Stepping Stones to the Solomons: the unofficial history of the 29th Battalion with the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Pacific.
Chapter Six — Excursion to Choiseul
Excursion to Choiseul
The last day of September found six members of the battalion not a little excited at setting out upon the first task assigned to the 8th Brigade in the combat area. For some days prior to their departure these members of C company had been strangely busy—cleaning rifles, trying on queer-looking jungle suits, consorting with Americans, looking at maps. From Colonel Colman, First USMAC, came instructions and information. The New Zealanders were to act as a protective patrol for four American technicians on Choiseul Island, then still held by Japanese. The technicians were to make astronomical observation in order to correct irregularities on existing maps.
From Koli Point the party travelled by LST to Halavo, on Florida, a little chagrined to find that the salutes flying in all directions as they stepped aboard were probably not meant for them, but for Rear-Admiral Fort, US Navy. At Halavo luggage was stored while the party lunched. The American authorities could not do enough to assist operations, so that Sergeant McLeod was moved to remark: 'It's good to know that an army sometimes functions efficiently'.
'Well, I wouldn't know', came the acknowledgment. 'You see this is the navy'.
The trip from Halavo was made by Catalina with a fighter escort of six planes, picked up over the Russell Islands. About mid-after-noon the 'Dumbo' plodded to a watery landing in a calm strip of ocean between Nanano and the mainland. With remarkable speed the plane lost its passengers and was in the air again, while natives canoed the newcomers ashore. An hour after the landing three native canoes were making their way steadily down the east coast of the island. It was almost dark when the cramped occupants staggered page 52stiffly on to land and found themselves in a small native village, twenty miles from Nanano.
Like all other coastal villages Patubele bore traces of neglect, for the arrival of the Japanese on Choiseul caused the natives to forsake the coast for the hills. The village boasted an excellent water supply and a church, but salt water swimming was ruled out on account of the risk of detection from the air. One day was spent in Patubele, a day in which the Americans sought spider webs to replace a broken transit, while other members of the party made a three hour journey inland accompanied by Peter Carey, a native guide.
The east coast of Choiseul was more rugged, more difficult to travel over, more heavily jungled than any of the other islands known to the battalion. Trails in the Patubele area were practically non-existent; sharp greasy ridges ran down into swampy gullies; and openings in the roof of the jungle were noticeably absent. Natives fled at the approach of strangers, but three old men, reassured by Peter Carey, showed their appreciation of the joys of civilisation by eating chewing gum with the paper attached.
Between a October and 8 October the most strenuous and tiring part of the work was accomplished to the satisfaction of all concerned. Almost all travelling was done by canoes, often at night. Japanese planes were occasionally sighted, although only one was close enough to have spotted the party. The natives were as airminded as the Europeans; seconds before the drone of engines surged into hearing brown faces were uplifted and if necessary the canoes clung closer to the shore. Every day American bombers were heard or seen heading for Bougainville, and on three successive days planes from New Zealand squadrons passed over.
In the Kuboru area a land and sea search was made for a Japanese OP but the only satisfaction derived was from the conclusion that it was non-existent. A Japanese mine was found, minus the fuse and detonator. These had been hammered out for adornment of a chief's canoe. Nights were spent in village huts if and when possible; otherwise rocks or earth made the bed, the sky a blanket, sometimes watery.
During these days Japanese remnants were making their way from Kolombangara and Rekata Bay to Choiseul, and consequently there was considerable barge activity along the west coast. The journey to the western coast was made carefully, therefore, and no risks were taken after several bursts of strafing sounded east of Larana Passage. page 53At Taura Point a native canoe patrol brought word that an enemy barge had that day moved south to occupy a small island. In consequence, fearing daylight detection from sea or sky, the party, working in bright moonlight, felled half a dozen trees and saplings so that observations could be made at once. Armed with a cane knife, a native boy shinned up a bushy top tree to assist in operations. Choiseul boys are good Christians and it was with something akin to astonishment that the New Zealanders heard a violent string of oaths spill from his lips. It turned out that his loin cloth had failed to give protection against particularly vicious red ants. No worse language was heard on the trip, except when Ernie Benfell tasted turtle soup.
Nagosele Passage, dividing Rob Roy Island from Choiseul, is in places less than 70 yards wide. Rob Roy rises steep from its waters, inaccessibly steep generally, but on the Choiseul side of the channel merges into shallow mangroved waters, providing hundreds of natural hideouts for small craft. By 2 am observations on Taura were completed and the patrol set off immediately into the darkness. The dip of the paddles helped to keep everyone awake; now and again the paddles broke into double time, and tiring natives gave new life to a tireless steed. That night camp was made at Zaminarvaro after a fifteen hour trip. Bamboo slats provided a well-sprung mattress for men who had been awake for 54 out of the preceding 60 hours.
'Tojo's' planes, usually lone prowlers, were heard fairly often by day and night. On Wednesday, 6 October, the patrol missed by an hour a dogfight that resulted in the destruction of a Zero above Pagoi. The same afternoon three planes fell from the blue upon the canoes, but what a thrill to see the red, white and blue circles underwing! Each plane in turn came to 100 feet of the water, and New Zealand airmen waved greetings to New Zealand soldiers in Japanese waters. Incidentally, there can be few prior instances of American, Australian and New Zealand servicemen meeting on active operations in a combat zone.
In the work of the natives there lay reason for every confidence. Crews were operated in relays from various villages along the coast. From their two daily meals of rice, often burnt, they derived a tireless energy for their rhythmic paddling, but at the end of their journey they showed much enthusiasm for a fish diet. Peter Carey, in particular, had a fondness for grenades. At night they kept an outer guard while members of the patrol stayed on watch until such time as page 54the stars were clear. Only once did the Choiseul boys become excited. That was on the night of 8 October, when heavy gunfire was heard and after midnight two flares dropped offshore. A search at day break revealed nothing of interest.
Until the end everything went as planned, with nothing in the way of real excitement. The task of protection developed into one of coastal reconnaissance. Opportunity was taken wherever possible to correct and amend the map. It was as well that spelling was not entirely unknown to the natives, for many a huddled conference took place in the canoes, with names being written and rewritten until general satisfaction was obtained. Sanasana was the most northernly point reached by the expedition, and from there the party returned by stages to Nanano Island. The crossing to Nanano was made before dawn, the canoes were drawn into the shadow of the trees, and smoke signals were made ready for the arrival of the 'Dumbo'. The party received a message by runner that the plane would not arrive until the following day. That twentyfour hours of grace was a God' send—Peter Carey made a record catch of 201 fish with one grenade, and the New Zealanders found time to eat, sleep, wash or play bridge during Sunday. Monday afternoon witnessed the arrival of the Catalina which, incidentally, had flown off its course as far as Bougainville. After flying en route over bomb-pocked Munda, the party slept that night through several 'condition reds' on Rendova. Information was passed on to naval intelligence before the plane completed the final stage of the journey to Tulagi next day.
Once back with the battalion the necessity for removing the beards of all personnel sufficed to excuse Privates Benfell, Flanagan, Gunderson, Morrison, Taplin and Sergeant McLeod from the impending manoeuvres on Florida. The Choiseul interlude in the battalions story will not easily be forgotten by those members of C company and, although they met no actual hostile elements, theirs was a trip, strenuous but full of interest that achieved its aim.
Shortly afterwards the final preparations for the move forward were put under way. At last it was revealed that the objective of the 8th New Zealand Brigade was a little group of islands known as the Treasuries, off the southern tip of Bougainville. The battalion's job was the capture of the village of Falamai, reputed to be the enemy headquarters and to be held by the majority of the 200 odd Japanese known to be on the island. Aerial photographs taken a few days page 55before gave a good idea of the lay of the land, and, although it was not a big show, it was something to get one's teeth into. Rumour had it that this was the first step in a big new offensive in the Solomons, which was something of a comfort seeing that the Treasuries were so far out in the blue.
There was not long to wait before the move came this time.