The New Zealand Dental Services
ABOUT 1100 miles north of New Zealand in the South Pacific Ocean is a group of 250 islands collectively known as Fiji. They are well-wooded islands of volcanic origin and, although some are mere uninhabited islets or rocks, others are large prosperous trading centres. From a military point of view Fiji was one of the key positions in the Pacific, and although New Zealand already had extensive commitments, she accepted responsibility for their defence. She mobilised 8 Infantry Brigade Group, disguised its weakness under the nom de guerre ‘B Force’, and equipped it to the best of her ability by almost completely denuding her own defences.
This force was assembled in 1940 at Ngaruawahia Camp, near Hamilton, in the North Island of New Zealand, and the New Zealand Dental Corps was instructed to make it dentally fit. The intention was that these troops would serve only six months in Fiji, after which they would return to New Zealand, spend a short time there and go on to the Middle East. It was important therefore to ensure that, on their return to New Zealand, they would need little further treatment. The Corps was working to capacity in New Zealand at this time and could ill afford to spare many personnel for Fiji. As the men were all dentally fit before they left New Zealand, it was considered that two dental officers with attendant orderlies and mechanics would have to suffice. This made no allowance for sickness or other emergencies, but Fiji was not far from New Zealand and replacements could be sent reasonably quickly. One of the dental officers, Captain H. A'C. G. Fitzgerald, was appointed Senior Dental Officer and, in addition to his operative duties, was responsible for the organisation and would act as adviser to the commanding officer of the force on dental matters. With one clerk, two orderlies, one mechanic, a mechanic's orderly and a batman, he sailed with the force on 28 October 1940. A month later Captain R. Cox1 with an orderly and a mechanic followed him. Some months later Captain Fitzgerald was promoted to Major and became known as Brigade Dental Officer.
The force arrived at Suva on Viti Levu Island on 1 November in HMNZ Transport Rangatira and the men were initiated into active service conditions by a lengthy route march which successfully dispelled any illusions they may have had that their functions were purely sedentary. The camps were not ready so most units had to find temporary accommodation. The dental section was located in what had previously been the Suva Girls' Grammar School hostel. Even here the space was limited and only the dental officer, the clerk, one orderly and the mechanic could be accommodated, the others going to Nasese Camp, which already existed under Fijian organisation. Fortunately the treatment in New Zealand had been sound and there was little to be done apart from an occasional denture repair. The field dental panniers contained enough equipment for the urgent work and it was unnecessary to unpack the bulk stores.
Time, however, was important and, with the limited staff available, the Senior Dental Officer was anxious that the dental condition of the troops should have no chance of deteriorating. He wore a page 281 path between the hospital and Group Headquarters in the Government Buildings, continually urging that his section should move to Samabula (Samambula) Camp1 so that routine work could begin. At the camp, however, most of the units were living in tents in the mud and permission was refused.
On 22 November the second dental section arrived from New Zealand, but as this was to be attached to 7 Field Ambulance at Namaka, it was sent on immediately by road transport. Namaka was about 150 miles by road from Suva in the north-west part of the island, where a camp had been built for the main troop concentration in the west. The section's field dental equipment had arrived in advance, so work started at once in part of the temporary camp hospital.
In addition to the field dental outfits for each section, large stocks of materials and spare equipment had been shipped from New Zealand to establish a bulk store. It was intended that this should be under the direct control of the Senior Dental Officer but, as there was as yet no permanent dental hospital, it was stored temporarily with other army stores. The climate of Suva affected the storage of dental equipment and materials. The mean maximum temperature as observed in Suva over a period of forty-eight years ranged from 86·4 degrees Fahrenheit in February to 79 degrees in July and August. This mattered little in itself but the relative humidity was high, ranging between 76·3 and 82·2. Metal instruments rusted easily and materials such as plaster of paris deteriorated if left open to the air for even a short time. All spare instruments made of metal had to be kept in an oil bath and the bulk supplies of plaster had to be taken out of the wooden casks and sealed in tins. A biscuit factory in Suva made some 14 lb tins, the plaster was put into these and the tins were soldered to make them airtight.
Meanwhile, in Suva the dental section continued to use the military hospital as a base but, finding little to do for the main force, decided to examine and treat 18 Army Troops Company and the New Zealand Engineers who had arrived earlier to establish camps and works. These men were scattered, but by establishing the section in a house being prepared as Brigade Headquarters, the engineers, who were engaged in tunnelling nearby, could be treated and, by moving to Nasese Camp, the section could treat 18 Army Troops Company.
There were at that time quartered in ‘A’ camp, the 29 Battalion, the main body of 18 Army Troop, some Army Service Corps and ourselves. Roads were still under construction and the mud was atrocious. It was here we made our first contact with the squeegee…. In later days we were to know it well. It was a heartbreaking job and a backbreaking one too to keep the dental surgery looking anything like a surgery. With the torrential rain and the clinging mud tramped into the building on numerous pairs of … army boots, the floor rapidly acquired a film of mud…. Twice a day it was cleaned by pouring buckets of water over it, in a more or less scientific manner of course, removing the muddy water with the … [squeegee] and returning the resultant ‘Porridge’ whence it came. Let it be said it was an amazingly efficient method of floor cleaning.
In this temporary home, under these somewhat primitive conditions, 18 Army Troops Company was made fit and examination and treatment of 29 Battalion was carried out by companies.
The permanent home of the Dental Corps in the Suva area was to be constructed in ‘B’ camp at Samambula and a start was made on this building as soon as the more urgent task of housing the troops was under control. Half the building was to house the dental section and store while the other half was for a detachment of 7 Field Ambulance. It was built mainly by native labour under the supervision of the New Zealand Engineers, all the plumbing and fittings being done by New Zealand troops. The dental part of the building consisted of a surgery large enough to accommodate two dental officers, a workroom, orderly room and bulk dental store. All the rooms were larger than would have been considered necessary in New Zealand and as much window space as possible was included, this being very necessary in a humid tropical climate. On 30 January 1941, nearly three months after ‘B’ Force arrived on the island, the building was ready for use and dentistry could be carried on under conditions similar to those existing in New Zealand. To quote the Senior Dental Officer:
It was a very pleasant place in which to work. Hot and cold running water, electric light and efficient drainage were installed and the interior of the suite, with the exception of the store room, was painted. Best of all, authority had been got to purchase a large ice box for the surgery. In this climate some method of providing cold water for cooling impressions and storing denture cases is essential. One would not be entirely wrong in suggesting that an occasional bottle of warm beer may have found its way into the ice chest in preparation for a cold drink after working hours.
Things had now sorted themselves out in Fiji. The main concentration area for Suva was Samambula Camp, about five miles from the centre of the town. It was divided into ‘A’ and ‘B’ camps by the Suva-Nausori road. In ‘A’ camp were the larger units such as page 283 29 Battalion and 35 Battery, while ‘B’ camp housed the Training Battalion and such smaller units as the Army Service Corps, Ordnance, Motor Transport Field Workshops and Dental, sometimes referred to as brigaded units. The dental unit, being small, shared quarters with 20 Light Aid Detachment and the Motor Transport Field Workshops, and these three units drew and distributed each other's pay in turn. In Namaka similar accommodation was built but was not occupied by the dental section until June 1941, when its use as a temporary camp hospital was no longer required. There was, however, quite suitable alternative accommodation and, on both sides of the island, six-monthly examination and treatment of all units was carried out.