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Routine Religion

Routine Religion

The normal work of a chaplain outside the battle area has already been described in this book, but conditions in the Pacific differed much from those in the Middle East. It was possible to hold only one Divisional conference, a two-day affair which took place early in 1943 at Bourail. Members of the YMCA and AEWS4 were present, and valuable advice was give by the GOC and other officers on the chaplains' work in action.

On Sundays the chaplains sometimes had to take services at different places separated by as much as fifty miles, and the journeys had to be made in jeeps over the rough jungle tracks. The enervating climate put mental and physical energy at a premium: during the day the chaplains would help to erect recreational huts or clear spaces for deck-tennis and basketball courts, while at night they ran libraries and organised lectures and concerts.

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Many of the working hours of the day had to be spent in training with the troops. For example, it was essential that the chaplain had as much practice as the combatant soldier in the difficult business of beach landings and jungle fighting. Much training for this was done during a temporary halt in the New Hebrides. The men had to climb down cargo nets slung over the side of the troopship into the small landing craft waiting below. These small boats were then driven through the surf to the beach, and as soon as they grounded the crouching troops had to spring out, struggle through the shallow water, and then, heavily laden with their full battle equipment, rush across the sand to the shelter of the jungle. At the end of the exercise the performance was repeated in reverse, and it was no easy business at the end of the day, when muscles were tired and the equipment seemed to have grown heavier, to get back on to the troopship. As the little landing craft was tossed up and down by the swell it was not easy to get a firm hold of the net and, once on it, difficult to hold on when the wind blew it away from the side of the ship. On one of these occasions Father Ryan5 fell backwards into the landing craft and was hurt. The news of his injury was widely exaggerated until his death was unofficially reported; his many friends were greatly relieved when, two weeks later, they met ‘Father Bill’ as alive and well as ever.

In Guadalcanal, after the troops had been nearly a year away from home, many domestic problems arose, and the chaplain spent much of his time in heart-to-heart conversations and in the composition of difficult letters to New Zealand. But by far the biggest problems were those caused by distance, the climate, and the shortage of welfare supplies and facilities for leave.