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Work in the Forward Area

Work in the Forward Area

In mid-January 1944 the New Zealand fighter squadrons at Ondonga were moved forward to Bougainville. Padre Larsen went with them and was thus the first RNZAF chaplain to be permanently stationed there. The area enclosed by the Allied perimeter was not large, and at Bougainville the New Zealanders were closer to the enemy's ground forces than they had been since the early days at Guadalcanal. Until the middle of February they were frequently raided by bombers from Rabaul. Early in March the Japanese brought up heavy reinforcements and made a determined effort with artillery and infantry attacks to drive the Allied forces off the island. All the camps and the airstrips within the perimeter came under fire, and for some days the area was dangerously uncomfortable.

When the attack developed Padre Larsen was joined by Father Ainsworth, who since Christmas had been making a tour of the rear areas of the Pacific. Both chaplains had a busy time in the strenuous weeks that followed. They were with the aircrews in the early morning when they were being briefed for operations, and they greeted them again when they returned; during the day they page 171 spent hours visiting the men in every workshop, office, and servicing revetment. Father Ainsworth held daily services for Roman Catholics at each strip, and in spite of the Japanese shelling and the fact that not more than fifteen men were permitted to be present at one time, large numbers both of New Zealanders and of Americans attended.

In 1944 and 1945 the RNZAF established itself at bases farther north and west, on Green Island, Los Negros, Emirau, and eventually at Jacquinot Bay, on the coast of New Britain. As the number of bases grew, so too did the need for additional chaplains in the forward area. By the end of 1944 there were eleven chaplains overseas, of whom six were in the Bougainville-Bismarck area. During the last fifteen months of the war most RNZAF personnel in the Pacific had no experience of enemy action. The squadrons stationed at Bougainville and the other forward bases made daily sorties against Rabaul and against Japanese positions on New Ireland and on Bougainville itself; but the enemy's air forces had been cleared from the skies, and his land forces on Bougainville never again threatened the Allied positions there. Consequently, except for those engaged in flying operations, the war seemed to have receded a long way.

The work of the chaplains became at the same time easier and harder. In the absence of the threat of enemy attack, and with a certain stability in the Allied positions, it was possible to provide more amenities. Chapels were built at all the main RNZAF bases. Some, like that at Espiritu Santo, were converted Quonset huts; others, like the one at Los Negros, were built in native style with the help of the local islanders. With more settled conditions, too, transport and all types of equipment became easier to obtain, and chaplains no longer had to beg or borrow their requirements. On the other hand, with the stimulus of danger removed, it was increasingly hard to keep up the morale of the troops. To many men in offices, workshops, kitchens, and on the landing strips, the war was just a succession of hot, endless days of dull routine work and steaming, uncomfortable nights. The attractions of home and the discomforts of the tropics loomed large, and an important part of the chaplains' work was to keep tropical boredom and discontent from gaining the upper hand.

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Most of them ran evening discussion groups in which there was great scope for a chaplain to give lectures and listen to the men's opinions on many subjects—religious, ethical, artistic, and political. Religious discussion played relatively a larger part in islands' life than at home; not, perhaps, because the surroundings made men think more of their souls, but because all other topics eventually ran dry.

Until 1945, chaplains posted overseas to the Pacific were left to decide for themselves how they would go about their duties. Each was expected to use his initiative in planning his work and the visits he proposed to make to the widely scattered units which usually came under his care. Early in that year, however, the chaplains then stationed in No. 1 (Islands) Group came to the conclusion that they could work more effectively if one of their number was appointed Senior Chaplain to supervise and co-ordinate the work of all. This was recommended to Air Headquarters and to the Chaplains' Dominion Advisory Council, and, as a result, Padre Williams, who was on his second tour of duty overseas and was the most senior chaplain in the area, was appointed to the position. In that capacity he spent much of his time travelling throughout the area, visiting his chaplains and helping them in their work.

In the months following the Japanese surrender thousands of men returned to New Zealand to be demobilised, and by the end of 1945 only 700-odd remained overseas in the Pacific. With their task finished, the chaplains were repatriated too, and the majority of them went back to their peacetime work.

The foregoing chapter is a necessarily brief account of the development of the RNZAF Chaplains' Branch. The few chaplains mentioned by name are for the most part those who were first in the field, but they must be taken as representative of all, for all were men of grand calibre and all did magnificent work for their Church, the RNZAF, and the men under their care.