Pacific Kiwis: being the story of the service in the Pacific of the 30th Battalion, Third Division, Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force
Chapter Eleven — Farewell To Koumac
Farewell To Koumac
Signs were not wanting now of a move by the battalion off the island to a combat gone further north. To give credence to this belief one had to ignore the fact that D company was working on the roads in the brigade area, while the labour which had been used in constructing the Taom River racecourse pointed to our remaining on the island for the duration. That a move was imminent was confirmed by the fact that in June the colonel, accompanied by Lieutenants Kermode and Rennie, went to Noumea to observe the 37th Battalion practise amphibious operations on board the USS John Penn. On their return lectures were given and a ship's loading net was erected in the camp area. Practise on climbing the net with full equipment was carried out by the battalion. 'You may make a start now,' said Colonel Macnamara, 'getting rid of your Jehovahs witnesses and hair oil bottles,' or in other words throw out all your rubbish.
Some of the officers had arranged with natives to build for them cosey little bures for living quarters. Captain Suckling chose the hillside or what he called 'the upper air,' as the site for his conical roofed hut. Here, surrounded by medical tomes, the doctor was able to practise playing reveille on his conch shell. Captain Charlie Werry preferred for his abode a chapel-like design complete with front porch. The battalion quartermaster had an interest in the bamboo-railed goods yard. To quote the Koumac Kronicle—'The quartermaster's staff are only too pleased to show you round the new ration store. It is the last word in French colonial architecture. Their latest venture is in the formation of a railway company with Captain Charles Werry as president. Cyril Wood is an efficient stationmaster and Harry Chalmers is goods foreman. A feature of page 63the railway is the type of rail used which is impervious to rust. We understand it is produced locally. At present the rolling stock consists of one trolley but as business expands more will be added.'
An officer's tent went up in flames round about this time. While he was disconsolately raking among the ruins two fellow subalterns arrived on the scene, and with hawk-like eyes espied two bottles of beer which had survived the blaze. Without a word of sympathy to the unfortunate owner one said—'Well let's knock the top off these and drink to the occasion.' Another officer had previously lost his tent by fire. It was very strongly rumoured by the boys at the time that one enthusiastic fireman seized a can and threw the contents on the fire. Unfortunately, however, the can contained petrol.
Days were spent doing compass traverses across country, mapping work, and route marches to the chrome wharf at Koumac. One old Frenchman one often passed on the road apparently didn't possess a pocket watch. He used to hang an alarm clock on a branch of the tree near where he was working. As always, among native people, the womenfolk one met on the roads carried extremely heavy loads, while father strolled along in front smoking a stubby pipe and carrying a machete. Web equipment and mosquito nets were sprayed green. Reinforcements from base at Bourail who had latterly been with the Scots and Ruahine Battalions joined the 30th to bring the unit up to full strength. On 22 July American troops arrived to take over the defence of the Koumac airfield. The Kiwi concert party gave a show in the transport park on 26 July called 'Over to You' to which the local French civilians were invited. During the first few days of August an opportunity was given to all members of the battalion to enjoy a rest period by the sea at Poume. Captain Tony Gibbs, of the dental corps, took his drill and vulcaniser and examined molars in his tent near the water. Yachting and launch trips for the men were arranged with local owners. Some form of religious festival was being held in the native village, and Kanakas from neighbouring islands were arriving, bringing with them their food for the stay. Some of the boys wandered along to the native compound in the evening and persuaded the kiddies to sing, rewarding them with sticks of chewing gum. Crown and anchor boards made their appearance on the beach at night. 'I pay double on the crown—who'll cover the diamond?'; you could hear the banker cry page 64as men huddled round his stub of candle. By 6 August the holiday-makers had returned to Koumac. Crating and packing were nearing completion; men's kits to be retained at the base kit store were stacked, and tents were struck. An advanced loading party and ship's administration personnel left for Nouméa. On 14 August the final meeting of the Koumac Racing Club took place.
'You are leaving us soon,' said one Frenchman who had come to know several men of the battalion.
'Ah,' he replied sadly, 'partir—c'est mourir un peu.' (To go away is to die a little).
It was goodbye to Koumac on 16 August. Somehow one was unmoved by the departure for there were 'no ties that bind' and few could have regrent. Rather did it relieve that pent-up feeling of frustration—a feeling few could have escaped having lived eight months in those back woods. One took a last look round. There was the old platoon parade ground, the tree to which one hung one's mirror to shave in the morning. George had left his underpants behind, too. You lit a Lucky Strike, climbed aboard the truck and shouted out to Shorty Gyde—'Let 'er roll, Short, me boy.' A halt was made by the convoy at Népoui valley for the evening meal. Many will still remember that bitterly cold night journey which ended at the Dumbéa River at dawn. After breakfast the convoy pulled out for the nickel docks in Nouméa. Here the troops were taken in assault boats to the USS President Adams— a ship known to thousands of combat troops in the South-west Pacific. A practice landing was made on the following day when troops went down the nets with battle equipment and were taken in assault craft to a beach in Nouméa Harbour. On the afternoon of 18 August the convoy carrying troops of the 14th Brigade and comprising USS President Adams (30th Battalion), USS President Hayes (35th Battalion), USS President Jackson (37th Battalion) and three escorting destroyers steamed out of Nouméa Harbour.