Pacific Pioneers: the story of the engineers of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Pacific
Chapter Twelve — Camp Maintenance
An adequate description of jobs done by the various engineer units in the Pacific war zone is quite beyond the compass of this work. Such details, however, as are mentioned here will, it is hoped, serve to call to mind other jobs which have slipped the memory and to delight the conscientious with the recollection of 'duty nobly done. In any case it is certain that not only were many camps built but that the man hours spent in their main-tenance must have been worth thousands of pounds.
On taking over camp works from the 18th Army Troops in the Samambula camps the first problem which presented itself was mud. Obviously this was a foretaste of the good mud to come. These two camps in January, 1941, were far from com-plete. Roading in particular presented an ever present source of difficulties as the heavy Suva rainfall was making the existing tracks a bog. Sluicing parties and fatigues were kept busy eliminating mud from all sorts of unlikely places. Jobs mounted up from day to day until the very limited personnel, 130 odd, were almost completely involved in purely maintenance work. Here are a few of the immediate jobs which absorbed the tradesmen of the original engineers and which were typical of many a camp thereafter.
First of all we minded the cookhouse. There were grease-traps and sumps to be kept in order, there were odd repairs to rosies and dixies, there were endless goings-wrong with oil-burner stoves, taps leaked, flues got choked, windows got broken. All of these the engineers fixed, as well as opening blocked drains, flushing bad lavatories, mending cisterns which overflowed at the wrong times and keeping the hygiene squad out of business.page 71
Repairs to huts which bent before hurricanes, barriers to keep out the next hurricane, steps in concrete and edgings about the cookhouse, electrical wiring, painting, plumbing, draining, black-smiting, concreting or just plain digging work kept not only the select camp maintenance staff busy but were for the most part just the daily grind. The good fairies of the engineer maintenance workers lived down in the back of the camp among the lilies and lime trees. Here, in the blacksmith's shop, the improvising genius of the natural engineer had free rein. We produced anything there. Anything might well be asked for since we had nothing. Ack-ack tripods of steel supplied one vital want, jam tin bombs full of nails another, molotov cocktails of bitumen, petrol and home-made fuses another. If electric detonators were required and the OC had a brainwave, then we made the detonators: fuse powder filled up the commercial detonators and with a small piece of iridium wire inserted on a wooden bridge in the powder, the end sealed with shellac, we could fire successfully a series to rock any bridge in Fiji. Mending compressors, welding whatnots from precious gas cylinders, sharpening bayonets or just sharpening picks, all came easily—the achievements of the blacksmiths have been the glory of the engineers even if they did wake the camp up every morning with the ringing of their hammers! In Norfolk the blacksmith manufactured by hand out of bars taken from the old convict gaol the necessary bolts for a high level tank. Door-hinges, box-hinges and lumps of steel for the dinner gong, screws, bolts, pipe-fittings or knives from jeep springs, they made them all and they all worked.
No engineer, be it repeated, is satisfied with doing the routine job. We recall other efforts such as the attempt to grass the Samambula parade grounds with native grasses and native labour. Even on soapstone soil there was a little leprous growth from the carpet grass, and at all events we remember lots of the bula boys spending long and picturesque hours with a variety of fearsome looking cane-knives, chopping some grass around the huts to lessen fire risk and keep the camp tidy. Wiring around the camps was good practice for later efforts among the mangrove stretches, while digging was always practice for the future fox-hole.
On the dry side (Namaka) maintenance problems loomed large after the conclusion of the original works programme. The usual shortages were evident but the pioneer period had been meant to page 72cover all that would be needed for only a brigade group of men. When at the end of '41 that strength was increased to a division of two brigades, and a defense works programme was also entrusted to us, the job was formidable. Further tented and permanent accommodation, a second military hospital at Sambeto, bulk stores and refrigeration stores over and above the usual spate of camp jobs were waiting on the 23rd Field. But the engineer thrives on difficulties. The dispersal problem was met by building a few extra camps between Thuvu and Natambua, each one complete with all needed concrete flooring, shower rooms, timber stacks and water supplies. If things broke, replacements were quickly invented. The blacksmith came to light again with bolts for the broken dragline fashioned from scraps, decent cables were remodeled from other scraps of wire cut into lengths and spliced. A mixer was acquired to meet the increased concrete work. Pumps for the expanding water problems might be non-existent and pipe fittings in short supply but nevertheless we managed to keep the original pump (borrowed from the CCU) in sufficiently good order to supply the camp while, for additional drinking water, wells were dug and concreted at Sambeto. Momi rail deliveries of bush poles were kept up by sapper gangs, the engineer dump grew from a few rolls of barbed wire and sand-bags to an all-embracing source of supply turning out old iron or other scrounging sufficient to make rifle range frames, RAP buckets, copper drum boilers and alder shot ovens. Even the lack of tip-trucks could not keep good men down and over a long period we just manhandled the shingle for metal ling and the concrete jobs. Infantry working parties lent a hand or two; Fijians and Indians worked for us. But since we are told a good workman never blames his tools, and since we had few or no tools to blame, the only alternative left to us, and we accepted it, was to remain good workmen ourselves.
So it was but natural that our later path through the Pacific should be pock-marked by the wells dug for many another camp and our route outlined in drains we dug or latrines we blasted out of the coral.
Drinking water was a problem in the Solomons. Above: The 23rd Field Company's water-point on Mono Island and, right, another at the Saveke River. One of the units distilling scawater for the forces on Nissan is seen below
On Vella Lavella the 20th Field Company built this jetty at Maravari for the use landing craft. The 26th Field company builtl the one at Salipal in the Nissan lagoon
A view of the two Joroveto River bridges on Vella Lavella before a flood removed the low-lying one. Sappers working comfortably in the water on the Halis jetty, Nissan
A bulldozer rumbles ashore from an LST in the Nissan lagoon, the entrance to which can be seen in the background. The Liberty ship below is unloading stores at Neponi wharf, a dreary corner of New Caledonia
Of course everyone didn't have a lighting set, even after black-out days were long forgotten. Those who did made the best use of it and even turned their mess rooms into recreation rooms, using an ingenious remote control in the operators' tent for air raid blackouts. Some bright improvisatetirs kept their lights running on truck batteries or, not content with the problems of Coleman lamp lighting, hurricane lamp smells or guttering candles, possessed themselves of batteries which were not in trucks. Some went so far as to have battery charging sets which, for a con-sideration, they might loan to the transport section or to the officers' mess. At one stage of the tour a certain major carried the idea of self-sufficiency so far as to suggest that we grow a garden. Judicious selection of sappers who were in need of cor-rection and others who had no care for the interests of their 'best friend' led to the digging and planting of a sizable plot, some 20 yards square. One junior NCO in a burst of inspired enthusiasm contrived to get his whole section there one evening. The beans came up and the beeves came a-browsing. Then one dark night a venomous bloke pulled the beans up, and since there was a rumour about the Americans giving us their very special rations in the forward area we let the garden go. It finally became a tenniquoit court.
Additional duties were laid on the broad back of the sappers when malarial control was decentralized and each unit had tc train its 'mozzie' man. In this respect some excellent work was done by all the companies keeping all puddles and likely breeding spots checked up and oiled up. On Guadalcanal in particular, where the field park had a large area to cover, and the malarial mosquito was particularly evident, a truck and mechanical spray-ing equipment were supplied and the fullest use made of them. It would appear that no duty more clearly shows the versatility and adaptability needed by the modern engineer sapper than this duty of camp maintenance. Literally a 'jack-of-all-trades' he is the key man in any large camp and a boon to the smallest bivvy.