Headquarters: a brief outline of the activities of headquarters of the third division and the 8th and 14th Brigades during their service in the Pacific
Chapter Five — Overture to Action
Overture to Action
At last the movement of the division commenced. Large convoys rumbled up and down the main roadways day and night, day after day, as thousands of tons of munitions and equipment were transported to the loading site near the nickel docks in Nouméa. Morale was good, for after nine months of monotony, heat and mosquitoes the unit was to view new surroundings and perhaps see action. Where to? Nobody worried much about that. And the fact that conditions were to be much worse—well, nobody worried much about that either. They were on the move and that's all that counted.
The transplantation of the division to its new location was planned in three successive waves, each of which was to call at the New Hebrides for amphibious landings and training. The first sections began their journey to Nouméa on 14 August 1943 when K section and No. 1 combat team of E section (the section had been split in two) embussed from Taom at 9.15 pm for the bitterly cold and uncomfortable 8-hour night journey which lay ahead. Each man carried in addition to his web and sea-kit his chocolate emergency ration, 24 hours K ration, his field dressing and filled water bottle. The No. 2 combat team of E section journeyed south to Nouméa the following day, and the majority of K section embarked on the President Jackson. K section's rear party handed over the wireless link with division to operators of A wireless section who had journeyed up from Moindah to cover the move of the brigade rear party, and then the rear party together with E section's No. 2 combat team left for Nouméa to embark on the President Adams. Headquarters and No. 1 companies provided a working party from Moindah for page 176the wharf, and they, in cooperation with other parties, assisted in the steady movement aboard of equipment. Ship to shore communication was supplied by operators of A wireless section who manned No. 48 sets.
Countless are the number of times a man has to answer 'Present, Sir' to roll calls during his army career, but important though they are, nothing was seemingly more irksome to a signalman than the continual checking of embarkation rolls which took place as each man embarked. Perhaps it was not so much the constant checking which proved so wearying, but the fact of being laden with web, full pack, haversack, steel helmet, sea-kit, and a rifle thrown in for good measure—the latter always appearing to delight in almost strangling its owner as it swayed on the sling around his neck or on his shoulder. This dislike for embarkation rolls may not have been one-sided, however, as the administration staffs who compiled them had, on some occasions, to produce no fewer than 30 copies of each sheet of the rolls, and last minute changes to them were frequent.
Bathing was n all-the-year-round pastime in New Caledonia. Above is a view of the Bourail Beach to which troops were transported in trucks at weekends and on holidays. At Moindah Divisional Signals threw a dam across the river to form a fine swimmingpool. Inset is a water polo match in progress there
General Barrowclough and signals officers watching competitors race to the finishing line during a carnival on Christmas Day 1942
From tins transmitting hut at 'Gracefield' in ihc llasr Sianals area at Kourail over fifty thousand coded messages were transmitted to Wellington, Guadalcanal, Vella Lavella, Nissan Island and other places
Linesmen at the School of Signals, sited among the niaoulis at Ifomdah servicing cable with the assistance of the mechanical cable layers
At Moindah packing was proceeding apace as convoys left both for Nouméa with required equipment for the movement and to base ordnance with surplus stores. Sleeping tents were struck in the area and accommodation was then up to the individual. Some slept under the stars, while others improvised beds in the recreation hut or me?s rooms. X section, attached to the 29th Light AA Regiment, had moved to Ouenghi to await the movement order to proceed to Nouméa, and No. 1 company ceased its communications with J section. On 21 August the signal office at divisional headquarters closed down at 6 o'clock in the afternoon. The packing and forwarding of equipment had been completed, and the personnel of unit headquarters, headquarters company, and No. 1 company, after a supper of fried oysters, cheese, toast and a cup of tea, clambered into the vehicles of a convoy which left for Nouméa at 8.30 pm. They were farewelled by members of the School of Signals. The same day X section embarked on the Hunter Liggett at 10 am at Nouméa. On Sunday, 22 August, a bright sun thawed out cold bodies as the convoy of headquarters and No. 1 companies drew up at the nickel docks, Nouméa, at 8 am. They later embarked on the transport Fuller, being conveyed to the ship in the stream by landing craft. The FMC signal section embarked on the Hunter Ligget, which, with the Fuller, sailed on 24 August from Nouméa at 2.45 pm under similar naval protection as was afforded the earlier convoy. Aboard also, but contrary to orders, was Peep the unit's mascot.
Meanwhile E and K sections had participated in amphibious manoeuvres at Mélé Beach, Vila, the administrative centre of the New Hebrides group which is under the dual administration of Great Britain and France. These involved the full scale landing of troops and equipment. While ashore wireless silence was imposed but linemen reeled out some cable for a few 'phones in the brigade headquarters area. This convoy left Vila, Efate on the morning of 25 August at 6 am. The following day (26 August) saw the Div convoy arrive also at Vila where similar disembarkation exercise and manoeuvres commenced. Im-page 178mediately noticeable was the dense jungle and tropical appearance of the shore line. It was exceptionally hot. Higgins boats were lowered into the water and troops went down the nets with full web and equipment. It was a great sight as the fifty-odd landing craft ferried their 'invasion' complement ashore under the strafing sweeps of attacking 'enemy' aircraft. Coming in from high in the blue sky the planes left vapour trails as they dived at almost 400 miles an hour. On the following day the procedure was repeated, only on a larger scale, and a sprinkling of equipment such as wireless sets, bofors, guns, jeeps and trucks were taken ashore as if in a real show.
That night was spent ashore. No wireless communications were established apart from ship to shore using No. 48 sets, but a signal office was established, traffic being passed by despatch rider. A perimeter defence was established, the guard being relieved at regular intervals. It rained as only rain can fall in the tropics—and everyone tried the impossible task of keeping dry under improvised shelters in a plantation. The mosquitoes, of the malarious type, were thick, and it was thought that a few who eventually contracted malaria received their injection on that night. C and K rations provided meals. Palatable when one is hungry, they were a novelty on this first occasion. The C ration was contained in two small airtight tins, opened with a key. One contained biscuits, coffee, sugar cubes and candy and on emptying out the contents of the tin it could be used as a cup for the coffee. The other contained a meat ration of hash which was eaten cold. K rations were packed in three wax-sealed cardboard containers, one for each of the meals of the day, and between them they contained biscuits, coffee, cocoa, lemon and bullion powders, sugar, cheese, devilled ham, fruit mince, cigarettes and chewing gum. With the increased temperature the desire to drink excessive quantities of water became prevalent, but water was rationed on the ship to one water-bottle full a day. This thirst which haunts a person on each successive move to a hotter climate lasts, fortunately, for only a few days. On return to the ships troops were given a free day following the night in the open. Movies were screened on the transports, whilst a boxing tournament was held on the Hunter Liggett between New Zealand and US troops. On the morning of 30 August a dawn landing practice was carried out satisfactorily page 179and the ships sailed from Vila at 6 am on the following day. Soon after sailing further transports and escort vessels were met making an inspiring assembly of over 20 ships with Guadalcanal as their destination. An interlude occurred when some lookout troops on the Hunter Liggett and Fuller saw the wakes of torpedoes racing past their ships. An official enquiry disclosed that four torpedoes had been fired at the convoy without causing damage. An unconfirmed story stated that a destroyer which detached itself from the convoy located and destroyed the enemy submarine.
The journeys on these transports from New Caledonia to Guadalcanal were not pleasant experiences. Early each morning in the holds hot sticky bodies groped their way in the semi-darkness through rows of canvas bunks tiered five high to reach the decks for fresh air. The dark hours on the deck were the only ones that suggested any relief from the sun. During daylight hours the hot decks offered barely a single sheltered spot. To add to the discomfort, life jackets had to be worn at all times, and tin hats were kept handy for any eventuality. Messing was as on all US transports—twice daily—but even that seemed too often when it entailed moving in a queue which wove along the decks and corridors with snail-like progress to a mess room, the humidity of which heightened the discomfort of a temperature of 140 degrees. Sticky salt water was all that was available for toilet purposes. A shower was of little use, as sweat immediately nullified any sensation of freshness. Fatigues were prevalent. Sweeping decks, fire pickets, duty in the galleys (kitchen police) and look-outs were some of the categories required for the daily round of chores.
The convoy in which E and K sections were sailing had anchored off Point Cruz, Guadalcanal, at 9 am on 27 August. Everyone had been at the deck rails since daylight watching the changing contour of the island. Draped in jungle to the water's edge, with long belts of coconut plantations, the island rose majestically in a range of hills over which lay low clouds, some formed by the steam from the jungle. This was Guadalcanal—an island the name of which had become legend the world over. Along its coast lay wrecked Japanese transports, and on its beaches the remains of Japanese tanks. There wasn't much time to look around for sights of interest—the ships had to be un-page 180loaded—but immediately noticeable were the decapitated coconut palms which fringed the beach. The sections were soon over the sides of their transports and down the nets into the landing craft for the trip ashore. The holds, however, still had to be unloaded and selected working parties sweated as they operated winches and manoeuvred vehicles and cases into barges to be ferried to the beach. The speedy turn around of the transports was vital. They were logical targets for enemy planes which might manage to slip through the cover supplied by aircraft overhead. With the last item of equipment on the beach, a record for the unloading of ships had been created and this drew favourable comment from the chiefs of the allied forces. It was a great effort and proof of the team spirit which existed within the force. The sections then moved to their allocated areas close to the beach where they commenced to establish communications, erect their camps and dig fox-holes. The wireless silence remained imposed, but a despatch rider letter service was instituted and lines were quickly laid to the three batteries and within the brigade area.
On 2 September G and J sections embarked at Nouméa on the President Jackson with the commencement of the movement northwards of the 8th Brigade Group. The convoy sailed two days later at 3 pm. On 3 September the convoy, which included the two ships on which unit headquarters, headquarters company, No. 1 company, X section and FMC signals were travelling dropped anchor about half a mile from Guadalcanal's shore at 10.30 am. Everyone had been confined to the almost untenable heat of the holds where they stood in readiness, complete with web, pack and rifle, awaiting the order to disembark. This actually commenced before the ship had stopped moving, and as waves of men went over the sides on the nets they were swallowed up by Higgins boats which speedily plied them to the shore. Many types of barges were soon in commission ferrying equipment from the transports to Kukum Beach, which was on the northern side of the famous Matanikau River. Unloading parties were left in the transports, and on the beach a large party from the unit was utilised in unloading the barges, irrespective of the ownership of the cargo. Once again the transports were prize targets for the enemy torpedo bombers as they lay off shore, and it became necessary to get them away page 181quickly again. Ship to shore communications, using No. 48 sets, were maintained to the Fuller during the unloading operations, while the unit's allied contemporaries did likewise to the Hunter Liggett. K rations provided the food for the inner man that day, but the exceptional heat on the beach led to many cases of fruit juices being broached as the toilers endeavoured to quench their thirsts. The beach itself soon became a dump of gigantic proportions.
Jap forces which swept south through the Solomon Islands against little or no opposition had been halted at Guadalcanal by US forces some months previously. Prolonged and at times severe fighting had ensued before the enemy were driven from the islands. He poured in reinforcements after the initial landings and contested every inch of ground in a way which made it clear that withdrawal from the Solomons was no part of his plans. The island itself, however, was not entirely out of the danger zone, and air raids by enemy aircraft still prevailed. Large transports off the shore and shore installations were often victims of these attacks. Measuring 92 miles long by 33 miles wide at its greatest width, the 'Canal' had little pre-war background. Its only commonly known commercial aspect was the Lever Bros, coconut plantations which paralleled the shore line in symmetrical rows for almost the length of the island. The coconuts, however, had not been picked since the Japanese occupation of the island in 1942, with the result that coconuts falling from their lofty twigs proved almost as dangerous as falling bombs. To the rear of the plantations was the jungle and ranges of the interior. The highest peak, Popomanasiu, rose to 8005 feet. From these ranges flowed many large rivers and amongst those which readily come to mind are the Matanikau and the Lunga—both scenes of bloody action.
On the conclusion of the unloading, members of headquarters and No. 1 companies, who had been assisting, left the beach to join their respective companies who were now at the divisional area on a grass-covered coral ridge where the battle of the 'Grassy Knoll' was fought. This was about a mile from the landing point. Everywhere there was evidence of the recent conflict, fox-holes, dugouts and shell holes pockmarked the ground. There were live hand grenades and booby traps all over the area, and extreme care had to be taken when moving about. page 182No tents were available that night so everyone slept on camp stretchers under the stars with mosquito nets improvised around their cots. Members of FMC signal section remained on the beach overnight, drawing their cots under some trees where they could string up their mosquito nets for added comfort. The following morning (4 September) No. 1 company was quickly on the job, opening a signal office and an exchange with 12 connections at 9 am. A temporary despatch rider service was also instituted. X section had accompanied the 29th Light Anti-aircraft Regiment to an adjacent area on the same ridge where they immediately opened a signal office at their regimental headquarters and laid lines to the 208th and 209th batteries.
All the unit's equipment was being gradually transported by vehicles from the beach to the camp area. Tents were erected and sites were prepared for signal installations and cookhouses. Fox-holes were on the priority list, logs being utilised in their construction to provide protection from anti-aircraft shrapnel which seemed more dangerous than the bombs dropped—apart from a direct hit. Extreme difficulties were experienced in maintaining line communication. Some disused lines were taken over by B cable section, but these were found to be in poor condition. Mobile cranes, graders, bulldozers and falling trees contributed to the constant faults that occurred and gave linesmen a foretaste of the setbacks they were going to receive from this source in future operations. E section prided itself in being the first to produce a news sheet, but it was closely followed by other sections who utilised some of their faster operators to 'take off' the Macky radio press news from station KFS, San Francisco. Water was scarce but a water-point about half a mile away provided facilities for clothes washing. Numerous efforts to divine water in camps were made, but in this they were unsuccessful.
FMC signals utilised their own truck to move themselves and equipment from the beach to their area where a signal office commenced to function and the wireless crew reconnoitred for a suitable location to erect the 250-watt transmitter to form the rear link to base, 1,000 miles away in New Caledonia. This was installed in a 4-man prefabricated hut on a ridge, about a mile further inland from FMC. The site had been carefully chosen because of the facilities afforded for the erection of directional transmitting aerials. The power plant, an Onan three kilowatt page 183generator, was mounted on a base of coconut logs, aerials were erected, and on 7 September—three days after leaving the beach a wireless communication with base signals was established. With all sections completely set up the first signal diagram for the forward area was issued by unit headquarters, and liaison with the American forces was visible when divisional headquarters became included in the American courier service.
From 6 September to 11 September G and J sections participated in amphibious manoeuvres at Efate, New Hebrides, similar to those undertaken by their predecessors, the 14th Brigade and Third Divisional Headquarters. General Barrowclough flew from New Caledonia and Guadalcanal respectively to witness each manoeuvre. The general also visited the transports and chatted with the men.
On Guadalcanal D section's signal office was functioning with a complete setup and the traffic being handled was heavy. Apart from the rear link operated by the FMC section no wireless links were maintained within the force. Members of A section therefore found themselves fair game for camp construction duties. Lines were laid locally and to the 14th Brigade, CCS, 10th Mobile Dental, ammunition dump, 144th Independent Battery, 29th Light AA Regiment, Divisional Artillery HQ, and FMC headquarters. 22nd Field Ambulance and trunk lines to US exchanges. Bombs broke some of these lines during air-raids. A despatch rider service covering all New Zealand and some American units was inaugurated. For protection the exchange was put underground in an over-size fox-hole. In spite of the heavy air losses the enemy continued to endeavour to penetrate the defenses with spasmodic raids. Several alarms—or conditions red as they were officially known—on which nothing seemingly happened, provided the first experience of a speedy retirement to fox-holes. Legend had it that TojoVs son lost his life in the fighting on Guadalcanal, and to avenge his death an air attack-was consistently made on the thirteenth of each month—the date of his death. As if to prove this legend, 13 September 1943 proved no exception, and during the night enemy bombers endeavoured to attack the Henderson airfield. At the first sound of the anti-aircraft guns going into action everyone dived for fox-holes, but the excitement was too much to miss and it was not long before personnel were outside again. The hillside loca-page 184tion of the camp provided an ideal grandstand for the ack ack, searchlights and enemy planes as repeated attempts were made to bomb the airfield. The Nips dropped five bombs that night. A spectacular incident often recounted occurred the night a lone fighter aircraft climbed into the black sky patterned with searchlights to destroy, within a few seconds of each other, two Japanese bombers caught in a cone of silver beams. The cheering from the diminutive figures on the ground who had crawled out of their fox-holes to witness the spectacle must have vibrated around the island.
The approach of enemy planes—or bogeys—was usually detected _by radar stations situated around the coast. A warning was then issued by the American anti-aircraft unit to New Zealand divisional headquarters. From the D office exchange the 'condition red' was relayed throughout the division per medium of the exchanges at each formation headquarters. Each individual unit then sounded an alarm within its own camp. The all clear was announced by the same procedure. X section became the focal point of signal activity during these raids as it supplied the communications within the 29th Light Anti-aircraft Regiment whose 40 mm bofors stood ready during these and the many raids which followed.
An interesting address which gave personnel a fuller appreciation biographically of the islands they were now entering was given by the Bishop of Melanesia, the Right Rev. W. H. Bad-deley, on the history of the Solomons and the customs of the people. The natives on Guadalcanal were of a fine physique. Being missionary trained, they surprised many a conversationalist by answering in perfect English. No attempts have been made, though, to alter the design of their meagre clothing. In many instances army rations replaced their own type of diet, while their smoking tastes extended to the leading brands of American cigarettes. Men, women—and children too—smoked pipes. They could play five hundred like veterans and were as adept at thumbing a ride by truck or jeep as their white brothers. Some of them wxre employed as labourers by the US forces while others performed coast watching duties. The zone of the island occupied by the Allied forces was a seething mass of activity. Trucks, command cars, and jeeps formed an almost endless chain of traffic as they carried supplies and personnel along the coral page 185roads which wound through plantations of tall coconut palms to camps and dumps. Stacked high between the palms were thousands of cases of rations and equipment, ammunition, shells, bombs and drums of gasoline—all more or less protected from the enemy by the natural camouflage of the palm fronds overhead. This, however, did not offer protection from destruction and deterioration by the punishment of the tropical climate.
Near Lunga Point was the large American cemetery with its rows of gleaming white crosses standing beneath the guardianship of the Stars and Stripes. Further along the road the multitude of American administrative buildings, camps and hospitals contrasted with the jungle and tropical surroundings. It was a miniature city and within this area were the Henderson and Carney airfields and fighter strips, alive with the steady roar of fighter and bomber aircraft taking off and landing. Also from these fields flew the aircraft of the Royal New Zealand Air Force which were playing no small part in the offensive against the enemy. Always of mutual interest was the job of the other fellow, and this was particularly so when personnel of the RNZAF and Third Division met. The hundreds of aircraft going and returning from patrols and raids north of Guadalcanal provided a diversion as they all passed over the signals camp. The RNZAF Hudsons, whose pilots knew the location of the New Zealanders, flew in so low that the wireless section's aerial masts in the camp quivered in the slipstream. In fact a 'Huddy Club' was formed by members of No. 1 company. Its purpose of greeting the passing planes was almost childish, yet it was typical of the small things which men fortunately did to add variety to what would otherwise have been a maddening existence. From the camps could be seen the wrecked Japanese transports along the coastline just south of Cape Esperance—a grim reminder of the thousands of Japs who perished in a vain endeavour to relieve their hard pressed garrison during the fighting for Guadalcanal. Twenty miles north of this scene, across a glass-like surface of tropical green water, could be seen the island of Florida where the Tulagi Harbour provided anchorage and a base for naval shipping. Tulagi is the administrative centre of the group.
Outdoor theatres abounded everywhere amongst the allied camps, so much so that one could really pick and choose which page 186movie he would see, but the acquisition of a projector, the repair of which was within the scope of M section, provided the personnel of signals at Div with their own source of entertainment. The camp was fortunate in having within its boundaries a natural hillside bowl capable of accommodating many hundreds of troops and so surrounding units also viewed the shows. Sufficient full-length features, shorts and newsreels, all the most recent at that time, were obtained from the service command film library on the Guadalcanal to enable several different shows a week to be screened. Signalman Keith Gill was the capahle projectionist. Programmes were always humorous whether the films were serious or not. The usual rules of decorum did not apply, and any man who differed from the views expressed on the screen said so, loudly and clearly. Strongest exception was taken to anything that purported to show tropic life as an endless round of romance and beauty.
One of the strangest tricks of nature and a constant source of interest was the presence of many insects and plants which possessed a strange power of luminosity similar to the more familiar glowworm. In the bush at night small beetles flew about in shoals like animated diamonds, each a pin point of light weaving to and fro. Although no more than a quarter of an inch in length these living dynamos could produce sufficient light to illuminate individual words when walking across a newspaper. Catlike eyes which peered from the bases of coconut trees were another luminous phenomenon of the jungle, glowing constantly in the dark, and following the passerby with an uncanny stare. Durig the day white parrots with their coarse screech were a common sight in the bush but the jungle really came to life at dusk, then with all the weirdest of noises imaginable.
Malaria precautions were carried out simply and effectively. At 6 o'clock each evening everyone was required to be dressed with his trousers tucked inside sox or anklets, shirt buttoned up to the neck, and shirt sleeves down; at that time, also, the daily atabrin tablet was taken. Numerous anopheles mosquitoes were seen but the freedom from the harmless but annoying mosquito of New Caledonia was almost too good to be true. However, the unit's anti-malaria squad was constantly on guard using a portable spray (carried on the back of the operator) to spread oil on all pools of water for a wide area around the camp, whether they page 187be in the forks of trees, puddles on a camp road, or in swamps. The oil covered the surface of the water, suffocating the mosquito larvae, thus annihilating the pest before it had a chance to breed and become a serious source of danger through transmitting malaria from natives already infected. It was a crime even to throw a bully-beef tin on the ground; filled with rain water it became an immediate breeding ground. Every signalman appreciated that the regulations were for the good of his own health and abided by them.
E and K. sections had already been on Guadalcanal three weeks, and No. 1 company less than a fortnight, when it became evident that another move northwards was afoot. G and J sections were still on the water. Action became the catchword. The New Zealand press published a war correspondent's report that, 'bronzed, lean and hard, the highly trained Third Division of the NZEF is ready to go into action against the Japanese at any time.' E and K sections with the 14th Brigade commenced to pack their equipment, and personnel of these and the other sections each received an issue of jungle suits. Style was not neglected and there were two distinct patterns in the suitings! One was of American origin, known as a fatigue suit, in light green herringbone twill, the other of New Zealand manufacture with the more familiar neater fitting bush shirt, drill trousers, and a soft cloth hat. The latter suit was heavily camouflaged with a variety of blobs and splashes of paint in far from delicate shades of jungle green, yellow, and black.
To ensure uniformity in signalling between the allied forces the procedure normally used in the transmission of messages by the New Zealand Corps of Signals was replaced by 'Combined Procedure." This entailed classes of instruction within the sections and some swot by the respective operators to enable a speedy readjustment. What transpired to be a last minute practice Hve shoot by the 17th Field Regiment was carried out over the battle-scarred Skyline Ridge, inland from Point Cruz. E section provided the communications which included the laying of a temporary line to control the traffic approaching the target area east of the Matanikau River. G and J sections arrived on 14 September and disembarked on Guadalcanal at 11 am in the same fashion as the other sections in the earlier convoys. Personnel of J section were detailed to assist with unloading page 188operations and the remainder of the section, together with G section, moved with the 8th Brigade to a bivouac area between Kukum and Matanikau. As equipment came ashore an immediate start was made in establishing communications. The brigade broke the ship unloading record established by the 14th - Brigade. By that afternoon J section's signal office was handling traffic, and a switchboard with four connections was in operation. By 9 pm G section had laid lines and established communication with the batteries of the field regiment. An air raid during the night initiated the sections to the forward area. An appreciated amenity to the beach working parties on each of these landings was the presence of the YMCA, whose secretaries dispensed hundreds of welcome cups of tea to sweating tea-conscious New Zealanders.