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Royal New Zealand Air Force



On 15 October 1943 RNZAF Station, New Georgia, was formally established at Ondonga. Wing Commander Freeman, DSO, DFC and bar,1 was appointed Commanding Officer, responsible to the AOC No. 1 (Islands) Group for co-operation with the United States Fighter Command in aerodrome control, operations and intelligence duties at Ondonga, and for the administration and discipline of all RNZAF units in the New Georgia area. The following units came under his command: Nos. 15 and 18 Fighter Squadrons, which were to move forward from Guadalcanal, with Nos. 2 and 4 Servicing Units; a tunnelling and sawmilling detachment of No. 1 Islands Works Squadron, which was to be based on Arundel Island; headquarters staff, which was forming at Guadalcanal; and Nos. 56 and 57 Radar Units, based at Munda and Rendova respectively.

The main body of men left Guadalcanal on 18 October by LST and LCI and arrived, after an uneventful trip, at South Beach, Ondonga, at half past seven next morning. When they reached Ondonga all hands set about unloading their equipment from the ships. By half past four in the afternoon it was all ashore, and half an hour later both vessels had put to sea on their return journey.

The squadrons' aircraft continued to operate from Guadalcanal until the 20th, when they were flown to Munda, where they were stationed for several days until the strip at Ondonga was ready for operations. At the same time a party of ground staff which had stayed behind to service the aircraft, and spare pilots from the two squadrons, travelled to Munda in American Army transport planes.

The camp site allotted to the RNZAF by the American command was in a coconut plantation. There were no roads and heavy rain

1 Wg Cdr T. O. Freeman, DSO, DFC and bar; born Lawrence, 5 Jun 1916; killed on air operations 17 Dec 1943.

page 201 had turned the whole area into a sea of mud. A detachment from No. 1 Islands Works Squadron had been posted to Ondonga six days earlier to begin the construction of the camp and the digging of foxholes, but wet weather and the difficulty of working on hard coral had made their progress slow. Some tents had been put up, and into these the men crowded for their first night on the island. The mess hall had not been completed and the men ate their dinner that night in the open in pouring rain. The meal consisted of tea, brewed from heavily chlorinated water, and tinned pears eaten out of any container that happened to be handy.

Four hours after the landing a power plant had been set up by the W/T Section and the new station was in direct communication with Guadalcanal and Santo. On 21 October, following a day during which all units were engaged in erecting tents and setting up camp, a telephone system and exchange were installed. Equipment, which had been piled into heaps under the trees after landing, was sorted out and the various sections of the camp were established. The next day the mess hall was completed and the men were able to have their meals in comparative comfort.

On the 23rd the airfield, constructed by American Seabees, was ready for operations and the ground crews, who had set up their servicing section beside the strip, were waiting to receive the squadrons and their aircraft from Munda. The first operational aircraft to land on the strip had been flown in by Freeman on the 20th, when he brought up a load of mail for the units.

The two squadrons flew in from Munda on the 24th and were the first operational units to occupy the aerodrome. The ground staff and spare pilots who had been at Munda followed them in a landing barge. The move to Ondonga had brought the RNZAF to within 120 miles of the Japanese bases in southern Bougainville and less than 400 miles from Rabaul.

The first enemy air raid took place on the evening of the 27th when bombs were dropped near the New Zealand camp. As foxholes were still under construction and had no roofs to give shelter from falling shrapnel, the experience was an uncomfortable one. By the next night all foxholes had been completed and covered.

By 30 October all sections of the station had been established. No. 15 Squadron flew aircraft maintained by No. 4 Servicing Unit, and No. 18 Squadron worked with No. 2 Servicing Unit. Operations and major administrative matters were controlled by the Station Commander, Wing Commander Freeman, with a staff consisting of an adjutant, operations officer, and intelligence officer, whose offices were beside the airstrip. The domestic affairs of the camp were the responsibility of the Station Administrative Officer, who had his office in the camp a mile and a half from the strip. page 202 Although each servicing unit had its own equipment officer and staff, separate unit stores were not set up. Instead, the technical store, situated at the strip, was controlled by the equipment officer of No. 4 Servicing Unit, while No. 2 Servicing Unit was responsible for the non-technical store set up in the camp.

The last unit to come from Guadalcanal was the Sawmilling Unit from No. 1 Islands Works Squadron, of which the advance party arrived on 2 November and the remainder on the 10th. On the 12th work was begun on the construction of a camp on Arundel Island, separated from Ondonga by the Diamond Narrows, and the unit moved there a week later.

From the time the squadrons first arrived, rain almost every day made living conditions thoroughly uncomfortable. The aircrews, who were quartered in a separate mess near the airstrip along with American units, were not so badly off, but the site of the main RNZAF camp, which was inclined to be swampy, was continuously a quagmire. An improvement was made in the middle of December when an American squadron moved out and its quarters were taken over by No. 2 Servicing Unit and the Headquarters Unit. The administrative block was also moved to the new site and the large American mess and kitchen were renovated and put into use, the old New Zealand mess being closed. By the time the RNZAF left Ondonga in January the camp had acquired a reputation for being as comfortable as could be expected considering the climate, enemy air raids, and other nuisances.

From the date of their arrival at Ondonga the two fighter squadrons were known as the RNZAF Fighter Wing. Freeman acted in the dual capacity of station commander and commander of the wing. For the first three weeks fighter operations from Ondonga were directed by Colonel Bryce, USMC, who had under his control the RNZAF Wing, the 70th Fighter Squadron USAAF, and Marine Fighter Squadron No. 17. With the exception of scrambles to meet enemy aircraft approaching the area, all orders to the RNZAF Wing were passed from Operations, Ondonga, through RNZAF Wing Operations.

On 14 November Freeman was appointed Air Ops, Ondonga, in place of Colonel Bryce and took over the operational command of the American as well as New Zealand units. The integration of American and New Zealand forces was increased by the detachment of a number of New Zealanders to the United States organisation on the airstrip for servicing and refuelling aircraft, fire fighting, airfield control, guard duties and the like.

The triple responsibility of controlling air operations, commanding the wing, and commanding the RNZAF camp was too much page 203 for one officer, and on 8 December Wing Commander Campbell1 was posted as Commanding Officer RNZAF Station, New Georgia, relieving Freeman of the administration of the camp.

1 Wg Cdr D. C. Campbell, OBE; Dunedin; born Dunedin, 21 Jan 1910; commercial pilot.