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The New Zealand Dental Services

Vella Lavella

Vella Lavella

The capture of Vella Lavella was the first operation carried out by the Division. Fourteenth Brigade landed on the island on 18 September 1943, bypassing enemy-occupied Kolombangara and some smaller islands near New Georgia. The last of the Japanese were evacuated by barges to waiting destroyers on the night of 6 October while the battalions were preparing for a final assault, and on the same day at 7.45 a.m. two sub-sections of the Mobile Dental Section left Guadalcanal for Vella Lavella.

Arriving on 8 October, they were attached to 17 Field Regiment and 30 Battalion, both at Gill's Plantation, on the edge of a low cliff behind Joroveto on the east coast. Major McCowan went up with them to see something of the general conditions, returning to Guadalcanal by air the next day. There were about 3700 troops on the island, a somewhat formidable task for two sections, especially as they were scattered in places inaccessible by land in a country almost entirely covered by dense jungle. Under these conditions examination and full treatment were impracticable but there was any amount of casualty work. The sections attached themselves to units in turn, only moving on when all casualties had been treated. It was dentistry under the most primitive conditions, never dry and always hot, the smells of the surgery a welcome relief from the stench of decaying vegetation; surrounded by birds, insects, lizards and crabs and at night by the cacophony of the jungle orchestra. Tent sites had to be cleared with pick and shovel in the hard coral rock. For the size of the section the space required was large as three sites had to be prepared for surgery, laboratory and sleeping quarters. This was exceptionally hard work for so few men. The floors of the tents were usually tightly packed coral sand as being the easiest to keep clean and tidy. Sawn timber was scarce so benches for the workroom had to be made of anything available, often mahogany, teak or rosewood.

Climatic conditions forced the sections to work shorter hours than they would have done at the Base, allotting time for rest and recreation. Hobbies were encouraged, one of the most popular being the fashioning of knick-knacks from the abundant supply of scrap metal. The popular sports of Guadalcanal, canoeing and baseball, gave place to tenniquoits in the late afternoon. Swimming was still popular and several men learnt to swim at Vella Lavella. The American Forces held cinema shows almost nightly in the open air page 326 regardless of rain or thunderstorms, only closing down, and then hurriedly, during air-raid alerts.

Very soon Divisional Headquarters established itself on Vella Lavella. Roads were pierced through the jungle, rivers and streams bridged and orderly camps laid out. Working conditions were improving but, on the other hand, more men were arriving regularly from Guadalcanal until by 25 October there were 17,000 New Zealanders and Americans on the island. Obviously two sub-sections could not cope with even casualty treatment for so many and on 6 November sub-section 10/51 left Guadalcanal, arriving on 8 November.

Transport was one of the chief difficulties and in most cases was by boat. Typical reports from a sub-section give some idea of this:

Sub-section 10/2 landed at Barakoma on Vella Lavella and were attached to Headquarters 30 Battalion, located at Bauroto Point on the South side of the Mumia River. Arrangements were made to treat each of the outlying companies … in turn, moving … by Higgins boat.

17 January 44.—For the past week heavy running seas and driving wind and rain have made transfer from this area impracticable. All our equipment has been ready and waiting for barges since 28 December. We are expecting to be moved about 19 January to Ruravai on the East coast where the whole 35 Battalion will be concentrated.

20 January 44.—Treatment is being maintained in the 35 Battalion combat team but great difficulty is being experienced with transport. All communication is by water and heavy seas have hampered operations. In order to move to a new location with another company … it was necessary to employ native canoes to negotiate the heavy surf to reach the LCT {Landing Craft Tank}. All equipment was transferred from shore to ship without damage or loss.

Even though the troops were not engaged with the enemy, there was never a time on Vella Lavella when they were conveniently situated for dental treatment other than casualty.

1 No. 5 Sub-section of 10 Mobile Dental Section.