The Gunners: an intimate record of units of the 3rd New Zealand Divisional Artillery in the Pacific from 1940 until 1945
III — We Begin to Suffer
We Begin to Suffer
For three days we lay at anchor in Noumea Harbour, slipping out silently on 24 August. Then came Efate Island, in the New Hebrides, on 26 August, where we had our first experience of amphibious operations. More impressions—the almost unbearable wait in our quarters, fully equipped, with so little air to breathe; the intense heat so that everything was wet with perspiration; scaling down nets into landing barges; the feeling of being almost grilled by the hot tropical sun before reaching the shade of coconut palms ashore. Then back up the nets, this time more slowly. Not to be forgotten was the evening spent ashore in a coffee plantation; the heavy rain and the mosquitoes. What a horrible nightmare it all seems now! It is so easy to forget the beauty of our anchorage in Vila Harbour with its calm blue waters disturbed only by landing craft hurrying to and from the beach, the brilliance of the tropical vegetation and the whiteness of the coral highways; the delicious drink of cool clear water at a US water point, after a march of some miles; the absurdity of drinking cherry brandy by the glassful.
An incident of our stay here is worth recording. An exercise from the ship involved everyone spending a night ashore. Communications were to be established and emergency rations were to be used. This was to be our first acquaintance with the American C ration which New Zealanders did not find at all palatable. It was simply hash in varying forms. Cases of these rations had been collected from the ASC and an officer was detailed to see that the men were issued with their share. Now this officer knew little about the C ration and, lest anyone should page 42be like Oliver Twist and return to ask for more, he made the unit file past him and, as each man collected his ration, his name was ticked off. Had he but known, his action was entirely unnecessary—no one ever came back for more—never!
Early on the morning of 1 September we sailed out of Vila Harbour and, shortly after losing sight of land, we joined a convoy of four other transports and six destroyers. The next day was memorable, for a 'general alarm' went just before breakfast. Later it was learnt that four torpedoes had been fired from long range at USS Fuller, which was to our rear. At 1100 hours on 3 September, Hunter Liggett anchored off Lunga Beach. Ahead, in the distance, was Cape Esperance, where the Japs, only a few months earlier, had made their last stand. Over our bow, to starboard, lay small Savo Island, the scene of a naval battle when HMAS Canberra and three other cruisers were sunk in a matter of minutes. To our starboard, also, was Florida Island, with Tulagi, now a large American naval base.
Unlike the Americans at that time, the New Zealanders went to the high ground for camp sites, and so we found ourselves on a ridge looking over the water to Florida Island. Fox-holes were an early priority but the ground was hard and the sun was hot. On 13 September came our first Jap air raid. Next morning showed shoulders, then heads, disappearing as fox-holes were deepened and finished. As the moon came to the full so the raids were more frequent. There was the occasion when two Jap bombers were shot down in quick succession by a night fighter. Then came the night of 10-11 October when, just after midnight, two liberty ships were torpedoed by dive bombers off Lunga Point.
As the days went by the heat increased. A temperature of 96 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade was recorded by the air force meteorological section now attached to artillery headquarters. Temperatures registered in the sun were between 120 degrees and 130 degrees Fahrenheit. The meteorological section consisted of four men commanded by Pilot-Officer Fountain. Captain Horrocks and Percy James had left shortly after our arrival to go with the 14th Brigade to Vella Lavella; Lieutenant Owen went with 8th Brigade to Treasury. With the 8th Brigade gone on 26 October, it seemed as if artillery headquarters was going to be left behind. Brigadier Duff was going backwards and forwards to the northern islands. Some other officers had made a trip by page 43air to Vila plantation on Kolorabangara, which had only just been cleared of the enemy. Lieutenant King became our first casualty from malaria. It was becoming obvious to all that the unit was getting restive.
Spirits rose when on 6 November, after leaving behind a small rear party under Captain Crawley, the balance of headquarters embarked for Vella Lavella on an LCI (landing craft— infantry). This was our first acquaintance with these trim little craft. Powered with six Gray diesel motors, they have a speed of some 16 to 20 knots. They can each carry 200 fully equipped troops together with about ten tons of cargo. Vella Lavella was reached early next morning. It was here that we had the most pleasant camp during our time in the Solomons. It was sited on a small promontory beneath the shade of a small coconut grove. The sea was at our very doorstep. As one sat in a tent looking out across the oily waters, there could be seen some 15 miles away the gentle slopes of Kolombangara rising majestically to over 5,000 feet. While we were grateful for the shade afforded by the coconut palms, as the days went by a minor war of nerves was waged with falling coconuts. It seemed worse at night, especially when one was awakened by a coconut striking the tent with a dull thud. Captain Horrocks returned to the unit and brought with him a message which he had intercepted while listening to the Treasury landing. It came from a New York radio station and is reprinted here for historical interest only:—
'Up till now New Zealand's war effort in the Pacific has been confined to air and sea patrol. With landings in Vella Lavella and Mono Island comes the first mention of an amphibious New Zealand division in this theatre of operations. The use of these hard-hitting troops, world famous for their ferocity in battle, is evidence that they are anxious to emulate the splendid example of their brothers in the Middle East.'
On 22 November the rear party arrived, together with Lieutenants Owen and Rogers, who had come down from the Treasury Islands. The latter was to replace Lieutenant King. From now on until Christmas life was routine administration. With their wooden floors, tents began to take on a permanent look. There was the superb layout of 'Whyworry Whare.' For the first time, too, there came into being a tent for hobbies, where knives could be fashioned, where rings and watch straps could be shaped. There was Major Spragg's bird bath made from a large inverted page 44clam shell, the idea conceived and constructed by Dick Ankers, whose artistic eye did full justice to the undertaking. In the evenings there were movies or quiz sessions; once the 'brig' gave an excellent lecture on the North-West Frontier. Some of the discomforts suffered in the tropics made their first appearance, discomforts such as tropical sores and prickly heat. With the coming of December our thoughts turned to Christmas. Some excellent Christmas cards were prepared by Karl Miller and Graham Shepherd. On 19 December the dedication service was held at the island cemetery. How impressive it was in its simplicity! There was the still unfinished native chapel; the US and NZ guards of honour facing one another across the graves; little mounds of white coral edged with blackish earth. Then there was the native choir. New Zealanders on Vella had good reason to remember the help given to them by the natives in finding and driving the Japanese from the island. The natives had expressed a wish to be allowed to care for the cemetery after we had gone. They were here this day dressed in black and white, paying homage to those who had fallen in the cause which they dearly regarded as their own. Theirs was a dignity which we marvelled at as the ceremony proceeded. In particular our eyes fastened on the white crosses where lay our comrades from an ack-ack battery, gunners who had fought to the last to drive off dive bombers from a landing beach. Would that their parents and wives could have seen the tribute paid to them that day! In some small measure they might have found comfort.
Christmas Day 1943 was a day best remembered by its dinner. Here is a copy of the menu:—
Cranberry Sauce and Gravy
Roast Potatoes Green Peas
Boiled Turnips Cremed Potatoes
White Cheese Sauce
Iced Lemon Drink
Candy and Cigarettes
Cafe Noir and Cafe Au Lait
Brig Duff, Major Spragg, Capt Swan, Capt Horrocks Lieut Crawley, Lieut Chrystall, Lieut Owen, Lieut Conlon
WO's and Sergeants
The day was partly spoilt for two gunners who had inadvertently omitted to carry out their picket duties on Christmas Eve. Certainly the festive spirit of Noel was abroad that night, but so was the duty officer. Between Christmas and New Year there were swimming sports, deck tennis competitions, followed by movies and concerts in the evenings. During this time two New Zealand ships, Matai and Tui, were hove-to just off our point. Some of us were lucky enough to get on board. The festive season was well catered for by amateur distillers in the unit. For a few weeks prior to Christmas, fruit, raisins and yeast had been allowed to ferment in large containers. When the fermentation was far enough advanced—indicated usually by the smell—the liquid was poured off and then heated. The vapour this caused was passed through a system of pipes condensing at the other end into what was popularly called 'alcohol.' The addition of grapefruit juice made a reasonably potent! drink known as 'plonk.'
With the New Year came a warning order for further amphibious operations. To plan for this it was necessary to move artillery headquarters back to Guadalcanal. Leaving behind a rear party to bring! equipment and transport, the remainder of headquarters left by air on 13 January. Orders for this rear party to be packed and ready to leave on an LCT (landing craft tanks) by 0900 hours the next day. Emergency rations were to be used on the voyage. Accordingly tents were struck early that morning and everything was ready for the convoy to move off down to the beach when word came that there would be no move before 1630 hours. Then began the meanderings of these unfortunates. Actually, while eating a meagre lunch, advice came that another night would have to be spent ashore. Further rations were allotted on a generous scale by 16 MT Company. A few tarpaulins were so placed as to give shelter for the night. At least that was the idea. That night it rained as it had never done before on Vella. Nothing remained dry and with little sleep the party was in no mood for further frustration. This time, however, orders were final and at 0900 hours the.convoy of some seven fully loaded vehicles boarded an LCT after several tons of ordnance stores and mail had been loaded on deck. This party consisted of an officer and some 22 other ranks, and when it is mentioned that an LCT does not normally carry personnel—in fact has no accommodation for them—then perhaps some little page 46idea can be formed of the discomfort suffered. Bedcots had been retained and where there was room for one then down it went. To give shelter tarpaulins were strung from one vehicle to another. All around was an almost unbearable heat radiating from the iron sides and deck of our small landing craft. The situation seemed ominous.
There were still no orders for sailing. On the contrary the captain, a young ensign of about 21 years, thought everything might have to be unloaded as the vessel might be needed, for a mission in a more forward theatre of operations. This was only obviated by the arrival of another LCT, which was sent forward instead. It was then intimated that there would be no sailing orders until this craft returned. It might take three days. Emergency rations had only been drawn for the normal voyage—two or three days. Happily, an ASC unit was not far away. The officer in charge of the party went ashore and made arrangements for a hot evening meal. On bringing it down to where the LCT had been berthed he found no sign of her, but was told that she had had to pull out in order to go alongside a tanker to refuel. When she would be back no one seemed to know. A small landing craft was then obtained and officer and hot meal raced out from the sheltered anchorage to where the LCT was heaving up and down on the swell between Kolambangara and Vella. Somehow, despite a heavy swell, the meal was served and eaten and, after refuelling, the LCT put back into its normal anchorage. That night it again rained steadily. Monday dawned with more rain and, in the midst of a proper hate session, the officer in charge stated that arrangements had been made for the whole party to be accommodated in a nearby ASC camp. Everyone scrambled ashore only to find that the tents they were to sleep in leaked almost as badly as the tarpaulins. Yet the food was good and washing was possible. There were movies at night, though, and there were some land crabs too—as big as large dinner plates. Three days went by. After the evening meal on Thursday everyone embarked again as the LCT was to join a convoy early in the morning. Yet Friday came and still the craft remained. Shortly after breakfast a small convoy appeared on the horizon and, as it grew in size, activity was noted aboard the LCT. Soon her three Gray diesel motors were started and she joined the convoy.
All that day the hot sun beat down on the metal deck until page 47it was too hot to touch with the naked hand. Slowly the convoy-slipped by Wana Wana Island and Arundel until, as evening approached, there ahead was Rendova, its northern tip rising to over 3,000 feet. On looking up one could see some SO to 60 dive-bombers, their mission fulfilled, returning to Munda airfield. As the small convoy approached the sheltered harbour of Rendova, Munda was clearly visible.
It was now dusk and the planes had landed. The purple tints which these tropical islands take on in the late afternoon were fading. Nearby islands were becoming a blur, save where the brilliant sunset showed them up in sharp relief. As the convoy crept through the entrance the whole scene seemed to spring to life again. There were PT boats preparing for an evening patrol. Several gunboats were moored alongside a large oil tanker made of concrete. In the background, almost lost in its camouflage paint, was a tender for Catalina flying boats. Large landing craft were also noticed. In all there were over 50 vessels and yet a moment earlier no one would have thought it possible. A brief stop was made for refuelling and then out into the night, edging down the narrow waters between New Georgia and Rendova Islands. The next day was again blisteringly hot. During the afternoon it could be seen that,' the convoy was making for the Russell Islands. By the time the narrow harbour was reached it was dark. Lights began to twinkle and shortly the scene bore comparison with any large city. In moving to its anchorage, the convoy passed liberty ships under a blaze of light, unloading as quickly as possible. The world never seems to go to sleep in these parts.
Impressions of the night before led one, the next morning, to look for large rows of warehouses and city streets. But in the light of day there was nothing but the dense jungle growth with here and there row upon row of coconut palms. Roads, huts and tents could be glimpsed through the undergrowth. It was amazing to see large ships berthed so that a hand could almost be stretched out to touch the steep banks. With its deep anchorage well inshore no wonder this island had become such a huge forward base. All that day the party spent ashore. Royalty was never better entertained than our fellows by the Americans. After the movies that evening the convoy left for Guadalcanal, only 60 miles to the south east, reaching there early the next morning, page 48when the officer in charge of the party found he had earned the title of 'Admiral' amongst his friends.