Episodes & Studies Volume 1
IN OCTOBER 1940 the main body of a force of brigade strength (B Force) went to Suva, Fiji, in the Rangatira and HMS Monowai. They made three voyages, carrying over 900 men each time. When the last draft arrived on 22 November, men of the earlier ones had learnt already to refer to themselves rather ruefully as the ‘Coconut Bombers’, drink kava, and sing ‘Isa Lei’ and a cheerful but disrespectful ballad commemorating the Monowai’s seamanly appearance:
Side, side, Monowai side—
Her skipper looks on her with pride ….
Everything in the Monowai was done Bristol-fashion.
After Japan entered the war, reinforcements reached Fiji in the Rangatira, Matua, Wahine, and Monowai, and by early 1942 the force had become the 3rd New Zealand Division. In July, however, the Division was relieved by Americans, and by the middle of August it was back in New Zealand in the role of Army reserve. Most of the troops came home in USS President Coolidge.
During November and December it assembled in New Caledonia, the main body (7000) sailing in USS West Point, and in August 1943 it began moving to an advanced base on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, again in American ships escorted by American destroyers. There were three convoys, and each halted at Efate (New Hebrides) so that the troops could practise beach landings. Using nets, they trans-shipped to landing craft and were taken ashore.page 30
On 18 September, under enemy observation but also under an umbrella of fighter aircraft, 3700 troops of the 3rd Diyision disembarked at Vella Lavella with their ammunition, petrol, transport, and supplies. The ramps of the landing craft splashed into the sea or fell on soft, muddy sand, and the vehicles bumped away into the jungle while human chains unloaded boxes of ammunition and supplies. Escorted by American destroyers, the troops had been two days at sea in landing craft and APDs (obsolete destroyers carrying about 200 men), but their only experience worth mentioning was their difficulty in finding room in which to record their votes in the parliamentary election with due secrecy.
The New Zealanders’ task on Vella Lavella was to relieve American troops and clear the island of Japanese as quickly as possible. While they were doing this, reinforcement drafts arrived at regular intervals from Guadalcanal in landing craft, and on 1 October a convoy was caught on the beach by dive bombers. One craft was wrecked, two were damaged, and fifty-two men, including fifteen of the 209th New Zealand Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, were killed in a few minutes.
After clearing Vella Lavella, the 3rd Division attacked the Treasury Islands, making the first opposed landings in which New Zealanders had taken part since the days of Gallipoli. At dawn on 27 October a force of 7000 New Zealanders and Americans lay off the entrance to Blanche Harbour in Mono Island, which was seen through rain squalls as a green mound wreathed in mist. The men scrambled from the APDs to landing craft and the covering destroyers went into action, ceasing fire at twenty-four minutes past six. Two minutes later the first troops went ashore in the face of Japanese machine guns.
The third and final operation—a landing on Nissan (Green Islands)—was carried through without opposition on 15 February 1944, though the convoy, which carried a mixed American and New Zealand force of 5800 troops, was bombed in sight of the island.
Bombers were less a menace in the Pacific than submarines, which in 1942 and 1943 were active near both Fiji and the Solomons. In January 1942, off Suva, the Monowai exchanged fire with a Japanese submarine that had tried to torpedo her, and later in the war another submarine attacked one of the convoys that took the 3rd Division to Guadalcanal, a torpedo missing the USS Fuller by some 200 yards. The longest Pacific voyage, however, was comparatively short, and the troops seldom had time to become nervous, bored, or tired of the food.
The short ‘As’ of the voices from the loud-hailers (‘Troops on the ăfter deck…’); cigarettes at 50 cents for two hundred; the politeness, almost the courtliness, of the American crew to strangers; the good food (‘chow’ was the American term) obtainable after anything up to a three-hour wait in a queue; the compartmented trays it was served on (each with a mug of black coffee balanced in one corner); daily physical training; a few lectures, guard duties, and fatigues; much sun-bathing; the green and purple of distant Pacific islands; a glimpse of palm trees beyond breakers; shipping in a crowded staging port (at Espiritu Santo, say); double rows of bunks in tiers of four with a gap of two foot six between each row; sharing a ship’s hold with 600 others; the continual humming of the forced draught system—by the time they had assimilated all this the voyage was over.