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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 Three — Momi Bay Sector

page 23

Chapter Three
Momi Bay Sector

Many will hold that the grimmest assignment the 30th Battalion carried out was its seven months tour of duty on the Momi Bay sector. The soul-searing monotony of life was relieved only by mail days. Of entertainments there were none and only a varied assortment of rumours gave a fillip to the deadly sameness of garrison duties. The food was poor and if leave was available where could one go? There was nothing to do but get up in the morning, throw on a pair of mud bespattered shorts or underpants, a pair of boots (socks for 'cissies') and dig and sweat, and swat the mosquitoes that drove one to distraction. But if life was dour, and it was easy for everyone to fall victims to apathy or what the Fijians call malua, there always prevailed that camaraderie among the boys which produced laughs and good natured banter; that feeling which allowed them to become inured to tinned yellowtail for breakfast, to kumala, dalo and tough stringy beans, to sweating by day and night, to long intervals between mail days, to bouts of dysentery and the pin pricks of communal life.

Fiji has few openings in the reefs which girdle the islands of this group that are navigable to large ocean going vessels. Navulu passage, the break in the reef opposite Momi Bay, is one of them. Enemy invasion ships attempting to land on the western side of the island would aim to pass through the Momi passage, as it was generally called. It was the 30th Battalion's role to repel any forces attempting to land in the area and the battery's task to fire on enemy ships trying to negotiate the passage. To recall, though not in detail, the dispositions of platoons at Momi, on the western side of the bay at Nambila near 'A' beach was one platoon of D support company. At 'B' beach was B company while one platoon of A company was on 'C' beach. The remainder of A company was bivouacked roughly page 24one mile to the rear in Wogs Valley. Battalion headquarters was near the Lautoka-Singatoka road with headquarters company almost two miles away in the direction of Nandi. On the other side of the bay was the mortar platoon, with C company on Thompson's ridge. With such distances separating isolated defensive positions, it is easy to understand that for weeks and even months, officers and men had little contact with men in other companies. It was the practice for each platoon to cook in its own area. Two men were detailed to cook and one man took it in turn acting as daily mess orderly. Rations and water supplies came up by transport each evening and the drivers came to be regarded as news couriers, being invariably greeted with—'What's the latest?' Potatoes were non-existent for long periods and in their stead were kumala (sweet potato), dalo, tapioca root, watery pumpkin, and tough stringy beans about a foot long. Lack of refrigeration space prevented a more liberal supply of fresh meat. Nobby was having lunch one day when he said—

'By gee there's a lot of bones in this "stoo".'

'You're dreaming Nobby.'

'Cripes, it's one of the teeth of my dentures.'

One day was very much like another at Momi. 'What did you do all the months you were at Momi,' you were asked. 'Dig,' you replied with ill-concealed feeling. 'How long do you think we'll be in Momi,' one soldier asked his mate when they were working on their platoon positions. 'Till all of it's in sandbags,' his pal replied. Many months later, in the Solomon Islands, a party had been detailed to dig a latrine. An officer came along to see how the job was progressing and found one man in the hole and the remainder sitting round looking on. He was informed it was an 'exhibition' dig. 'What do you mean, an exhibition dig?' The digger in the hole, paused in his labours, pushed the jungle cap off his brow and replied —'Well you see sir, I was in Fiji.'

Work consisted in revetting positions, many of which were dug in sand, wiring in the sea among the mangroves, and cutting fire-lanes. Not the least part of one's work was in squashing black and white jerseyed mosquitoes which bred in the stinking mangrove swamps. Soon after arrival at Momi stand to's were ordered at first light and sunset. This continued for a week and in March all light machine-guns were ordered to be mounted for anti-aircraft defence. Route marches were carried out and they were something to be page 25avoided in Fiji, consequently the company first aid posts always had a fairly lengthy sick report on march days. Which reminds one of Shorty who one day had a very impressive bandage on his leg. A friendly enquirer asked—'What's the matter with your leg, Shorty?' 'boil,' said Shorty. 'You should be excused duty for that.' 'Yes,' replied Shorty. 'They said I could be ED but I refused.'

Route marching was particularly irksome at Momi for there was nothing to see but canefields, bald, sunburned hills and the sweat trickling down the neck of the man in front. You plodded on, changed your rifle from one shoulder to the other and thought of home and beauty. If somebody up in front said—'Mail today fellers' —your step grew lighter.

On February 21 Brigadier K. L. Stewart, DSO, OBE, and Brigadier Potter inspected the defences on the sector. As the result of an accident, Private S. J. Leonard died in the Namaka camp hospital on 29 March and was buried in the Lautoka cemetery. On 3 April, the new island commander, who was to meet his death in tragic circumstances some months later, the late Major-General O. H. Mead, CBE, DSO, inspected the troops and gave the men a short talk on the importance of their job in Fiji.

Natives came to the company areas, selling mandarines, oranges or bananas. They also collected and returned laundry, for which they made a very small charge. Old Malachi—most Fijians are given Biblical names—and his wife visited a platoon area one day and in yarning with the boys Malachi adopted the familar native crouching position. Unfortunately the old boy failed to notice a live cigarette butt on the ground. It came in contact with a particularly sensitive part of his anatomy and he leapt about six feet into the air. None laughed louder than his wife. One night some of the lads went down to Momi village for a short kava session and ta-ra-la-la. That this was not an uncommon practice was probably known to Colonel Patullo but, on this occasion he decided to raid the village. When the unmistakable Scottish accent of the colonel was heard in the darkness of the village the cry went up—'It's Pluto!' Amid the confusion and dousing of lights several got away but the colonel was able to get the names of five soldiers. 'It's nae domned guid,' he told them. However, the boys were let off lightly with a reprimand. It was in the early days in Namaka that Colonel Patullo had a penchant for shooting, after lights out, the stray mongrels that roamed the page 26camp. The colonel affected a flashlight that fitted round his forehead and this he focussed on the unsuspecting 'mong' and dispatched him with his repeating rifle. One night after this happened a cry-went up from one of the tents—'Leave the poor——dog alone you old ——!' The colonel sent his orderly officer along to the tent lines, gave him time to get into position and then fired his rifle again. 'Leave the poor——dog alone you——!' came the cry once more. The orderly officer found he was right outside the culprit's tent. It was a fair 'cop'. It was this same flashlight that was the undoing of another soldier who was reported to be annoying an Indian family. The colonel and party sat in ambush near a canefield. Steps could be heard coming along the railway line. On went the searchlight and a befuddled soldier stood stockstill, caught with half a pound of butter in one hand and a tin of raspberry jam in the other. He spent the night in the guardhouse.

In April many of the troops—one hesitates to use the word 'celebrated'—observed the anniversary of one year spent in the expeditionary force. The beer ration was one bottle of Australian beer for each man a day, that is, of course, when supplies were on hand. Cakes from home were never more welcome than they were at Momi, although the parcel mails were infrequent. Evenings were spent playing cards by candle light, writing letters or just talking.

'Mind you,' Lofty would say, 'I don't blame any man for being born in the South Island but I do blame him for not getting out of it as soon as he can walk.'

'Break it up you fellers,' says another tent mate, 'it's nine o'clock and time for a cup of tea.'

'Nine o'clock is it,' says Butch, 'the wife will be just feeding the baby now.'

'The bottle, Butch?'

'Bottle be damned!' replies Butch.

Leave was available, but there was nowhere to go. Occasionally a truck took a party to Singatoka, or you could hop aboard a cane sugar train to Lautoka, but it might take a whole day to get there, during which time you were never certain that it was going the whole way. Many will recall a picture of Lieutenant Coles looking very much like the nabob of Momi, ensconced in a deck chair on a carriage —if you could call it that— of the cane train replete with cigar, topee and book. Only the punkah wallah was missing.

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As always, when a battalion is decentralised, as was the 30th at Momi, tentage becomes a problem. In order to provide tents for storehouses in company areas, larger numbers of men were crowded into tents than was normal. To alleviate the position a comprehensive building plan was carried out under the direction of Lieutenant Jack Kirk, who had as his chief assistants Sergeant Breen and Cor' poral E. M. Sutherland, of the pioneer section. Weeks of hard work beset by unexpected difficulties, went into the construction of the native huts. Before the necessary timbers could be obtained it was necessary to have the permission of the native chiefs from whose domains it was desired to take the materials. Working parties were sent out to cut main posts from nukinuki trees. Another party spent six weeks camped about 25 miles away, obtaining wattle saplings. These were cut on an island opposite their encampment. A price was agreed upon by the Fijians for the supply of bamboo, most of which was cut in the hills three miles from camp, but some was brought by battalion transport from the village of Nanduri, 50 miles away. The pioneers constructed the framework of the bures, while the thatching was done by a party of Fijians under their head boy, Charlie, and a party of Indians under Sami Nathan. The thatching used was a reed-like grass growing on the hills 25 miles away. Something similar to the New Zealand snowgrass, it is cut and dried by the Fijians and sold in bundles. Headquarters company, when finished, was the replica of a native village. The largest bure, measuring 68 feet by 16 feet, was used as sleeping quarters for 32 men. All told, between 70 and 80 bures were built throughout the battalion area, and these by relieving overcrowding did much to make life more tolerable at Momi.

Assisted by sappers from the engineers unit on the sector, the battalion medical officer, Captain McIver, had built a small hospital, mostly from materials which had been scrounged. One happy feature of his institution was the hot baths which were supplied to patients, an old acquired copper being used for the boiling of the water. Headquarters company personnel will recall the incident of a mysterious fire in the officers mesa bure, in the wee sma' hours. The officers that previous evening had had a particularly merry time entertaining some visitors. An irate company commander ordered every man out of bed at first light. 'Fix it up, and before breakfast, too,' he said. It was.

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Every soldier is familiar with that word 'acquired'. It is a term which in civilian life would have a far more ugly equivalent. Numbered amongst famous acquisitions at Morni were (a) a concrete mixer (b) a player piano and (c) a refrigerator. The mixer was instrumental in being able to put down concrete floors in several of the bures. Concerning the piano, two musically-minded members of the battalion, Lieutenants A. Sanft and N. Felton, wished to stage a concert. The civil construction unit working on the aerodrome at Nandi had recently evacuated a camp leaving behind a player piano. One night a party pulled into the camp round about midnight, and the sentry 'a white leghorn' asked 'whaffor'. 'Oh it's all right. We've just come for the music,' he was told. The sentry gave a hand to load the piano. The concert was a very enjoyable show, with the floor of a motor truck used as the stage. But there was some raising of eyebrows higher up, and the piano was ordered to be returned—or else. It was strange that the piano should find a home later in the brigade officers mess. When the refrigerator made its appearance in camp it caused some misgivings on the part of the colonel, who regard it as 'too hot to handle'. That had to go too.

On 13 April one platoon from each of the rifle and machine-gun companies went out on a week's tactical exercises with a guerilla platoon acting as enemy. A and D company platoons went from Lomowai bridge to Momi, between the road and coastline; C company men went to Nawau, Yako, and Nambila, while B company platoon manouevred in the Kabuna village, Koranavu, and Nawau areas. Afterwards other platoons moved over the same territory, in addition to the Savu Savu river regions. A parade of all units in the Momi area was held on the recreation ground near Cemetery Hill on 28 May, when his Excellency the Governor-General of New Zealand, Sir Cyril Newall, inspected the troops. His Excellency, while chat' ting informally to some of the men, dropped a hint of impending changes of personnel on the island. That this would some day be so, had been the dream for many months past of all troops at Momi.

On June 16 Brigadier-General L. M. Kreber, of the United States army, accompanied by Brigadier Potter, visited the sector. Preceding the general's visit by several days, one battalion of the 148th Regiment of the US army was already camped at Thuvu. The graph of morale within the 30th soared and elation knew no bounds. The battalion of the 148th was to relieve the 30th Battalion on the Momi page 29Bay sector and during the next few days various officers of the American unit were shown over the defence positions by their oppo' site numbers of the New Zealand battalion. There followed days of packing and crating and on 29 June, 1942 the convoy pulled out of Momi for Suva. The men had with them all their personal issue gear plus all their arms and equipment. 'Never was so much carried by so few' as one man put it. By four o'clock in the afternoon the unit had embarked on the American troop transport President Coolidge. Next day battle-dress and winter under-clothing were issued to the men. Leave parties were allowed ashore for two hourly periods during the day. On the day before sailing many of the troops failed to report back at the reserve near the wharf at the expiration of their leave and officers and NCOs had to make a tour of the town bars to round up the stragglers. At 7 o'clock in the morning, 3 July, the President Coolidge cast off from the wharf. In addition to the 30th Battalion there were the 29th and 35th Battalions and artillery units on board. Indeed the ship was so crowded that it was only possible to give the men two meals a day. This magnificent ship was later in the war to strike a mine in the harbour of Espiritu Santo, in the New Hebrides. She still lies there. The transport arrived in Auckland on 6 July and berthed at the Princes wharf. Troops were taken to Papakura Gamp where they remained until travelling warrants, leave passes and pay had been issued, and then they proceeded on 14 days leave.