The Gunners: an intimate record of units of the 3rd New Zealand Divisional Artillery in the Pacific from 1940 until 1945
III — New Hebrides and Guadalcanal
New Hebrides and Guadalcanal
Northward again. New ideas of heat, new ideas of comfort, new ideas of the minimum space a man and his baggage can occupy and still live. 'The three-tiered confusion of chaotic comradeship, rifles, steel helmets, packs and wet clothing strewn page 159everywhere in the sweaty heat.' Picturesque Efate in the New Hebrides. Learning to use a landing net with full pack up. American sea talk on the speakers again. New amphibious expressions, waves, flights, lines of departure. Landing exercises on Mélé Beach. Plunges through the surf, dash into the trees. Copious draughts of coconut milk. Unfortunate after-effects. Hospitable Yanks of the 198th CA (AA), later encountered in the Treasuries. Amazing gallery of pin-up girls in the barracks. Full scale landing with guns and equipment in a rising surf. Night ashore in bivvies.
Dingy little town Vila. Smells too. Lot of junk in the shops. Still this red wine isn't bad. Cosmopolitan mixture of French, British, Chinese and natives. Seems to be plenty of liquor about, gin even. Better have one or two while it lasts. Place gets a bit better as you see more of it. Whisky even. Well, this town has possibilities after all. Lesh buy a Christmas present. Wun-nerful the things you come across in these shops. Have nother drink too. What more canyonewan lovely town, lovely harbour, lovely girlsh. Cumn hava dring. Lovelies lil townina Psifc.
North again to the Solomons. One recalls a heavily satirical 'prospectus' issued by the 'Guadalcanal Travel Association' which said the last word on that famed island. 'Come,' it said, more or less freely paraphrased, 'to romantic drenched Guadalcanal, you who wish to put the cares of civilisation behind you and seek (rapid) release from this world. Here you will find all the glamour of the Southern Seas. Here no sound disturbs the serene stillness except the occasional whimsical bang of a Japanese mortar, the breezy ping of a sniper's rifle, the bark of a vulture, or the night-long yelps, squeals, squeaks and groans of the happy denizens of the jungle. Come and bask in its sunlit sands, lulled by the soothing murmur of a golden nimbus of bloodsucking insects muscled like bull-gorillas, and the soft slob of bodies gently floating at the water's edge. Bathe in its ultramarine waters and sport with the festive sharks, long surfeited on the rotting carcases of defunct Samurai. Or sit beneath its mighty trees and hear the streams chuckling through picturesque Japanese eye-sockets. Or would you taste the night life of this delectable spot! Then come with me to a native village for experiences vouchsafed only to those who really get off the beaten track. Share with the simple savages their tasty jungle meal of spam and K rations and listen to their age-old chant, "Pardon page 160me boy, is that the Chatanooga Choo Choo?" And as you wend your way home through the AA spangled night you can look forward to a long sleep undisturbed by anything more serious than a 250 1b. bomb. Yes, come to lovely Guadalcanal, and bring your straight-jacket with you, you dim-witted clod.'
Though things were a little less violent, it took the unit no time at all to arrive at the same conclusion. The ships reached Point Cruz, near the mouth of the Matanikau, on the morning of 14 September and unloaded in record time. Transporting guns and equipment and making camp in a formidable stretch of jungle near Wright's Road brought new experiences of thirst. It seemed necessary to have a drink every few minutes but it was all lost again in sweat almost immediately. The Japanese marked the occasion with an air raid the first night which caused damage and casualties on Henderson Field. Next morning, foxholes condescendingly begun the previous day went down to a prodigious depth as if by magic with no order from anyone.
After a false start when all but the 50th Battery moved to a new camp on the seafront and had to return when it was found to be unavailable, the work of establishing camp went on apace. This first introduction to the jungle was an eye-opener. Its thickness, thorniness, humidity, the magnificence of its giant mahogany and teak trees, the unearthly racket that began at sundown and continued all night from a myriad of birds, insects and animals, became essential facts of everyday life. Brilliant red and green parakeets, snakes, flying foxes, incredible butterflies, spiders with webs that would support a rifle, three foot long iguanas, insects, eerie little fireflies flitting about their mysterious errands like tiny electric torches became our only neighbours. It was strange in this wild spot to trudge off through the mud to outdoor pictures or a show by the Kiwi concert party, armed with tin hat and mosquito repellent, and after the black-out gloom of New Zealand cities, to see lights everywhere until the siren sounded. A big moment during one of the raids was to see enemy planes come down in flames for the first time—two in close succession on the night of 20-21 September. Falling ack ack fragments were always a danger at this site and several tents were hit by jagged pieces.
Camp was in an area that had been the scene of heavy fighting not long before. Removal of Jap bodies in a highly unpleasant state was an early essential but, even so, grisly remains were page 161several times brought to light by men digging holes about the camp. Ammunition belonging to both sides lay about in the utmost profusion. Weapons and other equipmcent accumulated to such an extent that an extra craft would have been needed to carry them. However, the thought of lugging these souvenirs ashore in an opposed landing led to rapid jettisoning in favour of something more useful. Many bewailed the loss of them later when they heard Americans offering astronomical prices for similar mementoes in the Treasuries.
The unit settled down to solid training, and the month spent here, involving as it did much live shell practice, was quite in-valuable. By the time the regiment went into action the colonel's indefatigable efforts had welded the group of untrained, uncoordinated individuals which reached New Caledonia such a short time before into an efficient fighting force. The worth of his unceasing labours was soon to be strikingly proved. Days and nights were spent out on battery and regimental shooting, observed and jungle targets, shooting with infantry observers, jungle traverses and small arms shooting on jungle ranges. Transport was reduced almost to vanishing point and surplus drivers were trained as signallers and bren gunners. It was a race against time. The 14th Brigade was already on Vella Lavella and reports of the action were coming back for study. The 49th Battery and elements of the others took part in an exercise on Florida Isand. Packing began for the new type of move by APDs, LSTs and LCIs. Jungle dress and camouflage paint converted the whole outfit into the deceased image of something the cat brought in.
There was time, though, for occasional relaxation. A riotously successful evening race was held by the 52 Battery on 9 October. 'Horses' were cut from aluminium from a wrecked plane, attached to signal wire and wound in on metal spindles. The tote was a masterpiece of decoration and included all the usual amenities. Pedigrees were deplorable—Faux Pas, by Cock Pheasant, out of Season (cost the owner £25 and costs, said the announcer; Bombardier W. A. McLeod, one of the perpetrators of the enterprise); The Wizard, by Breakfast, out of Anything (owner, the battery cook); Skondooah by King Alfred (who did the first scone, the announcer explained) out of Screamer (we couldn't help hearing that this horse has been getting in a lot of early morning practice); Mistake, by Pitfall, page 162out of Dusky Maiden (has been costing the owner 15s a week for some time). Delay in reaching the saddling paddock in the big race (open to majors and over) brought a rebuke from the announcer, who ordered them to report 'on the double.' A certain restiveness at the post also roused his ire. 'Now there'll be no mucking about. The next offender goes straight to a court martial.' A report that some of the riders had concealed batteries on their persons met a prompt retort—' I'm not a bit surprised.' No one succeeded in taking advantage of the offer of free admission for ladies accompanied by soldiers in uniform, nor was it necessary to invoke the rule that no woman of ill fame would be admitted. An optimistic committee declared, that alchoholic liquor would not be permitted on the course and any found would be confiscated by the committee 'if possible.'
But more serious matters were brewing. Packing complete, the 49th Battery, with part of regimental headquarters and parties from the 50th and 52nd Batteries, embarked on 25 October in LSTs and LCIs with the first echelon of the 8th Brigade Group for the attack on the Treasuries Islands, a small group to the south of Bougainville.