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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 6, Issue 2, 1998

Stephens Island

page 36

Stephens Island

A Naval watch station was established on Stephens Island during World War II because it commanded a good view over Cook Strait. The radar station that die Navy established there could keep any shipping passing through the Strait under surveillance, but had a blind spot to die south. It fell to the Public Works Department in Nelson to erect me buildings necessary to accommodate 24 to 30 Naval radar trainees plus eight signallers, and I understand mat W E Wilkes of Richmond were engaged to do die work.

At one time the lightouse on Stephens Island had had three keepers, but this had been reduced to two. There must have been several children on die island as there was a school there. The signallers, who occupied die vacant keeper's house, were mostly personnel who had seen active service, usually in submarines, and were in need of a shore job to rest and recuperate. Some of diem were in very poor shape when they arrived.

The radar operators were a much younger set of personnel and, after serving an apprenticeship as it were, would get overseas postings, their ultimate ambition. There was always great jubilation among die radar boys whenever a signal came through giving them die desired posting. All communications to and from the island went through Naval HQ in Wellington and were in code.

The Public Works Department converted the two roomed school into sleeping quarters for their carpenters who erected a large building to house 30 personnel, together with a commonroom come messroom, a large galley and storeroom. They also constructed a building to house die radar equipment and a power house. Diesel electrics supplied 230V power to die radar and to die Palace, as die large quarters were aptly called. The signallers quarters, being nearer die lighdiouse, drew power from the lighdiouse system as it had already been installed. The radar building, power house and the Palace were positioned to be invisible from the sea from any direction. The three keepers' houses were plainly visible from all but southern or western aspects.

Diesel electric sets as we know them today were not available at that time. Generators and diesel engines had to be obtained from all sorts of remote areas and were made up into generator sets which were usually V belt driven. These units were assembled in the Nelson workshop and taken to die island by motor launch. The one, two and three cylinder engines were second hand, old and in some cases had seen better days and die makes included Lister, Ruston, Blackstone and Crossley.

In an effort to muffle the sound of die constantly running diesel engines, which it was thought might be heard from me sea, a pit was dug outside die powerhouse and filled with coke. The exhaust from the engines was piped into die pit to eliminate die noise, and this worked for a while, but resulted in a steady buildup of carbon and oil which caused die pit page 37to become a furnace, and the powerhouse caught fire. This occurred in die early hours of the morning, and was reported on Japan radio even before the New Zealand authorities knew of the details. The informer was caught broadcasting from the Takaka Hill apparently, and would have been able to see the fire from there.

All was lost and a fresh start had to be made in a hurry, with a new and much better powerhouse being built- Frantic searching produced more engines and generators, and this was where I came into the act, assembling generator sets, installing them on the island and carrying out maintenance of the engines for the Navy. I also worked for the Marine Department on the engines for the lighthouse and the haulage winches which were used to bring supplies on to die island. There were four engines and winches, three Marine Department and one Navy.

In 1943/44 I seemed to be spending half my time on the island or in travelling between there and Nelson. The number that travelled to the island each time depended on how much work there was to do. Sometimes mere would be as many as four and sometimes I would be on my own. If mere were only personnel and tools, travel would be by die ferry from Nelson to Wellington, which reached French Pass at about 10 pm. The ferry only slowed while transfer was made to a launch, and if there was much freight it could take up to two hours to get back to the jetty at die French Pass settlement. We would bed and breakfast at French Pass and then go on by charter or mail launch.

If there were engines and heavy equipment to transfer, we used a charter launch from Nelson or Okiwi Bay. Engines could cause problems, as there was no handling gear to help in moving them. There needed to be less than a two metre swell at me island landing place for the launchman to be able to manoeuvre die counter-stem into a position from where one could jump ashore onto die rocks. All gear had to be taken up by winch and personnel often had to go in the box to be taken up by the winch, which was powered by a single cylinder National engine. A steep tram line in two stages was served by two diesel engined winches which hauled the trolleys up to the level graded tram line to the lighthouse. The loaded trolleys were manhandled around this level section of about half a mile, with stops adjacent to the various establishments on die way.

Along with the other Public Works Department employees I stayed in die school building, where one of the two rooms had been made into a bunkroom. On one occasion there were six of us in residence, three mechanics and three labourers. In die early stages we had our meals with die Navy, who employed a cook, but later on the cook was dispensed with and the ratings took over on a rostered system. This was disastrous, as a rating would be a slushy one day and cook die next. I had manual work to perform and malnutrition soon set in, so we decided to cater for ourselves. The Public Works Department sent carpenters to put a wood and coal range in our quarters so that we could cook our own meals. We fared very well under this arrangement and brought our own supplies with us.

I was delegated by the others to be cook, and I baked our own bread when the supplies we had taken with us ran out. Once on die island we were dependent on die mail or charter launch to take us off and we frequently found ourselves stranded, as these services would page 38not approach in south east weather. The weather would often blow up near our last day and 10 day overstays were not unusual; on one occasion it stretched to three weeks. At such times our supplies could run low and we would resort to a spot of fishing to supplement our food.

Meat was no problem, as the resident light keepers were allowed to run sheep and we could always buy mutton. Prior to the war sheep numbers had been limited, but mere was no longer anyone to attend to these matters and the population grew, with long tailed sheep everywhere. One keeper did not know one end of a sheep from another and intended to keep it that way, but the other, an ex-clothing retailer, was anxious to learn. I came from a farming background and taught him how to kill and dress a mutton. During one of my enforced stays he enlisted the help of the Navy lads to run the sheep into the yards and I tailed some 120 lambs.

The jig lines were in constant need of attention because of the activities of burrowing birds and tuatara. The bird life at certain times of the year would not be believed if it had not been witnessed. All the windows had to be screened with netting to prevent breakage from night flying birds. Birds called cape pigeons, or Mother Carey's chickens, fly in after dark to nest in burrows which they leave again before daylight. When they arrive it is impossible to stand outside without being hit by them. They crash land in their thousands and how they find their burrows I will never know. They have a cry like a baby, so imagine what it was like to have a hundred or so of them under our sleeping quarters and all performing at once. We sometimes found one caught by a leg in a fence or in the fork of a tree and, on being released, it would dive towards the sea pursued by a flock of gulls. The little bird always won its way out to sea, as it was released from 1000 feet.

During extended stays we used to explore the island, counting tuatara and observing nature generally. On a two hour walk one day we counted over 120 tuatara, mostly from ten inches to two feet in length. The daddy of them all was a 35 inch specimen which lived near the Palace and which was often caught and displayed to newcomers. I was on the island when one of the boys discovered the rare Hamilton's frog. He brought two of them into the Palace, photographed them and then returned them to their habitat. There was evidence of an earlier attempt to find them by some scientists, but they had been looking in the wrong place.

A few mutton birds nest on the island, mostly in areas where there is still native vegetation, but unfortunately these areas are too few. The giant weta, of which we found a few, is becoming rare because its habitat is receding. Young tuatara up to nine inches in length were usually seen by torchlight at night when they appeared to be feeding.

When returning to Nelson by ferry it was necessary to put up overnight at French Pass and turn out at 2 am to be on the launch ready to get aboard at about 3 am, arriving in Nelson at 6 am.