The Gunners: an intimate record of units of the 3rd New Zealand Divisional Artillery in the Pacific from 1940 until 1945
Chapter Eight — 144th Independent Battery
144th Independent Battery
The battery was proud of its name. Through the circumstances of the unit's life and activities the 'Independent' came to have a special meaning to all ranks of the battery. Of course the esprit de corps of every unit produces this feeling to a certain extent, but with the '144' this feeling was enhanced by the peculiarity of its equipment and the closeness of the mutual association among the personnel. The battery was equipped with 3.7 howitzers, firing a 191b shell with a maximum range of 6,500 yards. These guns were originally designed as pack artillery and came to pieces in an ingenious manner so that they could be carried on mule or horse back. For use with motor transport they had been fitted with pneumatic tyres, but still retained most of the original lightness and mobility. Four of the guns issued to the battery had seen some service with the Royal Marines of two well known cruisers of the British Navy. Nevertheless the equipment was not by any means old or out-of-date, and the guns were capable of shooting with astonishing accuracy. The battery's most strenuous efforts in training were aimed at attaining the greatest mobility and accuracy. Indeed the various unintentional parodies on the unit's name produced by mistranslations—usually American—of the abbreviation 'Ind' became a special source of joy. For instance there was '144th Indian Battery' (with special reference to the North-west Frontier) and the Guadalcanal telephone directory's listing of '144th Infantry Battery,' crowned with the glorious title in an American training order, '144th Infantry Assault Battery, Third New Zealand Marine Amphibious Division.' Although the battery was not formed until 1 September 1942, and thus had no corporate page 178existence in Fiji, its members were mainly comprised of the former medium troop and C troop of 35th Battery which had gone to Fiji in 1941, with some extra added from New Zealand territorials. Thus about 90 per cent of all ranks were old Fijians who had already served for some time in close association with one another. Throughout the battery's existence, although there were the usual changes amongst officers, the warrant officers, noncommissioned officers and other ranks changed very little, so that this comparatively small band of some 200 gunners with years of serving together became closely knit with personal associations leaving, in retrospect the happiest memories, and helping at times greatly to alleviate the irksome tropical conditions.
Actually, of course, the 'Independent' meant that the battery was an independent command and not part of a regiment or subject to regimental control. The result was an added flexibility in the general programme of work and play. These measures provided many opportunities for the. exercise of the New Zealand gunner's versatility, and enhanced the feeling of pride with which in course of time all ranks regarded their corporate existence. After the first concentration at Papakura in September 1942, the battery moved to Tirau, where it camped under canvas in pleasant surroundings. The battery commander was Major L. J. Fahey, with Captain J. G. Warrington as battery captain. Lieutenants J. G. R. Morley, and J. E. G. Maxwell, and Second-Lieutenants T. M. V. Bain, I. H. Broun, O. C. deal, T. F. Morton, J. W. Hart, and J. W. Jordan. Of these officers only Lieutenant Morton was to see the battery through to the end. The warrant officers were J. Cumming (BSM), B. C. Pussell (TSM A troop), and F. J. Murray (TSM B troop), and remained with the unit practically throughout its existence. Some of the gun sergeants who held early appointments and who also kept going right through were A. Bell, N. P. Boland, A. McEvoy, J. E. Norman, W. G. Nolan, A. W, Robinson, and S. J. Wade.
The period at Tirau was one of organisation and of hard training with limited equipment, for little motor transport and no guns had yet arrived. To make up for the absence of the guns, trial hauls were held using logs of equivalent weight to the various parts of the guns and much sweat was poured out in the Kaimai ranges and surrounding country to see just how well the guns could be manhandled through 'jungle' in pieces. page 179Superior authority provided a magnificent sledge as one experiment, but as it took six men to haul the sledge unloaded the experiment was adjudged not a success. A group of especially doughty men was formed as a 'commando' section, who carried out special training in bush work and 'jungle warfare' with the idea of assisting the battery to defend itself if attacked by the prowling Jap. The commandos also acted as guides in some of the battery's bush treks. On one occasion the BSM, the redoubtable Slim Cumming, lost confidence in the tortuous track followed by the guide, and seizing the lightest log representing the smallest part of the gun, made off direct as he thought for camp, falling immediately into a bog up to his waist. The commandos received slightly more respect from him after that. As more equipment came to hand the signallers and specialists were able to get down to training also, and finally, in November, the guns arrived. Even then they had to be sent to ordnance for overhaul and there was only enough, motor transport to move one troop at a time. However much 'manoeuvre' was done in search of the goal of mobility. Early in December the battery moved down to the vicinity of Lake Rerewhakaitu, near Rotorua, to carry out calibration of the guns. By this time all ranks had taken their final leave and it was clear that embarkation was imminent.
Even in these early days the sporting side of the battery's activities was well to the fore. The footballers found the soft green fields of their native land a welcome relief from the hard heat of Fiji. Lance-Sergeant (Jimmie) J. L. Burns was to the fore in organising local games and played half for the Third Division in two games the divisional team played in Auckland. W. Green, A. Fitch, J. Hart, C. Campbell, and A. White played in divisional artillery team. The local residents of the Tirau district provided much kindly hospitality, but Gunner Wilkes was tragically killed while horse-riding. The highlight of local entertainment was reached when late in December, after the battery-had paid a visit to the camp of the 1st Battalion Auckland Regiment at Tauranga, given an artillery demonstration and indulged in cricket and tennis, the residents of Tauranga gave a ball for all ranks. When the evening was in full swing there came the signal to pack and move, so back to camp to begin next morning an orgy of striking tents and packing boxes and swift movement culminating in embarkation and departure from Auckland in the page 180UST West Point on 29 December. Few in the unit really knew the division's destination but when on New Year's Day 1943 the great ship twisted round the tortuous course past the Phare Amédée, there were many growls of 'New Caledonia—another garrison job,' with epithets appropriate to the occasion. However, there it was! With the rush of disembarkation and movement to the unit's area and the excitement of strange places and people spirits were not low for long.
The camp which was to be the battery's home for the next eight months was perfectly chosen in a small secluded valley at Néméara, under the shadow of Mt. Boa. Here, on niaouli-covered flats beside a small stream strenuous camp development was soon under way. Captain I, F. Dixon (who had replaced Captain Warrington as battery captain) with characteristic energy planned and pushed through the erection of a native style bure large enough to seat the whole battery at mess and still have room for servery and canteen annexes. With the assistance of native thatchers and of heavy poles from a disused Japanese stockade nearby a building was soon produced which was the envy of many another unit. Construction of paths, levelling of tent floors, building of camp ovens, of ammunition shelters, gun shelters, ration store, sumps and drains, even a bridge over the stream, proceeded apace along with all the multitude of tasks incidental to camp building—tasks which were already nearly second nature to many and soon were to become so to all. Washing presented no problem with the stream just provided for the purpose, but no natural amenity ever seemed quite good enough for a New Zealand gunner, so made into a swimming pool it must be. Here Padre Castle, who had been with us since Tirau days, came strongly to the fore, and with his persistent enthusiasm, the practical aid of John Tolson, and much willing labour a swimming pool was made fit for racing, diving and water polo. Not to be outdone by the padre's efforts battery headquarters erected an improvised sound shell and stage on one side of the pool and terraced the opposite bank, producing a perfect open air theatre with the sound crossing the still water of the swimming pool. All this had of course to be done when time permitted, because it could not be forgotten that the primary purpose of the battery's presence in New Caledonia was not to build itself a beautiful camp.
The unit was there as part of a force for the defence of New page 181Caledonia, to train and operate for this purpose and later to train for offensive action in the Solomon Islands. In retrospect the training and operational activities of this period do not loom very large, because they were accepted as just so much part of the day's work. What are remembered are the sports and games, the recreational fun and personal contacts, and the little things connected with the business of living. In a record such as this much more space must be given to these latter things, not because they took up more time—they didn't—-but because both then and now they seemed more important than the every day business of being a soldier.
Training was spasmodic at first because it was a month before the equipment arrived, and then motor transport was in very short supply. However, it was possible to have a live shell practice at Poya late in February, although the official records complain bitterly even at the end of April that the battery had only eight vehicles instead of its war establishment of 39. Actually, although the transport position was to improve before leaving New Caledonia, it was to become worse later from operational necessity, and the battery, in common with other units in the division, was constantly under the strain of attempting to train and operate with less than the designed number of vehicles. This caused many headaches for those responsible for organisation, but much hard physical work and inconvenience for the men. Indeed it was one of the factors producing what became the keynote of life in this island warfare—namely the 'working party.' In the early months of 1943 the unit records begin to complain of the many working parties disrupting training, later in New Caledonia the situation eased somewhat, but further on in the Solomons there were to come times when the unit seemed to exist for the sole purpose of providing working parties. Sometime the work done was constructive, such as to build or metal a road or to dig latrines or sumps or to erect some other unit's tents, but nearly always it was just lifting and loading—boxes, crates and ammunition on to and off trucks, wharves, beaches and dumps. Within the unit it meant keeping special rosters of duty, having special meals prepared at odd times, and special off duty periods for the men concerned. For the men it meant off to work at any time, sometimes in the middle of the night, travel sometimes many miles over rough roads or no roads at all, hard back-breaking sweaty toil in stifling heat on poor food, being page 182supplied by the unit from a distance away, and many strains and bruises and sometimes broken limbs.
However, training did go on, more vehicles arrived and by June the battery was able to take part in the two series of divisional manoeuvres—the 'Scylla' exercise, and the 'Bula' exercise. The rain in the 'Bula' exercise and the consequent mud sorely tried the endurance and patience of all, but created opportunities also. Through very fine driving and clever use of winches the drivers proved their worth and were able to put the guns in where wanted when other types of equipment found the conditions too difficult. The ration department, too, under Bombardier A. E. Swinburne, rose to the occasion and supplied hot drinks and meals in the most unexpected but very welcome places. In these exercises the battery learnt what mobility in semi-tropical and practically roadless conditions really meant, and the experience proved most valuable later, when conditions were to become truly tropical and actually roadless.
At about this time or a little later whispers began to be heard of some great change looming for the division. Training was switched to beach landing parties and assault flights and waves rather than of vehicles and road convoy groups. This changeover was getting under way by the middle of July, when Major G. R. Powles took over the command of the battery. By the end of July it was in full swing, and many trial loads and trial packs were carried out. The great problem was how much of the technical artillery equipment and signal gear could be carried on man-back, and how much and what items could be put into one truck. For it became clear that the acute transport shortage which had worried the battery with earlier stages of its training was going to be nothing to the almost complete absence of vehicles after a beach landing. As the pressure increased and the official orders began to come out the checking and packing of equipment began in earnest. The battery quartermaster sergeant, Staff-Sergeant C. S. Forde, suddenly found that ordnance was fulfilling his indents with incredible speed. Stores, which had been on requisition for months, suddenly came rolling in and much more besides-—some were actually offered without being asked for, a circumstance calculated to galvanise any good quartermaster to hectic activity. Clothing dropped in like manna from heaven, and there was now no excuse for rags and tatters. The cynics carefully explained that as ordnance had to move it page 183was much easier for them to push all their stuff out to units. Perhaps so, but still it was found to be no joke moving from one uncivilised country to another. Take the little matter of boxes and crates. In New Zealand there had been plenty of boxes, plenty of board timber, of nails, wire, etc., but here it was not so. The locally produced timber was in short supply, was heavy and sometimes green, so that the nails failed to hold. Nevertheless, the carpentry team under Gunners J. K. Banks and C. G. Smith, by keeping hard at it with a will, made in a week all the boxes and crates necessary to carry the battery equipment—and nothing heavier than a two-man load, or so the orders went, for it was found that in the eyes of some packers, the battery must have been composed largely of Samsons and Sandows.
There was time for another live shell practice, this time close to the camp, and a good round of small arms firing, before the move began in earnest. It opened for the battery with the lending of 20 drivers and 10 trucks to help in the moving of the 14th Brigade on the long run from their area at Taom right down to Nouméa. There a last minute reorganisation was caused by the departure of those who had volunteered to join the Air Force, including Captain J. P. Cooney who had been battery captain for the last five months, and the arrival of reinforcements to bring the unit up to full strength. Captain K. R. G. Macindoe came as battery captain. Tents were struck on 17 August and on the night of the 20th the main body of the unit moved to Nouméa—a long dusty run, which according to orders had to be completed to time at all costs. One battery truck, the driver blinded by dust and approaching headlights, left the road and capsized. No one was hurt, and the occupants, driver and all, mounted the next truck and carried on, blithely and completely, again according to orders, abandoning a battery truck contrary to established routine. In the hot sun of an early Nouméan morning a tired and dusty band gathered by Nickel Dock to make the next step forward in their military history.
It was, however, in the recreational life in Necal that the battery had laid such a solid foundation of effort and good comradeship. For glamour, perhaps the swimming in the padre's pool took first place. It was a boon to all, and a popular rendezvous. Highlights were learners' sessions, until only one per cent could not swim, and polo matches, and carnivals. The page 184regular polo team was Sergeants Norman, Tolson, and Robertson, Bombardier Tolson and Gunners Hutchins, Thompson and Watson, who defeated all comers save the redoubtable 1st Scots. Carnivals progressed from a simple domestic one, to a night meeting with ATD under the lights of trucks, Coleman lamps and torches, and culminated in the grand occasion when the battery made history in the division by entertaining the newly arrived WAACs to an afternoon of mixed swimming sports. They joined in with a will, but nobody remembers the serious side of the day. as the water polo was the big event. Here 'Tubby' Norman played the big man until the girls got to him and well and truly sank him, while a new trick was discovered when it was found that some of our players deliberately courted tackling by the visitors. It was hard to leave that pool.
In other sports too, we had much fun and some success. Athletics particularly, seemed to suit us, for the battery team won the 15th Brigade championships against many much larger units. Star performers were Spencer Wade (880 yards), Dick Boyd (½ mile walk), John Preston (high jump), Tolson brothers (saw cut) and the tug-o'-war team lead by Slim Cuimming. That night was the first beer issue, so victory was well and happily celebrated. Members of the battery also did well in the divisional championships, where Spencer Wade won the mile comfortably, and Major Fahey amidst great enthusiasm and amusement won his heat in the field officer's bicycle race and came third in the final. In cricket there were many good games. Memorable were the infliction of its only defeat on the 54th Anti-tank Battery when the battery scored 200 for seven wickets (Dentice 88 not out) against the opponent's total of 67, and the 7th Field Ambulance game when Dentice and Lust passed the opponent's score of 113 before each retired. Throughout the games Bill Miller, Dentice and Murray shone with the bat, and Miller and Price with the ball. Rugby, of course, had to be played, notwithstanding the hard grounds, heat, and lack of footwear. The system of playing as many men as possible gave all interested the opportunity of displaying their form, and Angus Mackay as selector was constantly experimenting. The most notable of many friendly games and hard tussles were with our rivals and neighbours, the 29th MT Company. 'Punter' Burns captained the first XV and later representative teams also, while 'Wrong Way' Bill Green, 'Off Side' Colin Hardie, and 'Warrior' Ted page 185White, to mention only a few, always played sound strong football in the good New Zealand tradition. In soccer too, the battery was to the fore. Here, with poor support at the beginning, the enthusiasts worked up a team which won through to the finals of the Dove Cup, and after two strenuous draws 'halved' the cup with BRD. Prior to joining the battery only five members of this team had ever played soccer before, and the success was a tribute not only to the enthusiasm of Jock Williamson and Shorty Baker, but also to the keen willing spirit in the battery.
But all this was behind us, that sweltering morning on the Nickel Docks. It was not so good now. A climb, laden with full equipment up the rope nets hanging down the tall—very tall —sides of the US Hunter Liggett followed by a descent into the stuffy depths which, although we didn't know then, were to be our home for the next eleven days, gave a taste of things to come. The move to Guadalcanal was to be combined with amphibious training. We were not quite sure what that last expression meant; but we soon found out.
A few days later, after the usual round of general quarters and abandon ship stations, we arrived at Vila in the New Hebrides. Here, amidst scenes of tropical beauty which affected even the most hardened, amphibious training began by climbing up and down the sides of the ship carrying nothing at all, and working up to the climax of a full scale landing exercise with all equipment including guns, vehicles and ammunition, which were unloaded from the ship's hold to landing craft, and then manhandled up the soft sand of the beach. By nightfall the battery was ashore, fully deployed for action, and in need of rest. The usual rain that night served merely to soak but not to wake the sleepers. In the course of the 'action' Gunner Brightwell became our first casualty—a falling coconut can deliver no mean blow, and he was laid away for several days. The exercise had given everyone far greater confidence in the handling of equipment over land and water, and had convinced all ranks that no matter how difficult it was to get all the men and guns and vehicles and stores off the ship, on to the landing craft, on to the beach and up into the jungle, it was vastly more difficult to get all the stuff back on to the ship again. No withdrawal could therefore be contemplated. Life on board ship was only just bearable. The ventilating system kept failing and without a draught of air the living quarters became unbelievably page 186foul. The mess deck had the atmosphere of a turkish bath. Sleeping on deck at night helped ('the smoking lamp is out, topside'), and after many complaints on the highest level had failed, Lieutenant R. N. Grono completely restored the ventilation by privately arranging with one of the ship's electrical staff to refrain from switching off the fan motors. A few mornings later, after eleven days on board ship, we were steaming along the coast of Guadalcanal making preparations for a hurried disembarkation. We were now within range of the Japanese bombers, as many good ships had found to their cost, and it was essential to complete unloading in the fastest possible time. The troops were on their mettle, and in 7 hours 50 minues the ship lay empty. We, and all that belonged to us, were ashore upon that island of which we had heard so much. The time was a record for the ship.
Ashore, Lance-Sergeant Robertson, as our advanced party man, led the way to the allotted camp-site—on a series of bare rocky spurs overlooking the strip of battered jungle and coconut palms fringing the coast. It was hard back and tool-breaking work digging the camp in; it was roasting hot in the sun; any water, fresh or salt, was far away; and early opinions of the man who chose the site were not favourable. However, as time wore on and our stay lengthened from days into months, we ceased to envy those camped in the jungle, for we had few mosquitoes, not much mud, and a fresh breeze every day. These more than compensated for the rocky ground—and then there was the view. From a height of about 300 feet we looked out over the Savo Sea, the grave of many ships, to Florida and Tulagi, blue in the distance, while round to the right was the shipping in Lunga Roads, and behind us, swinging out to the left to end in the grand point of Cape Esperance, were the high ridges and peaks of the central mountains—the whole painted in the ever-changing richness of the tropical colouring, and seen against a moving panorama of gleaming cloud masses set in the brilliant sky. Many times on the island base were we bored, tired, hungry, bad-tempered, and ill and many times cursed the fate that brought us there, yet not one remained unimpressed by the glory of that scene, and in retrospect its beauty gives to memory a glamour which experience lacked.
Camp construction was, of course, the first requirement, but the battery was in an operational area, and as soon as the bare page 187necessities of tents, cook-houses, and fox-holes had been done, improvements to living conditions had to be fitted in with the other main pre-occupations of the time-training and working parties. For the first time training could be carried out tinder conditions similar to those in which we expected to fight. This meant careful attention by the officers to shooting at targets hidden in the depths of the jungle, and by signallers to the problems of wireless and communications under these conditions. Plenty of 25-pounder ammunition was available so that the officers were allowed to have a series of practice shoots with the guns of the three batteries of the 38th Field Regiment. The targets were built to resemble Japanese fox-holes cunningly concealed in the jungle, and observation was from covered trenches only some 50 to 100 yards from the target. In these conditions it was imperative to judge the fall of the shell from the sound of the burst in the jungle, as few bursts could be seen. Later, in the bottom of a jungle-covered ravine near the camp, a miniature range was constructed to scale, where directional hearing was further trained by listening to the correctly placed shot of a Tommy gun, fired by a perspiring gunner crawling amongst the mud, rotten vegetation and insects. Here the proceedings were rudely interrupted one day when an unfortunate signaller thought himself attacked by dragons—it turned out to be only a lizard but it was five feet long. Before the 38th Field Regiment moved on to the Treasuries the battery had further practice in manoeuvring and shooting with it under regimental control. The signallers found their task immensely difficult—the physical exertion alone was tiring even to the strongest. As an example it is recorded that on one occasion between two points only a mile apart on the map it was necessary because of the heavy jungle and precipitous ravines, to lay three and a half miles of telephone wire and it took three and a quarter hours to do it. Wire had to be laid, because in the hot dampness amongst the dense and tall foliage wireless was unreliable. Nevertheless by hard training and with the aid of practice morse sets rigged in the mess, the signallers improved their technique noticeably, as a result of which they were later to earn much praise. There was also a spate of small-arms training. With plenty of ammunition allotted interesting practices and competitions could be arranged with rifle, pistol, Bren and Tommy-gun, and even the much despised anti-tank rifle. Competitions with neighbouring units, and sweeps page 188on the results provided an interest which helped to counterbalance the general lack of facilities for recreation. There were also round trips taken in groups through the jungle to accustom all ranks to cross country work in the tropics. It was found, though, that these held no terrors for the average bush-conscious New Zealander, and indeed many of the hardier spirits roamed occasionally for recreation in the mountains.
Working parties of course were endless. Guadalcanal was being built by the American forces into a great forward base, and unlimited quantities of stores of all kinds had to be unloaded from ships and taken to dumps. The only manpower available was that already on the island, so all troops had to be used, black and white, American and New Zealand. Our usual stamping ground was Kukum Beach, and when built, Kukum Pier. Here by virtue of long sweaty association at all hours of the day and night we worked in well with the nearby American units on similar jobs and found a ready willingness to provide us with some of the more attractive specimens of their equipment. It was the genesis of the verse that later seemed to us to be so appropriate. A parody of the American marine's hymn, its authorship is not claimed by the battery, but it is printed here to preserve an amusing, if grossly exaggerated, picture of one side of the battery's activities:—
From the wharves of 'Uncle Kukum'
To the shores of Pinipel,
We maintain the reputation
Which we have earned so well,
We handle crates and cases,
Bombs, rations, and machines
While we load the stores and win the wars
For the United States marines.
We labour in the daytime
And beneath the floodlight glare,
While a never-ending line of trucks
Appear from everywhere.
They do not guess that our prowess
Is all behind the scenes.
As we do the chores and pinch the stores
Of the United States marines. page 189
Oh! they call us 'jungle smashers'
And they say that we fight the Japs,
And we wear the shoulder flashes
Just to show we've been in scraps,
But the booty we have taken there
Is nothing when it's seen
By the blomning pile we've captured
From the United States marines.
During the first month or so, new surroundings and the excitement of the occasional air raid, and the hope of moving into action fairly soon, kept spirits up, but gradually interest flagged and it was difficult to find any stimulus for effort. Individual resource, however, triumphed in the end and many spare moments were spent in making the odd trinkets and knife handles dear to a Kiwi's heart, and in 'rest' periods the battery area clanged like a foundry. Many local card games, and Dean Paris's 'housey' whiled away evenings. The major's account of his visit of inspection to the Japanese position on Kolom-bangara provided interest and discussion. Committees were formed to run cricket, tenakoits, baseball, soccer, and swimming, but in the combination of the heat and hard ground the last was the only really effective effort. No one could resist the joy of that tepid blue sea, and the construction of a swimming pool in a rock bound corner on the beach enabled a carnival to be held, which cheered us up immensely. Good fresh water showers at the camp site, ingeniously designed by the battery sergeant-major, were invaluable and much credit was due to the regular solid work of the various groups responsible for keeping the camp life going although at the time these men did not receive the general recognition they deserved. The organisation built up and tested in New Caledonia now proved itself, with much credit to the men concerned. For instance the anti-malarial squad under Lance-Bombardier Lewis had a hard task to cover a wide area round the camp, clean out swamps and creeks and keep a constant watch for standing water. These methods effectively kept down the dreaded anopheles in the camp area. Then there Was-the sanitary side under Gunner O'Reilly, and the water supply under Gunner Cargill, both of whom worked at thankless tasks in good spirit. In the office Lance-Sergeant Simpson had to-cope with a multitude of tasks from making out pay rolls to page 190winding the air raid siren on the nightly condition red. The canteen was run by Gunner Dentice who rationed out the limited supplies with even hand, while Lance-Sergeant McKay kept the accounts. Bombardier Cronin watched over the RAP with much practical experience and ever-ready advice. Last but not least were the cooks. The hardships of cooking army rations with improvised equipment and in the tropical heat were indeed severe and it is remarkable that the cooks produced the good results they did. Another group of men who carried out most responsible jobs were the mechanics under Lance-Sergeants Burns and Garr, who kept the battery vehicles on the road, and the artificers under Bombardier Knowles, who kept the guns in order. These tasks meant skilled work in rough workshops and in emergencies. One of the highlights of the mechanics' efforts was the reconstruction of our 'shadow' jeep. Abandoned obviously a long time ago, at the bottom of a steep gully on Guadalcanal, we found a sadly wrecked jeep. It was suggested that it would be good practice in the use of the tractor winches to pull the wreck up the cliff the necessary 100 feet or so to the track above. This being done, the mechanics, amongst whom Gunner May was prominent, being trained to be curious, discovered the engine to be sound, and thus began a great scheme which was no less than to effect a complete repair to the whole jeep. After many weeks of work, assisted by supplies of several vital spare parts from ordnance, the job was finished, painted, and put on the road. As the battery was entitled to possess only one jeep, the reconstructed one was given the same marks and number as the official jeep. Its use was governed by discreet rules, the most important of which was that on no account was it to become involved in a collision with its official twin, for this would have not been easy to explain. It was later taken forward —duly noted on the official schedules—to Nissan Island where in the mud and coral rock it did yeoman service, and returned ultimately with the battery vehicles to New Caledonia. It could not be brought back to New Zealand as officially it did not exist, and so it was finally given to a United States Navy transport ship.
Changes in personnel occurred towards the end of the pre-Christmas period. Several went back as over-age, among whom was Lieutenant I. N. Grono. Captain Macindoe left to take command of 35th Battery and was replaced by Captain P. M. Blun-page 191dell, who came to us from Vella where he had won the Military Cross in action with 17th Field Regiment. The CQMS, Staff-Sergeant Forde, left for medical reasons, and Staff-Sergeant D. S. Paris took his place. Captain Ross left B troop to become adjutant of the 38th Regiment, in place of Captain. James who came to our B troop. Lieutenant Groom became CPO as Lieutenant Bain had gone to the 17th Field Regiment, and Lieutenant Jordan, ACPO. Lieutenants Leckie and Cleal also joined us again after being away since early New Caledonia days. Padre Castle had left in July, and Padre Ward had taken his place soon after our arrival on Guadalcanal. He was not with us for more than a couple of months when he, too, left, and Mr R. G. Qearwater, YMCA secretary, was posted to us.
With the approach of Christmas, coral paths and young coconut palms made their appearance in the camp and improvements were made to the men's mess. A new cook house was planned and laid out. The battery Christmas card, designed by the major, and drawn by Harry Fleck, showed the spirit of the times. This card was prompted by the card received from Headquarters Div Arty, which showed a single Kiwi with one leg on Vella Lavella and one on Mono, and merely conveyed Christmas wishes without comment. As a variation in interest the December practice shoot contained a smoke screen effort, to be put down in front of a band of 'commandos' led by Sergeant Anderson. The screen was put down in front of them all right, but only just, and these intrepid spirits received a rude shock, and were not silent about it on their return to the gun positions. A direct laying gun competition was won by Sergeant Norman, who was satisfied he had landed his shell dead on the target. After a visit to the target area he was rather more silent about his effort. Christmas was celebrated in a three-day programme, including a swimming carnival and a race meeting. Christmas dinner in the men's mess, served by the officers, with lashings of American turkey was a welcome feast, and the issue of beer produced a festive spirit culminating in an evening sing-song. The race meeting was notable for the number of hitherto unknown steeds of doubtful parentage which lined up to the barrier. For instance there were Sergeant Garr's Hangover by Juice out of Jungle; Bombardier Swinburne's Starvation by Always out of Rations; Sergeant Nolan's Mistake by Split Pin out of Buffer, and Major Powle's page 192Chagrin by Left out of Battle. In this way, and helped by the 'Natpat' parcels, it was not such a bad Christmas.
A few days afterwards the major was summoned to 'Div Arty' at Vella Lavella, and then rumours had full play. The odd cries of 'Home's the caper' which of late had been heard from certain HQ tents redoubled in force, but the knowing ones wagged their heads and plumped for a move north and not south. A message from the major ordering the cessation of building operations made the move a certainty, for every time in the battery's history a new cookhouse had been built or partly built, the battery had immediately been ordered to move on. On his return the news was told—the battery was to take part in the division's next operation—the occupation of Nissan. It was a strange feeling to have been for so long on the verge of encounters which never came off and now to be definitely allocated to a task.
Now, of course, all activity became purposeful, and work was carried out with noticeable zest. Packing was an old story, and presented no problems. Equipment was in good shape-thanks to care by everyone, and was fairly complete, particularly as regards personal gear for the issue of jungle suits had greatly improved the clothing position. When preliminary orders for the operation came out, however, it was seen that a great deal of organisation would be required to fit the battery into the scheme. The battery was to take part in the landing, and most of the equipment and personnel were to go in the first echelon of ships and landing craft. Control and observation parties had to land early, with the infantry, and the remainder had to be split up amongst several vessels to fit in with the requirements of other units and of the various landing beaches. In all, the battery was to travel in eight different vessels—APDs, LCIs, and LSTs. Personnel were shuffled round, and the right man put into approximately the right place. Then a full scale exercise with all equipment was carried out just to make sure that the various bits and pieces fitted together properly.
The kitchen at the Artillery Training Depot in New Caledonia. Below: During the landing at Falamai, in the Treasuries, direct hits were scored by the Japanese on some o1 the guns. This shows part of the equipment destroyed
The Governor-General of New Zealand, Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Sir Cyril Newall, meeting personnel of the Artillery Training Depot in New Caledonia. Below: Guns of the 144th Independent during a calibration shoot on Nissan
After more live shell practice everything was ready and on 11 February the first parties—those in the slowest ships, the LSTs—loaded and left, followed on succeeding days by the remainder of the first echelon, and leaving with no regrets the rest under Captain Blundell to clear up and come on later. A call was made at Vella Lavella to pick up 14th Brigade units, and when the advanced parties in the APDs touched there a practice landing was carried out. This was most useful, as it provided the first opportunity to contact the 30th Battalion and know its detailed plan. Then the convoy sailed forward to its rendezvous off Nissan Island, where with a precision we all greatly admired, all the various groups of vessels of different speeds and sizes together with their escorts, duly arrived on time in the dark of the early morning on 15 February. On the way up air attacks had been made on us, but the air cover was far too good for the enemy and the only effect was to add to the excitement of the page 194troops, and to do no damage. According to plan the first wave of assault troops moved oft in small landing craft, passed through the entrance and at 0640 hours hit the beach on the lagoon side of Pokonian Plantation. This first wave consisted of 200 men, of whom 150 were from the 30th Battalion, 40 were 144th Battery, and ten were 208th Light AA Battery. This high proportion of gunners in a party of shock troops may have been a tribute to the fighting qualities of artillery personnel, but it was hardly appreciated at the time. There was no opposition but there were anxious moments to be gone through before this was discovered. The next feeling was one of complete familiarity as we recognised objects long well known from air photographs and even identified individual trees. The whole complicated machinery of landing operations now functioned steadily in the absence of any contact with the Japanese.
A furious fusillade from an LCI moving in to the most southern of Pokonian beaches indicated a discovery of something. The - A troop observation party under Captain Grant moving south with C Company of 30th. Battalion were forced to take hurried cover, but the firing stopped in a few minutes and nothing more was heard. Whether anything hostile was in that locality was doubtful. The observation party carried on, laying telephone line as it went, and by 1100 hours was able to commence registration, for the first gun had by then been landed and was in position. A number of ranging shots, fired during the day, helped the forward infantry to fix their positions on the map. Back at the Pokonian Plantation, Lance-Bombardier White, driving the battery's only gun tractor, had a strenous and difficult job towing the guns off the LST at a landing place which proved most unsatisfactory—deep in sea water and mud with scattered lumps of jagged coral rock. Vehicles stuck and heavy loads fell off into the sea, but by 1700 hours all guns of A troop and the necessary ammunition had been put into position by this one tractor. In the meantime B troop observation party under Captain James, had landed on Barahun Island with B Company, 30th Battalion. The transhipment of the B troop guns, complete with one jeep, and the rest of the personnel from the other side of the lagoon was made very quickly in small craft. The guns were all put into position by the one jeep, driven by Gunner B. Phillips, by 1400 hours, thus being all in position before A troop, contrary to expectations. B troop proceeded to range on various points, page 195and then engaged its first real target. A Japanese barge, hidden amongst overhanging trees on the shore of Sirot Island, was exchanging fire with an LCI gunboat, which could not see its opponent well. From his position in a landing craft Captain James was able to see it better, and silenced it with several rounds of gunfire. B troop guns were firing directly over the Pokonian landing beach, and over A troop's position, and several times had to stop firing because the LSTs barrage balloons got in the line of fire.
Nightfall found the battery in several groups—the BC's party and the A troop observation party about a mile and a half south of Pokonian Plantation with A and C company of the 30th Battalion; the two troop gun positions and the battery command post in the Pokonian Plantation area within about a quarter of a mile of one another; and the B troop observation party north on Barahun Island with B Company 30th Battalion. It had been a hard day, but everyone had reason to be satisfied for, while the infantry had been told not to expect artillery support until the following day, the battery had found it possible to be ready to give such support after midday on the first day. The training in speed of movement had been justified. As yet little was known of the enemy's whereabouts, so defensive fire tasks were arranged for the night, and in the forward areas all went to ground in defended posts. As the night wore on a few bombs were dropped from casual enemy raiders, and in the Pokonian Plantation area there was little rest. Here a large number of troops had by now been landed, including. New Zealand and American anti-aircraft units, and supply units, and New Zealand Divisional Artillery Headquarters, and Third Division Headquarters. It was inevitable that a few should find the darkness and night noises too much for their excited nerves, with the result that shots were fired and grenades thrown in various directions. One or two well-known individuals in the battery contributed to the night's entertainment, a fact which they were not allowed to forget for a long time. In the forward areas there was comparative quiet, apart from the insistent clamour of the jungle noises to which we had by now become partially accustomed, but on Barahun Island, by a tragic accident, Gunner Mouldey was accidentally shot.
The next day was a settling-in period for the gun positions, while on both our fronts the observation parties moved forward page 196with the infantry, in the north clearing Barahun Island, and in the south advancing well down towards the mission. In both cases ranging shots were fired systematically and regularly so as to be ready to open fire whenever required. It was now known that parties of Japanese were concentrated in the mission area, and that there were also some on Sirot Island to the north of Barahun, so that preparations were being made to close in on them. By this time the engineers were hard at work making roads south from Pokonian with bulldozers, and wherever the bulldozer went they broke our telephone wires. It had not been possible to lay out on the map beforehand the routes of the roads, and no matter how far from existing tracks our wires were laid it seemed to the sweating signallers that the bulldozers deliberately sought them out. Wire laying in the jungle is most exhausting work, and by keeping solidly at it during the whole period of the action the signallers kept line communications going but only by laying 28 miles of wire in five days before the island was cleared of the enemy. Wireless communications among all parts of the battery was at all times first class and in the case of the party moving north was the only means of communication. Indeed our wireless links on the northern front were frequently the only means by which the infantry company could, and did, communicate with its battalion headquarters. The work of the battery signallers in the action and in particular of Sergeant N. Sample, the NCO in charge, was recognised later by the award to him of a mention in despatches.
The second night was quieter, and early next morning the battery made its first change of position. The infantry were to land on and clear Sirot Island, and an artillery concentration was required on their landing beach just prior to landing. A troop therefore turned right about, took up a position facing north, and joined with B troop in firing this concentration. The infantry advances to the north and south were now getting beyond range from our original positions so that the day was quiet from our point of view and opportunity was taken to reconnoitre positions for each troop so as to cover the final areas where enemy opposition was expected. At first light on the 18 February a further stage in the battery's unorthodox movements was begun. A troop moved south some three miles over a rough jungle track to a position in a native clearing from which the whole of the bottom end of Nissan Island could be reached. A troop observa-page 197tion party had a strenuous tussle with mangrove swamps and very thick undergrowth in order to reach a point giving a good view of the mission and waited for some time half-submerged in water for the order to commence ranging. The plan for the following day required a series of concentrations on selected spots in the mission area to be put down by A troop and by 37 Battery, 17 Field Regiment, which would then also be covering this area. The necessary ranging for these concentrations could not be done until our patrols were known to be well clear, which was not until about half an hour before dark. By this time the A troop observation party had been withdrawn to within the forward infantry's night perimeter, and the ranging for the troop and for 37th Battery was carried out by our BC from a conveniently commandeered native canoe paddled out into the lagoon. B troop's move this day had been distinctly amphibious, as it took ship complete in an LCT and moved to the northern tip of Barahun Island. While it was on the way, the infantry on Sirot Island called for fire upon a suspected area and the B troop observation party, which had remained in close touch, was able to comply by using a troop of 37th Battery, following a previous arrangement whereby this troop was to be on call to us during the move. This was all the artillery fire that was to be required on Sirot Island, as the enemy party was overcome that day, and B troop thus made no use of its new position. There were, however, compensations, for the guns were at the water's edge on a perfect beach of coral sand, and swimming was the order of the day for all off duty personnel.
All this movement, and the dispersion of the various groups of the battery had thrown a great strain on the battery's transport —one jeep and two tractors—and much credit is due to the drivers. The battery's jeep—the official one—in particular proved itself time and again. After its initial performance of pulling a whole troop into action, it was continually on the move supplying and carrying reliefs to forward parties, carrying ammunition, messages, and on reconnaissance. In the first three days, when roads were practically non-existent, it covered 247 miles over mud, roots and rocks and in swamps and sea water, nearly all in double low gear and sometimes with incredible loads. All ranks came to regard that little vehicle with admiration and affection.
On the morning of the 19th the concentrations on the mission area were duly fired, and the infantry closed in from both sides page 198—the 35th Battalion from the east and the 30th Battalion from the west, but found nothing but signs of hasty evacuation. At nightfall the battery was informed that the enemy party was believed to be east of the mission and that no further fire support would be required. The second echelon arrived next day in LSTs from Guadalcanal, bringing the remaining battery personnel and some much needed vehicles, and the BC reconnoitred for the battery's next position which was to be on the other side of the lagoon south of where the airstrip was being made, covering the south and east coasts against possible landings. During the day the enemy party was discovered unexpectedly to the west of the mission, near the native village of Taneheran, and about a mile south of A troop's gun position. Captain Grant with the A troop observation party was on the spot with Major Bullen of the 30th Battalion, whose task it was to deal with this situation. Grant was naturally most anxious to fire, but the decision was against the use of artillery in view of the necessity of keeping the enemy closely hemmed in on the cliff edge so that they would not escape us again. The complete success of Major Bullen's plan was its own justification, but needless to say A troop was very disappointed. Unwittingly the infantry had rubbed salt into our wound by commandeering our faithful jeep to bring up ammunition for their assault.
There was now nothing left to do but to proceed with the move to our new position and take up the static role for the defence of the island. There was still plenty of room for the unusual, and the BC's party carried on the battery tradition by making the move across the lagoon in native canoes. The navigation of these, complete with outriggers, proved an art more difficult to acquire than was at first apparent. A troop moved back to Pokonian Plantation and there embarked with battery headquarters upon an LCT which moved to Barahun Island and picked up B troop, before crossing to the other side of the lagoon. The combined mass of men, vehicles, guns and stores comprising all the battery and its goods and chattels crammed on to the deck of this craft was an extraordinary spectacle which cried out for cameras, but there were none available. After several energetic and crashing attempts in good American style to ram the craft in closer to the shore, we had to be content with taking off in four feet of water and wading some fifty page 199yards. It was an exhausted band which finally and very late in the day of 23 February arrived in the area of the new camp.
The new camp had been chosen from operational necessity, meaning that the guns had to be put into the positions required for their operational tasks, and the camp area had to be fitted in nearby. Each of the troop gun positions was in a small native clearing in the centre of the land strip forming that side of the island, and they were about 500 yards apart. The troop camps were in the thick jungle alongside the clearings. Battery headquarters was again about 500 yards away, on the edge of the lagoon, but also in thick jungle. Indeed we never ceased to wonder at the density of the growth and the height and size of the trees on this small coral atoll. Cutting them down was exhausting and dangerous work but it was essential to let in light and air to the camp sites and to clear fields of fire for the guns. Lance-Bombardier Ward was injured by a falling tree, and had to be evacuated to Guadalcanal, but fortunately made a good recovery. Now began what was to be easily the most uncomfortable few months in the battery's history. This perfect specimen of coral atoll complete with blue lagoon and coral beaches proved highly unsatisfactory to live on. Intense heat and suffocating humidity, a camp site infested with rats, strictly rationed supplies of fresh water, and very little opportunity for relaxation and none for change of scene, combined after a while to produce an exhaustion of spirit which could be combated only by constant effort. The usual working parties were accepted and borne with resignation, and the business of living occupied most of the time. For instance every effort had to be made to supplement the fresh water ration by using the rain. In the tropical downpours it was not unusual for two 40-gallon drums to be filled off one tent in about twenty minutes, and at the same time the occupants could strip and soap and wash themselves as well' as under a man-made shower. Food was sufficient in quantity but deadly dull in variety, and the occasional fish food from judicious grenade throwing in the lagoon was most welcome, as were several pork meals provided by the pigs left behind by the natives when they were removed to make way for the troops. One of the headquarter's cooks made fame by shooting at a lone fowl near the cookhouse and hitting a pig which was all unknown in the jungle some feet away. A spice of variety was added by the necessary organisation into three completely separate groups-—the two troops and page 200headquarters which each lived, cooked and ate by itself. But again the sea provided the main means of relaxation. The water in the lagoon was too warm to be refreshing, and the sea on the outer coast difficult of access and the Pacific rollers on the coral rocks too fearsome for all but the strongest swimmer, yet the daily bathe was always welcome. Then there was boating—starting with the voyage of the BC's party. The flagship of the fleet was a true New Zealand style 12-foot square bilge centre boarder, which sailed across the lagoon without any difficulty. This craft was built by Smith, Dickson and Lewis, and no one was indiscreet enough to ask where the timber came from.
And so the days of heat and mildew wore on. The principle event was the calibration of the guns. This was done by firing out to sea and observing the spots where the shells fell, and was spread over a number of days. It was a welcome change from routine, although somewhat of a busman's holiday. A combined American and New Zealand axeman's carnival was held on 1 April when the Tolson brothers again distinguished themselves at the cross-cut saw, and where the general's speech, with its indication of an impending return to New Zealand, gave rise to the usual crop of rumours. Sooner than expected definite orders came. Over half the battery was to be affected, but it still seemed that the division and with it the battery might be re-formed for a new task. On that morning of the battery parade when the BC explained the orders—a parade in name only, for all ranks gathered round sitting on the pandanus roots, which HQ men had walked on and tripped over for the last two months, and with choice items of washing hanging on tent lines over head— few really believed that this was the end of the old 144th. So much lay behind, so much unforgettable fellowship and achievement, and withal so little seemed really to have been done compared with the capacity we knew the battery had, that we recoiled from the thought that it was all over. Yet it was so, for immediately in the reorganisation of the artillery units for the move the battery was completely changed. With Major Spragg temporarily in command, Major Powles assumed command of the whole artillery draft going home. About half the personnel of the battery were transferred to other units and their places taken by men from those units who were to go in the first draft. Upon the usual packing rush, the false alarm for embarkation, the comfortable voyage to New Caledonia on USS Wharton, the eventual return page 201to New Zealand, it is not necessary to enlarge. For Nissan Island was our last corporate memory and it was there that was ended a life enriched by the comradeship of our fellows, a life which none of us will ever forget.