Pacific Kiwis: being the story of the service in the Pacific of the 30th Battalion, Third Division, Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force
Chapter Eighteen — Return to Green Island
Return to Green Island
There were 13 ships in the convoy which sailed from Vella Lavella that day and they comprised the USSs Stringharn, Talbot, Kilty, Crosby, Waters, Noa, Dickerson and a protective screen of five destroyers. This, of course, was only part of the convoy for already the LSTs and LCIs carrying other New Zealand and American troops had sailed. In the preparation of the plan for the invasion, it had been assumed that the landing would be unopposed by Japanese troops. Briefly the role of the infantry battalions was this. The 30th Battalion would be first through the lagoon entrance and land on Pokonian beach, the scene of the recent commando raid. The 35th and 37th Battalions would land inside the lagoon near Tangalan and respectively sweep the eastern and western sides of the horseshoe shaped atoll.
The convoy moved northwards up the eastern side of Vella, with Choiseul Island far off on the starboard bow and soon the Treasury Islands, the area of the 8th New Zealand Brigade, is passed. On board the USS Stringharn the infantry officers and men sit cross' legged on their life belts playing bridge, or else they congregate up at the bow watching the ship cleave the water at 22 knots. One of the lads asks a young bearded Australian war correspondent—
'Was it you who described us in Australian papers as the "lean, hard bronzed New Zealanders"?'
'No,' he replied, 'you can't blame me for that one.'
There is not the keenness to apply green combat paint to faces this time, for experience had shown that it takes a week to remove it from the pores of the skin. The sea had become rougher and after sunset many move below to smoke, or try to sleep in the hot crowded quarters. Towards midnight the general alarm signal sounds through the speaker system like level crossing bells and the ship's officers and men rush to their battle stations clutching life-jackets and steel helmets. Below, in the foreboding silence of the ill-lit hold, the men sit and smoke while the sound of someone retching in the toilet adds to the tenseness. An announcement comes over the speaker—'A Jap plane has been overhead and has been fired on by our destroyers — the plane dropped bombs.' This is followed shortly by' the 'all clear'. Time drags by and as Zero hour approaches men jostle each other in the narrow spaces between bunks claiming equipment and assisting each other with the adjustment of their web. On deck, through the mist of a grey dawn, you see the wake on a calm sea of the nearest destroyer and as the light grows stronger you hear the distant pulsation of engines. Your heart leaps up to see the navigation lights overhead of a flight of our fighter planes come from Bougainville to cover our landing.
The signal for troops to move from below to the boat stations is given and by this time the full convoy is in view—LSTs, destroyers, mine sweepers, patrol torpedo boats, LCIs,—the largest convoy in which New Zealanders have taken part in the Pacific war. Ahead is the familiar low-lying Pokonian plantation and in accordance with page 105the plan no prelanding softening up barrage is put down by the warships. The men clamber light-heartedly over the side into the barges, glad to be getting off the destroyer, some gladder still that the sea is calm; machine gunners reach up for their brens which are passed down and everybody pushes and squirms into his right position behind his section leader.
'Cast off' comes the order from the bridge and the barges mill round to be joined in line ahead by the other boats which are in the first wave. The leading barge heads for the lagoon entrance while officers and two war correspondents peer through binoculars for any sign of activity on the land. If the Japs are there surely they must fire on us now,' you think as the barges, once inside the lagoon, do a reverse turn and in line abreast approach the Pokonian beach. American sailors are at the 'ready' in their machine-gun turrets. The barges ground, the ramps fall, and with a clatter of hobnails the men rush off, nervously gripping rifles and machine-guns at the alert, race up the beach and push into the scrub covered plantation. The distant 'crrump' of guns is heard and high in the sky are dotted black and the white cottonwool puffs of anti-aircraft shells. You learn later that Jap planes attacked the convoy with negative results and that three were shot down—two by anti-aircraft fire and one by a fighter plane. The Pokonian plantation was swept by troops enfiladed across the entire peninsula and orders were given to move further down the island with D company on the lagoon flank, C company in the middle and A company on the seaward flank. With no opposition resulting from the landing on Pokonian it was B company's task to land on Barahun, the island at the entrance to the lagoon, and comb it from end to end.
Heavy gunfire broke out as the companies moved out from Pokonian and it was learned that a gun boat was pouring shells into the shore, from where it was alleged it was fired on by Japs. Not a great deal of distance was covered on the first day and a halt was made in the early afternoon. There is no fresh water on Nissan Island and it was imperative to husband those supplies which had been brought ashore. The men eagerly exchanged cigarettes with the natives for all the green coconuts they could bring. 'K' rations, each meal separately packed, has been issued for the first two days of the operation. They contained biscuits, a fruit bar, small tins of pork loaf, or veal and ham, or cheese; cocoa, coffee or lemon drink, page 106candy, chewing gum and a packet of five cigarettes. All the vitamins may have been contained in these items but few of the men liked them. As George put it—when announcing a meal—'For all those who don't like "K" rations tea is now over.' B company had encountered no enemy opposition on Barahun Island and remained there that night. On the mainland the other companies formed separate perimeters and dug their fox-holes in the hard coral ground as deep as possible, which was about 12 inches. Jap planes came over that night and dropped bombs in the Pokonian area but the anti-aircraft guns remained silent.
Next day, 16 February, the companies moved on. It was heavy going for everyone through the undergrowth and sometimes across mangrove swamps, especially so for signals personnel who trailed out combat telephone wire, and also for the medical orderlies carrying a wicker hamper of medical supplies. The natives, when you mentioned the word 'Japs', sucked in their breath and waved in a general direction further down the island. Numbers mean nothing to Nissan Island natives and indeed they probably have no words in their language for figures above ten. D company, during the day, pushed into the Jap barge area (the scene of the attack on the commando raid) and found three 20-millimetre machine-guns, while documents were also taken from the sunken barge. Battalion headquarters, comprising Major Keenan who directed the advance of the three companies, the adjutant, Captain G. Biss, the medical officer, Captain B. Nixon and his orderlies, the intelligence sergeant and some of his section, moved with the central company—C company. Colonel Cornwall moved with his combat team headquarters having not only the 30th Battalion under his command but also certain artillery units.
B company finished the patrol of Barahun and reported the island clear of the enemy. A, C and D companies bivouacked for the night in particularly hard coral ground where it was impracticable to dig fox-holes, forcing the men to build coral breastworks round their individual positions. Water was short and thirsty troops cut water vines in the bush to gain a few drops of bitter-tasting water. Jap planes came over that night but this time every anti-aircraft gun on the Pokonian plantation opened up on them. Pieces of falling shrapnel sang their way through the trees in the bivouac areas of the companies.page break
The allied cemetery on Nissan overlooked the lagoon Opposite is the break in the atoll through which the landing craft made their way on the clay of the assault. Below: General Barrowclough speaking at the dedication ceremony
Chief Kaiplubun speaking at the dedication ceremony of the allied cemetery on Nissan Island. Beside him is an Australian interpreter who translated the 'pigeon' into English. Below: Mass being-celebrated at the cemetery church