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Pacific Kiwis: being the story of the service in the Pacific of the 30th Battalion, Third Division, Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force

Chapter Thirteen — Landing at Vella Lavella

page 71

Chapter Thirteen
Landing at Vella Lavella

Japanese land resistance had not ceased on Vella Lavella, although the original landing by United States forces had been made some weeks previously. The 14th Brigade had been allotted the task of clearing the island of the enemy. The 35th and 37th Battalions had preceded the 30th Battalion to Vella Lavella by a few days and were even now moving toward the north of the island to contact the enemy. There would, therefore, be no enemy resistance at the point on the coast where the 30th and ancillary units would be landing. However, due to the fact that the Japs probably had coast-watchers on Giso and Kolambangara Islands, who would notify their headquarters of the convoy's position, it was imperative to complete unloading of personnel and the freight-laden LSTSs as quickly as possible to avoid enemy air bombing.

Soon after dawn on 25 September the destroyers passed Gizo Island and at 6.30 a.m. assault boats were lowered to the water. The troops landed at Mumia beach, where members of the advanced party were waiting. Very soon an LST nosed its way into the beach. While men were stacking rations and ammunition, a Jap fighter plane made a cheeky mast-high run over the ship. Further down the coast could be heard the sound of bombing and it was learned later that an LST had been hit and that there had been casualties among the crew. The battalion moved into the area and tents vacated by the 37th Battalion. No lights were allowed at night and there was nothing to do but sit on one's cot in the dark, smoke, 'chew the fat' and listen to the weird jungle noises. 'I don't like this jungle,' Roy would say. 'I like to be where you can hear the trams going by.' Tied vines were used as guide ropes to the tents and in order to visit the 'two-holer' one needed to go on a page 72compass bearing. You soon learned to attend to nature's call by day light, for even if there was a moon, little light filtered through the heavy-growth. The only means of illumination were the fireflies. Clappy used to catch a few, put them in a tin with his watch and, when he wanted to see the time while on sentry duty, he pinched the flies who responded with half a candle power of light (at least that's his story).

The 30th Battalion had been allotted a combat task, and this was to be the taking of Gizo Island from the Japs. Nothing could be done in the meantime, however, for the unit was in reserve should it be needed for the fighting which was going on in the north of the island. Contact had been made by the 35th and 37th Battalions with the Japs, some of whom had been killed, while casualties had been suffered by our own troops. On 1 October Jap planes came over and scored a direct hit on an LST unloading at a beach further up the coast. A New Zealand gun detachment of 15 men manning Bofors anti-aircraft guns on the ship's deck was completely wiped out. A stone plinth erected in memory of these brave Kiwis stands near the beach today. Many Americans were also killed on this ship. Several Jap fighter planes were shot down in the sea that afternoon and for those who saw the Zeros burst into flames, disintegrate, and fall into the sea it was a thrilling sight. Each day patrols from the different companies made a circuit of the battalion area. One day one section was ordered to move on a full day patrol up the Mumia River. Lofty went to the quartermaster for his rations, and was handed some dried fruit, a tin of milk, tea, sugar, and a small bag of rice.

'Who's all this for?' said Lofty.

'For you,' replied Uppy the quarterbloke.

'Say,' said Lofty, 'what the hell are we supposed to do—fight the Jap or feed 'im.'

In view of the determined attacks by Jap dive bombers on the LSTs, battalion working parties were a little 'jittery' when unloading in the holds of the ships. At Barakoma beach one morning when the men were working inside the LST, an officer who had received word of an air raid alarm over the phone went to the entrance of the ship and cried—'Condition red—air raid—condition red.' He was nearly killed in the rush as men spewed out of the hold and broke even time for the hundred yards as they sprinted for the page 73jungle, tripping over coconut logs, their mates, laughing and shouting and clutching their tin hats. But the Japs didn't come near, for overhead was our fighter cover from the Munda, New Georgia airfields, with pilots eager to get a Jap plane to their credit. This particular ship took back Japanese prisoners of war—as evil a looking crowd as one would ever see. On the other hand no one could hope to look his best after being fished out of the water after a naval engagement. It was known that the Japs were evacuating their forces from Kolambangara Island to Choiseul Island, thence to Bougainville. These Jap prisoners were the survivors of a night sea battle. All of them were covered with oil, some were wounded and were being assisted by their companions. Their dress for the most part consisted of a rag suspended from the navel; their sole possession, a tin of American cigarettes. Most of them were bandy, but their general physical development, especially their chests, was good.

From information received by the colonel from friendly natives who made the five-mile trip to Gizo by canoe, it was thought that in ail probability the Japs had left Gizo. The natives reported that the usual enemy bivouac areas were not now occupied and it was therefore decided to send a strong reconnaissance party to the island. A couple of days were spent in preparation for the trip—studying maps and intelligence summaries, the issue of rations and checking up on equipment. The task of the party was to be purely reconnaissance, and it was to avoid any resistance in strength by the enemy. The detachment which assembled on Mumia beach on 10 October comprised Captain F. R. Watson (in charge), Lieutenant E. Roughton and some members of his intelligence section, Lieutenant J. (Spud) Murphy and his platoon (number seven) from A company, Lieutenant H. L. Bioletti and his platoon (number thirteen) from G company, medical orderlies and finally a section of divisional signals.

Two assault boats were used and they were steered through the coral shoals near Gizo by aid of aerial photographic maps. Plans had been made for natives on Gizo to rendeavous in their canoe with the assault boats when they neared the island, and give the latest information about the Japs. A canoe was seen to put off from the shore and it came alongside the barge. In it were six natives and a white man—an American coast-watcher. It was confirmed from this party that the japs had left their usual areas. The assault boats page 74landed at the picturesque Gizo anchorage. All round the foreshore were the now abandoned defensive positions which the Japs had constructed to ward off an attack. At the anchorage were the homes of officials, planters and traders, for Gizo had been an adminstrative centre for the British Solomon Islands Protectorate. The Japs had occupied these houses which showed signs of the strafing and bombing they had received from allied planes over the past few months. Official correspondence of the administration littered the area. Concrete floors had been burrowed under to serve as air raid shelters —even a billiards table had rubble heaped upon it to give protection. Crayon drawings by Jap soldiers had been left on the walls, one with the title, 'A soldier's dream of home.' Left untouched by the Nips near one of the ransacked offices was a stone plinth erected to the memory of:

' "The Old Commodore," pioneer trader of the Solomon Islands.
Whose life was work,
'Whose language ripe with rugged
Maxims hewn from life."
'He never sold the truth to save the hour."

The sunlight filtered through the trees to form a pattern on the path. Here a kiddie's tricycle; there a seagrass chair and flower beds a tangled mass of weeds which reminded one that once the anchor age had known happy days. Because of the encircling reefs there was not a great number of places on the coast where the boats could be beached. A landing was made at Repo, a promontory, where it was found the Japs had fortified positions. The natives went in their canoe to get water from a neighbouring river and came back all smiles with a Jap prisoner. He had swum ashore some days before, he later told an interpreter, after having had his barge, in which he was evacuating soldiers from Kolambangara, sunk in a naval action at night. Said the incorrigible Charlie, stropping his jungle knife on the palm of his hand, 'Sir, I promised my girl I'd send her a couple of pickled ears—could I er—er … 'The Jap could not speak English (except for 'watta') but he entertained the boys by drawing maps of New Zealand and putting the main ports. He wasn't quite sure what was going to happen to him and was full of obsequious bows when given cigarettes or food and made frequent display of his excellent gold-edged teeth. It was a wonder the natives didn't kill page break
Pokonian beach during the raid on Nissan Island. Landing craft have been drawn up on the sand to await the return of the raiding party. Below: A doctor tends the wounded in the undergrowth. Nearby is a wounded scout

Pokonian beach during the raid on Nissan Island. Landing craft have been drawn up on the sand to await the return of the raiding party. Below: A doctor tends the wounded in the undergrowth. Nearby is a wounded scout

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A vivid impression by an official artist of rain in the jungle, drenching the men in their bivouac. Sometimes it fell in a grey sheet for hours. Below: On road or beach, the coconut palm was always silhouetted against the skyOn the opposite page is an artist's impression of men taking cover as an air raid warning is sounded

A vivid impression by an official artist of rain in the jungle, drenching the men in their bivouac. Sometimes it fell in a grey sheet for hours. Below: On road or beach, the coconut palm was always silhouetted against the sky
On the opposite page is an artist's impression of men taking cover as an air raid warning is sounded

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Americans and New Zealanders lie side by side in this cemetery at Maravari on Vella Lavella. Natives built the chapel and the gate as a memorial to the fallen

Americans and New Zealanders lie side by side in this cemetery at Maravari on Vella Lavella. Natives built the chapel and the gate as a memorial to the fallen

page 75him, for that was their usual treatment of lone Japs they caught. The men dug their fox-holes in the sand and that night had crabs by the score for company. A 'plane circled overhead for hours during the night and no one ever learned whether it was friend or foe.

Next day A company platoon went on an all-day reconnaissance from Gizo anchorage of the middle portion of the island. C company boys went to Zipozipolo and came upon the main Jap bivouac area. The whole hillside was a series of reinforced stronghold positions and air raid shelters, while interspersed were primitive sleeping quarters made from betel nut palm trunks. Cooking was done in huts with a small escape hole for the smoke which would have to be avoided as much as possible because of being spotted by American planes. Very little gear was left behind, but there still pervaded a sickly sweet smell of 'fu-fu' powder in the living quarters. That was the name the men gave to the peculiar talc powder that the Japs apparently used on themselves. Corporal Albert Cockle was the envy of souvenir hunters when he found an American carbine under a Japanese officer's bed. All that the Japs had left were a few bags of salt, unpolished rice, medical comforts, two-handed saws and empty sake bottles. On 12, October the party, except for C company platoon, went by barge to Saegaragi. Thirteen platoon moved from the Nonsama River overland to Saegaragi, led by two native guides, old 'Captain Betty' and youthful Daniel. In the mouth of the Nonsama River was a Jap barge from which one of the lads souvenired the compass. The section came upon another Jap bivouac area and, poking round, found pillaged goods, taken probably from the private homes on the island. There were snapshots, too, that the Nipponese had left, of a wife in her kimono, of the kiddies at the seaside, of family groups, and scenes at the fair with bunting, ferris wheels and all the fun of the roundabout. Which reminded one that apparently in their complex personalities some form of love does leaven their bestial traits. The platoon came upon cunningly concealed linked weapon posts and one had to admire their industry and the thoroughness of their work. Old 'Captain Betty' was like a hen with chickens, darting now to the right, now to the left at any movement or noise in the jungle. But always with that innate sense of direction he came back on to the correct bearing.

From Saegaragi A company men had moved further down the coast looking for any signs that might indicate that the Japs had left page 76a coast-watcher behind, but nothing was found to indicate that this was so. Fresh fish, obtained by the use of hand grenades, was on the menu for the evening meal. This may sound a very much simpler method than angling but actually when fish are stunned by under water concussion, they sink to the bottom. Retrieving fish at depths of 14 to 15 feet is painful to the ear drums. The natives disdained fish boiled in kerosene tins, preferring their own methods of wrapping them in banana leaves and cooking them on hot stones. It rained after the meal and in the shelter of the huts the natives, encouraged by the men, sang hymns and songs they had learned at the mission schools. If there were any Japs around even they must have been surely charmed to hear the Solomon Islanders harmonising 'In my Royal Hawaiian Hotel'. Next morning, 13 October, the party returned to Vella Lavella.