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The New Zealand Dental Services

CHAPTER 28 — Norfolk Island

page 343

Norfolk Island

ABOUT 930 miles from Sydney and 400 miles from New Zealand sits Norfolk Island in the middle of a vast ocean. It is only five miles long and three in breadth, and since its discovery by Captain Cook in 1774 has produced little of importance to the world except a species of pine tree that bears its name. From 1788 to 1853 it was a convict settlement, and then in 1856 it was populated by descendants of the mutineers of the Bounty. At the beginning of the war, apart from the presence of a cable station, the inhabitants, of whom there were about 900, lived a peaceful existence under antiquated conditions in a quiet backwater of civilisation under the administration of the Australian Government. There was no electricity except for individual plants at Government House and a few residences; apart from a few wells and creeks, there was no water except what could be collected from rain; roads were mostly unmetalled and all vehicles needed chains in wet weather. The population was decreasing gradually but surely through emigration.

Suddenly, as a result of the rapid development of the war in the Pacific, this small island was focussed in the spotlight of international strategy. Its geographical position made it an important stepping stone in the air link with the forward war zones. Australian workmen cut swathes through the Norfolk pines and native ferns to make an aerodrome and, late in 1942, New Zealand sent a force of 1500 troops as a garrison. With this force was sent a detachment of the New Zealand Dental Corps, slightly bigger than a section. Captain H. J. Jones1 was the dental officer in charge and he had with him a staff-sergeant as administrative clerk, two orderlies, of whom one was a sergeant, and a dental mechanic who could carry the rank of corporal.

There were certain differences between this undertaking and that of other theatres of war in the Pacific. As a garrison force it was expected that a high state of dental fitness should be maintained but the facilities available on the island more closely resembled those met in the field. The invasion of workmen and troops had

1 Capt H. J. Jones; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 4 Nov 1908; dental surgeon.

page 344 almost trebled the population of the island and they could not be accommodated in existing buildings. Tents were unsatisfactory except in summer and, although huts would almost certainly be built from the abundant timber on the island, the Dental Corps could not anticipate the favourable treatment it actually received in this connection. Nothing electrical could be included in the equipment. The engine had to be worked by foot and the lathe by treadle or hand. Primus stoves were used for heating and petrol lamps for light. Otherwise equipment was standard, viz., the three usual panniers, emergency haversack, two Indian pattern tents and an 18 ft by 12 ft tarpaulin. The original intention to use a 30-cwt truck with portable laboratory fittings was abandoned. It would have been of little use on the poor roads and, in any case, no units had their own transport, this being provided from a general pool under the control of Headquarters.

The detachment arrived on 9 October 1942 to find that the advance party had solved the accommodation problem. Rations and quarters had been provided for it close to the medical unit near the centre of the island. The surgery was on a glassed-in verandah with a southerly aspect and the prosthetic laboratory was in a small room next to it. Both were well lighted and conditions were ideal, while the central situation provided the opportunity to study the whole position and await future developments. Captain Jones had brought his emergency haversack with him and, until the arrival of the main equipment on 13 October, was able to cope with urgent casualties.

Although the delay in the arrival of equipment was not great on this occasion it is reasonable to emphasise the importance of the emergency haversack always being available for the use of the dental officer. If, instead of being made a unit issue, each officer was issued with his own haversack to be carried as part of his personal kit, there would never be an occasion when he was ‘grounded’ for want of equipment. He could be made responsible for its contents, would account for all items used and would replenish it from unit stock. Some idea of the working conditions can be got from the following report dated 1 November 1942:

Equipment and stores arrived safely in a good state of repair. Owing to the climatic conditions (humidity 95% at times) and through conversation with the local dentist, all surplus stores have been put away in lever lid cannisters, of which supplies are ample owing to the consumption of large quantities of service biscuits….

Definite precautions are necessary for the secure packing of any future stores as the ship is unloaded in the roadstead on to lighters, usually in a heavy swell, and then from the lighters on to the wharf, requiring much handling. Wiring and the use of substantial boxes should obviate any loss of stores.

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The port facilities were certainly primitive, consisting in the main of two moles, one at Kingston, the chief town on the southern coast, and one at Cascade Bay on the northern coast. It depended on the weather which mole was used, but they both needed repairing, having been originally constructed by prison labour some 100 years earlier.

The first examination of the troops showed that the dental health of the force was good. Out of 1483 men, all but 262, who were on special duties unloading stores or setting up camp, were examined between 15 and 31 October: 826 were dentally fit and 395 required treatment, mostly fillings.

The number of remodels (97) and repairs to dentures (58) was in excess of what might be expected in a force which had recently arrived from New Zealand, but the explanation was simple. The fault lay with the service biscuits, which were one of the main items in the ration and were so hard that those whose dentures were not completely stable could not eat them, and even those wearing stable dentures broke teeth on them. The only thing to do was to remodel every unstable denture immediately, even if in the normal course this would not have been done for several months, and also to expect a continual succession of repairs. As there were about 100 wearers of acrylic dentures in the force, an urgent demand for this material had to be made on Wellington. In other respects the report was satisfactory. About 67 per cent of the men required no treatment at all and, of the remainder, there was less than one filling per man. Scalings are always numerous but do not necessarily indicate a serious deterioration in the health of the oral tissues. Rather, they emphasise the appreciation of the dental officer of the need for eternal vigilance if the seed of ulceromembranous stomatitis, the potential saboteur of whole armies, is to be deprived of the soil in which to flourish.

The medical detachment continued to house the Corps for some months as the dental hut was not ready until 1 July 1943. Patients came from outlying companies in their own transport. The temporary quarters took on a compact and businesslike appearance, being painted inside by enthusiasts in the detachment with a cream body paint with blue facings. Everybody was happy in a warm climate with plenty of work, daily physical training, a weekly route march of about ten miles and organised compulsory sport to keep them fit.

The Australian workmen had brought with them an American medical and dental section consisting of two medical officers and one dental officer. The equipment included a complete field dental pannier very similar in its contents to the New Zealand surgical pannier except that the folding chair was not carried separately but was packed into the pannier itself. As the American sections were due to leave when the aerodrome construction was finished, the ‘N’

page 346

Force medical detachment was anxious to take over all their stores but this did not materialise, at least as far as the dental section was concerned.

During December 1942, a squadron of the RNZAF arrived numbering 143 and examination and treatment of these men were immediately begun. Their dental condition was surprisingly good, however, and there was little to do for them. At the same time the local force, the Norfolk Island infantry detachment, became attached to ‘N’ Force as a pioneer unit, becoming the responsibility of the NZDC for dental treatment. No record can be found of the result of the initial examination of this detachment but, judging from the itemised summaries of work done for them from time to time, their dental condition was no better than that of our own men, if anything slightly worse.

In March 1943 a re-examination of the whole force was undertaken, revealing an even better state of dental health than originally.

First Examination Second Examination
Dentally fit 67 per cent 74 per cent
Fillings per man 1 ½
Scalings 147 100
Remodels 97 41
Repairs 58 31

Extractions were negligible and new dentures too few to be taken into account. Apparently the biscuits were still taking their toll for the number of remodels and repairs, though less, was still high. The new examination was just completed when sudden movement orders were received. There was to be a general relief of units, including the dental detachment. There was no time to do other than urgent work such as extractions, fillings and repairs to dentures. Nevertheless the force left the island in a satisfactory dental condition.

A new dental detachment took over at the beginning of April 1943. It was still located with the medical section under good conditions, as reported by the incoming dental officer, Captain A. E.


I would like to place on record the very excellent work done by the previous section, for not only were their efforts responsible for this section operating in the shortest time possible but also they did much to improve the conditions under which we are living. Everywhere I have been I have been greatly impressed by the high opinion held of the Corps.

On 24 May a start was made on building the dental hut. Until its completion on 1 July, the dental section continued to work at the ‘Burnt Pine Hospital’. Competitive sport, especially baseball, claimed the Corps as ardent enthusiasts, so much so that the DDS

1 Capt A. E. Hope; Gisborne; born Dargaville, 26 Apr 1897; dental surgeon.

page 347 had to place certain restrictions on his dental officers. The decision must have cost him considerable thought as his enthusiasm for physical fitness in the Corps was well known. He sent out the following instruction to all dental officers in New Zealand and to the dental officer on Norfolk Island:

Owing to the prevalence of physical injuries entailing lengthy absence of dental officers from duty, it is regretted that their participation in organised games such as football, hockey etc., must cease.

In May a further responsibility was thrown on the Corps. The local dentist died and the Administrator asked Captain Hope to provide emergency treatment for the people until a dentist could be obtained from Australia. The Force Commander agreed to allow Captain Hope to do this so long as the work was confined to the barest limits and the Administrator got materials from New Zealand for the purpose. It was fortunate that this proviso was made as the condition of the mouths of the children attending the public school revealed an alarming state of affairs, all the pupils suffering from dental disease in some form. These conditions were past the stage when emergency treatment meant much more than enforced mutilation of young dentitions by wholesale extraction of teeth. The dental officer, without the time himself to institute bold conservative measures, could do nothing more than report on the true position as he found it. For his own protection it was essential that he should let the Administrator know the facts, also that he could not even attempt to remedy the position. He completed the work that the local dentist had on hand at the time of his death and made himself responsible for any emergencies among the civilian population. Beyond that he could not go without prejudicing his duties to the armed forces.

From the middle of 1943 there were continual reductions in the size of the force. Instead of easing the burden on the dental officer, these reductions made more work as they entailed bursts of immense effort to ensure that no man returned to New Zealand unless dentally fit.

On 8 December 1943 the main body of the garrison force consisting of 23 officers and 455 other ranks left for New Zealand. The dental officer and one orderly were left to look after 200 Air Force, 200 Army and 38 of the Norfolk Island infantry detachment. It was proposed to pass the command of the island from Army to Air Force as soon as certain construction work was completed. This was expected about the end of December, when all but sixty of the Army would return to New Zealand, where the manpower position was acute. This was considered a convenient time to relieve the dental page 348 officer and his orderly, so on 29 December Captain R. R. Murray1 arrived by air. He celebrated his arrival by going straight to hospital with laryngitis but fortunately the rear party, including Captain Hope and his orderly, did not return to New Zealand till 14 February 1944.

Meanwhile Captain Murray and his two orderlies had moved into the dental hut with their quarters close by in the RNZAF ‘Burnt Pine’ hospital. Facilities were better than they had expected, thanks to the outgoing detachment which had improvised numerous improvements. Even during the days of army occupation transport was always difficult to get but now the position was infinitely worse. There was no public transport system of any sort and the sense of isolation became very real. Even Kingston by its inaccessibility conjured up visions of the fleshpots of Egypt. Under these conditions, with not enough work to keep the section fully occupied, it was difficult to maintain morale. Tennis, when the courts were not too dry, table tennis, reading and even poultry-keeping helped, but Captain Murray was worried and suggested two alternatives. One, that a dental officer with the help of a WAAF clerk orderly would be ample for all the work, and the other, that the section be part-time only and be made mobile for tours of duty elsewhere. Every opportunity of finding work was grasped, such as the visit of an American ship with United States Navy personnel aboard, and the obligations to the civilian population of the island became a pleasure rather than a burden.

In June 1944 it was decided to withdraw the section from the island, placing future responsibility with the dental section at Whenuapai Air Station in New Zealand. The dental hut was left fully equipped with all stores and equipment protected from rats and damp and was locked and reserved for the use of the Dental Corps only. The policy was that at regular intervals the dental officer at Whenuapai would visit the island, get the key from the Station Adjutant, and find a fully equipped surgery at his disposal.

All on the island were dentally fit before the section left at the beginning of July. Each new draft from New Zealand was made dentally fit before embarkation and it was not found necessary to call on the services of the Whenuapai dental section until the end of November. Then a dental officer and sergeant went over for a month. They found the position extraordinarily good. Out of a total of 304 men, 146 needed treatment, viz., 184 fillings, 5 extractions, 84 scalings, 2 full upper or full lower dentures and 11 repairs. The dentures were both cases of men who had lost those they had, the extractions were of teeth erupting under artificial dentures and

1 Capt R. R. Murray; Auckland; born Timaru, 6 May 1907; dental surgeon.

page 349 the scalings were due to faulty care of the mouths and an ignorance of methods of oral hygiene. Before leaving the island the dental officer gave the Commanding Officer a certificate that all his men were dentally fit.

In June 1945 the same dental officer visited the island for a month and then in November that year a dental officer with orderly and mechanic, who were being repatriated from Espiritu Santo, were diverted to the island for a month. This system worked well until March 1946, when all equipment was returned to New Zealand. Further arrangements for the dental treatment of RNZAF troops on the island are outside the scope of this history.