The Gunners: an intimate record of units of the 3rd New Zealand Divisional Artillery in the Pacific from 1940 until 1945
Chapter Three — 17th Field Regiment
17th Field Regiment
Our parent units, 35 and 37 Batteries, and the medium artillery units of Fiji story have told their tales, and now give place to us. On 2 September 1942 by divisional instruction they bore a lusty child and called it 17 Field Regiment, whose birth saw their passing. They gave us all they had and were no more. They gave us their officers and men and their accounting headaches too, but above all they gave us the ability to be with complete imperturbability chivvied around thousands of miles of sea, sunshine and sunless jungle, to dig and refill hundreds of futile holes in always impervious materials. We never lost, nor ever wanted to lose, our Fiji spirit of humorous resignation.
At first we had only our two batteries—35 commanded by Major N. W. M. Hawkins, and 37 by Captain D. O. Watson, the third battery being a territorial one to join us later. Major W. A. Bryden was our regimental second-in-command, and on 3 September our new CO arrived, Lieutenant-Colonel H. W. D. Blake, who had already had operational service in the Middle East. Twenty LAD joined us from the old 8th Brigade and E section signals came from territorials and both were with us throughout our life. We swore at and by them and would have no other.
Guns and supplies crowd a landing craft which is on its way to Matusuroto on 26th September, 1943. Artillery supplies were ferried round the coast of Vella Lavella
Major L. J. Fahey, commander of 12 Battery, 17th Field Regiment observing from a native canoe off Vella Lavella.
Officers of headquarters 17th Field Regiment in the jungle on Nissan Island
A panorama of Blanche Harbour, Treasury Islands, from an artillery observation post on Mono Island. Below:The command post of 52 Battery on Stirling Island A 37 Battery gun team of the 17th Field Regiment on Nissan Island. Manhandling a 25-pounder into position in the jungle. This was really lough work for men of 38th Field Regiment, some of whom are shown here
A 37-Battery gun team of the 17th Field Reginment on Nissan Island. Officers of Regimental Headquarters, 29th Light: Anti-aircraft Regiment, outside their quarters
Papakura was obviously too comfortable for us to be left there long. Sure enough, early in October, we were warned for the Waikato. But before we went there, we said farewell to the Independent Troop which marched out under command of Captain C. S. Dickson and departed for Norfolk Island. We saw them no more for about six months until they rejoined us in New Caledonia.
On 10 October we moved to Tirau in the Waikato into the centre of the most hospitable community one could ever wish to find. For nearly three months they opened their homes and their hearts to us, and appeared to suffer our fools gladly. We all have kindly memories of the Waikato and little Tirau, small in size but large in heart. On 15 October marched in from Grey-town our third battery—12 Battery under command of Major R. V. M. Wylde-Browne. Early in November came a large reinforcement draft to replace the Independent Troop. We were now: complete but suffering badly from growing pains, and the inevitable shaking-down process. An advanced party had left us at the end of October, consisting of Major Bryden, Lieutenant Murdoch and eight NCOs, so we knew our stay in New Zealand was not likely to be long. This knowledge helped to cure the growing pains. The external warmth from 'mine host's' sulphur baths and the internal warmth from his wares were good for most troubles.
From 1 to 7 December we conducted our calibration shooting near Lake Rerewhakaitu under the shadow of Mount Tarawera. Tarawera showed commendable restraint and didn't boil in anger, but among those present it was the only one that didn't. From time to time many lofty scones were done a rich nut-brown. Accommodation at the calibration range was limited, as also was transport, and so we were the victims of an ingenious shuttle system of batteries to and fro between Rerewhakaitu and Tirau. One felt rather like a commercial traveller and never knew from one night to the next where would be one's bed or who one's sleeping partner. After the completion of calibration we had about ten days of comparative peace, interrupted only by the usual training, maintenance, small-arms and the inevitable lecture on military law and discipline. On 18 December we started to pack, and how we packed for the next four days, afterwards page 58loading on to goods trains for two days. On Christmas Day, of all days, with that special perversity of the army we had to dismantle our cookhouses and hand in blankets just to help the festive spirit. But Tirau hospitality came to light again, and between their open doors and the superhuman efforts of our own cooks we still had our Christmas dinner and a modest amount of celebration on the modicum of ale available.
On 27 December 1942 we embarked at Auckland on the American transport West Point, which sailed on 29 December so-full of troops that Mr. Plimsoll must have looked vainly for his line. One had to take one's turn for everything—even to taking a deep breath. But that didn't matter much—there were so many of us down below it was better not to breathe too deeply anyway. On the day we sailed we all carried out an abandon ship drill—in which a good time was had by all. It was nice to think of sardines again after years of rationing. The next day was perfect weather and the sea calm, which was fortunate, for in that ship there was no chance of giving a wide berth to a queasy stomach. On 31 December we had another abandon ship drill, which was a definite improvement. In fact if a submarine had given us 24 hours' notice in writing of attack, we could have abandoned ship with credit to all concerned.
And so dawned the fateful year 1943, with us moving into Noumea Harbour, threading our majestic way with caution through a large slice of the world's assorted shipping tugging impatiently at its chains. Next day half of us transhipped to the Weltevreden and sailed up the west coast of New Caledonia to the port of Nepoui, a magic name conveying in anticipation many pipe-dreams of romantic palms and tropic beauty, but in realisation a little dock with big demands for incessant dock fatigues. A small and tricky reef-entrance and a hairpin-bend channel brought us to it, but we were to come to it many times in the next few months over roads of red iron dust that permeated everywhere.
Deer were reputed to be plentiful in the immediate surroundings, but though international deer-stalking partners made the welkin ring with fusillades of shots, we have no memories of succulent Necal venison, so can only conclude their shots were ill directed. Training began almost at once in spite of dock unloading parties, camp construction and the fact that very little of our guns, transport and equipment had yet appeared since we parted from it at Tirau. United States instructors were very helpful. They taught us how to play baseball and they instructed us how to prepare, disguise and use their rations, but they couldn't teach us to like Vienna sausage or Spam—tolerate, yes, because we had to or starve, but like it, never.
At this time in the Division we were trying to satisfy the field artillery needs of the two brigades—8 and 14, for we were then the division's only field regiment, and so it was inevitable that we would have to spread ourselves somewhat. Surrounded as we were by niaouli scrub, thoughts naturally turned to the delights that must await the earnest seeker in the country's only town, Noumea. And so the announcement on 4 February of Noumea leave in small parties by rotation was hailed with glee, premature of course, for it never did rotate far enough for many of us to get there. Anyway even if it had, what good would it have done us, for our school-boy French somehow hadn't included the conversational gambits and approaches necessary to convey our particular desires (stockings, of course, to send home).
On 8 February the motor-transport party joined us from New Zealand and we were once again complete. True, 35 Battery was page 6180 miles north of regimental headquarters, and a few days later 37 Battery moved about 70 miles south to Bouloupari but still we were all on the same island. The unfortunate 12 Battery was now cursed with a larger share of Nepoui dock fatigues and grew to detest the little port. The 37 Battery camped by the Ouameni River, a stream which joined them in their camp on one occasion and satisfactorily accounted for a number of equipment losses. From this camp they functioned in training with 8 Brigade apparently to their mutual satisfaction. In this area later in the month of February they had their first training shoot which the war diary records was later the subject of a review and criticism by the CRA and CO. Perhaps 'object' would have been a better word than 'subject.' The 35 Battery shot at Ouaco where they lived and trained with 14 Brigade and 12 Battery shot at Mueo, both being accorded the same review and criticism as 37 Battery.
The end of February saw Routine Orders fretting about the wearing of identity discs, those little trinkets which later became a routine with us; without them one felt naked though fully clothed, and with them one felt fully clothed though naked. But here the serpent entered Eden. Women arrived in the island— nurses and WAACs—and when in sight of roads or public places bathers had to be decorously attired in reasonably modest attire. Also at this time authority found it necessary to utter a warning about the sanctity of animal life. The desire for fresh meat in preference to Spam had led to a high mortality rate amongst the local fauna and bird life, and this had to be discouraged, although the writer still has memories of seven turkeys shot by a picket in self-defence. In February, Captain J. H. Murdoch replaced as Adjutant Captain R. E. Williams, who became a troop commander with 35 Battery.
March ushered in the rains. Rivers reacted immediately, thus making travelling and training difficult and unpleasant, and maintenance work heavy on all transport. The end of the month saw the opening of the 14th Brigade roadhouse at Taom, an excellent innovation for an area with so little civilization. It did not supply the amenities popularly attributed to many American road houses, but it did supply many a real want. It also saw the organisation of useful unit concert parties, and for ingenuity and genuine entertainment value in the regiment 37 Battery concert party set a magnificent standard. April brought more settled weather and we set about teaching all our non-swimmers how to swim, or at page 62least to flounder along for 30 yards. All batteries had further training in this month also, and the review was a little kinder so perhaps the performance had improved. On 11 April the second-in-command, Major Bryden, left for New Zealand to command a new field regiment which was being formed for service with the division. His place was taken by Major J. G. Warrington, from 33 Heavy Regiment. A few days later the command of 37 Battery was taken over by Major L. D. Lovelock from Major D. O. Watson, who was joining the new field regiment in New Zealand.
The end of April saw us preparing for and carrying out an exercise crossing the Pouembout River—a river so shallow that the exercise had to be timed for full tide so that we would have to bridge and boat the river, and not fool everyone by wading. The weather was not co-operative. One's memories are largely of having to winch ammunition trucks through seas of mud, while frenzied jeeps entangled themselves in our phone wire and steadily towed it away. One didn't mind the lost wire so much, but it was a little disquieting, while talking quietly to higher authority, to have the phone wrenched out of one's hand and chase it vainly while higher authority's voice sounded more and more aggravated whenever one got near enough to the telephone to hear it. The field where we were in position looked next morning like the cross-roads of the world, for every bogged truck had sought out a new and harder track for itself.
In May another roadhouse was opened in the divisional area at Moindah and the divisional band went on tour for our entertainment. The Kiwi Concert Party also gave us excellent fare of varied sort and open-air cinema shows became more readily available. The 37 Battery staged its own concert party performance with home-made instruments, lighting effects, and considerable choreography and balletomania, all inspired by Captain J. H. Hamilton and a band of enthusiastic stalwarts. The battery also found time to take part in the Tonta exercise, a feature of which was the ferrying by night of the entire battery over the Tontouta River—no mean stream. Later in the month the engineers demonstrated their powers by towing sledges carrying guns and ammunition with tractors through mangrove swamps, scrub and up steep gradients. This gave us valuable experience and much gun maintenance.
Dengue fever ushered in the month of June 1943. Now page 63dengue fever is one of those recurrent troubles of tropical civilisation which one could well do without. Spread by the busy little mosquito, it is calculated to reduce the phlegmatic to salt tears of the bluest melancholy and the most virile to a shambling wreck. Being so far from civilisation and crowded conditions it didn't affect us much, nor were we sorry. About this time we became more and more conscious of one of the more evil forms of insect life that shared our passing moments. The black widow spider, so called because after mating the female regularly eats her unresisting spouse, is a jet-black creature with a scarlet splash on its back. It nests in the most awkward places in army camps, and can bite with a fierce intensity which can have fatal results if the victim is not in good health. The insect life of the island was considerable, ranging from the beauty of the emerald blue butterfly to the harmless ugliness of the largest spiders we ever saw alive. A cave on the island, high in the mountains, was carpeted deep in a deposit, dropped through countless ages by myriads of bats that hung from the roof, squeaking and chittering in the light of our torches, then taking off in a thousand squadrons that flew all about us. With memories of Dracula and Vampires we emerged into the grateful sunlight. We say nothing of mosquitoes here; we said so much to them and of them that our vocabulary is exhausted.
June produced a divisional exercise in the Moindou area with the usual accompaniments of bad weather, blocked roads, bogged trucks and lost tempers. In this month we also lost something else more important—we lost 'Holy Joe' Ward, our padre with the Irish face, the nose and ears that bespoke a boxing past, but an understanding heart and lots of that real Christianity which knows no denominational barrier. He went to the anti-tankers and we missed his cheery company. July was to bring the new field regiment to New Caledonia, so June had us preparing to concentrate the regiment in the Taom area in the north. About this time the war diary records torrential rain in the Nepoui area. On 21 June regimental headquarters and 12 Battery moved to Toam, in time to enjoy the first race meeting of the 14th Brigade Northern Racing Club—a magnificent show with all the trimmings of stands, lawn, birdcage, saddling paddock and tote, and real horses of doubtful vintage and variable speed. The club had its second and last meeting a month later. By now, no doubt, the course and its improvements have returned to the scrub, but the page 64club served its purpose of providing an occasional bright patch in the drab pattern of garrison duty and training. July gave the 35 Battery a trip to Noumea where for a fortnight the whole battery participated in landing and amphibious exercises on and off the ill-fated John Penn, soon to be sunk by Jap air action at Guadalcanal. This amphibious training was our first taste of what we were scheduled to carry out soon in the Solomons— amphibious operations against the Japanese.
On 17 July 37 Battery moved north and joined the rest of us at Taom, and for the first time since leaving far-off Tirau the regiment was all together again within a small area. Calibration shooting and our first real regimental live shell practice carried us over with a bang into August. The news of our impending move to operations brought pouring in all the equipment we had had on outstanding; indent for many months. This nearly took that happy smile from the faces of the regimental quarter-master. Captain R. E. Ham, and his RQM, Warrant-Officer McDonald. Our RSM. Les. Matheson. ex-Middle East and a tower of strength to the regiment in many ways throughout its whole life, proved his worth daily in this time of hurry and haste. The 12 Battery had the misfortune to lose to hospital its commander, Major Wylde-Browne. His place was taken by Major L. J. Fahey. Equipment and reinforcements poured in apace, and truck-loads of packed stores poured out even faster to Noumea, our port of embarkation. On 13 August 12 Battery left for Noumea where, on the following day, it embarked on the President Hayes., The next day saw 35 Battery and half regimental headquarters on the President Jackson, and on 16 August we were all afloat when 37 Battery and the remainder of regimental headquarters were aboard the President Adams. These three sister ships were clean and excellently-run troopships, and we liked them. They had been in every amphibious American operation to date and knew their drill.
For two days we carried out landing exercises from them in Noumea Harbour and then set sail in the afternoon of 18 August 1943 en route for New Zealand's first operational participation in the Pacific War.
The next day we had our first atebrin parade and studied with interest the bitter little yellow pellets, soon to become a regular part of our daily life, half each day and a whole one for Sunday. On 20 August we anchored in Vila Harbour, Efate, in page 65the New Hebrides, the traditional tropical island of the storybooks. There it all was—the white beach, the rolling surf, the coconut palms, the green shallowing waters, and the three beautiful ships swinging gently at anchor in the moist warmth. Furnished with peacetime civilisation trimmings of iced drinks, electric fans, and scurrying stewards, it would have been easy to take. But within the three ships all was bustle of conference and orders and activity, and for the next four days we were up and down the nets on the ship's sides, landing and re-embarking and doing all those things that go to make an amphibious soldier into what Kipling calls
A kind of a giddy harumfrodite,
Soldier and sailor too.
Now all this climbing up and down nets looks easy in pictures and a 35-foot ship's side a mere bagatelle, but from the barge, looking upwards, the far-off promenade deck seems as far away as the flag that tops the Empire State Building. Equipment, weighing about 40 lbs, grows heavier with each look at the towering eminence. There is nothing else for it but to climb, and the sigh of relief as one clambers over the rail is frank and unashamed. Hands get sweaty and hot and it is easy to slip, as did our second-in-command almost from the rail of the President Adams. No fairy himself, and weighed down with equipment, he entered the water with a kind of involuntary back dive. Two American sailors from the barge joined him there to see if they could assist, but one in his hurry forgot to remove his raincoat and helmet, and after uttering a word or two of comfort, had to look to his own safety. The other, a pint-size but great in heart, was so small that the major could have submerged him with ease. They chatted amicably together in aquatic international amity and a shower of detachable life-saving aids from the ship, until a barge pulled alongside, and the major came aboard again for the second time that day. To sea at dawn on 25 August and northwards through glassy tropic seas, to anchor off Point Cruz and the mouth of the notorious Matanikau River at Guadalcanal on 27 August. Here the New Zealanders surprised and delighted the United States Navy by completely unloading the ships in seven hours—no mean feat using barges and in the distressing heat of Guadalcanal. Quite important too, for air attack on shipping here was still an occasional feature. Only three weeks previously the John Penn and others had been sunk right there in page 66Iron-bottom Bay, the graveyard of 97 good allied ships, including Australia's cruiser Canberra and many good American ships.
Our first day on Guadalcanal may not have been the hottest we recorded but it seemed to be. The heat on the coast was just shimmering" and dancing among the shell-scarred trunks of what had been trees before the war started there a year previously. Camp construction brought with it many grisly discoveries, to which one gradually became inured, together with all the attendant smells of a one-time battle area. We were camped hard by the beach. Sleep was easy with calm, waters lapping only a few feet away. Camp construction always ended with an afternoon swim and clean up. Our regimental headquarters handyman, ever an enthusiast, had secreted some red and blue paint from our truck signs. After erecting our patent latrines, he painted them in artillery colours, the seats being a tasteful blue. Now heat does not always dry paint, and so the CO and the brigadier looked slightly zoological as they strolled nudely down to the sea that afternoon, innocently unaware of their blue bases. The CO, a retiring type, removed his paint himself with some acrobatics and a system of mirrors, but the brigadier, a more rugged type, unashamedly had it removed for him by a batman.
September brought with it the rigid enforcement of all methods of malarial discipline and control, discipline which earned our gratitude later when so few of us in the division suffered malaria, that recurrent devastating fever so feared in tropical warfare. It had taken a heavy toll of the American marines in their early months on Guadalcanal. We were learning and learning fast. We saw planes returning to Henderson Field from raids further north and crashing in the sea; we saw Jap planes shot down in night raids; we dug fox-holes with more zeal and fervour than ever before; we saw and heard an ammunition and bomb dump go up in a day-long fire and explosion; we had long marches through old battle areas and learned types of jungle country and defences likely to be encountered. We built OPs and conducted 'jungle shoots' with sound ranging. It had to be by sound for one could not see far in jungle, and so the secret was to get as close to the target as possible and bring fire down close to oneself—a slightly ticklish procedure, but effective if one survived. An impressive memory was a talk-to all ranks by the Rev. Walter Baddeley, DSO, MC, Bishop of Melanesia, on the history and customs of the Solomons Group. The night was page 67calm, warm and starlit and, as we listened to the quiet voice of this missionary, it was difficult! to realise that this man, a battalion commander in the 1914-1918 war, had chosen to spend his life with these people and had remained with them throughout the Japanese occupation.
On 13 September the advanced party left for Vella Lavella, and with it went Major Warrington. Expectation became certainty—operations were ahead of us immediately on Vella. After the departure of the advanced party we went through the now familiar packing routine, the while we completed our jungle exercises in the foothills leading to Mount Austin. The routine is an old one and rather dull in retrospect, except for the exciting night when a Yank night-fighter shot down two Jap marauders in flames in quick succession. So we shall follow the fortunes of the advanced party. With the usual fate of such parties this one was split in two by the usual magnificent 'planning.' The artillery officers duly travelled on one ship well in advance, but the remainder, with the advanced equipment, arrived after the main body. But the officer party had quite an exciting time— landing at Munda (not long captured and at that time the most forward allied airfield) for one day and spending the waiting hours by inspecting the airfield with its fringe of crashed Jap planes. While there an American plane, limping in from a dogfight, crashed with the unconscious pilot fallen forward on his trigger buttons. The war became real—for the first time we were shot at by our allies—albeit unconsciously. We left the field—it wasn't our war anyway. The whole thing was getting too international for comfort. We appeared to be an unexpected problem to General Griswold's 14th Corps headquarters, but the problem was solved by sending us up to Vella by PT boat at midnight—a really thrilling experience. As we left Munda and proceeded by Higgins boat to the PT base at Rendova, the Nip bombers arrived and, caught in the searchlights, took violent evasive action. Every doughboy for miles around poured his heart and his tracer into the sky. It was a gorgeous send-off from Munda, which we never saw again. Three PT boats took our party from Rendova to Vella. In brilliant moonlight, with only the slightest lift in the glistening seas, we left a creaming zig-zag in our 40-knot wake. Words cannot recapture the wonder of it all. At our destination these powerful craft whispered in silently off Biloa, where a Higgins boat took us inshore to spend the remaining hours of page 68night nipping in and out of fox-holes while the anti-aircraft guns above crashed and lit the area with recurrent flashes as they tried to deter the Jap from his insistent attempts to bomb the radar only one hundred yards away. Such was Biloa in its infancy. The Americans were holding a section of the island while the Japs held the rest, and our allies were constructing a fighter field, daily repairing the previous night's bomb damage.
The next day, 15 September, the advanced party went north along the coast by Higgins boat, being gently strafed by Jap fighters en route. The fighters were pushed off by AA fire, for which we were profoundly grateful. As field gunners we began to take a more kindly interest in our previously slightly pitied AA brethren. The American bargee headed out into the open blue, and when urged to head for the shore talked about wrecking his boat on the reef. Finally, he yielded to our arguments and put us ashore, where we stayed under cover until our friends the enemy departed. Then, proceeding warily up the coast, we were landed at Marivari as guests of a small American reconnaissance unit, whose hospitality knew no bounds. Nothing was too much trouble for them. Having heard of the idiosyncracies of New Zealanders, they almost drowned us in tea whenever we returned to their camp. They were a grand crowd, and belonged to the 25th American Division who we were to grow to like and respect. With their assistance, transport and tea we reconnoitred and pegged out our claims to bivouac and camp sites for our units soon to arrive.
Meantime, back in Guadalcanal, jungle shooting and packing were completed. Regimental Headquarters, 12 Battery and 35 Battery embarked on 16 September at Kukum and Kukumbona beaches and sailed on 17 September for Vella Lavella, leaving 37 Battery, now under command Major R. G. Bannister, to follow later. En route to Vella they voted in the 1943 New Zealand Parliamentary elections. The unfortunate advanced party was disfranchised, as all the voting papers went back on the ships which unloaded and got out as rapidly as possible because of air attack. American fighter cover drove off an incipient attack from the landing beaches, downing two Jap planes. Vella Lavella had no real roads, only jungle tracks where the peaceful native strode. Within a few hours of the 14th Brigade's arrival artillery quads were in demand everywhere, rescuing bogged trucks laden with unit equipment. Jungle life commenced in earnest, for Vella, page 69though not a large land mass, was genuine jungle and units had to carve their camps from a solid wall of vegetation. Fox-holes were a first consideration, for here we were north of all allied air fields and yellow bombing fingers reached nightly for the partly built airstrip and the naval small-boat base being prepared at Biloa. Nights of bounding in and out of fox-holes soon taught the cunning ones to dig their fox-holes inside their tents and put their camp-stretchers right down in them. Only a direct hit could then disturb the hole-dweller, and a direct hit would probably end his worries finally anyway. Vella had a real Solomons climate—seldom a day when rain did not fall, rain that rose again in sticky humid heat. It was all right on the beaches and open plantation areas where the breezes from the Kula Gulf fanned off the mosquitoes, but in the damp jungle shades the anopheles mosquito welcomed our arrival. In readiness for the operations to begin in a few days we doubled our atebrin dosage. Anti-malarial discipline was rigidly enforced and willingly obeyed. Its only breaches were inadvertent.
On 20 September conferences were held to detail our part in the operations. A composite force of 600 to 800 Japanese was still holding areas in the north and west of the island, areas that were required for the establishment of radar stations to give early warning of any Jap approach from Bougainville. The 14th Brigade was to eliminate the Jap from Vella Lavella and Brigadier Potter, undertook to do this in a fortnight from the opening round. The 12 Battery was to fight with 35 Battalion and 35 Battery with 37 Battalion. RHQ was to co-operate the work of both batteries and provide the necessary liaison and technical assistance at Brigade Headquarters. Our first issue of American green herringbone jungle suit and cap was made on 21 September and a curious crew we looked, but it was reasonably serviceable and far less obvious than our khaki garb. The general scheme of operations was for the combat teams to proceed by barge around the island, landing at various bays en route and patrolling until they encountered Jap opposition. Then they were to withdraw to the last safe bay, establish themselves there and work forward, eliminating opposition until the Japanese were well enclosed in the two jaws of the trap. These tactics were very successful. On 22 September the first parties left, 12 Battery party for Mundi Mundi, and 35 Battery for Paraso Bay. Further parties left by barge daily, taking guns, ammunition and all the page 70impediments with which artillery always moves. They landed in various places and established themselves. Those few words sound simple but will remind us all of hours of back-breaking toil, clearing arcs of fire, digging and building gun-pits, digging interminable fox-holes, sweating and learning. Meantime 37 Battery sailed from Guadalcanal on 24 September. It was an uneventful trip, made eventful on arrival by Jap marauder planes which attacked the landing ships at their most vulnerable moments, when they were ashore and emptying. Some planes met their proper fate, but so did one LST, which was bombed and burned out. The death roll included both Americans and New Zealanders. Bombing and ground-strafing of beaches brought regimental working parties under hostile fire, which they suffered with profanity but no particular liking. All 37 Battery were eventually got ashore and into their camp area. They were a little displeased to find that they were only in reserve for the Vella operations but were cheered by the prospect of a later show at Gizo. The regimental commander, Lieutenant-Colonel H. W. D. Blake, who had been ill since before leaving New Caledonia but had been hoping to improve, was at this stage finally refused medical permission to go forward to command the artillery operations. This was a disappointment to him as, after operational service in the Middle East, he had been in command of the regiment from its birth. He had seen it through all its training and now, on the eve of operations, he had to give place to the second-in-command, Major Warrington who, on 26 September, went forward with a small headquarters consisting of the adjutant, Captain Murdoch, and two other ranks, Gunners Houchen and Palmer, to Matu Soroto Bay. Here they set up their headquarters on a narrow neck of land in an old coconut plantation near Brigade Headquarters, and about 50 yards from 12 Battery guns. There was not room to get further away, which was regrettable, as the target seemed all too attractive. Patrols of 35 Battalion had located part of the main body of Japanese at Tim-bala Bay and Umomo Island. Having done so they established themselves 'one back' at Pakoi Bay and maintained contact ready for the match to open. The 37 Battalion was still moving from the east round the north end of the island, and had not yet encountered the main body of the Japanese on the northern end of the pincer movement. However they had encountered a large page 71barge, taken possession of it and slain its owners after a short but bloody foray.
On 27 September preparations were completed for opening the match on the next day. This is a laconic description of a day of hard work and feverish activity—feverish because we were new to this fighting in earnest—knew what was going to happen but didn't quite know how we would like it. And from this point for some days it really becomes the story of 12 Battery, for regimental headquarters was more co-ordinating liaison than anything else. On 28 September at 0630 hours the ball opened (an uncomfortable hour dawn in the tropics—uncomfortable anywhere, but more so in tropics). The 12 Battery opened up with the destruction of a radio station hut and watchtower on Umomo. Then it switched to some slightly desultory troop fire on various points of interest to the infantry. Apparently our efforts were to the customer's satisfaction for our report back from combat headquarters was that the artillery had done a good job. Gun service was of a high standard and all ranks reacted well. This description is the sort of bald tale a war diary tells but it is fair to become discursive at this stage and tell how some of the difficulties were overcome. One of the necessities of artillery is to have good observation and control of fire. In the drill books and in open country this is easy, but in jungle, where one tree is the twin of the next and there are millions of them to every square mile, where nature's fertility has gone prodigal and wasteful, the gunner is confronted with real difficulties. Surprise is the object for opening a show, and so 12 Battery's commander, Major L. J. Fahey, reverted to his youth, stripped fairly extensively, blackened himself with some noisome concoction of dubbin, bootblack and grease and sallied forth in a native canoe off Pakoi Bay and controlled his fire by radio from there. This sounds easy and quite fun in retrospect, but he and his wireless operator were under fire and quite glad to get back when the job was done. Meantime his two troop commanders, Captain T. M. McKewen and Captain P. M. Blundell, with their OP parties, had moved out with forward infantry patrols to contact the Japanese—an unpleasant task for anyone. Jungle is no place for humans because fifty yards in from the beach and there is no beach any more, no sea, no sound, no sunshine—just nature gone crazily generous in a weltering opaque tangle of trees and fallen trunks, vines and creeper. It has eyes but no view, heat but no page 72comfort. The sweat silently dams up and spills over in little rivulets down one's spine, cooled by the icy chills of fear. As you catfoot through the bog or stumble on the spikes of coral, you have the feeling that slant eyes are watching and yellow fingers tensing on the trigger. And then it comes, and you go to ground perhaps for ever, or maybe it's not your turn yet. You've found where 'they' are but you're still not sure where 'it' came from. Every moving leaf is a menace; mossy veils on the trees loom and threaten. You daren't move. Then the guns begin and you sigh with relief. The gunner's voice risks his betrayal, but it has to be done, and it is done. Such is the life of the jungle OP party with the 'coconut-bombers,' the 'banana fusiliers.' The thin telephone line is literally a life-line. Times without number it brought relief and encouragement. Captain Peter Blundell earned his Military Cross in the jungle and met his death in the open later in Italy. Captain McKewen and his signaller, Gunner McArthur, both received mentions in despatches for] their work within yards of the enemy position at Machine-Gun Gully on the fourth day of the operations.
But this story is jumping ahead of itself—we're still at 28 September, the opening day. When the tumult and the shouting died the infantry moved forward into the previously Jap-held Timbala village and found it evacuated but still smelling sourly of Japanese. Meantime B Company on the right and deep in had established contact, but the failure of wireless communications, a frequent happening in dense jungle, resulted in no further calls for artillery fire that day. On Wednesday, 29 September, ranging was carried out on a new area from Timbala Bay northwards at first light and an effective barrage put down on the area later in the morning. Later in the day, when communications with forward and right companies became effective, some ranging was carried out but abandoned when the infantry withdrew into a perimeter for the night. During both days the rain had been very heavy and if anything can make jungle combat worse, rain can. Rain was a daily habit with Vella Lavella and mangrove swamps became muddy lakes with water concealing treacherous sprawling roots, mud became slush, clothes were sodden and boots a rotten pulp. And so on 30 September the companies rested and prepared to move forward again the next day, with a timed concentration of artillery fire to assist.
Artillery units were active on Vella Lavella
In the meantime 35 Battery, with the combat team moving round from the north end of the island, had taken up positions at Varuasi and was ready to join battle as soon as the infantry made contact moving down the coast. The 12 Battery and 25 Battery guns were now within about eight miles of each other, with the Japs in between, while 37 Battery was sitting disconsolate in reserve on the other side of the island. On Saturday, 2 October, Lieutenant Steel, of 12 Battery, from an infantry barge completed some registration of the Japanese-held area, and was on this barge when the infantry made a gallant but costly daylight attempt to rescue Lieutenant Beaumont and his two platoons who had fought their way through the Japanese lines and reached the beach. Lieutenant Steel was able to assist with neutralising fire on both sides of their beach-head, but the infantry swimmers were not able to reach the shore with their lines and were killed as they swam. The rescue was postponed until the night, when it was successfully effected under cover of darkness. That same day Captain Blundell, Fooding in the jungle, engaged enemy jungle positions and assisted infantry patrols with fire.
On Sunday, 3 October, Captain McKewen, again at the request of the infantry, engaged his old enemy, Machine-Gun Gully. This time the infantry subsequently moved forward. The irony of jungle gunnery was shown when they did move forward. It is-most difficult, because of countless tree-trunks and in unmarked country, without good observation to obtain a direct hit on a pinpoint target, but the infantry found that McKewen had landed one right in the forked root of a tree where a machine gun had been. The round was still there unexploded. It must have been at least disconcerting to the former occupants to have it land in their laps. The Japs appeared now to be hemmed into an area between Timbala and Warambari Bays and so, on the night of 3-4 October, 12 Battery opened up harassing fire at irregular intervals in areas just to keep the Japs awake and uncomfortable and to upset their morale. Of course it kept us all awake too, but it did our morale a lot of good on the principle of 'The guns, thank God, the guns.' It all had to be done with circumspection for gun flashes by night are very revealing to Jap planes which had the air above us all to themselves.
Forward parties and patrols in jungle fighting require fre-page 76quent change to relieve the strain and to get them even temporary respite from mud, slush and constant vigilance. Captain McKewen and his party were relieved this day and Captain Blundell, now with excellent line communication to both troops, remained in support of the two forward companies. Major Warrington proceeded by barge to Varuasi and 'tied in' 35 Battery (Major Coulam) on to a common grid with 12 Battery and arranged for registration of 35 Battery guns on to points already registered by 12 Battery. In returning to Matusuroto, personnel on the barge fished a rather sodden sullen Japanese out of the water. The two native boys with us wished to translate him to a happier world but we brought him in. On later interrogation by interpreters at brigade headquarters he professed to know nothing, which was probably true, for.any Japanese prisoner was usually quite prepared to tell all he knew in return for a little kindness.
On 4 October 12 Battery assisted in observation of 35 Battery guns. Both batteries were now ready to join in producing whatever answer was required in the Jap-held territory, which was now reduced to an area from Marquana Bay to Warambari Bay and the trap was ready to be sprung. During the night this area was treated to harassing fire at irregular intervals from 12 Battery. On the morning of 5 October a conference was held at brigade headquarters of senior officers of both combat teams and plans were made for 37 Battalion from the north to force an entrance into and land at Warambari and 35 Battalion to move forward to Marquana. When 37 Battalion infantry landed at Warambari they encountered fierce opposition for a time and the OP parties from 35 Battery came under fire for the first time. They acquitted themselves creditably and used their guns to effect on both sides of the bay, assisting the infantry to establish themselves there. During the night of 5-6 October both batteries fired harassing fire on the Jap-held area, particularly around where their main strength appeared to be. Lieutenant Springhall and a fresh OP party relieved Captain Blundell and party who had acquitted themselves well and indefatigably from the commencement of operations.
On 6 October the guns were fairly quiet most of the day as infantry patrols probed deep into Jap territory and the opportunity was taken to move A troop 12 Battery to Pakoi Bay. The 35 Battery D troop, with Captain R. E. Williams observing, did some precision shelling of a machine-gun position at the request page 77of 37 Battalion infantry. Late in the afternoon 12 Battery shelled the tiny Bolondu Island in the middle of Marquana Bay to deal with some Japanese concentrated there. That night both batteries commenced harassing fire but were forced to stop owing to the considerable number of low-flying Jap aircraft which were showing great interest in the area. Having no aircraft of our own and having to keep our positions concealed prevented our firing, although interesting noises of barges off-shore off Marquana were very tempting. We sternly resisted the temptation which in the light of later knowledge probably saved a good many of our lives. Next day, 7 October, infantry patrols probed deeper between Warambari and Marquana and by nightfall we held the south side of Marquana Bay and were approaching the other side from the north. The guns put down a smoke screen to assist a patrol to approach and land on Bolondu but no real opposition was encountered, although one solitary Jap prisoner was taken. He gave us full details of the Jap headquarters and position on the north shore of Marquana and preparations were made to shell it extensively next morning and for the infantry to move in afterwards and complete the job. Next morning the infantry moved in to find the place empty save for sundry dead and hastily buried Japs. The prisoner's information was accurate but belated, for the enemy had been evacuated on the night of 6-7 October by barge and boat with three Japanese destroyers sitting off the reef praying for us to open up. If we had, their heavier armament could have created havoc in our positions as revealed by the gun-flashes.
It seemed a disappointing finish. Although we had done our job and slain many of the enemy and cleared the island of the remainder it would have seemed more complete if the land forces had forced the surrender or death of them all. But our objective had been achieved. Brigadier Potter had undertaken to complete the operation in a fortnight and we had done it in 10 days. We were mightily cheered when we heard the news that the Jap evacuees, with their escort of a light cruiser, eight destroyers and sundry gunboats, were met by a small squadron of American destroyers which sank the cruiser and two destroyers and sank or dispersed the barges. Enemy casualties were heavy and a number of prisoners were taken.
So ended the battle for Vella Lavella and our first taste of action from which we learned much and earned the commenda-page 78tion of allied commanders. One American radio station, referring to us in a broadcast as 'the New Zealanders, world-renowned for their ferocity in battle,' rather over-stated the position. The feeling in action was not ferocity, but rather a curious sensation of tense excitement mingled with trepidation and followed when it is all over, by a flat reaction from which we all suffered. Those of the regiment who had taken part received high praise for their efficiency and tenacity of purpose. It would be invidious to single out men or groups for special mention. A gunner on the guns may not have actually seen a Japanese but he fought them in his own particular sphere and was bombed in the process. The OP parties and linesmen did particularly fine jobs maintaining contact and communication under fire and in the worst of jungle conditions. Divisional Signals personnel of E section carried out hazardous work laying and maintaining lines throughout the operations under constant threat of infiltration and death. No man can do more than his opportunities allow. Our 'baby' unit, 12 Battery, had the greater opportunities and supplied all the answers; 35 Battery, with much less opportunity, earned the respect and commendation of its combat team.
While operations had been in progress on the north-west coast of Vella, those of the regiment not in action had been having a busy time clearing camp sites, improving conditions and keeping up ammunition and food supply to forward areas. Lieutenant-Colonel Blake had been evacuated through sickness and Major Warrington, who was in command of artillery operations, became acting regimental commander with the temporary rank of lieutenant-colonel for a few weeks until Lieutenant-Colonel Blake's successor could be brought up from the artillery training depot at New Caledonia.
On the night of 9-10 October Japanese air activity was intensified and our forward and gun areas were again bombed. On 10 October a tour of the former enemy areas revealed how much shell-fire can be swallowed up by the jungle without very extensive damage being apparent. Except for a few native guides who worked with us, the natives had wisely taken to the hills during the Japanese occupation and the operations, but they now began to drift back again towards their former villages. It was educational to come upon a little native boy gazing reflectively at one of our shell-holes, and perhaps marvelling at the 'wonders' of civilisation.page 79
On 10 October the acting commander returned from the forward operational area and plans were put in hand immediately to dispose the troops around the coast so as to give each artillery troop a reasonable camp area plus complete artillery coverage of the whole Vella Coast. A reconnaissance of Gizo Island was made on, 13 October with a view to using the brigade reserve troops, 30 Battalion, and our 37 Battery to eliminate the Japanese, but the island had been evacuated. On 15 October troop movements were effected by barge and our troops became located as follows:—
|12 Battery||Battery HQ||Major L.J Fahey||Ouaso|
|12 Battery||A Troop||Captain T M. McKewen||Nyanga|
|12 Battery||B Troop||Captain P. M. Blundell||Matusuroto|
|35 Battery||Battery HQ||Major A. G. Coulain||Boro|
|35 Battery||C Troop||Captain C. P. McElwee||Varuasi|
|35 Battery||D Troop||Captain R. E. Williams||Boro|
|37 Battery||Battery HQ||Major R. G. Bannister||Supato|
|37 Battery||E Troop||Captain E. P. Rogers||Serulando|
|37 Battery||F Troop||Captain P. S. Thomson||Supato|
It was now the task of 8 Brigade to land on 1 reasury islands, which they did on 27 October. It was obvious now that we would be remaining on Vella for some months. Camps were therefore organised to the best of our limited powers and in the best areas available. In most instances camps were by the water's edge, where good swimming was available. Other amenities were devised by initiative, ingenuity and improvisation, and, we regret to add, by scrounging from our better-provided and ever-generous allies. But through all this welter of improvement of conditions, training for further operations and the maintenance of equipment had to go on apace. Maintenance of equipment is an unwelcome chore even in temperate climates, but in tropical humidity, with daily rain, steel uncared for will rust overnight, leather will mildew and canvas will rot; ammunition will deteriorate rapidly. We cursed and cared for our tons and tons of valuable equipment and war-like stores.
But not only does equipment rust and rot in jungle conditions. Men and morale go the same way as monotony takes its toll along with skin troubles, tropical ulcers and septic sores, hookworm, malaria and all the other serpents in this novelist's Garden of Eden. A multitude of methods of combating monotony sprang up. We organised and carried out canoe regattas, swimming sports, race meetings with total isators, and investments on tin page 80horses moved by the fall of dice, card tournaments, impromptu speech and debating contests, quiz sessions, spelling bees, community sings, and the publication of local unit newspapers (the Nyanga Chronicle, the Coral Strand). Lectures were arranged by the local Methodist missionary, a Mr. Sylvester, who had remained on the island with the natives through the Japanese occupation and was known to us as 'the Bish.' He was a very sincere, hard-working ex-grocer from Dunedin, whose work with the natives must have done much to inculcate in them a courageous and unswerving loyalty to the British Empire, which stood us in magnificent stead during the operations. So keenly did the regiment appreciate the efforts of the natives that by voluntary subscription over £300 was raised from 17th Field Regiment and the sum handed to the natives to be used through the mission for the erection of a ward in the hospital to be built at Biloa to replace the hospital destroyed during the war.
Lieutenant Stewart, of E Section Signals, was replaced during this time by Lieutenant T. C. Eady. During operations the maps of Vella had been found to be inaccurate and so, partly for training and partly for record purposes, our survey section, under Lieutenant I. E. Berendsen, carried out by barge, canoe and wading a complete coastal traverse of Vella from Doveli or Boro round; to Serulando. All six troops were tied in with accurate triangulation which would have materially assisted in bringing down supporting fire had any Jap landing been made. In a few weeks the surveyors suffered lifetime of discomfort.
Divisional Artillery Headquarters arrived on 7 November and soon afterwards we reverted from 14 Brigade command to the command of Brigadier Duff. On 14 November our new commander, Lieutenant-Colonel B. Wicksteed, RNZA (formerly in command of 33 Heavy Regiment and also the Artillery Training Depot), arrived and assumed command of the regiment. Major Warrington resumed his former duties as second-in-command. Major R. V. Wylde-Browne returned from New Caledonia to resume command of his 12 Battery and Major Fahey was posted to 53 Anti-Tank Battery. Sir Cyril Newall, Governor-General of New Zealand, travelled round Vella by fast PT boat on 18 November and called at every camp. His hand must have been tired by nightfall with greeting every man. His interest was appreciated by all. On 29 November we were issued with 'New Zealand' shoulder flashes which, if we had worn them, would page 81no doubt have enabled the natives to distinguish us from Japanese or Americans.
Early in December Captain Blundell, MC, was posted as battery captain, 144 Battery (then at Guadalcanal), and his place as troop commander of B troop was taken by Captain T. M. V. Bain, later to earn a Military Cross in Italy. About this time all men over a certain age were marched out and returned to New Zealand. With them we lost Major A. G. Coulam and Captain R. McGregor, commander and battery captain respectively of 35 Battery. Their places were taken by Major R. K. G. Macindoe (later killed in Italy) and Captain R. E. Williams. Captain I. Faulconbridge took Captain Williams's place as D troop commander. At the beginning of November we had received our first supplies of fresh bread, meat and butter since leaving Guadalcanal. Now, on 7 December, came a much more momentous day —our first beer issue since leaving New Caledonia—and the welkin rang with a limited sort of wassail. Also this day we were honourably represented in the island boxing championships by Gunner Barnao, so poor Barney had to refrain from drinking until after the bouts—a tantalising imposition for him.
Lieutenant R. Keenan, on promotion to OME 8 Brigade, handed over his command of our 20 LAD to Lieutenant, Burt, who was soon after transferred, his place being taken by Lieutenant Sherson, who remained with us until our demise. Our LAD was an excellent team and at all times gave us magnificent co-operation and service. It formed a very real part of our happy family at regimental headquarters, as did E section, Divisional Signals. Both these units take their meed of praise and share of whatever credit we achieved throughout our whole active army life. About this time the war diary of 37 Battery contained a cryptic reference to a very successful 'Shove-halfpenny' tournament. Later in the month of December there wasi reference to E troop's 'Ye Olde Englishe Fayre,' though its mention of canoe races seems hardly in keeping with the yeomen of England. Such things, of course, were all part of our Christmas week celebrations, performed in traditional style. The arrival of mail, fresh bread, turkeys (with heartfelt thanks to our American allies), fresh vegetables and a little beer was all very timely. In accordance with the best traditions, officers and NCOs waited upon the men. Notable at regimental headquarters was the visit of page 82Santa Claus (Signalman 'Skip' Harris) in his jeep, with parcels and ribald comments for many local celebrities. With such insanities did we maintain our sanity in the jungle. About a fortnight before Christmas regimental headquarters opened its own open-air theatre, the Hippodrome, with stage, lighting effects, curtains and all the trimmings, including Major-General Barrow-clough as a first-night guest. Thereafter we had about one show a week of our own devising and arrangement. Among the successful entertainments we recall the American naval base band, with Chaplain Ayers as trombonist comedian, and very good too; the native male choir with its shrill, plaintive harmony and traditional action songs, and a unique display of valuable native insignia and tribal emblems; the excellent revue show of our own and the Anti-Aircraft artillerymen, with its assistance of Divisional Signals. A feature of this show was a magnificent hula dance portrayed by our cook, Sergeant Alan Day, and a female impersonator which was so realistic in its portrayal of elemental tropic passions that one questions whether the Hays office would have passed it even for our audience. But none of these entertainments or their organisation could be allowed to interfere with the purpose for which we were there, and for which we drew our pay. Training went on apace with miniature jungle sound ranges everywhere, and 35 Battery carried out live shell practice at Tambama late in December.
After the successful occupation of the Treasury Group by our 8 Brigade and the American landings at Empress Augusta Bay on Bougainville, it was no longer necessary for 14 Brigade and our regiment to be spread around Vella. Early in January 1944 a regimental area was chosen at Ruravai, on the east coast of Vella, right alongside the sea and facing Kolombangara across the gulf, with Choiseul a smudge on the north-eastern horizon. And to that spot, through three days of pouring rain and filthy conditions by barge and boat, came all the bits and pieces of the regiment. We were all together again for the first time since leaving Guadalcanal. At this stage we lost our quarter-master, Captain R. E. Ham, who was held in affectionate esteem by all ranks. He was taken to field ambulance and soon afterwards he was evacuated to New Caledonia. He was sadly missed both in his duties and in mess. Combined training with infantry officers was undertaken, instructing them in bringing down shell fire page 83at their own call if occasion warranted. Lieutenant-Colonel Wick-steed held a conference of all officers and we knew what was afoot. After a visit to Guadalcanal from 18 to 20 January for a conference at Divisional Artillery Headquarters, which had returned there, he returned with all the news. We were scheduled for Nissan, or, as it is more familiarly known, Green Island, a small coral atoll group close to New Britain. Once again, if we were successful, we would be at the spearhead of the advance in our command and close to Rabaul, the nearest Japanese stronghold with the enemy also still behind us on Bougainville.
The 30 Battalion, at the end of January 1944, conducted a reconnaissance of the group in some strength, and returned with detailed information to amplify the air photography. Our survey section prepared a large scale model of the group in relief and every member of the regiment was shown this model, which indicated landing places, likely opposition, and all relevant data. We had found that the informed New Zealander showed great initiative and resource. Into the middle of this hurly-burly of speculation and planning came Lieutenant R. G. King as intelligence officer and Lieutenant W. F. Winstone as ammunition officer. Shortly afterwards Lieutenant King became adjutant and Captain J. H. Murdoch was made quarter-master to replace Captain Ham. On 6, 7 and 8 February the regiment carried out its own regimental training operations near Valpata, using its own Jap barges salvaged from the reefs and repaired by battery mechanics.
The malaria season was at hand and atebrin was increased to six tablets a man a week. As usual when time became short, fairly large stocks of beer arrived through the canteens and the drought became almost a flood. Because it had missed the Vella operations 37 Battery was detailed first battery to land on Nissan, and with parties from the other two batteries and from regimental headquarters left Vella on 12 and 13 February. The convoys left daily at their varying rates of speed and arrived simultaneously at dawn on 15 February off the/ entrance to the Nissan lagoon. The convoys were attacked by Jap aircraft, but these were beaten off with the loss of at least two planes. Others limped off but may have made Rabaul. The combat troops were all New Zealanders, but there were several thousand American 'Seabees' for the construction of fighter and bomber strips at Tangalan; naval men to set up a PT boat base at Sirot and to set up a landing craft pool at Pokonian.page 84
The landing was effected against only minor opposition. The New Zealanders then established and consolidated themselves and swept the islands clear of all Japanese, the artillery's part being to lend support to infantry when they encountered opposition. About 8.30 am Regimental Headquarters and 12 Battery parties landed at Pokonian while the OP parties of 35 and 37 Batteries landed at South Tangalan and North Tangalan respectively. Radio communication between all parties was established by 10 a.m., at which time the guns of 37 Battery landed at Pokonian. However, a bogged truck blocked beach exits for nearly an hour, and the first gun was not away from the beach until 10.55, but it was ready to open fire at 11.15, which, in tropical jungle conditions with no roads, was no mean feat. All eight guns were in action with shallow pits dug and logged and arcs of fire cleared by afternoon. This short sentence covers hours of weary toil in hard coral under the worst possible conditions. While this was going on the survey troop had established a datum point and this was carried to all guns by regimental survey section. There were no calls for fire from the infantry that day and no targets presented themselves to us, so we contented ourselves with registration during the afternoon and the improvement of communications and set up our defensive perimeters against infiltration by night.
During the night, when we had no air cover whatever, Rabaul sent over its marauders and we were bombed, with some slight casualties in E troop. Next day, since business was by no means brisk, better permanent gun positions were chosen to give more complete coverage of most parts of the island. Guns were moved, with more back-breaking toil in clearing arcs of fire and blasting pits from unyielding coral. To make matters worse, allied bulldozers tore out our line communications several times a day, for they changed their roadways every time they changed their minds. As in all other island operations our linesmen earned full marks for their unremitting toil in trying conditions.
The OP parties kept moving with infantry patrols as they combed the island, but no enemy contacts were made and the guns roared only occasionally as registration was completed on various points. On 18 February an observing officer of 144 Battery used F troop guns to destroy two enemy barges and drove the Japs from the surrounding area. On 19 February all 37 Battery guns joined with 144 Battery in firing an effective page 85concentration on the Mission area, which was effective. When the infantry subsequently entered the area they met with no opposition and found much hastily-discarded equipment. On 20 February came an infantry skirmish at Tanaheran. Though the guns were ready and begging for employment the infantry chose to do it with the assistance of mortars and tanks. Business was really poor for the gunners on Nissan, for the Japanese had apparently used the atoll group merely as a barge staging area in running food down to beleaguered Bougainville and were not holding Nissan in strength. Its value to us was that it gave us a site for airfields less than half-an-hour's flying time from Rabaul, still a stronghold in Japanese hands.
With the fight for Tanaheran over and the corpses removed when they became offensive the battle for Nissan ended. Our last shot had been fired in anger, though at that time we did not know it. But we are racing ahead of our story and had better return to it. While all this tumult and shouting was going on at Nissan, back at Raravai, on Vella, we loaded our 12 and 35 Battery guns, more stores, ammunition and equipment with the second echelon from Narovai beach by night from 17 to 19 February. Though magnificently paper-planned, someone's arithmetic must have slipped on cubic capacity, for the LSTs would have required elastic sides to take the mountains of goods of all arms and units stacked there. We loaded by night, and those with the most transport and the most strident voices got most on. We left a little behind, but not much, and the second echelon landed quietly at 7 am on 20 February at Nissan—12 Battery at Pokonian and 35 Battery across the lagoon at Tangalan. Only 40 all ranks were now left at Vella and they loaded remaining gear and shook the Vella mud from their feet on 23 February, landing at Nissan two days later. The rest of February was spent in sorting unit equipment from a sea of chaotic mud and establishing ourselves in our various camps around the main island. We spent 29 February registering various points about the island by shooting, and the early part of March saw us fairly well established. On 9 March we were warned for our next operation—reserve for the attack on Kavieng, an attack which never took place, as American strength was increasing fast and Japanese opposition receding. Kavieng was by-passed, but that is not our story.
The old bugbear of working parties began again as Liberty page 86ships started to arrive in the roadstead off the island and had to be unloaded. They could not enter the lagoon and had to discharge outside. These ships would have made an attractive target for bombing, but that did not happen. The Seabees converted jungle and plantation into a fighter strip in less than 28 days, with a bomber strip alongside it soon afterwards. Though we were sometimes bombed by night we spent peaceful days. Nissan had no fresh-water stream or pool and there was no catchment area for rainwater. When we landed we carried water for two days. Thereafter all water for drinking and cooking had to be drawn from the lagoon and distilled. That sounds easy, but there were 18,000 allied personnel on the small atoll and they required a lot of water. All washing water had to be caught from the rainfall by ingenious split bamboo spouting along the tents draining into petrol drums. In March we received the congratulations of Admiral Nimitz for our successful occupation in the following message:—' The bold, skilful and effective manner with which units of South Pacific Forces carry out one operation after another has my great admiration. Warm congratulations to you and your entire command.'
We have remarked before on the generosity of our allies with their equipment, but on 24 March it was deemed necessary by us to call for the collection and return of all American equipment. When one saw the miscellany of things one blushed for one's countrymen and could well understand the feelings of the American who said his solution of the Japanese war was to 'put you Kiwis on one island with all the Japanese and in a week the war would be over for you'd have all their equipment.'
Major Wylde-Browne, Commander of 12 Battery, was evacuated through sickness and his battery captain, Captain E. H. Carew, attained his majority and took his place. Captain J. H. Hamilton was transferred from 37 Battery to 12 Battery as battery captain, and Captain A. F. Grant came from 144 Battery to be battery captain of 37 Battery. At this time 35 Battery lost a deservedly popular NCO in Bombardier A. T. Thompson who died as a result of burns received from the explosion of a home-made petrol burner he was tending. Once again, as soon as camps were in reasonable trim, training started for the next move. All guns were calibrated by seawards firing, with reams of mathematics and calculation subsequently to produce the answer. Open-air movies and concerts began about this time page 87and we participated in an axemen's carnival held on the other side of the lagoon. The regiment also organised a series of 1000 artillery art unions which proved to be a deservedly popular method of re-distribution of wealth.
On 7 April the writing on the wall appeared for the Division. Manpower problems in New Zealand resulted in the production of a scheme called the 'Release of Personnel for Essential Industries.' Everyone was required to fill in a card informing the authorities in New Zealand whether he would like to volunteer to return home, and what he would like to work at when he got there. Many just said 'No' to the whole scheme, while others, after much seeking of advice abetted by cynical doubt said 'Yes, they would like to be railway-men, or bushmen, etc' By 24 April a large number of those men found themselves on board the USS Wharton en route to New Caledonia. We saw them no more, but we wished them well, for they had served us well as friends and soldiers. About this time we again had visits from the New Zealand naval vessels Matai, Kiwi and others which we were always glad to see in the Solomons. Frequent visits were exchanged betwixt ship and shore, and returning warriors frequently reached camp in a healthy aura of naval rum, evidence of the high standard of naval hospitality.
On Vella the natives had constructed at Marivari a magnificent chapel and cemetery for the allied fallen and tended it with loving care. On Nissan we constructed our own cemetery for allied fallen. Nissan by this time had busy airfields. As well as fighters being based there, it was a staging field for Liberators returning from bombing Truk and the Carolines. The locally-based and staging fighters, some manned by New Zealanders, called at Nissan, picked up a bomb each, and did the 25 minute 'milk delivery' to Rabaul, repeating the trip as often as they felt inclined during the day. PT boat squadrons went out each night on marauding excursions around New Britain and elsewhere, making life miserable for the Japanese. But our work on Nissan was completed and we gave place to American garrison troops.
Before we left Nissan many troops were suffering from the considerable increase in skin troubles and varying types of dermatitis. A 'hookworm' test disclosed many unsuspecting victims and exposed them to the rather unpleasant cure. However we bore with complete equanimity the plague of caterpillars which page 88affected divisional headquarters—pretty little red and yellow ones, all furry, that exuded acid from the fur as they humped their way over the skin, leaving a bright red spreading weal.
On 20 May our operational role ceased and we packed our operational equipment. From then until 29 May our time was fully occupied in packing and getting everything and everyone aboard the USS Naos, where our atebrin ceased once and for all. We sailed from Nissan and were not sorry to go. On 31 May we sighted our old friends Vella Lavella and Kolombangara through the murk of a gathering storm which drove us south. In the early dawn of 5 June we sighted New Caledonia where we landed in the afternoon at Nepoui, our old port of hard work. We reached the artillery training depot at Néméara at 7.30 pm where a hot meal and a warmer welcome awaited us. Everyone of us, returning from near the equator to a freezing 66 degree temperature, was feeling the cold. We were happy to get extra blankets and a large mail. The next few days we settled in, finding the early mornings very cold and ourselves very loath to get up. Fortunately our base kits had been kept for us in perfect condition, and our winter woollies were soon in use. Great coats, a garment unknown to us for many a day, were issued and appreciated. A real feature of our return was to see and hear the NBC party of entertainers. Not only was their show good but they were real white women in long frocks. Some of us must have looked, spoken and acted like hillbillies from the deepest Ozarks. Also deservedly popular was the repertory party and the piano playing of Henri Penn, who for two hours one night played from memory whatever we asked for. Very few requested swing numbers. June in New Caledonia was only a brief interlude. The division had clearly 'had it' and was moving fast to manpower destruction. Further essential industry parties left for New Zealand.
At this stage, as a result of burns received in a petrol fire, we lost Gunner Jack Parkhill, a genial and popular driver and Otago provincial footballer who had been with many of us through Fiji and the Solomons. He was well liked by all ranks, and the fund of over £300 subscribed by the remaining members of the regiment would in no way compensate his widow and the little boy he hardly knew.
A wedding of great interest to gunners of the Artillery Training Depot near Bourail was that of Sergeant Coates to Mdlle. Hélène Berger. It was one of the social events of that year. 'Snuffy,' the pet fawn, was a familiar sight in the training camp, almost as familiar as the bridge, which gave so much trouble
A view of camps and installations on He Nou, in Nouméa Harbour. In the middle foreground is a seaplane base. The 33rd Heavy Regiment was stationed on this island for a time.
One of the 29th Light Anti-aircraft Regiment's guns at Blanche Harbour, in the Treasury Islands. In the heat of the Solomons gunners wore as little clothing as possible during the day but guarded against the attacks of mosquitoes at night
Going ashore from landing craft on Mélé Beach, near Vila, in the New Hebrides, where units practised amphibious exercises before going to the Solomons.Below: Shells falling on Umomo Island during the engagement on Vell a Lavella. These were the first shots fired against the enemy by 17th Field Regiment
And so the regiment was no more. It had been our employer, our home and our family for a long time, and we had, with some reason, grown to be proud of it. By and large we were a happy family. We had our family rows—but from formation through training and operations to final disbandment we moved forward along a path of steady achievement made possible largely by the sinking of self in the promotion of a common welfare and purpose. When our final disbandment came there was none of us but felt a sense of indefinable loss. There is none of us but will be happy to meet again any other who served with him in the 17th New Zealand Field Regiment.