Pacific Saga: the personal chronicle of the 37th Battalion and its part in the Third Division's Campaign
Chapter Nine — Garrison Duty on Vella Lavella
Garrison Duty on Vella Lavella
On completion of the campaign, it was decided that the two combat teams would remain in the north to guard against any further landings by the Japanese and to protect the radar station which was to be installed. The territory allocated to the 37th Battalion CT included Warambari Bay on the north-west coast to Karaka on the north-east coast. The dispositions decided on were:— A company, Tambama village; C company, one light AA troop and one 25-pounder troop at the entrance to Tambama Bay; combat HQ, HQ and B company, and detachment 22nd Field Ambulance, engineers, and the balance of the gunners at Boro, and D company, the guerilla platoon and machinegun platoon moved to Karaka. All moves were completed on 13 October. While these moves were going on our rear echelon at Maravari had been sending forward cooking gear, tentage and clothing. The receipt of this gear was appreciated and we once more settled down to make ourselves comfortable.
On 17 October our Japanese ship, which had been at Maravari since its capture, sailed into Doveli Cove with our own crew aboard. The crew consisted of Corporal Widden (skipper), Lance Corporal Ferguson, Privates Warbrooke, Whitford, Woollett, Andrews (cook), Taafe and Pop from the 35th Battery. The latter two were the engineers and one of the sights, which all visitors were shown, was these two preparing to start up the engines. The engines was a diesel type and had to be heated up with blow lamps before the compressed air was turned on to turn the engines over, Flames swept up through the engine room skylight while Taffy and Pop flitted about below, turning various cocks on and off. If the temperature was not just right the compressed air would be wasted and a compressor would be requisitioned from the engineers to blow up the compressed air tanks again. When she did start, with a deepthroated roar, everyone joined in the cheers of the crew. She was page 79renamed Confident and, with the New Zealand ensign fluttering from her mast, she became the flagship of the combat team. She could carry 50 tons of cargo and at a pinch the whole battalion could have been carried on her. She was used regularly on the Maravari—Boro run for the carriage of troops, rations and beer. To implement our fleet, three wrecked Japanese barges were towed off the reefs and, such is the ingenuity of New Zealand soldiers, they were soon patched up and put into commission. Boro became a busy port and Lieutenant Stokes was appointed harbourmaster. He had a fulltime job organising our sea transport.
Units of the combat team quickly made themselves comfortable and settled down to a pleasant existence of patrolling, sea bathing, fishing and canoe racing. A 16 mm projector was sent up to us and pictures were shown twice weekly at Boro. Our Japanese shipping enabled troops from outstations to be brought in when a good film was showing. We had visits from the Kiwi concert party and a native choir, trained by Padre Voyce. Lieutenant Congalton, the brigade education officer, visited all areas and stimulated interest in AEWS courses. It was noticed that troops were showing interest in handicraft work, and, to stimulate this interest, Padre Harford organised an arts and crafts exhibition. The idea took on with brigade, who organised an exhibition on a brigade basis. This was a great success and it was a revelation to see what beautiful things could be made from shells, shell cases, coconuts and odd scraps of wood. The art section was particularly fine. On the suggestion of the GOG, the exhibits were shipped to New Zealand and displayed in the cities, the proceeds going to patriotic funds.
C company, on low-lying ground at Tambama Point was having a thin time, but after the Treasuries were occupied by the 8th Brigade, the company, and attached troops, was moved to Suanatolia, which provided an ideal camp site. On 17 November, the Governor General held an investiture at Joroveto, during which decorations won in the Vella engagement were presented. Lieutenant Bartos received the Military Cross, and Corporal Dunlea the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Corporal McCullough, who had been wounded, was presented with the Military Medal at the 4th General Hospital in Necal. The guard of honour was commanded by Lieutenant Law. On the following day the Governor General toured round the island in a PT boat, visiting all detachments.
page 80Several officer changes took place in December. Major Moffat was promoted to command the 35th Battalion, vice Lieutenant-Colonel Seaward, and Major McCrae was appointed to command the base training depot, with the rank of lietenant-colonel. Lieutenant-Colonel Moffat was one of the original officers. He had commanded A, C and HQ companies and had also acted as second-in-command on several occasions. Lieutenant-Colonel McCrae joined the battalion in 1942 as second-in-command. We were proud of the fact that three officers from the battalion had been given commands—the third being Lieutenant-Colonel Reidy, who was now commanding the 34th Battalion. Lieutenants Law and Shirley went back to New Caledonia for a tour of duty at the base training depot, while Captain Phil Morgan was placed on the New Zealand roll on account of age—much to his disgust. This officer had never spared himself in the service of the battalion and we owed him a lot. He was a wonderful morale builder and his capacity of being able to talk himself into, as well as out of, impossible situations ensured that there were no dull moments while he was around. Stories surrounding him are legion. One picture that will live for ever in the memories of those who saw it was the sight of him at the landing at Warambari Bay—what he was doing up with the assault troops was never enquired into very closely by the CO—superintending the unloading of assault boats, clearing the landing, and at the same time keeping up a running commentary for the benefit of unblooded soldiers who were under fire for the first time as to what constituted bullet-proof cover and what did not.
Before we say goodbye to him, there are two incidents that are worth reviving. Firstly, the unsolved mystery of the disappearance of a spare wheel from his truck while parked outside a certain spot in Te Aroha, advertised tactfully in routine orders as lost between the racecourse and Te Aroha. Secondly, the occasion at Taom when he was running second man for the officers' relay team at battalion HQ sports and gave the officers a clear cut victory by knocking down the three other contestants at the baton change over. This was very popular with the officers who had backed themselves to win at long odds with Johnny Leydon. Nor will we forget his memorable last words from the barge taking him on his first lap of his journey back to New Zealand. When the barge was some way out from the page 81jetty in Doveli Cove, a roar came across the water, addressed to his storeman: 'Don't forget about hob-nails, Stan!'
Captain Morgan's place was taken by Captain Jack Clarkson who had been kicking his heels at base since the Ruahines were disbanded, whiie the appointment of second-in-command was taken over by Major Trevarthen, who had been serving as AA and QMG 2 NZEF IP. Major Catley, who had left the battalion before it left Fiji, was reposted, and appointed to command C company. Major Sluce rejoined after undergoing a combined operations course in the USA and took over A company from Major Moffat. Captain Keith had completely recovered from his wound and was re-posted to B company, while Lieutenant McKenzie, who had been on compassionate leave to New Zealand, also came back to the fold. Lieutenants Ross and Christie had been posted to the battalion in September, and Lieutenant Spedding in December.
There was a tragic occurrence on 5 December. The padre and a party had set out in a barge for Tambama to conduct the Sunday morning service. The barge ran aground on a reef off Suanatolia and while the passengers were getting it off, three American fighter planes swooped down and strafed the barge. There were several wrecks out on the reefs which the Americans had been in the habit of shooting up. Sapper Knipe was killed, Corporal Todd died of wounds and Sapper Quirke was severely wounded. These men belonged to the 20th Field Company and had been with us since the combat team moved north. Their death in such a manner was deeply regretted by everyone.
The period between Christmas and New Year was a period of carnival. All areas held regattas or swimming sports and the festivities culminated in a grand carnival at Boro on New Year's Day, 1943. Canoe races, aquaplaning, swimming, side shows and horse racing were indulged in, troops from the outlying areas being brought in by our own fleet. An item which created intense interest was the tug-of-war. After a series of interesting pulls, Boro, which consisted of a team made up from battalion headquarters, HQ company and B company, defeated Boro Point, which was made up of men from the 35th Battery, the 22. Field Ambulance and the anti-tank troop, in the final. Probably the best area in our sphere of influence was Karaka, where Captain Edwards had ensconced D company, on the site of a native village. The huts were clean and well built, page 82and the site offered a beautiful sea view across to Kolambangara and and up and down the coast.. Captain Edwards, with his usual hospitality, held several 'At Homes' which were enjoyed and looked forward to by troops from other areas. The natives were very cooperative and exchanged pigs and fowls for tins of chile con carne or meat and vegetable stew. The A company area at Tamabama village was not so good. There was a tough climb from the jetty to the camp which was entirely shut in by coconut palms and other tropical growth. There was a long carry for water until an ingenious pipe line of bamboo was constructed. However, the company made its own fun and kept cheerful.
Some members of D company photographed on Nissan. Below: B company claimed the best surfing beach on Nissan and here the adventurous used their surf boards at high tide
The guerilla platoon photographed on Nissan Island against a background of trophies and palms. Below: The quartermaster and his staff outside the QM tent
An axeman's carnival was a popular event on Nissan when operations ceased. Left, is a picture of Dave Mason in action and below is an incident in the 14-inch chop showing A. H. Wybrow wielding the axe. Inset is a view of the battalion's cinema, with palm trunks for seats
Members of the staff of battalion headquarters photographed on Nissan Island before the battalion began to disband. The signal platoon on Nissan
On 30 January a memorial chapel, which had been erected by natives in the allied cemetery at Maravari, was dedicated. Our dead had been brought in from Boro and Warambari Bay and were now interned in this cemetery.* Representatives from all units on the island attended the dedication service. To show appreciation for the help that had been given by the natives on Vella Lavella, members of the battalion subscribed 600 dollars to be used for native welfare. The money was forwarded to the headquarters of the Methodist Mission in Auckland, with a request that it be used to help in the erection of a hospital on the island. On 2,9 January, advice was received that Captain Phil Morgan had been awarded the MBE. This news was received with great satisfaction by all ranks. The honour was a fitting reward for the faithful and efficient service rendered by this officer.
Once again came the preparation of loading tables, boat assignment tables, etc, which indicated that our days on Vella were numbered. Our next operation had been named 'Squarepeg' and excitement ran high when the 30th Battalion set out on a reconnaissance in strength of the objective. Lieutenant McKenzie accompanied the battalion, his job being to report on the beaches and area over which our battalion would require to work. He brought back most useful information which enabled very detailed planning to be done.
* [Since this account was written the remains of all New Zealand servicemen have been brought from their Pacific island resting places and now lie in a central cemetery near Bourail, in New Caledonia.—Editor.]