Pacific Kiwis: being the story of the service in the Pacific of the 30th Battalion, Third Division, Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force
Chapter Twelve — Guadalcanal Diary
The President Adams dropped anchor on 20 August in the harbour of Vila, a town on the island of Efate which is in the New Hebrides group. This group of islands is governed jointly by the French and the British. The ship rode at anchor for four days in the harbour and during this time three practice landings were made on Mélé beach, the troops on the final one remaining ashore overnight. Stores and ammunition were brought ashore to give the ship's and beach unloading parties experience in this work. The convoy left Vila on 25 August. As with all transports, space in the sleeping quarters was very limited and smoking was prohibited in and round the bunks. Crown and anchor boards made their appearance in the holds at night where the dim red light was added to by bits of burning candle. Some of the troops were quartered on deck, which was very much better than being below. The food was good, with quantities of iced pineapple juice to boot. Battalion cooks did duty in the galleys and here the heat was almost unbearable. Ice cream could be bought in the ship's canteen and during the afternoon pictures were screened. Fatigue details were supplied from troop personnel and one became familiar with American naval parlance as orders came over the ship's speaker system—'Sweepers man your brooms, sweep down clean fore and aft,' or 'The smoking lamp is out on all weather decks.' A concert was given by the Adams's crew and the New Zealanders, aft of the smokestack, while the ship was at sea. It was a pleasant trip and the ship was a happy one. Captain Felix Johnson, USN commander of the President Adams, was kind enough to say he was always very happy to transport New Zealanders. On 27 August the Adams dropped anchor off Point Cruz, Guadalcanal.page 66
There was work for everybody in the battalion to do that day-unloading the ship and the barges at the beach Carriers did good work in getting stores off the beach away from the incoming tide. By late afternoon the Adams was unloaded and a picket was left on the beach to guard the stores. The boys slept under mosquito nets on the ground that night—on ground which had cost the American forces dear to take, for here doomed Japanese had fought to a bloody finish with their backs to the sea. All Japanese land resistance had long since ceased on Guadalcanal by this time. The Munda, New Georgia campaign, which in its early stages had caused the American commanders many anxious moments, was now also successfully completed. American forces had already landed on Vella Lavella, an island of the Solomons group nearly 300 miles to the north-west.
It was known, of course, that in coming to Guadalcanal the troops would be entering a malarial zone. The battalion medical officer in New Caledonia had given an indication of the anti-malarial precautions which would be taken. A medical officer had visited New Guinea to observe methods used to combat malaria among Australian troops which in the early stages of the war had taken heavy toll among the jungle fighters. That these methods were effective is shown by the very low incidence of malaria in the Third Division during its 10 months in the Solomons. A ruling had been made that no shorts were to be brought north from New Caledonia, and after six o'clock at night long pants, shirts and gaiters were worn. Atebrin tablets, which took the place of quinine, were taken daily except Sundays, under supervision. Some men had misgivings about taking atebrin because of the strong rumour among our own and American troops that prolonged treatment induced sterility. It has been stated that this erroneous belief was fostered by German agents in the United States not only among troops but also among civilians.
Before going-ashore on Nissan Island, the jungle-clad soldiers were daubed with green paint. Below: A patrol passing through a deserted village on Veils Lavella
Men of the battalion grouped on the deck of the American destroyer which took them to Nissan Island. Below: A mortar section in action against Japanese positions on Nissan taken in the Pokonian plantation
'And so I sez to 'im, I sez, "Oo do you think you are—you're only a lousy lance jack anyhow."'
'G'wan and what did he say Smithy?'
'He sea to me, "I'll knock your block off," and I sez, "Garn you couldn't knock the skin off a rice pud—"'
On 30 August the companies moved to their various camp sites which were on a series of ridges on Skyline Trail. Soon after this Colonel Macnamara, who had been ill, was invalided back to base. He had been commander of the unit for almost a year and just as he was loath to go, so was the battalion sorry to lose him. Major Keenan took over the command until 11 September, when the new commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel F. C. Cornwall, MC, arrived.
Working parties reported to Lunga Point daily and were employed on wharf work, sorting, stacking and dumping ammunition, moving cement and working in warehouses. Parties were also taken to Carney Field, the heavy bomber airstrip, to handle petrol drums. Coming home, a stop was made at the Lunga River to enable men to wash. Water was a problem back in camp, for it all had to be transported to company areas from a chlorinating point. Though the Matanikau River was near company areas, the fact that crocodiles were reported to be in it and that there were probably corpses polluting the river made it an unsatisfactory bathing place. On those days when the men were not required for camp or working party duties, platoons trekked over the ridges of the hinterland. Everywhere there was some mute evidence of the battles which had been fought—here empty ration tins, mess gear, ammunition, combat page 68wire and, in the bottom of a fox-hole, a copy of an American paper and a letter from a girl called Anna in Los Angeles; there a decomposed body of a Jap with the metatarsal bones still in his boots. Fighting must have been grim lying in those uncovered fox-holes in a tropical noon day heat. Sometimes bullets would set fire to the drying kunai grass.
Many of the natives fled into the hills when the Japs invaded Guadalcanal but even so some were caught and compelled to work on the Henderson airfield. Now the natives were moving back to make new homes in their old surroundings. Most of the natives are Roman Catholics and wear religious medallions. Some of them wear expensive wristlet watches, too, and one native, tapping his watch, said to a soldier—'You buy—sefenty faive doolar.' The native huts contained a conglomeration of American and Japanese gear—all probably relics of the battlefields. One can speak of battlefields in Guadalcanal, for much of the fighting was done over open country. Native kiddies smoke pipes as do their mothers, while the picaninnies' playthings varied from stethoscopes to Jap helmets.
It was Tojo's practice to send bombers to Guadalcanal each month when the moon was full. True, because of his decreased air power in this theatre, his raids were now only token ones. Radar picked up the incoming planes and gave warning, and divisional headquarters flashed its red danger signal from the ridge. On 13, 14 and 15 September, 'Washing-machine Charlie' was overhead and dropped bombs near the Henderson and Carney airfields. The men gave the name 'Washing-machine Charlie' to Jap planes because of their high pitched engine drone and peculiar synchronisation. 'There's blood on the moon,' said Mick. 'Charlie will be over.' He came and troops on Guadalcanal saw one of the most spectacular sights of their soldiering days. One can hear the far away drone of his engine. Searchlights poke their fingers into the sky, find him and hold him. The Jap plane glints silver in the junction of the beams. Flak bursts all round. Lockheed Lightning night-fighter is on the scent. You see his tracer bullets leave the plane like a dotted red ink line on a black background. A faint red glow appears in the Jap plane, increases and a fiery red blob flutters to earth. Thousands of soldiers yell themselves hoarse from their slit trenches. The beams pick up another plane and regardless of flak the night-fighter plane goes in. You can see his tracers stop as they find their target. The Jap rear page 69gunner fights back, for a weak amount of tracer is seen coming from him. The same tell-tale glow appears in the Jap plane, grows and grows until as a ball of fire it strikes the earth and its bombs explode. Another cheer goes up from the ridges—'You b— beaut!' they cry-to the night-fighter pilot.
What leisure time the men did have on Guadalcanal they used in hitch hiking to places of interest—to the beached Jap transport ships down on the coast, to the Henderson and Carney airfields or to see mates in the RNZAF Kittyhawk squadrons. Near Lunga Point is the cemetery, with its row upon row of white crosses which mark the resting place of the American servicemen who died in the battle for Guadalcanal. Some of the men preferred to hike over the hills looking for Jap souvenirs, or to climb up to the Gifu strongpoint to see the honeycomb of Jap positions which were only overrun after days of bitter fighting. Indiscriminate firing went on round the ridges all day, and C company had to extinguish a couple of grass fires which had been started by bullets and which threatened its tents. 'Teapot Corner,' managed by Bob Wardlaw, YMCA secretary, was a popular meeting place for the boys at night.
Guadalcanal proved to be a starting point only in the battalion's journeyings. On 13 September a battalion advanced party under Major Barker, left Guadalcanal for Vella Lavella on an LST. The party called at Munda, New Georgia, and had time to inspect the pock-marked coastal areas which had been the scene of so much ebb and flow fighting. That night the party went by barge to Rendova, and arriving there transferred to patrol torpedo boats and carried on for Vella Lavella. Throughout the night Jap planes raided both Munda and Biloa, Vella Lavella, and dropped a flare over the PT boats. Jap planes strafed the party next day as it was moving up the coast to Maravari. Every night enemy bombers came over, and so persistent and annoying were these raids that some of the officers, in order to gain an uninterrupted night's sleep, slept in graves newly dug by the natives for the Americans with whom the New Zealanders were camped.
Voting day in the battalion for the New Zealand parliamentary elections was 17 September. Six days later the unit was packed up and ready to be off on the further move north to Vella Lavella. The moan which went up when the boys learned there was no motor transport and they would have to carry their gear from their camps page 70to the main road must have reached the high heavens. Somehow they struggled along, 'toting' arms, ammunition, bren guns, valise and sea kits. 'Gunga' said Tiger before they started off, 'will you fix me breeching and take a pull on my girth—I'll have to leave my chaff bag—too heavy.' Transport took the men to Kokumbona Point where they embarked on United States navy destroyers from assault barges. At daybreak on 24 September, the convoy, consisting of seven destroyers, namely the Stringham, Talbot, Kilty, Noa, Dickerson, Crosby and Waters, sailed for Vella Lavella. Seven LSTs (landing ship tanks) part of the convoy, had already sailed.