The Gunners: an intimate record of units of the 3rd New Zealand Divisional Artillery in the Pacific from 1940 until 1945
II — New Caledonia
He is a rare soldier indeed who leaves for the first time with a light heart. What remains of that first departure now? A chill pre-dawn breeze ruffling the pools still standing from overnight rain, cheerful lights in the mess, false heartiness as we pile from the trucks, no band, no flags, no speeches, thank God. Just a silent departure in the dark, another bunch of men who won't be seen about town for a while. Last glimpses of familiar scenes—a milkman on his rounds, early workers hurrying for trams, the city silhouetted against the growing light. Morose waits while the inevitable muddle about who the hell we are anyway is straightened out at the ship. First shock of what troop quarters look like on a transport. Struggle to stow gear in the available space. Khaki lines along the rails—yes, the third along past the green roof—you'll see it better as we go through the boom. Wonder if the family's on the verandah—lawn slopes away out of sight at the back—too steep for a woman to cut.
Well, that's the last of that. It feels better now the break's over and there's no turning back. Think about the present and try to forget until the hurt dies down. Dinner already—unearthly hour to eat—oh yes, get it over before blackout. Wonderful stuff this American food. Wonder we never go for it in New Zealand. Sweepers man your brooms, clean sweep fore and aft. Mysterious hootings and scufflings before dawn, dim red lights in the corridors. Sleepy inquiries what the hell it's all about-General quarters—never heard of him—back to sleep—let the crew worry it out. Not bad this American food. So there's no page 156convoy. Sitting shot for a sub. Big place the sea. Get a bit tired of this Yank food in time I should think. Boat drill. Bet the officers are doing all right with those Yank nurses. The smoking lamp is out on all weather decks. Flying fish. Oh for a decent New Zealand meal.
Lighthouse, white coral beaches, coconut trees—interminable approach to Noumea. Look at those ships, look at the camps, look at the planes, look at the equipment, look at the barrage balloons. You must hand it to the Yanks, they've got a lot of stuff. Javanese scavenging for scraps with that absurdly preoccupied air. There, that one's not a Javo—she must be a native. Well, she's certainly not Dorothy Lamour. Respectful hanging on the words of the ASC drivers. Worldly-wise these chaps, been here for months. Pink house up there on the right if you're interested. Roadside hovels. Wonder what these people lived on before they did the Yank's washing? What a dirty place it is. Looks as if leprosy is the least you'd get in there. Niaouli trees.
Well, they were right when they told us it's no tropical paradise. Hell, what a lot of Yanks there are. Traffic is thicker than in Queen Street. Niaouli trees. French linguist comes into his own, aided by the fact that all road signs are repeated in English anyway. Niaouli trees. So this is home now. Niaouli trees. Only a few days and now this. You're on your own now all right. Docile tramping round getting camp established, getting lost in the niaouli, sharp grass seeds sticking through the stockings, half-hearted meals on piles of equipment. Numb, lost feeling that one came to recognise in all new arrivals in the first few days. Coming back from up north months later this was a haven of peace, lovely climate, undeveloped but a country of grand possibilities. But the first few days out from home; hell, what a hole! New Caledonia.
While awaiting the arrival of the rest of the regiment the portion of the 49th in the first party, and later the part of the 50th which formed the second, had had plenty of fun trying to get camp established and push ahead with much-needed training without adequate equipment for either. The camp, on the banks of the Ouenghi River, south of Boulapari, afforded excellent swimming but was isolated from civilisation and most sources of supply. Hence the unit learned its scrounging in a hard school and was soon able to hold: its own in this art, even with units with years of intensive training in Fiji and elsewhere. New page 157Zealanders have acquired an unequalled reputation throughout the Pacific in this and it can only be said of the 38th that the country's reputation was fully upheld, take it which way you like.
In spite of manifold handicaps the advanced parties had pushed ahead with camp construction, which was just as well Colonel Bryden found an unenviable task before him when he arrived. The division was about to change from a garrison role to an active one. With the guns of two batteries still uncali-brated and in any case not yet arrived, many of the personnel drafted into the unit only a few days before departure, many of the remainder untrained in artillery, 180 men back in New Zealand, many NCOs yet to be appointed, and the entire unit in need of reorganising, the regiment had to learn amphibious technique, adapt it to artillery work involving, among other things, the cutting out of most of its transport, and be prepared to move forward, possibly into action, almost immediately. In the circumstances few of us saw Necal on this visit. Camp construction was reduced to a bare minimum and hard work over long hours became the order of the day, work which involved: packing, live shoots, amphibious training, repacking and disposal of equipment not now needed.
First aid and anti-malarial lectures were given by the doctor. There was keen support for the proposition by one master brain that if, as had been stated, the Japs suffered more than anyone else from malaria, the best malaria precaution would be to keep' well away from the Japs. The big 'five-holer' controversy arose between regimental headquarters and 52nd Battery. While other amenities were woefully short, a beautifully made piece of woodwork was delivered to headquarters. The 52nd claimed that headquarters could not decently use it all; not if they were doing as much other work as alleged. Working on a population basis, the 52nd cut off three holes and sent the other two back to headquarters. Headquarters protested that this was a violation of the agreement and demanded another hole. The controversy then became vulgar.
Both the 49th and 50th Batteries had sturdy mess huts roofed with niaouli bark, but the rest of the regiment led a truly open. air life most of the time. One small touch; of comfort was the establishment of a YMCA, but otherwise the chief relaxation was an occasional Sunday afternoon hitch-hiking trip to Tontouta for page 158a glimpse of a big American air base and to make the acquaint-ance of the American PX. The PX, indeed, deserves honourable mention in any Pacific war history. It and a British canteen are as different as chalk from cheese, though many fulfil roughly the same purpose. A canteen sells the equivalent of 'firewood, ironware and cheap tin trays,' and if the wares of a PX include neither 'cedanvood and sandalwood and sweet white wine' nor 'topazes and cinnamon and gold moidores,' its goods are as typical of the nation—chewing gum and orange juice and shiny magazines; not to mention cigars, cigarette cases, after-shaving lotions, sickly sweet candy, billfolds, moccasins, coca-cola, and salted peanuts. Just to be able to spend more money on some civilised non-necessity is a tremendous morale builder where shops do not exist and fulfils a need that the free issues in the forward area can never replace. Many changes in organisation had been going on throughout this period. Major N. W. M. Hawkins had: replaced Major Morris as second-in-command; Major G. L. Falck took over the 52nd Battery from Major Spragg, the original section of divisional signals was replaced by that from the 28th Heavy Regiment, which had been disbanded, and the personnel from the 37th Field Regiment were distributed evenly among the batteries. As the 42nd LAD was not going forward, it was detached from the unit.
The time was now drawing near. Tents were struck simultaneously with the first heavy rain so far encountered and last days in Necal were spent in a very wet state in improvised bivvies of niaouli bark. On 2 September the regiment moved for the first time as a unit to Noumea and embarked in three sections as part of the 8th Brigade Group; the 49th Battery in the President Adams, the 50th in the President Hayes and the 52nd in the President Jackson, with regimental headquarters divided between the latter two.