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The Tanks: An Unofficial History of the Activities of the Third New Zealand Division Tank Squadron in the Pacific

Chapter Six — Across The Tenth Parallel

page 201

Chapter Six
Across The Tenth Parallel

In August 1943 a convoy carrying the 14th Brigade—the first flight of the division to move to Guadalcanal—left a latticed wake as the ships staggered their course to confound lurking enemy submarines. At about dawn, and again at dusk, are the times most favoured by submarines for hunting their prey, and it was at these hours, when the troops were watching the phosphorescent crests and spume of the sea, that many eager eyes searched the ocean's furrowed surface for the dreaded warning-sign of a periscope. Six days later three torpedoes passed close to several ships of a convoy carrying divisional units in the second flight. The 8th Brigade arrived in the third convoy on 14 September. In all, 22 officers and 411 other ranks of the Ordnance Corps went forward with the division to the Solomons.

During several days' stay en route at Vila, on Efate Island in the New Hebrides, ordnance units practised disembarkations over the ships' sides, using rope nets, and participated in amphibious exercises involving beach landings through the surf in assault barges. Each day the amount of equipment to be taken ashore was increased, until finally there was a spectacular landing complete with vehicles, 25-pounder guns, ammunition, rations, and a whole brigade's equipment—a valuable full-scale rehearsal for later experiences in action. In the steaming heat of Vila, where the slightest exertion produces great fatigue, the men worked all day loading tons of heavy equipment into barges, from the ships' holds, and man-handling it out of surftossed landing craft across the loose sands of Mélé Beach. The heat continued, as the men, exhausted to the point where no one page 202speaks much, prepared to bivouac for the night. Corporal Herrick, of the advanced ordnance depot party, has written a pen-picture of the scene: 'The men remained ashore that night, which was unforgettable because of the heavy tropical downpours and the futility of trying to sleep on improvised beds of twigs and leaves over which mosquito nets were hung, as the island was in the malarial zone. Next morning, as the drenched party, weary-eyed and silent, beheld the bedraggled scene of dripping mosquito nets and rain-soaked blankets, the men's brooding silence was broken, even on Efate, by an instance of the soldier's most valuable asset—his sense of humour—as one sleepy NCO, rolling over on his twigs and connecting with a pool of water, muttered, "This is the life, eh?"'

As each convoy left the New Hebrides and passed through latitudes less than ten degrees from the Equator conditions for the troops between decks became nearly unbearable. In these sleeping quarters well below the sundecks the temperature was so great that the iron-work in them was uncomfortably hot to touch. With ships' ventilator systems often out of order after months of troop carrying at sea with little opportunity for repairs, the quarters became like ovens. In these conditions the men spent nearly two weeks on board in the tropics during the Vila exercises and the journey towards the Equator. As there were no port-holes or alternative means of ventilation, the men lying naked on closely packed tiers of bunks lived in a bath of sweat that dripped visibly from finger-tips, chins and feet. Everywhere, pallid limbs hung limply and awkwardly over the sides of the narrow canvasses. The sight was a slight shock each time one entered the compartments, and might easily have been filmed as part of an epic of the bad buccaneering days. A few muffled chuckles greeted one of the troops who remarked, 'Did you ever see anything so like a bunch of exhausted galley-slaves ?'

Familiar to ordnance men who landed on the open beaches of the north coast of Guadalcanal was Point Cruz. It was at Puerto de la Cruz that, in 1568, Mendana, the discoverer of the Solomons, sent ashore Sarmiento, 'expert in force,' to raid a village for stores. The party returned to the beach, barely escaping massacre. The records of the expedition state that 'There was one Indian who actually came to feel the legs of a page 203soldier who stood there, by way of testing whether he were tender for eating, as he would be his share in the distribution which they had made.' Ordnance men landing on Guadalcanal in 1943 were spared this humiliation, however, and had their legs been 'tested' after they had worked there for a few months they would have been found unappetisingly lean. The Solomons must be one of the last places in the world to escape the march of civilisation. Arriving in 1943, troops of the corps found little evidence to indicate that anything had changed since Mendana first visited these islands 375 years earlier. There was not a single town on Guadalcanal, and specific references to certain newly named military localities and landing beaches had often to be annotated with the names of landmarks and rivers. Gradually drivers and other troops learnt that if someone told them to 'go to Kukumbona' this was an area to be found west of the Matanikau River, and not necessarily a despatch to the nether regions. Most of the 2,500 square miles of Guadalcanal is mountainous, with few villages, and the natives—heavy-looking people —used strictly utilitarian sales talk when offering wicked-looking clubs for sale. It went something like this: 'Him strong club. Good bashim head.' Obviously, few tourist ships had called there.

To provide forward area supply and maintenance bases for the division, an advanced ordnance depot and an advanced workshops were established opposite Lunga Roads—the sea approach halfway between Kukum and the Matanikau River. Here, men of these units worked in one of the most fatiguing and humid climates in the Pacific. Here, too, they gained their first experiences in the use of fox-holes during enemy air attacks. About 200 ordnance men used Guadalcanal as a staging point only; they moved on almost immediately, some to take their part in the 14th Brigade's action to clear the Japanese forces from Vella Lavella and Nissan Island, and others as part of the 8th Brigade during the assault on the Treasury Group. This division of ordnance personnel into forward and rear detachments also applied to the staff of the DADOS office. Lieutenant-Colonel Myers and part of the staff were established at Vella Lavella until 11 January 1944, when they returned to rejoin the section which had remained at the division's rear headquarters at Guadalcanal.

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At the time of the division's forward move, New Zealand was still experiencing difficulty in obtaining enough suitable cotton materials for tropical clothing, and to alleviate the position in the division Colonel Myers purchased some 550 shirts from United States sources at Vila, and also 8,600 green twill jungle suits and hats at Guadalcanal, as well as a quantity of spare parts and ammunition for thompson sub-machine guns. In September the. disposition of the division's ordnance stocks was reorganised on the basis of 30 days' maintenance supplies to be held at base ordnance depot in New Caledonia, and 90 days' stock in or forward of Guadalcanal, with one-third of the latter to be held at Vella Lavella. A 25 per cent reserve of certain important items was also despatched with 8th Brigade Headquarters to the Treasury Group.

In giving effect to this disposition, and in supplying immediate issues to brigades moving into battle as well as to rear units on Guadalcanal, the advanced ordnance depot faced a heavy task, which included the clearing of a depot site in the jungle and erecting suitable stores for the protection of equipment. To obtain quick clearances of ships, thousands of tons of ordnance supplies had to be dumped on open beaches at Guadalcanal, where ships could not afford to become sitting targets for the constant attacks by Japanese bombers. When attacks from the air were imminent, the ships often put out to sea, sometimes taking with them ordnance men who were assisting with the unloading. To move the ammunition and other ordnance supplies to safety and protection from the heavy rains the advanced depot teams worked magnificently for 26 days on end, with time off for sleep and meals only, after their arrival on Guadalcanal, where the fierce sun probed the earth, and squawking cockatoos seemed to laugh in ironic mockery from the tree-tops at the men sweating below. On 5 and 6 December—14 weeks after most of the troops of the advanced ordnance depot landed—they had their first full day off duty, after one of the most arduous periods ever spent by men of the depot in the Pacific. From officers to privates they had worked almost to the limits of endurance to ensure that the two brigades went forward fully equipped.

It was during this period, actually on 8 November, that a popular member of the unit, Sergeant R. J. Keeble, was accidentally killed when a falling tree struck the sergeants' mess. page 205Sergeant Keeble's death was not only a sad loss to his many-friends, but also to the unit, as he was a particularly able and valued member of his section. As the burial took place, with a unit firing party, on 9 November, it was a subdued camp that grieved over the loss of a comrade so young, cheerful and respected by all. On 14 November a memorial service was held for Sergeant Keeble by the senior chaplain.

Ordnance supply officers in the forward area were Captains Reid and McCarthy, and Lieutenants Pascoe, Lonergan and Buckley. On 21 December Captain Reid went to hospital, and on his recovery from jaundice he was appointed to divisional headquarters as assistant to Lieutenant-Colonel Myers; Captain McCarthy, who had acted as officer commanding the depot at Guadalcanal during Captain Reid's illness, then assumed official command up until the closing of the depot and its return later to New Caledonia. Second-Lieutenant S. J. Harvey was ammunition examiner and toured the forward areas, operating from the base at Guadalcanal.

In a separate area, away from all other camps at Guadalcanal, Warrant-Officer C. Crocker, Staff-Sergeant Babington and Sergeant Gordon, with 11 men of the ammunition section, handled between them thousands of tons of all types of ammunition. Before Kukum Beach wharf was built, barges which! could not get in close enough to the shore had to be unloaded by some of these men working in water up to the armpits. The team worked 12 hours on, with 12 off, loading convoys of 60 trucks which ran the ammunition out to the stacking area. When five LSTs were being loaded for the 14th Brigade's move into action, 200 3-ton truck loads of ammunition were required for the operation. Prior to this war white men have seldom been called upon for sustained efforts of such a nature as this in the tropics.

For several months the ordnance units at Guadalcanal shared with all troops of the area the strain from continually broken sleep that resulted from Japanese air operations. The men saw enemy raiders shot from the skies and falling nearby in flames; allied ships were attacked and sometimes left burning along the shore. Ordnance camps were fortunate in escaping damage, but when the raids continued to rob the men of their sleep, this, added to the excessive hours and the strange nerve strain peculiar to the relentless heat, began to tell on them.

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After the original New Zealand landings in Vella Lavella, the Treasury Islands and Nissan, replacements of equipment were naturally high, due to battle conditions, and while many requirements were supplied from the emergency ordnance stocks taken to forward areas when the brigades landed, many other items were required from the more comprehensive supplies of the advanced depot at Guadalcanal. These were further items required to replace equipment and clothing used and destroyed during the fighting immediately following the landings. Both indents and deliveries were sometimes delayed by a lack of shipping which was diverted from Guadalcanal to other islands— notably the Russells—to transport thousands of American Sea-bees and their heavy construction equipment to these newly won islands so that airstrips could at once be built. The result, when strips were completed and transport planes were able to carry mails, including, at first, the accumulated indents for forward requirements, and also air cargoes on the return trips, created rush periods at the advanced depots. Such periods were met by the unit with the typical cooperation and keenness that characterised the work of these men and their officers throughout their stay at Guadalcanal.

The detachment that landed at Guadalcanal to set up an advanced workshops there comprised the armament section complete, a section of headquarters and the main workshop, plus Nos. 1 and 2 recovery sections. The unit was set up under Major Signal until his appointment as senior ordnance mechanical engineer (division) in December, when Lieutenant Manson became the commander. When the full advanced ordnance workshop staff first arrived, there were seven officers and 147 other ranks, including the two recovery sections. The latter units were augmented, soon after arrival, with detachments of the armament section, and left Guadalcanal with the brigades when they moved north into action. Advanced ordnance workshops then functioned as a unit of approximately 90 all ranks. The workshop operated under similar climatic and other conditions to those already described for the advanced ordnance depot, the two camps being in the same area as part of the field maintenance centre. Large numbers of vehicles were landed under difficulties, and having been used under the severest conditions not only in New Caledonia, but also on amphibious exercises at page 207the New Hebrides, many required heavy maintenance. At night, as with other units, air raids prompted many dives for the foxholes, and ruined all chances of rest. The men found, too, that there was another unexpected reason for much broken sleep: ospreys, buzzards, hornbills and a host of other over-sized, noisy tropical birds kept up an unbelievable noise at night. It was noticed that tropical birds seldom sang, but maintained a nightlong cacophony of loud mechanical noises very close to the tent lines. Some of the birds had a wing-spread of 30 inches or more, with, apparently, throats in proportion. As the raids grew less frequent, however, the unit settled down to their important work of keeping in serviceable condition the army's means of land transport in these islands, with their absence of railways, and often of anything that could be properly termed a road. Instrument mechanics fought once more the ravages of fungus and corrosion, condensation and heat which, in the Solomons, were almost as great an enemy of equipment as the Japanese were of the troops. Failure of equipment now might mean the loss of lives and of a battle.