Pacific Kiwis: being the story of the service in the Pacific of the 30th Battalion, Third Division, Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force
Chapter Fourteen — Jungle Nights
Lights were permitted now, which helped to combat the deadly monotony of the nights. Almost every tent had its coterie of auction bridge players.
'Blimey Count, why didn't you play your king—third player plays high—I've told you that."
'Yeah an' how was I to know you were sittin' on the ace!'
'Hey Pongo—it's your turn to get the tea from the YMCA tonight.'
'Hell and I've just scraped the mud off my boots—you go Fred.'
'Can't—writing a letter.
'The siren—quick douse the lights.'
'Get any mail t'day Count?'
'She's all right—says we'll be comin' home soon.'
'Oh yeah' (chorus).
'She wants to know about these atebrin tables—says she's heard some tales about 'em.'
'All clear—light the light.'
'What's on tomorrow?'
'Wish it was rations-we've finished the peaches.'
'These lousey mossies.'
'No Count, you've gotta go two.'page 78
If you didn't play cards you wrote letters or read tattered digests or newspapers three and four months old. But generally, shall we say, each tent in its leisure hours became a debating group. Soldiers call it 'magging', 'nattering', 'chewing the fat', 'chewing the rag' or 'shootin' the breeze'. And the topics—North Island versus the South Island, ensilage versus hay, girls, mail, officers in general and in particular, girls, politics, beer, the wife and the kiddies, beer, Americans, civvy jobs, and Whenna We Goin' Home. These are 'Deejay's' gleanings from round the tent poles.
'Wait till I meet him in civvy life.'
'I'll bet you these pills affect you in after life.'
'My old man, who went right through the last war, told me …
'I could have got boarded out in Fiji if I'd gone the right way about it.'
'I don't reckon I'm half at fit as I was in New Zealand.'
'I found it hard to live on army pay after I'd been getting twenty quid a week in civvy life.'
'Who the hell gave him a stripe at any rate.'
If you didn't play cards, write, read or 'mag' you devoted your time to resting—the most popular pastime in the Third Division, irrespective of rank. Commonly called 'cot bashing', 'Maori PT' (physical training), 'ceiling inspection' or 'spinal exercise'—all sooner or later succumbed to its wiles.
In ones and twos, Japanese light-bombers and reconnaissance planes came over almost nightly and for the bombers their objective was the airstrip at Barakoma. Their aim was usually wide of the mark. Reactions to bombing were varied. There were those (a) who sat on the cot, tin hat in hand, waiting for the siren (b) those who made for the slit trench when the siren moaned (c) those who got in their shelters when the planes were overhead (d) those who jumped into anybody's shelter, nearly killing the occupants, when the bombs fell and (e) those who slept on. One very nervous soldier was dubbed 'the man with the radar ears'. He could hear Jap planes, or said he could, when no one else could. The story is told of Dave, an infanteer, who during an air raid was racing for his fox-hole. Unfortunately he had left his braces trailing and his mate Tom, fol' lowing hard on his heels, stepped on them. Dave was thrown on the flat of his back with a resounding smack. 'Go for your life, Tom,' he cried, 'they've got me.' Fighting had ceased now in the page 79north of the island. The 'Tokyo express' the name given to Jap destroyers which were reported to evacuate the Nips from the almost beleaguered islands, had taken off the remnants of their forces in the night, not before several hundred of their number had been killed by the 35th and 37th New Zealand Battalions. These battalions had had a gruelling time under arduous conditions. The 35th Battalion suffered 24 killed and 24 wounded, while the 37th Battalion had seven men killed and seven wounded.
It was necessary now to have troops stationed on the south western portion of the coast. B company had already been moved to Marivari where the men were more readily available for working parties. D company (Major Ronaldson) and C company (Captain Olsen) on 24 October, left Mumia for Sapato and Malasova respectively. No one was sorry to leave the dark, dank, jungle with its mud underfoot and where only shafts of sunlight were able to get through. A company set about clearing its camp area near the Mumia River, while battalion headquarters and headquarters company did the same further up the road. D and C companies trekked along the jungle trail from Barakoma to Varisi and then up the coast to their camp sites. Sapato had been a native village but with the coming of the Japs the inhabitants had fled to the hills, where their women folk would be safe from the rapacious enemy. Their vegetable gardens and fruit were pillaged by the invaders and the natives were forced to live off the natural vegetation of the jungle. Probably all natives had suffered attacks of malaria and they were also carriers of hookworm. This made their presence in and around military camps a source of infection for soldiers. Not that the men concerned themselves about this and there was always candy for the kiddies and a cigarette for the 'bulas'—a term from Fiji days that the boys still used when referring to the natives. 'Make yourselves comfortable—you'll be there for two or three months'—had been the in' junction to D and C companies. At Sapato there was work to do in cleaning up the area which the Japs had left in a filthy condition. By the time it was finished Sapato was a model camp, with neatly laid out tents, fresh water well and a mess hall. Captain Nixon and his aide, Sergeant Duffy, set up a small hospital for the usual dysentry, suspected malaria and skin disease cases. Natives came for treatment for everything from yaws to ingrowing toenails. The doctor also had an obstetrical case 'with complications'—a native woman in a nearby page 80village. Sergeant Duffy hoped he wouldn't be needed—he didn't have his midwifery ticket he said.
Native canoes were patched up and permission was given by a planter's wife to bring an abandoned launch from Baga Island. Mechanics from the company went to work on it and in spite of a paucity of tools and parts were able to make it go. Rations, including bread, and the mail were brought round from Marivari by barge. Later Colonel Cornwall had the Jap barges in the Nonsama River at Gizo towed to Vella Lavella. Lieutenant Bob Tapper and his transport mechanics serviced the diesel engine and soon had it running in first-class order. Lofty Dalgleish was 'oily rags' aboard and no Scots chief engineer ever took a greater pride in his engines. A prominent white star was painted on the canopy and a Union Jack was flown astern to discourage any aircraft which might have ideas of strafing what was obviously a Jap vessel. 'Did you bring any mail?' was the first question asked of the barge coxswain. Letter mail was arriving twice a week now, although parcels and newspapers were anything up to three and four months in being delivered.
C company made its home at the mouth of the Malasova River. A Dutch trader had lived here before the coming of the Japs. One of his derelict houses was converted into a mess room while chefs Joe Marr and Lou Boyce took advantage of a concrete floor and had their cookhouse erected over it. A lot of hard work was needed to clear away the undergrowth in the area and collect stinking, rotting coconuts. Some days after C company's arrival, Jap bombers came over at night and dropped a stick of bombs in the bay. Most of the boys were caught with their pants down, so to speak, for they had no air raid shelters. Next morning all had their posteriors pointing to the skies, digging and deepening their fox-holes. Which reminds one of a story concerning Staff-Sergeant Bill Jackson. In the still of the wee sma' hours the air raid siren wailed. Almost simultaneously bombs fell to the south of the camp area. Quarter leapt up, got caught up in his mosquito net and blanket, dived into the shelter and blocked the entrance with billowing folds of net and blanket. You could hear the agonising cry of Tom Walker—'Jacko-Jacko-for-'s sake let's in!'
On 30 October the 8th Brigade of the Third Division landed on Treasury Islands, to the north of Vella Lavella. This was followed four days later by a landing by the US marines at Empress Augusta page 81Bay, on the west coast of Bougainville. Every day now armadas of heavy, light and dive bombers with fighter escort made their rendezvous over Vella Lavella before setting out on their strikes on Rabaul and Jap bases on Bougainville.
In early November D company and later C company spent three days on Baga Island doing jungle training. C company sent a platoon to the island to precede the main body. When the rest of the company in its barges passed through the heads of the bay, this platoon opened fire with mortars and machine guns well in front of them. The American coxswain of one of the barges had not been informed of the plan and he had to be forcibly restrained from opening fire on what he though were Japs resisting the landing. Flies, crabs, lizards, iguanas, mosquitoes and rats didn't endear Baga Island to the men. In the evenings the inevitable packs of cards made their appearance. There were few five hundred fans left now, for most of them had been converted to bridge. One lovelorn lad who had been carrying on an intensive correspondence with his girl friend in New Zealand was heard one night in one of those bedtime confidences to ask in all seriousness—'Say Pancho—do you know anything about getting married by "foxy".' On 19 November the Governor' General of New Zealand, Sir Cyril Newail, paid an informal visit to D company and had a chat with some of the boys.