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

III. The Treasury Group

III. The Treasury Group

In the meantime, after last minute exercises at Guadalcanal in landing-manceuvres, which were a dress rehearsal so that nothing would be left to chance in the assault on the Treasury Islands, the 8th Brigade and the ordnance units already enumerated earlier in this chapter were preparing to move into the next attack on the Japanese in the Solomons. On 26 October page 215a column of green camouflaged destroyers and landing craft made its way north. Some of the ordnance personnel were on board several of the ships, many of them cramped in small compartments, one of which was alongside a steel door, below decks, which was marked 'Danger. Magazine.' The ship, like many of the box-like landing craft, appeared thin and extremely vulnerable, apart from its obvious speed, upon which it apparently relied chiefly for its protection, and those in these particular sleeping quarters looked at the magazine door and imagined the result of a possible direct hit from Japanese shore batteries as the convoy approached the islands. Just before dawn on 27 October there was no moon, no ship showed the faintest glimmer of light; even the troops on board seemed hushed in silence before the attack, as the long line of ships crept nearer the Japanese-held islands, hoping to effect a complete surprise against the enemy. At the exact prearranged hour shell-fire arched its way from the destroyers to the Japanese shore positions. The small Higgins boats were already making their way inshore, loaded with troops who, hours before dawn, had been busy smearing their faces with green dyes, one of them having grotesquely applied an imaginative swirl of green across his face, leaving an evil-looking eye and half a mouth. As the Japanese returned the fire from their guns on Mono Island, directing them against the slower moving LSTs (sometimes called Large Slow Targets) the smaller landing craft nosed their way in towards the shore. This was no ordinary day in the lives of these men: in a few moments, through the acrid cordite fumes that hung about the shore, they would land on the beach. They gripped their rifles with sweaty hands. A gunboat was firing at close range into the jungle along the foreshore. Destroyers kept up an off-shore barrage. There was a clanking at the nose of each landing craft, and across the ribbed planking the men leapt ashore. As infantry battalions deployed, scrambling through the jungle in pursuit of their various pre-arranged objectives to establish their first perimeter on Mono Island, other troops, including some of the ordnance units, were also landing on Stirling Island, a short distance across Blanche Harbour. As the day progressed heavy mortar-fire could be heard coming from strong Japanese positions on the hill-slopes, and as men worked at stores and ammunition dumps on the beach near Falamai, on page 216Mono Island, the shelling from mountain-guns and the mortar fire grew more intense. During these operations, when stores were set on fire, and some of our ammunition was blown up, Sergeant W. J. Pearson, an. armourer of the Ordnance Corps attached to the 29th Battalion, was killed by mortar-fire while assisting in the landing and sorting of the battalion's supplies. In the battalion and throughout the corps Sergeant Pearson's death was sad news for his numerous friends who had always known him for his many sterling qualities and unselfish disposition. In the same operation at Falamai Beach Privates Pethig and McKay, of the 29th Light Anti-aircraft workshops, who were both wounded, were further ordnance casualties.

The Treasuries were practically 'under the nose' of large Japanese air bases, and also land forces, in southern Bougainville and Shortland Island. The enemy airfields had been subjected to heavy and continued attacks from New Zealand and American aircraft for some time before the Treasury landing, but nevertheless the Japanese apparently planned to make a large scale attempt to bomb the New Zealand forces, as New Zealand air patrols covering the brigade's operations on the day of the landing sighted and helped to disperse more than 70 Zeros. This large concentration of enemy aircraft was officially described as being sighted at about 4.15 pm milling round and apparently rallying between Kara and Kahili, just north of the Treasuries. On the same day four Zekes were brought down over the Treasury Group.

In view of the likelihood that shipping would be irregular in the first two or three months after the landing at Treasury, the brigade carried a limited stock of the more important ordnance items for immediate distribution, as required. Warrant-Officer Bristow was assisted in this work by Corporal C. Fitzgerald and Private A. Ferrier, from the advanced ordnance depot. Working from tarpaulin-covered stacks under numerous difficulties and frequent bombing attacks, this small section handled for some months, most of the requirements of the brigade. When attacking the airstrip that was built nearby, Japanese bombers developed the habit of dropping their first stick of bombs in each raid uncomfortably close to the small camp, and it was on one of these nocturnal visits that Corporal Fitzgerald was wounded when an anti-personnel bomb fell in the camp, and also damaged page 217the store, tents and stocks. The staff was small, and the work of supplying the brigade went on for many months without relief or recreation. Two men who bore the brunt of handling the reserve ammunition of the brigade were Privates J. Mcllwee and K. Marshall. Due to the way in which dunnage sinks into the mud in the islands, and because of the need for speedy unloading of ships, a lack of suitable stacking areas, and the constant replacements of ammunition used almost nightly for months by anti-aircraft batteries, these two men coped with an enormous and thankless task; they battled with huge tonnages of ammunition as if they were working anywhere except eight degrees from the Equator. It was not until January that they were assisted by Sergeant Gordon, who then arrived with; two extra men to share the work.

The No. 1 recovery section and armament detachment 64th Light Aid Detachment, and a section of the 29th Light Antiaircraft workshops took to the Treasuries equipment and tradesmen to handle all types of mechanical work. For some time men of these units and most of the vehicles and equipment that came into their workshops seemed to be covered in black mud, until, later, bulldozers improved roads and camp sites. Their work ranged from the salvage of guns, jeeps and trucks damaged and burnt out in action, to delicate instrument work which included the re-cementing of lenses, and the improvisation of eyepieces made from ivory-nuts found on the island. Bombs fell very close to their camping areas while they were on Stirling Island, and one uprooted a giant mahogany tree which fortunately just missed the camp of the recovery section. American navy construction units and anti-aircraft units were assisted by these mechanical ordnance sections in the repair of 5 inch and 90 millimetre guns.

Memories of the Treasury operation are full of sharp contrasts. That violence and death should stalk such tranquil and beautiful islands as those at Blanche Harbour was one of the ironies of a global war. As the fighting which lasted into the third week continued, there was at first the sickly smell of death, and then of piles of blood-bespattered web equipment, as it was salvaged from the wounded. The crosses which grew daily more numerous at the new cemetery at Falamai Beach looked peaceful and very small and white against the towering dark green wall page 218of palms and jungle immediately behind the hallowed ground. Swift-flying flocks of blood-red parrots and green and white parakeets flashed their vivid colours across the deep green 'backdrop' of jungle trees. In the foreground the white-fringed sea lapped soundlessly and gently on a narrow beach of yellow sand, as if to complete in one beautiful scene some strange design by nature to restore tranquillity to the place, and to heal the scars of battle. It was not unusual, later, when Mono Island had been declared secure, and the last of the enemy was accounted for, to come across a lone Kiwi, sitting with knees propped up beneath his chin, and wistfully drawing a few thin lines with a stick in the sand. He would probably not notice you walking along the shore, for there was a far-away look in his eyes. Behind him, only about 20 yards away, was the Falamai cemetery. Then, if you looked along the neat rows of mounds and white wooden crosses, you would usually see it—a freshly picked sprig of jungle foliage. It was a straight almost clumsy looking tribute with dark shining tropical leaves, and the lone Kiwi sitting on the beach a few yards away could not have named the tree it came from, but he had no doubt spent some time selecting it carefully before quietly placing it on the grave of his dead comrade.

The Treasury Group will long be remembered for its beautiful harbour studded with small green islets, from which gracefully curved palms, leaning out from the shores, dropped their reflections into water that was calm and clear like blue glass. There was a macabre, almost terrible beauty about Blanche Harbour even at the height of heavy enemy air attacks at night, when men crouched fearfully in stuffy fox-holes, with their field-dressings handy, and did not know what the next moment might bring. The new airstrip was packed with aircraft, and the islands were heavily defended with anti-aircraft guns. As these barked in crepitant defiance from all corners of the group, tracer-fire threw reflections like red streamers across the water of the harbour, shells burst overhead, and searchlights fingering the sky, as if grasping at the killers dropping death into the jungle, silhouetted every graceful palm against an unreal pink sea and a fantastic background of the pyrotechnics 0$ war. It might almost have been the battle of beauty against death, since, in a place of so much beauty, it seemed war did not belong. Later, when all was over, and even air attacks had ceased, mem-page 219bers of the ordnance units at Treasury shared with the rest of the brigade a few brief weeks of rest before returning to New Caledonia. Some of the men built yachts out of scrap materials, and others were content to swim in the warm waters of the harbour. For all, these weeks were a well-earned respite after the battle. As the island group, with its countless green coves and small beaches, was restored to its former peaceful existence after the campaign, it seemed that these lines by John Masefield might almost have been written for the occasion:—

To slaughter like devils and have pity,
Be red with rage and pale with lust,
Make beauty come, make peace, make trust.

Brood upon beauty, till the grace
Of beauty with the holy face
Brings peace into the bitter place.