Pacific Kiwis: being the story of the service in the Pacific of the 30th Battalion, Third Division, Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force
Chapter Fifteen — Vella Lavella Round About
Vella Lavella Round About
While C and D companies led the so-called, idyllic life of the south sea islands beloved by Hollywood producers (but certainly not by the 30th Battalion) A, B and headquarters companies were supplying men for never ending working parties. Thousands of drums of petrol were manhandled for use on the airstrip. Although all that it was necessary to take on working parties in the way of utensils was a mug and half a mess tin, strangely enough it needed a valise to carry them, according to the boys. You never knew what you might want to put in it if you were working on the ration dump.
The raiding party on Nissan Island assembled on the beach at Pokonian plantation just before darkness fell. Below: Attending the wounded in the jungle
There had swept through the battalion—indeed through the whole brigade—a craze for fashioning souvenirs from old aircraft metal and perspex. Far into the night one could hear the tap tapping of amateur craftsmen working on miniature planes, jungle knives with coloured perspex handles, ash trays from shell cases, and cats eye bracelets. Banjos were made from cake tins and telephone wire, but Sergeant Vic Hughes made a professional job of his instrument hewn from a solid piece of mahogany. The jungle knives, made very often from jeep springs, were ornate in design and they found ready buyers among the Americans for anything from 20 to 50 dollars. The medical chest supplied the colouring for the handles— mercurochrome and brilliant green. The battalion news-sheet, the Vella Lavella Views, recorded a phone conversation of RSM Dempsey Delaney—'Yes,' he said, 'I'm fairly busy now—I'm afraid I will have to hang up'—with which he smartly returned to his primus and perspex. The pioneers were besieged with chaps anxious to make use of the vice and tools. As it was they themselves were kept busy making, among other things, mahogany boxes for officers. Over at C company Percy Bergstrom, with parts taken from a bombed Jap barge, managed after a lot of coaxing to get into working order an abandoned launch in the Malasova River. Frequent excursions were made in the Betsy, as she was named, to the reef off Baga Island where a Jap light bomber had crashed. The plane was partly submerged and a certain amount of deep sea diving was necessary to get metal from the fuselage and wings. The Betsy with a valiant but sluggish heart also essayed trips to Ganongga Island, bringing back, among other things, a sewing machine of ancient vintage and a couple of go-carts. The Betsy was later wrecked and an intermediary acting on behalf of the native owner billed C company officers for 400 dollars. Contact was made direct with the native concerned and he settled for 20 dollars! A brigade arts and crafts competition, with cash prizes, was held in Vella Lavella. So high was the standard of work entered that the general arranged later for the exhibition to be shown throughout New Zealand.
To make reference to matters purely military, on the first of December, D and C companies, the mortar platoon, the reconnaissance and intelligence sections and battalion headquarters moved by barge to Baga Island for manoeuvres which lasted for three days. Officers from A and B companies were attached as observer-umpires. The official government photographer took action shots of the boys. This film was later screened in New Zealand and showed Sergeant Merv Lynskey being carried out after having been graced on the skull with a ricochet bullet. Padre Nairn supplied tea and biscuits on the final day to very thirsty and dirty 'jungleers'. B company did a three day stunt near Varisi which was a change from emptying petrol drums and working on ration dumps. A school was established at Varisi to give refresher courses to NCOs of the battalion. Realistic battle practice was carried out with live ammunition, including crossings of the Malasova River in C company's area.
The dedication of the New Zealand and United States cemetery at Maravari was held on Sunday, 19 December, 1943. Guards of honour were supplied by the 14th Brigade and by the 58th United States Naval Construction Battalion. The service was conducted by the senior chaplain to the 3rd New Zealand Division, Bishop Gerard and by an American forces padre. In the cemetery are buried those men of the 35th and 37th New Zealand Battalions who lost their lives in the Vella Lavella campaign and those American servicemen who were killed in Jap air raids. On the white crosses at the head of the coral mounds of those servicemen whose identity will never be known in this inscription—'Known only to God'.
At the beginning of December a number of officers and men whose fitness for further jungle fighting was doubtful left the battalion. Many had been with their platoons from Momi days and were loath to leave their companions. The battalion was sorry to see them go.
One night in December anti personnel bombs were dropped by Jap bombers in the lines of A company and the mortar platoon.page 86
Almost simultaneously with the sounding of the alarm bombs fell among the tents. A bridge evening was being held in one of the tents at A company at the time, and as the explosions came closer nine frantic men endeavoured to get in to the one fox hole. One lad, who was at the end of the queue, saw that his prospects of getting in were nil and cried out what he thought would be his famous last words—'Good luck you fellows—good luck'. On the same occasion another lad in his excitement tried to blow out his electric torch! It all sounds funny now but how little humour there was in those bombings at the time we all know.
Christmas, 1943, was for many lads their third consecutive Christmas away from home. Christmas Day, 41, had been spent at Momi Bay, Fiji; Christmas, 1942, at Koumac, New Caledonia; and now Christmas, 1943, was to be spent in the Solomon Islands. Here in a letter home a soldier describes Christmastide at Malasova: 'And so another Christmas has come and gone. In the circumstances we had quite an enjoyable few days, and this quiet neck of the woods has never known such hilarity. The whole success of observance of Christmas depended on one thing. This duly arrived in the form of seven bottles of beer per man—five to be issued at Christmas eve and two for the New Year. Friday, Christmas eve, was a holiday and in the afternoon we held a swimming carnival competing for the Malasova Cup, made and engraved by Gunga Dean from two Jap water bottles. I had a go in the cigarette race-swim across the river with a lighted cigarette and arrive with it still burning. Mine was out when I arrived at the other side. Nothing daunted I took part in another novelty race—taking two coconuts across the river. Unfortunately one of the lads in attempting to do overarm with his coconuts dropped one on my napper and for a time I sank from sight. We staged a concert in the evening. Some of the boys decorated the stage with garlands of poinsettias and frangipanni against a coconut frond background—it looked very South Sea islandish. By the time we went on performers and audience alike were full of the Christmas spirit. We forgot our lines, sang out of tune, and our star "girl" did a haka instead of a ballet dance. In one skit one lad was to shoot another in the posterior with his bow 'n arrow. It had been arranged that the recipient would have a board down the seat of his pants. Amid all the confusion he omitted to do this and let out a realistic yell when William Tell twanged his bow. On Christ-page 87mas morning the padre came over from Mumia and we had a service in the mess hall which was also attended by the natives. Communion was celebrated for those desiring to remain. For Christmas dinner Uncle Sam again provided turkeys and with it we had cranberry sauce, roast potatoes, roast pumpkin (a present from the natives) and green peas. Pudding with brandy sauce was the second course for those who felt they could make it. The mess hall was gaily festooned with flowers and toilet paper. "Gawd bless our 'appy "brae," said George. The officers and the sergeants served the meal and the corporals washed up. When we had finished our dinner it was the natives turn. They made short work of the turkey carcases while the little piccaninies just loved the cordial. They showed no discrimination about courses, for a fistful of turkey bones in the left hand vied with plum puddin' in the right. The natives gave a concert to the boys after lunch. Everybody enjoys their harmonising and of course, like all native peoples (and whites, too, I suppose), they love the applause which greets their efforts. Some of the native teenage damsels would fill a Hollywood glamour girl's sweater without a wrinkle. The kiddies in their ragged print dresses and with flowers in their hair gave the Solomon Island version of jitter-bugging. Old breech' clouted Ezekiel, who must be at least 70, joined in but gave up early, his rheumaticky bones being a handicap. Christmas day had its sequel for me for I woke in the early hours next day with the most violent stomach pains. I spent the ensuing hours suffering the tortures of the damned from marauding mosquitoes making dive' bomb attacks on my bare bottie.'
The Kiwi concert party were billeted at Mumia and they helped to make A company's Christmas period brighter than it might normally have been. An informal concert was arranged at which Zero gave selections from his songs of the prairies and B. Kirkwood gave his impersonations of Pop-eye. Mac led the boys in community singing on his portable organ, while Henry Burns and his banjo, of 'Hold that tiger' fame, was the star turn with 'Strip tease polka'. Maurice Tansley sang the ruling favourite 'You'll never know'. On New Year's Day, 1944, orders were issued to D and C companies to pack and return to the battalion area on the eastern side of the island. By the evening of next day both companies were under canvas in the area above headquarters company. A week later B company struck its tents at Maravari and returned to the Mumia lines.