Pacific Saga: the personal chronicle of the 37th Battalion and its part in the Third Division's Campaign
Chapter Four — New Caledonia. Nessakouja
New Caledonia. Nessakouja
The trip was uneventful and seas were calm. Land was sighted at 3 pm on 31 December and by 6 o'clock the ship was anchored in Nouméa Harbour. We had not been prepared for what we would see in the harbour. It was literally crammed with American ships of all types. There were warships, aircraft carriers, troopships and cargo vessels, the latter awaiting their turn to unload. Some of them had spent weeks in port, as the harbour facilities were not conducive to speedy unloading. Landing craft and motor launches were speeding over the water and the whole picture made us realise that at last we were getting nearer the war zone. What we could see of New Caledonia did not stir us with enthusiasm. There was a narrow foreshore backed by craggy, bush-covered, forbidding mountains. It was a tough looking country, and tough it proved to be. Most of us had expected a tropical vista to open before our eyes as we neared land, but there was not a vestige of tropical vegetation to be seen. The battalion was detailed to unload and clear ship.
On 2 January, an advanced party, consisting of Major Moffat, Lieutenant Hayes and 33 other ranks, disembarked to go forward to the camp site in the Houailou Valley and on the 4th the battalion disembarked and journeyed by train and motor transport to Dumbea transit camp, a few miles north of Nouméa, All troops had an opportunity of having a quick look at Nouméa and were disappointed. The shops were empty, the streets were dirty. Pretty French girls were conspicuous by their absence and, instead, a motley crowd of New Caledonian natives and Javanese patrolled the streets. This was not the 'Paris of the Pacific'.
At Dumbéa, instructions were received that the battalion was to supply a working party of two companies to remain in Nouméa to assist United States forces to unload shipping. Major McCrae was page 42placed in command on this party which consisted of D company and a platoon each from A, B and C companies. On 6 January, the troops set up camp in Noumea on a site which was known as McCrae's Camp. Units were moving out of Dumbéa as transport became available and the main task there was to sort out baggage and equipment preparatory to a move north to the Houailou Valley, where the battalion was to be located. Our crates and boxes had travelled fairly well, but the pioneers found plenty of work to do in repairing and reconstructing crates. The inevitable looting had taken place and the looters, as always, had an unerring knack of locating canteen or YMCA goods. However, we were fortunate and did not lose much. Ian Milner joined us at Dumbéa as YMCA secretary, and he was destined to remain until we reached Green Island over a year later. The camp site at Dumbéa was in a pleasant spot close to the river, which provided excellent swimming and washing facilities.
At six o'clock in the morning on 8 January, the journey north by motor transport was started in a heavy downpour of rain. The rain was a blessing because it laid the dust which, as we were to learn later, was the bugbear of travel on roads in New Caledonia. Bourail was reached at mid-day and the convoy pulled off the road at Néméara in the vicinity of 15th Brigade Headquarters. Captain A. Sluce, who had left New Zealand some weeks before the battalion, and Major Moffat met us here, and the commanding officer went on ahead with these officers to confirm arrangements made by them. The journey across the island to the east coast was not anticipated with relish because some of the drivers who had been over the road across the mountains had painted a fearsome picture of its terrors. However, our fears were groundless. The surface was good and there were no abnormal grades. In parts it would have been awkward to meet oncoming trucks, but there was nothing to worry about.
The destination, Nessakouja, was reached at two o'clock, and companies were guided into previously allotted areas. The advanced party had done good work in the short time available to them, and the pioneers had made good progress with the construction of cook-houses. Companies quickly set about what was now a wellknown routine, that of establishing a new camp. Nessakouja was an ideal camp site situated on the right bank of the Houailou River. The area was well drained with a good sole of grass, while shade from page 43the sun was afforded by coconut palms and clumps of pines. Across the river was a native village, which gave the place its name, and which was a handy source of native labour. The river itself was ideal for swimming and formed a natural pool at a bend near the village. A waterfall a few hundred yards away handy to the road provided a source of good water. During the first few days, camp building was the order of the day. Before leaving New Zealand we had been issued with a liberal scale of tentage for living and office accommodation and this was now being implemented by the construction of cook-houses and mess huts. In addition, a small chapel, regimental aid post and a YMCA hut were built. The piece de résistance was probably headquarters company's mess room with Captain Morgan's quartermaster's store running a close second.
There was little in the way of social amenities and the battalion had to provide for itself in this respect. We now realised to the full that the money and time spent in New Zealand in preparing for this state of affairs was well worth while. The pipe band came into its own and proved a very popular attraction, while the swing band, by means of assiduous practice and many arguments, became a good combination. In order to unearth talent for the battalion concert party, Padre Harford persuaded all companies in turn to put on shows for the remainder of the battalion. D company's efforts were always particularly good. The system was instrumental in unearthing entertainers who, otherwise, would probably never have come to the fore. The gem of the discoveries was Eddie Allott of head-quarters company, who was a capable violinist, and during the subsequent service of the battalion he gave great pleasure, not only to his immediate comrades, but also to many from other units who attended battalion concerts. Other innovations were the establishment of a choir under the leadership of Sergeant Jack Johnston and the formation of a ballet. The latter was trained and led by Regimental Quartermaster-Sergeant Wootton and clothed, or rather unclothed, by Staff-Sergeant Hines, the battalion tailor. Ian Milner soon had his YM hut furnished and in working order. Features of his activities which caused much enjoyment were the quizz sessions, debates and impromptu speeches. The National Patriotic Fund Board began to make its presence known, the furniture and wireless set in the YM being supplied by that organisation.
The entertainment committee produced its first 'all in' effort on 20 March, when 'Houailou Follies' was staged. Credit for this effort goes to the manager, Padre Harford and the producer Sergeant Stan Clifford. It was a creditable effort, and members of the battalion were unstinting in their praise. It is hard to single out any special items from an excellent programme, but undoubtedly the contortions of the ballet delighted everyone. The 'girls' all looked very alluring. Their makeup was perfect and Johnny Hine's costuming made the most of every 'feminine' charm. It was hard to imagine that the bevy of beauty included some of the toughest eggs in the battalion. The ballet consisted of Regimental Quartermaster-Sergeant Wootton, Sergeant Bartlett, Corporal Shepherd, Corporal Bryson, Privates page 46Mitchell, Heath, Law and Lance Corporal Ferguson. Eddie Allott fascinated us with his violin, and few of us will ever forget the delightful combination of Maurice Tansley singing Ave Maria with Alott accompanying him with a violin obbligato. The choir performed well at its debut and our standbys, the Harmony Brothers, pipe band and orchestra all did their usual good jobs. Brigadier Goss was the guest of the evening and he was so impressed with the performance that he asked for it to be repeated in the Scots area the following week. It was staged on 26 and 27 March for the benefit of troops in the Néméara area.
As a consequence of American units moving out of New Caledonia, the division was required to take over certain additional security duties. The protection of the airfield at Tontouta fell to the lot of the battalion and A company moved down there on 7 February. B company relieved this company on 6 March, the tour of duty being completed on 19 March, when the duty was taken over by the 8th Brigade, which had moved from Népoui to the Bouloupari area. The composite company, which had been left in Nouméa, was relieved by the 30th Battalion, and arrived in camp on 11 April. The personnel came back with all sorts of good things purchased or acquired from American sources. D company had enough cigarettes, tinned fruits and candy to keep its canteen well stocked for months. We found that we were liking American cigarettes. New Zealand cigarettes were not opening up in good conditions as they were not packed to withstand the humid tropical conditions. American cigarettes were in good supply and the canteen officer gave up buying New Zealand brands. Cigars were plentiful but the cigar smoking habit was not taken up to any great extent by New Zealanders. On 2 February, a ship carrying our transport and priority B equipment arrived at Népoui and this was ferried to camp during the succeeding days, while Lieutenant Newman and the mechanical transport party which had been left behind in New Zealand arrived in camp on 12 February.
Several changes in the battalion took place during this period. Captain Sluce was promoted major; Lieutenant Wauchop received his third pip; and Captain Edwards, who had left the battalion in Fiji to take over the security section at divisional headquarters, rejoined us in March and was appointed second-in-command of C company.
page 47Lieutenant Blakey was transferred to the Army Service Corps and appointed messing officer to No 4 General Hospital. The following non-commissioned officers were selected to attend an officer cadet training unit course in New Zealand:— Staff-Sergeant Binns, Sergeants Browne, Corskie, Miles, McConnell and Probert. Sergeant Hutchens, of the stretcher bearers, was promoted Staff-Sergeant and appointed company quartermaster-sergeant of D company to replace Binns. Major McCrae proceeded to the staff college in New Zealand, his appointment as second-in-command being temporarily filled by Major Moffat. We were pleased to welcome back Captain Muir and his dental section. He had spent some months with us in Fiji. This time he was accompanied by Lieutenant Tony Gibbs.
Towards the end of March, in consequence of the 29th and 36th Battalions rejoining the division from Norfolk and Tonga, arrangements were made for us to rejoin the 14th Brigade at Taom River. Our stay at Nessakouja was very pleasant. It was a lovely camp site, probably the best on the island, and we were far enough off the beaten track to be left to our own devices. We were free from the constant eye of 'higher authority' but had worked hard in fitting ourselves for what might He ahead. Brigadier Goss and his staff were always very helpful and we have nothing but pleasant memories of our association with the 15th Brigade. The names of these French families will bring back memories to members of the battalion— Messurier, who owned the land on which we camped, De Villiers, with his seemingly unlimited progeny, and Vaisin, whose family was wellknown to members of the transport platoon.