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Medical Services in New Zealand and The Pacific

II: General Conditions in Fiji

II: General Conditions in Fiji

The establishment and maintenance of the force in Fiji was beset with numerous difficulties. Conditions of army life were such that the troops began to voice complaints which received press publicity in New Zealand early in 1941. Brigadier Bowerbank had been on a visit of inspection to Fiji from 16 to 21 January, and the report he made on 30 January received the close attention of War Cabinet. Complaints seem to have been concerned with general discomfort and deficiencies without any particular reference to health and medical conditions, but Brigadier Bowerbank was able to give the background against which the complaints had to be set.

The troops had arrived in November 1940 at the beginning of page 13 the rainy season and the period of the hottest weather and preparation for their reception had just commenced. Work on the camps was still in its initial stages, and though this was pushed ahead by the engineers, it was some months before completion and comfortable conditions could be expected. Under such conditions some degree of confusion and considerable discomfort was inevitable, and was noticed by troops who had previously trained in completed and permanent camps in New Zealand. The discomforts could be divided into two groups, those which were inevitable under active-service conditions and those which were avoidable. It could not be denied that there were conditions in the latter category.

One of the justifiable complaints was in regard to uniforms. The troops had been issued with only two pairs of shorts and two shirts. In a tropical country like Fiji where men sweat profusely and get wet through frequently, it was necessary for the clothing to be washed frequently. This resulted in rapid deterioration of the cloth, and Brigadier Bowerbank reported the clothing to be in a deplorable condition despite care and attention by the men. Again there did not appear to be sufficient systematised recreational training. Fiji, with its tropical climate, did not permit of the same continuous arduous military exercises as in New Zealand, and consequent inaction led to boredom and a tendency to deterioration in the soldier's physical and mental fitness. Admissions to medical units, however, showed that the health of the troops had not lapsed but had been consistently good. Diseases of the alimentary and respiratory systems predominated.

Other reports indicated that lack of equipment and of highly trained instructors led to dissatisfaction. From the medical point of view, it was considered that combatant officers and NCOs did not give sufficient attention to elementary camp hygiene. In the early months persistent efforts had to be made by medical officers to convince them that general hygiene and cleanliness was entirely a unit responsibility. The main difficulty was to convince them of the menace of flies and the need also to control the breeding of mosquitoes. As a vector of infective disease the mosquitoes were not serious threats, as there was no malaria on Viti Levu, although dengue and filariasis were endemic, but their bites often gave rise to septic sores.

The incidence of septic sores, which sometimes developed into large and indolent ulcers, was a persistent problem. The ADMS, NZ Army Headquarters, Colonel Wilson,1 reporting on an inspection of B Force in February 1942, stated that medical officers who had been longest in Fiji considered that lack of adequate laundry facilities was the most important factor in causing these septic sores – far more important than the provision of hot showers. Facilities for the washing of clothes and blankets had been improved to some extent since the early days, but provision was still far from adequate. The sores were most prevalent in the hot humid weather of the rainy season, when they also increased among natives. Vitamin deficiencies were suspected to be causative factors.

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Transport was inadequate in the whole of B Force and medical units were handicapped as well as other units, as regards both ambulance cars and trucks. In the early months not a single water cart was available in Fiji, despite the endemicity of typhoid and dysentery. On operational manoeuvres 400-gallon tanks were carted round on trucks, and bleaching powder was thrown into these. Stretchers, general medical stores and theatre instruments were also still required at the time of Colonel Wilson's visit. Such deficiencies were the natural result of an inadequacy of stocks in New Zealand, where replenishment of supplies was so dependent on overseas sources. By comparison the equipment of the medical staff of an American Air Force unit was nothing short of marvellous.

Despite the difficulties the medical unit (7 Field Ambulance) rendered efficient service, successfully carrying out the functions usually performed by several medical units, which speaks much for those who staffed the units.

1 Brig I. S. Wilson, OBE, MC and bar, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Dunedin, 13 Jul 1883; physician; medical officer BEF Fd Amb, RMO 1 Bn Scots Guards, Guards Fd Amb, 1914–18 War; wounded, Somme, 1916; ADMS, Central Military District, 1935–39; ADMS, Army HQ, Sep 1939–Feb 1944; acting DGMS, Army HQ, Feb–Jul 1944; CO 2 Gen Hosp Oct 1944–Jul 1945.