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The Gunners: an intimate record of units of the 3rd New Zealand Divisional Artillery in the Pacific from 1940 until 1945

VII — The Capture of the Green Islands

The Capture of the Green Islands

The move to destroy the enemy on the Green Islands gave the regiment, with all batteries united in action for the first time, the distinction of being the only unit of the division to play an active and substantial part in all the three Solomons operations. The whole division, less the 8th Brigade group, was engaged and supplementary anti-aircraft forces were provided by the 967th Anti-aircraft Gun Battalion of 90 mm guns and the 362nd Searchlight Battalion, both units of the American army which had enviable combat records on Guadalcanal.

The operation was planned at Guadalcanal and RHQ accordingly returned thither from the Treasuries in January for a short but busy stay. While the commanding officer was engaged in conferences and visits to all batteries to discuss the plan of action, his second-in-command scoured all sources of supply for tools and equipment; the adjutant was wrestling with schedules, loading tables and appendices; the rank and file were tossing grenades and firing small arms practices and the signal channels were buzzing with orders and counter-orders. As the operation involved loading of ships at Guadalcanal, Vella and the Treasuries the arrangements were most complicated, but the problem was eased a little by previous experience of such movements. This was also borne in mind by the rank and file, who were firmly resolved not to be caught again with nothing better than rations C and K for the first few days. Consequently most gun teams built up reserves of more attractive food, which were divided up and packed in stray spaces.

Reinforcements from New Caledonia to replace the gaps left by casualties and illness had brought all batteries very nearly to full strength and among the most valuable additions was a small radar section under the command of Lieutenant C. L. E. Wood, which came direct from New Zealand to Guadalcanal on 10 February and proceeded to Nissan with the second echelon. After the section had shown its paces with its New Zealand-made equipment, the only fault that most members of the regiment page break
A Japanese mountain gun captured in the Treasuries by the 36th Battalion and left at the headquarters of G troop, 54 Anti-tank Battery. Allied cemetery on Mono Island, in the Treasuries

A Japanese mountain gun captured in the Treasuries by the 36th Battalion and left at the headquarters of G troop, 54 Anti-tank Battery. Allied cemetery on Mono Island, in the Treasuries

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Falamai Beach in Blanche Harbour was a picturesque sight when the Treasury Island Yacht Club assembled there with a variety of craft. Below: Guns of the 38th Field Regiment which were emplaced on Mono Island to cover the entrance to Blanche Harbour

Falamai Beach in Blanche Harbour was a picturesque sight when the Treasury Island Yacht Club assembled there with a variety of craft. Below: Guns of the 38th Field Regiment which were emplaced on Mono Island to cover the entrance to Blanche Harbour

page 129could find was that it had not been operating at the Treasuries. Supplies also were replenished. The guns of the 209th and 208th Batteries which had been lost in action were replaced and the regiment was generally better equipped for this action than it had ever been before. Tools for digging-in were provided in reasonable quantities and explosives also—a necessity on Nissan, where an assault on the ground surface was more likely to result in a damaged pickaxe than a hole. The operation was preceded by a reconnaissance in force carried out by the 30th Battalion in which Lieutenant J. A, C. Macartney, of the 209th Battery, acted as observer for the regiment.

The first echelon convoy was shadowed by enemy planes and part of it was attacked, although not damaged, during the night of 14-15 February. Next morning at daybreak two planes dived on the LSTs as they were nearing their destination but they met heavy fire from the convoy and both scored some hits on one of the planes. This finished the air effort of the Japs for the time being and the landings proceeded without further air opposition. The 207th Battery landed on the inner side of the Pokonian plantation and the 209th Battery, with RHQ, proceeded across the lagoon to Tangalan plantation. No land opposition was met at either place, which was apparently not what was expected by the captain in charge of an allied unit which landed at Tangalan. As soon as the boat touched land he stationed himself at the head of his warriors, raised his right arm, uttered the stirring call 'Follow me, men' and charged down the ramp. Unfortunately his first point of contact with the shore was a slime covered rock and his virile dash came to an undignified end on the floor of the lagoon.

Deployment in the coconut plantations of Nissan was easier than it had been on the Treasuries, although some outlying guns had to get through formidable jungle to reach their positions. Bulldozers had been allocated to clear tracks and gun sites and useful assistance was also given by the Valentines of the New Zealand Tank Squadron, which proved most effective in beating down bush and small trees to provide access to difficult positions. At the end of the first day several guns of each battery were in position and the rest were ready for action in temporary sites while they were waiting for access to be provided or sites to be cleared. Several radar sets were ashore and a gun operations room was being operated by the 967th Gun Battalion, where page 130Lieutenant W. H. Cummings was on duty as liaison officer for the regiment. During the night the Jap bombers returned, making attacks on Barahun Island and the Tangalan plantation. Bombs were dropped but caused no damage or casualties except injuries to some natives. With the radar not yet operating efficiently and the searchlights not in action, conditions were poor for shooting. However, a detachment of M troop, 209th Battery, was able to see the outline of a raider in the dark and fired a few rounds at it. To their surprise the plane replied with a burst of machine-gun fire, which happily went wide. The following night the Tangalan area was again attacked. The alerts lasted most of the night but concentrations of fire put up when the planes were heard approaching persuaded them to veer off seawards where two of them were shot down by allied night fighters.

The first few days were occupied with getting established and setting up communications. RHQ, after two false starts elsewhere, eventually came to rest on the edge of the lagoon north of Tangalan plantation; the 209th Battery had its headquarters in the plantation and the 207th found an attractive site near the tip of the Pokonian plantation. Meanwhile the construction of two airstrips had started and was proceeding day and night at Tangalan. The second echelon, including the 208th and 214th Batteries and the radar section, arrived on 20 February. Their trip had been uneventful except for the grounding of one of the LSTs of the convoy while it was negotiating the lagoon entrance. This caused 'scone-doing' on board for upwards of an hour, but the ship was eventually refloated and proceeded safely to her landing point. The 208th Battery had been selected to guard the southern end of the island but it was at least ten days before the deployment of the battery could be completed. The 214th Battery in the north-eastern sector had similar difficulties. N troop was disposed along the shore of the lagoon north of Tangalan, while the rest of the battery went to a staging area adjoining RHQ until access to their various sites could be provided. Bulldozers were now hard to get owing to the priority of the aerodrome work but the tanks again came to the rescue and helped several guns into their designated spots.

Heavy rains and bad roads threw a great strain on the vehicles, most of which were well-tried veterans. Breakdowns became increasingly common. Only a few of the workshops per-page 131sonnel had come forward from the Treasuries and they had been absorbed into the main island workshops, leaving the regiment without an attached ordnance section but, thanks to some capable mechanics in the batteries, enough trucks were always kept rolling to avoid large scale dislocation. By the end of the month all guns were in place except those in P troop, 214th Battery, who still had to get down a steep cliff on the seafront of the east coast. Further up the coast to the north, a party from O troop of the same battery had had some excitement getting their gun into position when they spotted two Japs below them on the beach. One was promptly shot but the other escaped into the jungle and was not seen again although a patrol was quickly formed to search the area. Meanwhile C troop of 207th had moved to Marahun Island, where the American patrol torpedo boat base was situated in very pleasant surroundings. The troop was fortunate in being able to mess with the Americans whose living standards were high. Several gun detachments on Nissan also arranged to meal with nearby American units and the system generally worked well.

The 208th and 214th Batteries had brought their full equipment with them but the rest had to wait until the third wave arrived for their tents, beds and kitbags. By now most of the regiment were old enough hands at island-hopping to exist comfortably for a few days on the very limited baggage they could take with them at first. Experience had shown them what was necessary and what was not and had suggested where desirable items could be packed away in nooks and crannies. 'Desirable items' were many and various, according to the tastes of the detachment; one crew landed with a red parrot riding on its gun.

By the beginning of March the radar section had been set up at Tangalan and was taking its turn with the other radars on the island in searching for enemy planes. Genuine targets proved to be very rare but on 11 March, just before dawn, a single plane came in, dropped a bomb in the sea and made off rapidly. A system was then introduced of having three rounds fired into the air by certain Bofors immediately a condition red was ordered, with the object of conveying the warning to outlying units. The display of tracer may also have served to warn the enemy for it was noticed once or twice that, although hostile planes were plotted in the vicinity, they did not come any closer page 132after the shots had gone up. The sea approaches were also carefully watched and on 21 February the 207th Battery reported the presence of a suspicious looking barge, which was found on investigation by PT boats to contain four Japanese, three of whom were killed and the other taken prisoner. After that, although there were several scares, no enemy activity at sea was seen but the lookouts on the guns were commended several times for speedy action in reporting aircraft accidents, thus enabling rescue craft to be sent to the spot. Work on the airfields went ahead fast, the fighter strip being operational on 16 March, and towards the end of the month the bomber field was launching flights of Liberators for attacks on Truk. Bombadier C. T. Eddie and Gunner A. Hunter, of a 209th Battery gun, did good work one evening in withdrawing a severely wounded pilot from the close vicinity of a Liberator which, badly shot up, had crashed on landing. About a week later the crew baled out of another badly damaged plane over the island and one of the airmen landed neatly in the headquarters of 209th.

After a few weeks on the atoll the main problem, with enemy air activity non-existent and building completed, was to endure another spell of garrison duty. Vigilance, however, had to be maintained, for the guns were still operational and there was still a chance that one of the alerts which came along every few days might mean real trouble. A training syllabus was revived. All possible recreational activity was encouraged. Deck tennis was the likeliest form of exercise. Swimming was good in the lagoon, although a lookout had always to be kept for sharks, sting-rays, jagged coral and other traps for the unwary. Boating in various kinds of craft was popular, as was fishing, either by the antiquated hook and line or by the more modern and effective 'percussion' technique. Some members of the regiment took part in an axeman's carnival which was held at Easter but, despite their experience in knocking down trees around their gun sites, they took no prizes.

Although the tempo of life had become generally easier, working parties continued. During March several changes of troop commanders between batteries within the regiment were made but many of them scarcely had time to take effect before the scheme for sending men back to essential industries in New Zealand was announced. The news of this plan, for once heralded by previous rumours, broke at the beginning of April and page 133a froth of activity resulted. A large percentage of the regiment volunteered for work in the industries named. It was soon announced that the 207th and 208th Batteries were to return almost immediately to New Caledonia en route for New Zealand with those members of the regiment, numbering 456, who had been selected for the first draft.

On 15 April the 207th and 208th Batteries ceased to be operational and guns, personnel and equipment were concentrated at the respective battery headquarters. The following day the necessary exchange of men between all batteries took place. O troop of the 214th Battery was moved to Pokonian to fill the gap left there by the departure of the 207th and preparations for the voyage continued. At last the transports arrived and were loaded. All personnel were embarked on the USS Wharton which sailed on 24 April. Most of the equipment went on another ship. While the personal gear was being loaded one of the barges taking it out to the ship was swamped and about 80 kitbags containing many personal possessions of great value to their owners were lost. Meanwhile remaining personnel were spread out to fill the gaps left in the 209th and 214th. Conditions on the island improved somewhat about this time. The first beer issue since Christmas came along and canteen supplies increased in quantity and variety. Picture shows, boxing contests and YMCA activities flourished and Padre Castle did excellent welfare work in visiting the gun detachments while George Edwards kept the ball rolling at RHQ. Educational courses provided by AEWS grew in popularity and hobbies sprang up like mushrooms. AH types of metal work were popular, shell cases were cut up, mounted, engraved or polished and eager scavengers picked over other treasures. Prizes were awarded out of regimental funds for small arms shooting and also for a deck tennis tournament in which X signals section scooped the pool, Signalman McKinley winning the singles and Corporal Tucker and Signalman Hutton the doubles.

Although the presence of new and unknown voices on the 'hot loops' tended to stifle normal activity for a time, the rumour market was not quiet for long and when American officers came around inspecting gun sites it was pretty definite that relief was not far off. On 25 May the 925 US (Automatic Weapons) Battalion arrived on the island and during the next few days it took over all the positions of the 209th and 214th, whose guns were page 134withdrawn to concentration areas. Part of the 209th was the first to get away, sailing on the USS Mintaka on 31 May. On the same day the commanding officer left by air for New Zealand prior to proceeding to England to attend a course at Cam-berley and the familiar call 'Where are you, Conway?' became a mere echo of the past at RHQ. Lieutenant-Colonel McKinnon had been in command of the regiment for almost exactly a year, including the whole period of active operations. He was succeeded as regimental commander by the second in command, Major H. H. Craig in an acting capacity. The rest of the regiment hung about ready to move at a few hours' notice, scanning the sea for a view of the long awaited ships. RHQ and the rest of the 209th Battery left by the USS Rotanin on 15 June, but the 214th remained kicking its heels in impatience until 6 July, when it embarked with the last remnants of the division in USS Celeno.