Pacific Saga: the personal chronicle of the 37th Battalion and its part in the Third Division's Campaign
Chapter Ten — Vella Lavella to Nissan
Vella Lavella to Nissan
The assembly of the units of the 14th Brigade at the southern end of Vella Lavella (Ruravai), the subsequent reappearance of the old familiar crates and talk of shipping schedules, cubic feet and two-man loads, etc, soon gave rise to the usual conjectures as to our next destination. We were going, (a) back to New Zealand; (b) to join the 2nd New Zealand Division in the Middle East (c) to Burma under Lord Mountbatten; (d) to Australia to rest prior to joining the Aussies in New Guinea, etc, etc.
The padre and his helpers outside the padre's tent on Nissan.
Below: The Kiwi concert party entertaining' troops on board the Rotanin
The bootmaker's shop on Nissan was a busy place, as the pile of boots indicates. Below: The mortar platoon photographed together for the last time an Nissan, with Japanese trophies behind them
By the time our officers and the intelligence section had finished with us, we knew a lot about that mystery island and about what was going to happen when we hit it, even to the role of the other battalions and alternative plans. During this instruction we learned that most of the information that had been passed on to us had been gained (not without loss of life) by the 30th Battalion during an earlier and daring reconnaissance raid. Subsequent events proved that this discussion of our next campaign, over a model of the islands concerned, was a very wise precaution, for as far as we could tell, the operation went like clockwork.
And so, at 3 o'clock one February morn we rose from our hard couches, (having regretfully parted with most of our bed-cots the day before) and hied us to the beach for embarkation. There was a long wait of about seven hours on the beach—some of us grumbled about this and the army generally and some of us sneaked a bit more sleep. We heard later that the early arrival at the beach was necessary on account of the inadequacy of the one and only road available, to cope with the enormous amount of traffic. The weather was kind for our voyage and we lolled about the decks of our transports in the warm tropic sun. A view of the Treasury Islands as we passed to the west caused us to wonder how our comrades of the 8th Brigade were faring there, and a flight of RNZAF fighters overhead was comforting. It was nice to know that our own chaps were 'up top'. Those of us who were in the know were a bit concerned as to the reception we would get on arrival at our destination for we were bearding the lion in his den with a vengeance. The Jap was particularly strong in that area and we would be hemmed in on all sides by major enemy bases such as Truk, Rabaul and Kavieng. It did not seem likely that he would let us in lightly to construct airfields, etc, with which to challenge his power. How ever, we passed it off with a shrug of the soulders and C'est la querre—a habit we had acquired in New Caledonia.
That night, still at sea, fragments of news trickled to us of a Jap air attack on the naval screen ahead, but we did not hear much of the result. Some of us had been allowed to sleep on deck where we could get the advantage of the breeze caused by the ship's motion, but just before dawn, we were sent below to general quarters to page 86await the order to go over the side. When this came, it was just light enough to make out the forms of the accompanying ships around us, and further out to sea a slower convoy which had sailed ahead of us. Jap aircraft could be seen attacking this convoy. One bomb grazed a ship with our chaps on board but no one was hurt. Three Jap planes splashed into the water.
And so, into our small landing craft—ahead lay the dim shape of Nissan Island. This was D day (a term that has since become familiar to all) and very soon would come H hour (the time we were to hit the beach) and then — what? By the time we were through the narrow entrance and halfway across the lagoon, the rosy light of dawn showed us scores of small landing craft scudding over the sea, each on its appointed course, leaving long white scars on the calm blue waters. Out to sea the supporting warships waited to assist should we strike trouble ashore and overhead the constant drone of friendly aircraft—we had air cover all right! Even the solemnity of the occasion could not detract from what was a most impressive sight.
Then the plunge ashore into the unknown, expecting every moment to hear the rat-tat-tat of machineguns or the crumph of bursting mortar bombs. But our landing was unopposed and we quickly put into operation the plans we had learned and discussed on Vella Lavella. Natives soon came trickling into the perimeter and were anxious to make friends. They told us all they could and we learned that the Japs were in strength at the south end of Nissan. This information could not be confirmed so we went through all of the battle procedure we knew so well, small company perimeters expanded to a battalion perimeter and then a wheel across the island to form a stop line. And all the while intense patrolling and reconnaissance—probing, searching. This methodical search continued and by night we had cleared a considerable area and were dug in at the north end of the Tangalan plantation, a considerable distance from the Red i and Red 2 beaches that had been our starting point that morning.
This was the end of the journey for the Third Division. The 37th Battalion occupied the area north of the airstrip
And so came our first night on Nissan Island. With the dark came the jungle noises to which we were accustomed, but this time a new note was added—thousands of somethings started clucking for all the world like hundreds and hundreds of domestic fowls. The noise was more prolonged and increased in tempo and pitch until an almost hysterical crescendo was reached. The offenders were small, horned, brown frogs or toads which appeared very much like dried leaves in the light of an electric torch and which infest the jungle of the Solomons. In the pitch-black night, hundreds of lamps glowed in the form of rotten phosphorescent vegetation and what with one thing and another the atmosphere was decidely eerie. One feels intensely lonely, although surrounded by comrades in shelter trenches. One hears a rustle in the undergrowth and some of the jungle noises abate, a dark form seems to be creeping stealthily towards one, blotting out patches of phosphorescence—yes, here it comes—this way—staring into the blackness one imagines others— Japs!—then a grunt—whew, a wild pig! There were dozens of the brutes nosing around in the dark; needless to say our feelings towards them were not friendly and sometimes our thoughts were blistering. Late that first night Jap bombers came over a number of times officially to welcome us, but their bombs did not harm us. Several injured natives from a near-by village were given first aid, but otherwise there were no casualties.
The lack of natural fresh water on Nissan made it necessary to carry enough water with us to last for several days, and this, together page 89with a full pack and digging tools made our next move of two miles to Lihon quite an effort in the steaming heat and sticky mud. We were fortunate in having three medium tanks with us from the tank squadron and were able to use the paths they had smashed through the jungle during their patrols, thus dispensing with the necessity of cutting tracks through the dense growth. About this time Lieutenant Alex Mackenzie and his team did some good tours around the lagoon in the reconnaissance barge allotted to the battalion, but the rest of us had to slog along on foot or ride in a jeep at the risk of life and limb. On our second night ashore, the Nips again sent bombers over and once more their bombs did not cause us any casualty. This time all of the considerable anti-aircraft defences were organised and the visitors got a hot reception. It was cheering to lie on one's back in a slit trench and watch thousands of anti-aircraft shells floating up into the night like bubbles of fire. In spite of our previous fears as to what the surrounding Jap air bases would produce for us, this was the last occasion on which he paid us any serious attention. This was because the American and New Zealand Air Forces had literally plastered his airfields during the month prior to our attack, and just sat over them until our own airfields were in operation.
Eventually we arrived as Sior, which was to be our home for some months to come. One company was detached to the north end of the island and one was stationed in the east coast. All were within easy reach of each other and were either on the sea shore or adjacent to it. During our trek through the jungle we had heard the noise of battle to the south but had not flushed any Japs ourselves and three days after our landing were able to declare north Nissan safe for democracy, although there were several reports of odd parties of Japs in our sector. One such report resulted in Lieutenant Doug Ross being sent to 'Conspicuous tree-area. Here the jungle was beaten thoroughly but no Japs were traced. This tree, as its name implied, was a huge one which towered above the surrounding jungle. It was a valuable and wellknown landmark until the march of progress (in the form of a US naval construction battalion) cleared it away to allow the construction of the airstrips. As a matter of fact, we had set our course across the lagoon by it on D day. Captain Bob Adams and his guerilla platoon also made several exhaustive but unsuccessful searches for reported Japs. These roving page 90parties of Japanese gave us extra work in patrolling signal lines and guarding our motor transport, and barges, in particular, had to be 'held' strongly.
From about five days after our landing we received steadily increasing quantities of fresh water from condensed seawater and this was indeed welcome. Until then we had been on a very limited ration for drinking only, eked out by milk from coconuts, so that any addition was most welcome, more especially as much of the water we had brought with us tasted strongly of kerosene or oil from the containers. Bathing and the washing of clothes was done in the sea or at best in very brackish water from shallow wells. Fortunately green coconuts were plentiful and we made use of them. To get them we would way-lay a diminutive native boy, give him something in the way of food from our jungle ration and point upward. He would then tie some vine loosely about his ankles and shin up a 50'foot coconut palm in a matter of seconds. Then for a while it rained coconuts. We were very partial to the milk and became adept at preparing the nut for drinking—three or four chops with a jungle knife and it would be ready. Instead of the traditional empty bottles showing 'Where my caravan has rested', we left a trail of empty coconuts behind us. And speaking of coconuts it is on record that one officer composed a song called 'The Coconut Bombers' (a name given us in jest which most of us are now justly proud of). It was quite catchy and the chorus went something like this:—
Chop, chop, chop, hack, hack,
hack Down with the knife and straighten the back.
Included in the 37th Battalion sector were the northern-most islands of the Solomons group. These were Pinipel and Sau, which lay to the north-east of Nissan, the whole forming the Green Islands. They were the last islands of the Solomons as yet not invaded and we felt quite pleased that we had been chose to round off, as it were, the Solomons campaign. Natives had reported the presence of Japanese on these islands and we were instructed to round up the intruders. A strong reconnaissance patrol under Captain Adams was sent to locate suitable landing beaches and gain any further information possible and the report made very detailed planning possible. Two companies with mortars, medium machineguns and an artillery liaison group were despatched under command of Major page 91Trevarthen. The first landing was made on the north-east end of Pinipel and all of the usual precautions were taken. Here and at most other places we had to wade ashore waist-deep but as we were almost continually wet through by perspiration or rain we didn't mind that. Although only about waist deep for most of us, the depth was quite a trial to some of the shorter chaps. One little chap waded out with his equipment on his head. The water came up to his eyes and very now and then he bobbed up for air. At the ramp of the ship he stumbled and it appeared that the weight of his gear would carry him under, so an officer leaned out and helped him up. The little chap came aboard yapping like a terrier: 'I'd have been — well all right!' quoth he.
The natives at our first meeting proved too friendly and were over-anxious to please. Their replies to our questions told us that there were many 'Japanese mans' on Pinipel. Pressed further, they admitted that the Japs had left one, two, three moons (months) ago. We also found that there were from five to 25 Japs on Sau (the smaller island) and that these had not left. Armed with this useful information B company set sail across the lagoon to test its accuracy. The landing beach was well neutralised by Lieutenant 'Stove-Pipe' Jack Forward and his 3-inch mortars, assisted by medium machineguns from the 14th Brigade Machine-Gun Company. The skipper of the LCT begged permission to use his 50-calibre and 2.0-millimetre machineguns, so the detachment commander set him the task of firing on the tree-tops adjacent to the landing beach to get any snipers lodged therein. An unopposed landing was effected and shortly after the crackle of rifle and machinegun fire and the thud of bursting grenades told that Captain Ron Keith and his company had made contact with the enemy. All opposition was quickly overcome and although we did everything possible to get prisoners, as usual, the Jap wasn't having any, and fought to the last breath. Although they were heathens, Padre Harford performed our burial service over them and we withdrew to the landing beach to dig in for the night. Digging here was a pleasure as this island was almost wholly composed of coral sand. The only casualties in this brush were four wounded. With the addition of this bag of Japs, all companies of the battalion had now been blooded.
Next day saw the commencement of several days of intense patrolling on Pinipel and though there was plenty of evidence that page 92a considerable number of the enemy had been on the island recently, we agreed with the natives that the only Japs left in the group were' — up finish.' Then home again to Nissan. A day or two previously, we had seen the silver barrage-balloons of a convoy arriving at Nissan and there was much conjecture as to whether there would be any mail, bed cots or tents awaiting our return. Some kitbags, tents and bed cots had arrived and the more fortunate were the envy of all the rest, but most important of all was the receipt of a letter and parcel mail—as a result, everyone was in high spirits. Shortly after the return of the Pinipel detachment our commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Sugden, called a conference of the principal officers and expressed satisfaction at the cooperation which he had received from all and which contributed so much to the smooth-running of our share in the capture of the Green Islands. This was passed on to all ranks and was much valued because the CO, as we called him, was held in high esteem by all of us.
As we had previously experienced at Vella Lavella, the Green Islands operation proved a comparatively short period of intense activity and stress, followed by months of accentuated quiet, and our life now settled down to routine patrols, working parties, and the construction of defensive works. Those of us not engaged on these tasks set to work clearing jungle around the camp sites, forming paths and roads to get us out of the perpetual mud and slush, and generally improving living conditions. Native-type mess and recreation huts were constructed, the split trunks of betel-nut palm proving very popular for flooring. The more fortunate produced sawn timber and packing-cases from somewhere and had regular floors and furniture. We had done all this work so often before that the construction of the camps and the provision of good sanitation went ahead with a minimum of instructions and with no misdirected effort. During the clearing operations the signal platoon found an unexploded 237 pound American aerial bomb in the middle of their camp. It was roped off and we gave the area as wide a berth as possible. A request was made to have it dearmed and removed but nothing happened and it is probably still there. We treated it with contempt after a week or two.
The fairly early relaxation of lighting restrictions was a boon to all as nothing is more boring that to have to go to bed at dusk and remain there in the dark until morning. As soon as we were allowed page 93lights at night, those who were not too tired after the day's exertions indulged in cards, darts and reading. Reading was the most universal relief from boredom and a new book was a treasure; it would go the rounds of the battalion and then be passed on to another unit. The one-for-one rule was strictly observed. That is, one would never lend a book, without getting one in its place.
Water was still on the scarce list and we were still washing our-selves and our clothes in the sea or brackish water. We must have developed quite a distinctive aroma, but as we all smelt the same none of us noticed anything wrong. The engineers gave us very valuable help in constructing several wells and with the usual ingenuity of the average New Zealand soldier we rigged up showers—very brackish but very welcome, none the less. When tents were erected we used to split bamboo to catch the rain that ran off, and lead it into 44-gallon petrol drums. The sudden heavy demand for these drums caused the American officer in charge of them to demur and talk lend-lease, but we got all we needed. Fresh water from the tents for our washing was indeed a luxury, even if the arsenical compound used to water-proof the tents prevented us from using it for drinking and cooking.
After two or three rainless days, the water supply in the drums would get a bit low and should it then rain during the night one would hear rattling and scraping noises all about in the darkness— chaps having got out of bed to ensure that none of the precious liquid was lost. As for washing water, the coconut palms were again our allies. Their widespread leaves caught a lot of rain, which ran in towards the centre of the tree and down the trunk. If one tied a rope around the trunk about seven feet up and arranged it so that the ends came together about two feet out from the trunk a very good shower-bath resulted. Useful only during a rain-storm of course. A flicker of excitement ran through the battalion during the early part of March when we were, told to be ready to move at 48 hours notice. This did not mean any alteration to our normal life because we could do that from a standing start, having been through it so often before, but the usual conjectures were made as to what was on the cards. Actually we had been designated as part of the area reserve for the next allied operation, but were not needed.
A tremendous amount of work was being done at this time and stores and equipment were pouring into the island for the newly page 94constructed fighter and bomber strips, motor torpedo boat base and naval base and as the fighting was over the infantryman had once more to lay aside his arms and take up pick and shovel, or 'ote dat bale' Generally speaking, and in spite of the intense, humid heat, we worked hard on our various tasks and were in good spirits. Our health was good, mainly because we had learned most of the lessons of tropical campaigning and left no cut, scratch or pimple undoctored and were unceasing in our war against flies and malaria mosquitoes. Mail was travelling by air now and the comparatively speedy replies to our letters home did much to improve our lot and keep morale at its usual high level.
During our leisure moments, the predominant love of the sea was very apparent. The landlocked lagoon was an ideal cruising ground for small craft and those not fortunate enough to obtain the loan of a native canoe constructed their own boats. Some weird and wonderful craft made their appearance powered by anything from a discarded piece of tent used as a sail to captured Japanese outboard motors. We sorely missed our good ship Confident, which we had left behind at Vella Lavella and wondered what had finally been her fate. The boatless ones contented themselves with swimming or surfing or playing water-polo with a coconut for a ball (until one chap took the count). And speaking of coconut, wasn't it the Doc who stopped one and wore his steel helmet for days as protection? A coconut falling from a 50-foot palm has considerable momentum by the time it reaches the ground and these nuts had a disconcerting habit of dropping at the most unexpected moments.
D company was very active during our idle moments at Nissan and turned on some excellent sports contests. This company was located in a very attractive area at the north end of the island and it was a pleasant break to journey up on foot or by boat via the lagoon, and partake of their hospitality. When some excitement was needed, these enterprising people produced reports about a Jap.
In their usual competent manner, Lieutenant Mackenzie and his pioneers got to work and hewed a picture theatre out of the jungle, providing coconut log seats for 1,500 persons. We had our own motion picture projector and a night at the fliks was a pleasant outing, even if the programme was interrupted by a condition red when all lights and cigarettes had to be doused. Although most of the programmes were more suitable for American audiences, the page 95boys had a lot of fun listening to and providing suitable interjections. So popular was this form of entertainment that no tropical storm would alter the attendance appreciably. Old 'Mac' would strut proudly about for all the world as though he was in the motion picture business and say: 'Even the rain won't keep 'em away— she's almost a full house!' (Mac was some poker player in his way, and was fond of full houses.)
Any history associated with Nissan Island would be incomplete without some reference to the American naval construction battalions. Their work appeared to us to be extraordinarily efficient and they really were hustlers. During the first month or so we often felt lost when we went near the centre of the island as the Sea-bees had made such remarkable alterations to the landscape during our absence that we had difficulty in finding our way about. In a little over a fortnight they hewed a 5,000 foot fighter strip out of the jungle and a month later heavy bombers were operating from another 8,000 foot strip. Unfortunately our camp lay right in the line of both strips and nearly all aircraft taking off flew directly over our tents. A lot of round the clock bombing was going on and we were disturbed at all hours by flights of Corsairs, SBDs, TBFs and Liberators en route to plaster Truk or some other equally important target. The more heavily laden planes had not gained very much height by the time they got over our lines and one chap was heard to say 'Gee —see that! Flew right through my tent!'
The NZEFIP band visited us during early April and, as usual, provided an excellent concert with music for all tastes, from highbrow classic to 'In the mood'. The band was always welcome and could be relied upon for good entertainment. The beginning of April also saw an inter-allied axemen's carnival held at the south end of the bomber strip and this was a great success. The idea originated with us and our chaps kept the 37th Battalion flag flying in good style. The way the competitors chopped or sawed through those logs filled us with envy—at their rate about two minutes would suffice to chop a full week's firewood at home! The best individual performance of the carnival was given by our Private Mick Wybrow who hacked off quite a chunk, by carrying off these prizes: First, 12-inch standing chop championship; third, 12-inch underhand chop handicap; second, 14-inch sawing handicap; second, 14-inch sawing championship; special prize for cleanest cut of the day. The inter-page 96unit tug-of-war attracted 14 entrants and there were some very evenly matched pulls. In the final, the 35th Battalion versus the 37th Battalion—we managed to pull it off. There were opportunities for fun and games at various side shows and a treasure hunt with very substantial prizes. Of course there was a tote which added to the interest, the best dividend being £40. At about this time rumours as to our future were circulating freely, and when Major' General Barrowclough presented the prizes at the carnival, one or two voices from the crowd urged him 'to give us the oil'. He contented himself by saying that in a few days he hoped he would be able to tell us what the future policy of the force was to be.
Shortly afterward we were invited to volunteer for essential industry in New Zealand and all of us were instructed to complete 'Survey of male personnel' cards, which asked all kinds of questions. The decision as to whether one should volunteer or not was a difficult one for many of us, as there had been no indication as to what the future held for the division. However, the first draft of 287 volunteers embarked on the first stage of their journey to New Zealand on 27 April, 1944. It was only when one saw many long familiar faces among this draft that one realised that what had been welded into a very fine team was in the process of disintegration.
After the departure of such a large group life became quieter than usual and continued wet weather further dampened our spirit. Even recreation was difficult, although working parties were required as usual. One very bright spot in what had now become rather a dull existence was a weekly boxing tournament organised by a neighbouring Seabee battalion. Several bouts of three one-minute rounds were fought and the keenness and speed shown by the contestants was truly amazing in that climate. Our chaps did well; in one whirlwind bout our Private Pip Brown defeated an American soldier by a knock-out in the second round. The comments of the US audience were probably as entertaining as the contests and rivalry between states or between the services was keen. Generally speaking the contests proved more than average entertainment in that we saw some first-class boxers in action, including a golden-glove champion of New York and a Yale lightweight champion of 1941. Although on active service we did a little 'spit-and-polish', firstly at a commemoration service for Colonel Knox, the late American Secretary of the Navy, and later at the dedication ceremony of the Nissan Island cemetery. page 97Our battalion was selected to provide the New Zealand guard of honour on both occasions and each gave a very smart display in spite of uneven parade grounds and lack of practice.
During April the battalion suffered a further bereavement in the death of our bob-tailed green parrokeet 'Hunt'. He had fallen into a rain-barrel during the night and drowned. He had travelled with us since Guadalcanal days and was a most popular and wellknown member of the battalion. When very young he had been petted a lot and did so much walking about that his normally long tail became worn down to a small stump, through dragging on the ground. Later, when he endeavoured to fly, he hadn't a hope, without his tail. He had learned to whisper some very wicked words, mainly in disparagement of members of the intelligence section, whose special pet he was and who, it is feared, taught him his naughty ways. Often he would be heard muttering over and over again, 'Currie you're a-!' Next day Stanton or some other member of the section would be the honoured one.
Near the beginning of May, our much esteemed commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Sugden left us to command the 14th Brigade and we saw him go with great regret, although the arrangement was to be only temporary. In actual fact, we were saying goodbye to him, although we did not know it. He had collected and trained our battalion from its inception and had welded it into an efficient fighting team.. His ability to discard all but essentials saved us much of the 'messing about' that is inevitable in army life and for that alone we owe him much. During May we held a comprehensive battalion rifle shooting competition. The practices were designed to give variety, to allow a maximum number to partake and to afford every member of the battalion a chance to win a prize. If memory is faithful, even the officer commanding of D company nearly copped a prize! The most popular event was the shattering of fragile targets, where team-work as well as accurate shooting was necessary. Generally speaking, a high average standard of shooting was displayed and the contests provoked great interest.
Mid-May brought us the information that we were going back to refit and reorganise, but other than that we did not yet know what our ultimate fate was to be. As a result of this news and to relieve the tedium of life there was a revival of craft-work and all odd moments were spent in scratching and scraping and polishing. page 98Many and various were the results and some very ingenious and beautiful work was done. At the end of May we had a quiet week with good weather and low tides, and shell collecting was a popular hobby. Many shell necklaces, bangles and brooches were manufactured and the more mercenary sold these to incoming American servicemen at amazing profit.
We were the only New Zealand infantry battalion left on the island by the end of May and were becoming restless; surely we would be going back soon! A fair percentage of our tentage had become mildewed and was deteriorating rapidly and a change to more pleasant surroundings was eagerly anticipated by all. We had had, up till now, almost nine months in the jungle. We got to work and disposed of all surplus gear which we had acquired or manufactured since our arrival on 15th February, and made all areas ready for a quick getaway as well as we could, but heavy rain hampered these operations. The second week of June saw our last battle casualty. One night Private W. H. Anderson, while returning from the pictures at Sior to D company area in north Nissan, attacked and was fired on by a Jap. Anderson suffered superficial injuries to the head before the Jap made off in the dark.