was as follows: A company at South Point on a stop line; B company at Tapangat Peninsula; C and D companies forming a perimeter with the the 30th Battalion round the mission; and battalion headquarters at the mission.
Up to this point the battalion had experienced conditions so different from Vella Lavella that to many of us this operation was a picnic. Very little rain had fallen and, even so, with our pup tents it could rain as much as it liked. There was little soil on top of the coral so we weren't bothered with mud. The padre and YM secretary had always been on the job with billies of tea and patriotic comforts. True to style, the padre and his gang of billy boilers had, on the day of the advance from South Point, wandered off on the wrong track and run into a Jap bivouac. As the padre later said, 'Only a man of my calling can do that. We asked him who he'd 'called' on when he found his error. The second echelon convoy arrived at daybreak on Sunday, 20 February. Subsequently other echelons arrived every five days, bringing out tents, the balance of transport, etc., till the entire battalion and its goods had arrived at Nissan Island.
Piles of equipment litter the vicinity of the beaches as troops disembark at Tangalan Plantation, Nissan Island. Below is a scene on the same island when order has been restored and much of the jungle removed to make room for camps
Battalion headquarters on Vella Lavella was among some fallen trees on the foreshore. Officers are observing the effect of artillery fire on Umomo Island which had to be cleared of Japanese before the advance could continue
A scene which illustrates the advance of units of the 35 Battalion. The men take advantage of every natural feature and blend into the landscape. This painting by an official artist shows the patrol replying to enemy fire
In the heat of the jungle nothing was so refreshing as a cup of tea. Padre and YMCA secretary combined always in providing this great morale builder. These two pictures show their jungle cafeteria
During the afternoon of this day a reconnaissance had been carried out at Halis for the permanent camp sites of D company and battalion headquarters, both of which moved to the mission by barge. Battalion headquarters remained at a position about 400 yards south of Halis, and D company moved to the sea coast opposite. C company held a perimeter round the mission for the night.
B company was to remain on Tapangat, so the day was spent preparing tent sites. Battalion headquarters and D company did likewise. Patrols from each of these sub-units covered defined areas during the day. A and C companies, working from the sea positions as held on the previous day, carried out all day patrolling in an endeavour to round up any small parties of Japs still at large. Head-quarters company camp site was decided on and placed approximately 500 yards south of D company on the same coast. The total result of all patrols on this day was the finding of small deserted bivouacs, packages of food in caves on the south coast and two machine guns and ammunition dumped in the tide near the caves. The bolt and page 76firing mechanism of these guns was missing. On Tuesday 22 February, C company moved from the mission to a point on the lagoon shore, immediately north of battalion headquarters. D and headquarters companies patrolled without making any contact with the enemy.
At 1000 hours Captain Muir, A company commander, went forward from his company position for a distance of approximately 200 yards. He was looking for a better camp site for his company. Reaching a high bluff overlooking the sea he sat down on a log and proceeded to enjoy a pipe. Presently there was a rustling of undergrowth nearby. Looking round he saw nothing and put the noise down to pigs. Another rustle and into the small clearing, where he sat, stepped three armed Japs. For fully half a minute both parties stared stupidly at each other. Then, as though activated by an electrical charge the Japs headed back into the bush at high speed, while Captain Muir did the fastest trip to his company lines that is ever likely to be recorded. A patrol was promptly organised but failed to locate the Japs before daylight failed. During the last few days of the month the tactical defence plan of the island was altered slightly. As a result, both A and B companies were required to move. Almost opposite B company's position on Tapangat Peninsula was a village called Tanerheran. B company moved to the north of this village and A company moved from South Point to the south of it.
The month of March was spent in making the battalion camp sites as comfortable as possible. No matter for how long we were destined to be on Nissan Island, we intended being comfortable from the start. Although the battalion was called on every day to supply large working parties to unload ships etc., sports, swimming and canoeing enabled everyone to relax. A large fleet of native canoes had been gathered and repaired and these provided hours of fun for those off duty. The water in the lagoon was always warm, calm and inviting and many men were taught to swim in those ideal circumstances. Tennaquoit courts were constructed as a first priority and great tournaments were held on Saturday afternoons. Improvements to all things went on apace, the greatest of these being a two-way main highway. New Zealand engineers and American CBs with their bulldozers and graders soon carved a wide path through the jungle and formed roads that put some roads in New Zealand to shame. page 77Transport was no longer bogged down and supplies could be guaranteed.
Adjacent to D and headquarters companies and on the roadside the padre, YMCA secretary and a gang of bush carpenters constructed an imposing roadhouse, which was called 'Kiwi Kosy Korner'. Here a game of ping pong, a cup of tea, a drink of lemon, a sandwich or a bun was available to all. An information board displayed maps and news bulletins, plus notices of all sporting events. A small selection of magazines was available and could be read in the quiet of an alcove. The whole building was a credit to the ingenuity of the men who had constructed it, while great praise is due to Rhys Williams and his staff for the way it was conducted. It was a common sight, particularly at morning and afternoon tea time, to see New Zealand and American trucks lined up outside the roadhouse, while inside the crowd surged around the counter getting a 'cuppa' and bun. In the evenings lectures were given on subjects which would help the soldier on his return to New Zealand. On Sunday evenings the padre conducted 'Evensong'. Quite often the divisional band attended these services voluntarily and helped by playing the hymns. Many thanks to Lieutenant Fox and his men for this kindness.
Practically every American unit on the island had its own cinema and in typical New Zealand picture going style the boys tramped and hitch-hiked either up or down the road to see the pictures. With so many cinemas a wide choice of films was available. Before long a New Zealand theatre was erected just behind the roadhouse. The attraction of a short walk and a cup of tea afterwards at the roadhouse made this theatre very popular. The most popular happening of the week was always mail day. Always twice and sometimes three times a week mail arrived, the latest letters being only a few days old. This service was a great morale lifter, for there is nothing like news from home. Parcel mail was still irregular, but this was only to be expected. When it did arrive the cooks were always beseiged with requests to 'do up' tins of delicacies. The last week of March saw a change-over of second-in-command of the battalion. Major Ronaldson, on being promoted to lieutenant-colonel, left for Necal and Major Marshall, of the Eighth Brigade, assumed his duties.
The month of April was a repitition of March. Activities such as fatigues and sports were broken by a rum issue. It was small but page 78welcome. There had been no beer ration since our arrival on Nissan Island so this was a good excuse for the many distillation plants that could be smelt, but never found. Occasionally the normal and much detested daily ration was augmented by roast pork. Of course pigs were not allowed to be shot unless they were found injured. However, the medical officer received many calls to inspect pigs and declare them free from disease. It was really surprising the number of pigs that killed themselves tripping over tree roots.
An all-day sports meeting was held on 15 April. Sideshows, art unions, tugS-of-war, tennaquoits, canoe and swimming races all found a place on the programme. The padre and his water gang had worked hard prior to this day in erecting a swimming pool. Several 45gallon drums had been sunk into position and coconut logs laid on the tops of these drums and lashed down. In this way starting platforms and turning boards made a respectable 25-yard pool with a depth of five feet. At the conclusion of this highly successful day Brigadier Potter, who had watched the events with interest, presented the prizes. Such days as this, as well as inte-company days were held on numerous occasions.
The first news of manpower requirements in New Zealand came to hand about this time. Many long hours were spent by the officers in considering the relative merit of each application for return to industry. The number required for the first draft was not known, so particulars were taken of each man wishing to be selected. Coincident with the numbers required being known and the men selected, the first issue of beer arrived and the sadness of many farewells was drowned with this first issue. Prior to the departure of this manpower draft all ranks were invited to contribute a donation towards the Vella Lavella Methodist Mission. There was a large response and the battalion had great pleasure in forwarding a cheque for nearly £200 to the New Zealand mission headquarters. This was in token of the able assistance the battalion had received from the Vella Lavella natives who had been taught and trained by the Methodist missionaries. At 1000 hours on 26 April the first manpower draft left the battalion after being farewelled by Colonel Moffat, who added a few words of advice for when the men reached New Zealand. The following day when the parade state was handed to the colonel, he summed up the situation well, as with some feeling he remarked, 'A shadow of our former selves'.page 79
The medical authorities discovered an outbreak of hookworm at this time. Every member of the battalion had a blood test taken for both hookworm and malaria. The incidence of hookworm proved to be fairly high. Treatment was given firstly by sending batches of men to hospital, but afterwards treatment was given in the battalion lines. The treatment was simple; starvation for a day while several pills, taken from a box labelled 'Dose for dogs and foxes—one pill, For horses—two pills', acted on us.
The main sports event of May was the harbour race of one and a quarter miles. All contestants were taken by barge to Mission Point. A barge moved in rear of the swimmers in case of accidents. Before long the field stretched out and a fleet of canoes was kept busy correcting the direction of some swimmers who had a tendency to swim anywhere but towards the finishing line. A thrilling finish was witnessed between Mason and Camplin who fought it out all the way. The Army Education and Welfare Service had provided us with some excellent lecture material. The number of men who voluntarily attended these afternoon lectures held in the mess huts showed their interest in such subjects as 'World Economics' and 'Thinking to Some Purpose'. These lectures were ably prepared and delivered by officers and other ranks. In the course of the lecture 'Thinking to Some Purpose' those attending were asked to choose a subject and jot down the various thoughts that passed through the mind. A certain highly respected personage of battalion headquarters surprised the gathering by choosing as his subject 'beer'. His thoughts ran from handles to quarts, to gallons, to kegs and back again, but always beer and more beer.
The battalion, having lost so many members in the first manpower draft, had to be reorganised. C and B companies disappeared, leaving a depleted headquarters company and A and D companies. A company was moved from Tanerheran to a camp site just below battalion headquarters. This was done in view of the projected departure of the battalion from Nissan Island. At last the move south had come about. At times we had despaired but never given up hope that one day this move might transpire; now the time had come. The last bottles of distilled jungle juice and stored beer were brought forth and many parties were held to celebrate the glorious news. The officers will not forget their evening for a while. As the evening wore on the LO steered an erratic course through the IPP tent in his page 80fervent desire to see that everybody had plenty to drink. The Colonel's 'Nissan Knock-Out' cocktail did a lot of damage that night. A certain company commander got tangled in a tennaquoit net and yelled lustily for his platoon commanders to get him untangled. But alas! they, too, were having trouble in negotiating a passage through the bush to where they hoped to find their tents.
With no regrets, but with great jubilation, we climbed the nets for the last time to board our transport on the last day of May.