III: The Waiting Period
III: The Waiting Period
With the cessation of hostilities on both Vella Lavella and the Treasuries, problems of administration, particularly of maintenance and engineering, took precedence over operations. Units on each island were always maintained at combat strength by the absorption of reinforcements from New Caledonia, but the principal activities page 160 of each base centered round airfields and motor torpedo boat bases, since the striking force of those two arms of the service most effectively punished and weakened the enemy during the periods when further thrusts forward were being planned and organised. As the months went by, however, both islands were left far in the rear zone as the battle moved north. The plantations returned to their habitual peace, broken only by the chatter of birds by day and the noisy quarrelling of flying foxes by night. Before the New Zealanders left Vella Levella, members of 17 Field Regiment, L Section Signals, and 20 Light Aid Detachment of the Ordnance Corps presented 1009 dollars to the Methodist Foreign Mission towards the cost of maintaining a ward for the treatment of native Solomon Islanders in a mission hospital. It was a tribute to the work of faithful native guides.
When command of 8 Brigade reverted to the division on 16 November, Barrowclough, on an island midway through the Solomons, controlled a force the elements of which were scattered from the Treasury Group to New Caledonia, a distance of 1500 miles. Units of 14 Brigade were disposed tactically at sites round the coast of Vella Levella, from which they patrolled the intervening country and maintained their supply line with Divisional Headquarters by using landing barges round the coast. One such journey ended in disaster on 5 December when a captured Japanese barge, operated by the engineers, ran on a reef while transporting a padre and his party to Tambama. Three American aircraft shot it up, killing Corporal J. J. Tod,1 who died of wounds, and Sapper F. L. Knipe.2 Exhaustive inquiries revealed that one of the pilots was afterwards killed in action and another wounded.
Units remained so dispersed until the year's end, when they were withdrawn and concentrated in the brigade area along the coast between Ruravai and Juno River, with 30 Battalion scattered from Mumia to Supato and Malasova, from which companies departed periodically to undertake jungle and landing exercises on Baga Island. Eighth Brigade units remained similarly disposed, though not so widely scattered, on Mono and Stirling Islands, where they stayed until the division was withdrawn from the Solomons.
This clearance of camp areas when hostilities ceased was one of the more urgent tasks as each island was secured, and also a revelation of the New Zealanders' passion for tidying up, even in the jungle. Trees and undergrowth, their overhead concealment no longer necessary, disappeared, and with them went the mud, most of the insects, and the gloom, followed by a gratifying uplift in morale. Associated with this clearance was the engineers' roading programme, always a most comprehensive one since it involved the removal of tracts of forest, the bridging of tidal streams and rivers, as well as the construction of wharves, all of which confirmed Barrowclough's wisdom in asking for three field companies for such a campaign. Such roading was also essential for the speedy distribution of supplies and the linking of defences and services.
As commanding general of the Northern Landing Force, Barrowclough not only commanded 3 Division but was responsible for the administration and tactical disposition of all Allied forces in his area. On Vella Lavella, by 25 October, the total Allied strength numbered 17,000, fluctuating as American units of the Marine Amphibious Corps moved to and from the battlefront on Bougainville after the landing there. By 26 October aircraft stationed on Barakoma, from which air cover for the Treasury landing had operated, were using 27,000 gallons of petrol a day, rising to 30,000 gallons at the end of the month, all of it brought forward from Guadalcanal and other bases in landing craft in 53-gallon drums and manhandled ashore.
Motor torpedo boats, powerful craft which attained a speed of 40 knots, were at this time using 250 drums of petrol each night as they hunted the enemy along his supply lanes between the islands. The record consumption of petrol (or ‘avgas’ as the Americans called it) in one day, reached during the Bougainville landing page 162 operations, was 143,000 gallons. Food supplies to maintain these two island garrisons (that on the Treasuries rose to 8000 with the arrival of construction battalions for the airfield) also arrived by landing craft until the Treasury Group was secured, after which cargo ships were permitted as far forward as Vella Lavella. The first of these, a refrigerated ship, arrived on 31 October with a cargo of fresh foods, including 22,035 lb. of beef, 1400 lb. of lamb, 9113 lb. of potatoes, 310 lb. of celery, 4100 lb. of apples and 2210 lb. of butter, which was speedily distributed to prevent deterioriation in the heat. Five refrigerator units, with a storage space of 65,000 cubic feet, arrived in November and enabled fresh foods to held over long periods. Such was the organisation of supplies throughout the Solomons that for Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day sufficient turkeys arrived in supply ships, rather cynically termed the ‘turkey express’, to provide a most generous ration for all members of these island garrisons. Such fresh foods, however, were necessary for the maintenance of both health and moral in that debilitating climate.
New Zealand soldiers in the Solomons campaign established a record low sickness rate from malaria, though during the planning stage allowances were made for a high percentage of manpower wastage from it. During the operational period, of the 13,784 officers and men who went forward into the zone in which it was prevalent, only 3.19 per cent contracted malaria, many after they left the forward zone. Anti-malarial precautions, coupled with hygiene and sanitation, were one phase of tropical warfare in which vigilance was never relaxed. A ruthless in sistence on obedience of orders concerning these precautions and a high sense of responsibility among individuals combined to keep down the sickness rate to a level previously thought impossible. The American forces in the early days of the campaign, particularly on Guadalcanal, suffered disastrously until a precautionary drill was established.
The division's No. 1 Malaria Control Unit, first commanded by Major N. H. North and later by Major D. McK. Jack, waged ceaseless battle against the mosquito and its breeding haunts. Round all camp sites and unit areas trained personnel carried out a strict routine programme. All damp undergrowth was removed, moist and swampy areas and other breeding places were sprayed with oil—even the ruts of wheel tracks after rain. In the Treasury islands, particularly on Stirling Island, the removal of undergrowth also eliminated a minute insect, the bites of which produced a maddening itch and raised the sickness rate. In actual combat, when nets were inpracticable, the men rubbed exposed parts of the body with repellen oil and each man carried this own supply of page 163 atebrin tablets. The division was also fortunate in having on its medical staff Colonel E. G. Sayers,1 a former medical missionary who had been stationed in the Solomons, who had been transferred from 2 NZEF in the Middle East to be Consultant in Tropical Diseases. The 6th Field Hygiene Section, under Major R. M. Irwin,2 was equally vigilant in preventing disease and combating the spread of malaria and dengue fevers, skin disease, and dysentery. When possible, hygiene personnel were included in the first troops making a beach landing. Their primary duties were to establish emergency latrines and to arrange rubbish dumping areas. Sanitary policing of any newly occupied area or beach-head was most important, as gross fouling could occur in the first hour ashore. The disposal of garbage to prevent the carriage of disease by flies was usually accomplished by dumping it down chutes into the sea, which turned each disposal area into a haunt for fisherman in search of big game, or by burning. More unpleasant was the task of disposing of dead Japanese after an engagement. If this was not solved by the use of a bulldozer, the corpses were dumped into the sea from barges. After the action on Nissan Island, Irwin, a strong swimmer, disposed of seventy dead Japanese by towing them behind him with ropes, two at a time, into deep water when the barge stuck on the coral reef. These tasks, important to the conduct of an army, assumed greater importance in the Solomons, where tropical diseases were rife and hygiene control most essential to the healthy occupation of islands over a period of months or even years.
A considerable amount of experimental work was accomplished by services during the waiting periods, particularly by Signals, whose maintenance and installation work was especially arduous. Electrical storms played tricks with the radio network which linked up the islands, and in the jungle itself moisture affected the efficiency of sets never designed for service in such damp, enclosed country. Many of the difficulties with field sets were overcome when Major P. Barcham, of the Signals Experimental Establishment of Army Headquarters, arrived on Vella Lavella and carried out technical experiments with Burns3 and his officers, from whom he collected information useful for the design of signals equipment in tropical territory.
The construction of motion picture theatres was simplicity itself. Areas of coconut palm and jungle were felled by the engineers and tree trunks arranged in rows as seats, with the screen suspended between two remaining upright trees. Here the audience sat under the stars or in the rain, watching films which gave them relief from a monotonous daily round. Scattered units each had their own 16-millimetre projectors and were rarely without regular film entertainment. Hobbies were encouraged and quite a business developed by enterprising craftsmen, who fashioned bracelets and necklaces and other articles of chunky jewellery from sea shells and sold them to American troops at considerable profit.
Fourteenth Brigade set a precedent by organising an exhibition of handcrafts, later sending a remarkable collection of articles to New Zealand, where it was displayed publicly. There were 294 exhibits and 505 dollars in prize money. Metal and plastic glass from wrecked aeroplanes, shells, nuts, palm and jungle woods were all used with skill and imagination. Similar crafts were encouraged by 8 Brigade, which also promoted yachting and boating on the calm waters of Blanche Harbour. The concert party, directed by Warrant Officer R. Sayers, toured from island to island for months at a time, playing to both New Zealand and American page 165 units on open-air stages and maintaining a standard of entertaintment all the more remarkable because of its resourcefulness.
Unit padres and YMCA officials contributed to the well-being of the men, each according to his ability and personality. The amount of cheer some of these men brewed with their tea could not be measured in gallons, particularly in action. Neither mud nor rain extinguished the primuses of Padres J. W. Parker and G. D. Falloon, who were only two of the division's team which included Padre K. Liggett, the first senior chaplain and an able musician, Padre E. O. Sheild, O. T. Baragwanath, and J. C. Pierce.1 The popularity as a social centre of Padre G. R. Thompson's tent under the palms at divisional Headquarters can be assessed by the 700 cups of tea provided daily for its callers.2 The former residence of Gill's plantation owner, the only European house remaining intact on Vella Lavella, was taken over and made into a rest house presided over by Mr. S. R. Knapp of the YMCA. Anyone passing along the main highway called there for tea and a glance at the newspapers, some of which had been flown from New Zealand a few days previously.
2 Thompson organised a popular recreation centre under the palms of Gill's plantation and called it ‘Te Kaianga o te Kiwi’. He and a band of volunteers cleared a site for two tents, once given by headquarters and the other obtained from a US salvage dump. Tea urns were made from shell cases and dippers from milk-powder tins. an empty petrol drum served as a furnace, with a ten-gallon dixie as a copper. Firing was collected from the jungle. Seats were made from logs and tables from packing cases. Thompson was assisted by Sergeant R. McNaught, as secretary, and a committee representing Divisional HQ, Signals, ASC, D and E Platoon, Field Security Section, Malaria Control Section, Engineers, and 22 Field Ambulance. Tea, milk-powder, and biscuits were supplied by the National Patriotic fund Board. Games were provided, information boards displayed maps, news and intelligence items; ‘quiz’ seassions were arranged for Monday nights and concerts on Wednesdays. Volunteers also laid out a tenaquoit court and the place was made attractive with beds of tropical flowers bordered with sea shells.
On 21 November, on the right flank of th vast Pacific theatre, American forces landed on Tarawa and Makin Islands, in the north of the Gilbert Group, thus beginning the thrust into the fortress islands of the Marshalls. Almost equally distant on the left flank, MacArthur's forces were pressing successfully along the northern coast of New Guinea, where Lae, Salamaua, and Finschafen had fallen, and preparations were advanced for the first move on to the island of New Britain on 26 December. Halsey, thrusting up through the Solomons, was then planning his next move to cut enemy traffic north of Bougainville, establish airfields to cover further advances forward, and end the Solomons campaign.
Far-reaching changes followed Barrowclough's decision, taken on 28 November and executed in December, to retire all officers of more than 41 years of age unless their retention was justified by some special qualification. Many of the officers who returned to New Zealand had been with the force since Fiji days. Goss came up from Guadalcanal and succeeded Row as commander 8 Brigade, which the took over on 4 December. Allan went to 36 battalion as second-in-command and was replaced as GSO 2 by MacArthur from 8 Brigade. Major D. C. Williams was appointed DAAG in succession to Marshall; Reidy took over command of 34 Battalion from Eyre, Major B. H. Pringle succeeded McKenzie-Muirson as commander 36 Battalion, and Major J. F. Moffatt took over 35 Battalion from Seaward, all three of them being promoted. Major H. A. Wernham, 34 Battalion, succeeded Logan as commander of 8 Brigade MMG Company. Major L. E. Pithie replaced Major G. W. Waddell as brigade major 14 Brigade, Bracewell taking over a similar appointment on 8 Brigade staff. Tennent returned to New Zealand and was succeeded by Sayers at 4 New Zealand General Hospital in New Caledonia. Major F. G. Barrowclough was promoted and took command of 22 Field Ambulance from Shirer. These changes and the promotions which followed them gave effect to the commander's desire to revitalise the force, before further action, with younger men, and to exchange officers from the Base page 167 Training Depot in New Caledonia with those who could be rested from the combat areas.
Changes also followed at the Field Maintenance Centre on Guadalcanal when Rear Divisional Headquarters ceased to function on 13 December. Elements of artillery, engineers, medical, and ASC passed to the respective heads of those services and all remaining troops came under command of FMC, now established in an area off Wright's Road. There sufficient buildings had been erected to house the increasing quantities of ordnance supplies and stores required in the forward zone and to accommodate troops going to and returning from the combat areas by surface craft and air.
As in all other areas occupied by units of the division, a roading programme by the engineers vastly improved it, particularly round the Casualty Clearing Station at Point Cruz, where tented wards had given way to more permanent wooden buildings, each one erected in ten days by members of 37 Field Park. The environs of this hospital, where flower gardens had been developed and young palms lined the paths and roadways, became the show place of Guadalcanal. An event of some importance, since they were the first women to reach the forward zone and had a considerable effect on morale, was the arrival of eight New Zealand nursing sisters from 4 New Zealand General Hospital in New Caledonia to join the staff—Charge Sisters Joyce Sexton and R. J. Ward, Sisters D. H. Hoyte, H. B. Foster, M. S. Farland, J. G. Galloway, A. M. McLachlan, and M. G. Gwilliam. Dental services attached to the station included No. 2 Maxillo-Facial Injury Section under Major S. N. Jolly.
Christmas came and with it a week of organised sport by all formations—swimming, wood-chopping (despite the climate), athletics, boating, mechanical horse-racing, and such other entertainment as could be improvised by ingeniously minded regimental committees. Natives on Vella Lavella recovered their magnificently decorated war canoes from hiding places in the jungle and rowed them with joyous vigour in a regatta. The concert party and the divisional band both contributed programmes regardless of the hour, and army cooks vied with each other in producing Christmas Day dinners, whipping up appetites with turkey and special foods which were a change from the dehydrated ingredients of the army ration. Halsey sent a Christmas message, generaously worded in adjectives which a British commander would hesitate to use, which began, ‘To all hands of my South Pacific jungle-smashing, sea-sweeping, sky-blazing crew….’page 168
The scene at Malsi, Mono Island, on Boxing Day 1943 was an interesting comment on the Solomons campaign, when long periods of consolidation and preparation were necessary while airfields and naval bases were constructed and the necessary craft made available for another long leap forward. There, on a beach of creamy coral sand, hundreds of New Zealanders and Americans, restricted by the least possible amount of clothing, and brown as nuts, watched the events of an athletic carnival and sideshows rivalling those of an agricultural show at home, or invested their dollars on a busy totalisator between events. Not a gun or a weapon of war was in sight. High overhead squadrons of aircraft droned in the heavy air, going to and returning from their bombing missions. Fewer than twenty miles away across the water, columns of billowing smoke rose from Japanese airfields and installations on and around the Shortland Islands, indicating where the bombers had found their targets.
On 30 December Barrowclough, on receipt of a signal from Wilkinson, left by air for Guadalcanal to attend a conference on the division's next task, the capture and occupation of the Green Islands Group, only 117 miles from Rabaul, 280 miles north of Vella Lavella, and 530 miles from Guadalcanal.