Pacific Saga: the personal chronicle of the 37th Battalion and its part in the Third Division's Campaign
Chapter Five — New Caledonia. Taom River
New Caledonia. Taom River
Towards the end of March, 1943, Colonel Sugden, accompanied by Major Moffat, journey to 14th Brigade Headquarters at Taom River to select an area for the battalion. This visit was followed by the despatch on 24 March of an advanced party under Major Moffatt to lay out company areas and prepare for the reception of the battalion in its new area. The terrain was entirely different from that of Nessakouja. Whereas there was a semblance of tropical vegetation and a variety of trees at the latter place, at Taom there was little to relieve the monotonous vista of niaouli trees. How montonous and nerve-racking these trees can become is known only by those who have had to live among them for some months. There was plenty of space and the company areas were laid out so that companies would be entirely separate and would have sufficient room for the construction of sports grounds within their own areas. Also, each company had easy access to the Taom River which, like the Houailou, provided good bathing facilities. There were good areas of open country to relieve the feeling of being enclosed and the area rifle ranges were only a short distance from the centre of the camp. Training areas were at our front and back doors. The 14th Brigade Headquarters had been instrumental in erecting a well-equipped road house with a large open-air picture theatre alongside and a chapel was in course of erection. These installations were situated on the main road in a handy position to all units.
The battalion left Nessakouja at 6 am on 2 April, arriving at Taom after an uneventful journey at 3 pm. Unfortunately the move took place during the tail end of the rainy season, and while the main road was in fair condition, the road into the camp was a quagmire. It had had a lot of use during the previous week when stores and equipment were being sent up daily from Nessakouja. However, the trucks got through and, on arrival, companies found page 49that the advanced party had done good work. Cook-houses were in operation, tents were up and latrines dug. It was a very simple move as tentage and cooking stoves had been left in position for the relieving battalion—the Ruahines—at Nessakouja, and our advanced party had drawn fresh tentage and stoves with the result that the camp was a going concern when the main body arrived. We lost on the tentage deal, having to accept American tents in lieu of our Indian pattern marquees. However, this gave companies the opportunity they had been looking for of producing American tents they had acquired since being in New Caledonia. The first check of tentage showed a big discrepancy between the numbers on issue and the numbers actually erected. For once the quartermaster did not take umbrage at this state of affairs, maybe because he had several strangers in his own area.
The most urgent job was to provide good access from the main road. Although we were near brigade headquarters, the Taom River lay between and the only bridge was on the main road: whereas the distance from battalion headquarters to brigade headquarters as the crow flies was a matter of 400 yards, the distance by road was five or six miles. Captain Adams was give the task of constructing the road. He was assisted by fatigue parties from all companies and a bridging gang from the carrier platoon ably led by Private Mick Andrews. In civilian life Mick is a sawmill operator and was well experienced in building bridges in New Zealand timber country. His tools consisted of axes, a crosscut saw, crowbars, and bren carriers, which he used as tractors. His materials were the standing timber in the vicinity of bridging sites. Two major bridges were built, one to take the road into camp across a stream and the other across the Taom River to give access to brigade headquarters. The fact that each bridge was capable of taking loaded six-by-sixes speaks for the solidity and efficiency of the structures.
The roading gangs had an arduous time. For half a mile in from the main road the road ran across low-lying, swampy country and from two to three feet of filling had to be put in. In those days there were no bulldozers available and it was a case of opening up quarries, carting material and working with the pick and shovel. However, a good and solid two-way road gradually arose out of the morass. After completion, a maintenance gang was kept constantly on the road and the engineers put a grader over it once a week. While page 50road construction and bridge building was going on, companies were busy with the familiar task of erecting messrooms and stores. D company, which was the furthest away from the river, built a dam in a small stream flowing through the back of its area and erected showers. The pioneer officer, Lieutenant McKenzie, located a circular saw and bench in the canning factory at Ouaco and permission was obtained from the manager to use these, provided we supplied the motive power. The engineers loaned a tractor to produce power and the pioneers were then able to supply sawn timber for building purposes.
At Taom we were relieved of all coast-watching duties and were able to get on with more coordinated training. Stress was still laid on physical fitness and endurance while the amount of time spent on the jungle battle practice ranges was increased. Lieutenant Law attended a battle inoculation course at Trentham and on his return he trained company officers and NGOs who in turn trained their companies, as a preliminary to platoon and company jungle training. Jungle training courses directed by brigade were held for officers and proved of great value. The brigadier was an adherent of an American general whose idea of realistic training was to exhaust his troops and then keep them going for another 48 hours. Each exercise took place over a period of nine days and was divided into three phases, each phase covering three days. At the end of each phase, discussions were held by the brigadier, during which every move during the previous three days was gone over with a fine tooth comb. Probably the most valuable lesson learned by the officers who took part was the value of will power when the whole body is shrieking out to be allowed to slump down and rest. It also forcibly brought home to them the fact that their men would never do any good in jungle fighting unless their powers of endurance were high. Most of the conclusions arrived at as a result of these exercises were put into practice with good results when we eventually got to grips with the Jap.
Men in the jungle on Vella Lavella vesting after an arduous patrol. Packs of cards were the easiest games to carry. Waiting on the beach to embark for Nissan Island
A corner of the battalion's camp on Guadalcanal is pictured above. On the left is a group from the battalion clad in jungle suits, taken during training operations
Above Abattalion bivouac on Ve11a Lavella, with a landing-craft showing through the trunks of the palms. Right A glimpse of the jungle through which the men fought at Warambari
The battalion headquarters mascot was H. Hunt, a Solomon Islands parrakeet, pictured here with his trainer, Private Currie
A patrol in the jungle at Warambari, on Vella Lavella. Through such country as this the men had to make their way and carry supplies
This deserted native hut among the palms became the quartermaster's store at Boro, on Vella Lavella. Below, is a scene in Tangalan Plantation, Nissan Island, on the day of the landing
The GOG expressed himself as being dissatisfied with the standard of marching during the exercise, with the result that route march training figured prominently in training programmes and culminated in a four-day march to Koumeu and back. This was well worth while and the results proved that the standard of fitness was very satisfactory. Route marching in the tropics with a full pack up in is a soul-shattering pastime. During June, all infantry battalions were reorganised on a four rifle company basis and the 14th Brigade machinegun companies were formed. The 14th Brigade MG company was formed by transferring the complete MG portion of D company, 37th Battalion, and adding one MG platoon from the 35th Battalion. This change meant that we lost Captains Rice and Timms and Lieutenants Ryan and Wills. The former were original members of the battalion, while the latter were original members of the 35th Battalion, and transferred to the 37th in June, 1942. The mortar platoon replaced the anti-aircraft platoon in HQ company. D (rifle) company was formed by taking one platoon from each of A, B and G companies, leaving each company with three platoons instead of four. Major McRae rejoined the battalion after attending a course at the staff college in New Zealand, while Majors Moffatt and Sluce had left to attend courses in New Zealand and the USA respectively. The company commanders at this stage were Captain Holcroft, HQ company; Captain Smith, A; Captain Keith, B; Captain M. L. Morgan, C; and Captain Edwards, D. Captain Barton left the mortar platoon and was appointed second-in-command to D company, his place being taken by Lieutenant Forward from the Scots. The signal officer, Lieutenant McKechnie, was transferred on promotion to the Scots, the vacancy being filled by Second-Lieutenant J. R. Day from the Scots. The reorganisation necessitated officer transfers within the battalion, and these were:— Lieutenant Standage from HQ to C; Lieutenant Robinson from A to D; Lieutenant Nicholls from B to D; Lieutenant Law from C to D; and Lieutenant Brown from C to A.
Towards the end of June, it was learned that the battalion was to take part in amphibious training on board the USS John Penn. This was welcome news as it presaged a move northwards and perhaps action against the Japs. A battalion combat team was page 52organised consisting of approximately 1,200 all ranks and was placed under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Sugden, 37th Battalion. On 20 June, the brigade commander and the 37th Battalion commander visited Noumea to confer with American navy officials and this visit was followed by the despatch of Major McCrae and a small party to Noumea on 24 June to meet officials of the US navy and make all arrangements necessary for loading ship and embarkation.
For the exercise units taking part were required to take combat equipment with them. So once more companies were put to work crating up their stories and preparing loading schedules. An advanced echelon, consisting of messing staff, loading parties, embarkation and billeting staffs, left for Noumea on 30 June and the main body moved to Noumea in three flights during the night of 1-2 July. Each flight, after breakfasting in the vicinity of Dumbéa, moved to the nickel dock at Noumea where landing craft was waiting to ferry troops out to the John Perm. By this time all troops were familiar with shipboard life arid routine, but our experience in boarding a ship had been limited to walking up a gangway. In this instance, because of the number to be embarked in a short time, the landing craft pulled into the ship's sides and embarkation took the novel form of clambering up nets. This was a formidable looking task at first sight as everyone was carrying full packs, ammunition and weapons. Apart from a few steel helmets and rifles which crashed down into the boats below, fortunately without hitting anyone, embarkation went smoothly.
Training on the ship was of a progressive nature, the first couple of days being spent in teaching all ranks the procedure adopted in abandon ship and debarkation drills. These drills were first carried out without equipment by day and night, and as proficiency was obtained, so the load carried was increased. The troops soon accustomed themselves to climbing up and down the nets and a competitive spirit developed to see which boat would be the first filled and away from the ship's side. While this was going on, the transport quartermaster (Major McCrae) was busy organising and training his ship's unloading party. The beachmaster (Major Wilson) was doing the same with his shore party. All officers were introduced to the intricacies of boat assignment tables, landing diagrams, debarkation plans, approach schedules, etc., which are peculiar to amphibious operations. This preliminary training was followed by landings page 53on beaches in Noumea Harbour, both by day and night, firstly with portion of stores and vehicles, and finally with everything including 30 days' rations and petrol, five units of fire and all vehicles. The training carried out was to prove to be of the greatest value in the future, and there is no doubt that the smoothness of all subsequent operations was due to the mistakes made, and lessons learned, while we were on the John Penn.
Everyone enjoyed this tour of duty. The ship's company did everything possible to make our stay pleasant. The officers acquired the easy habit of coffee drinking at all hours, while the other ranks overcame the lack of beer by acquiring a taste for 'coke'. It was with regret that we heard a few weeks later that a Jap bomb had hit and sunk the ship on its next trip to Guadalcanal. Amongst those killed was Lieutenant-Commander B. P. Burnham, USNR, the executive officer who had helped us so much. The combat team arrived back in the Taom area on 16 July. While we were absent, the 15th Brigade had been disbanded and 75 recruits from the 1st Scots had marched into camp, which brought the battalion up to effective strength. Lieutenant Paul Wishart, who had been our medical officer for 18 months, departed to attend a tactical course in New Zealand. He was relieved by Lieutenant Derek Ryder of the 22nd Field Ambulance.