The New Zealand Dental Services
LATE in September 1942 No. 3 General Reconnaissance Squadron of the Royal New Zealand Air Force left Whenuapai for the island of Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides Group. From this modest beginning grew an organisation with bases from the Bismarck Archipelago, through the Solomon Islands and New Hebrides, to Fiji and Tonga.
Espiritu Santo at this time was being developed as a United States naval base, a cruiser task force, which included HMNZS Leander, being based there. The battle of Guadalcanal was over but there still remained the threat from the Japanese Navy and Air Force, and this base, with one on the island of Efate, farther south, formed important links in the chain of defence of the South Pacific. The headquarters of the United States Service Command, the 13th United States Air Force, the 1st Marine Wing and the Air Command of the South Pacific were located there, as were two United States Navy Mobile Hospitals, a United States Evacuation Hospital and, later, Station and Army General Hospitals.
The New Zealand Dental Corps was not concerned with the first five months that the New Zealand squadron was on the island as urgent dental treatment was provided by the dental hospital at the 25th United States Army Evacuation Hospital, under Major Marks as Senior Dental Officer. This state of affairs could not continue indefinitely and a dental section under the command of Captain D. T. Allan1 was flown from Whenuapai, arriving at Espiritu Santo on 15 February 1943.
No. 3 GR Squadron had established headquarters at Espiritu Santo and carried out the main servicing of aircraft there, although Guadalcanal was the operational base. Group Captain S. Wallingford,2 shortly to take over the command of the RNZAF in the Pacific, was already on the island as liaison officer with COMAIRSOPAC.3 page 351 Early in February No. 4 Repair Depot arrived but for some months was unable to work as a unit because of the delay in the arrival of heavy machinery and prefabricated hangars. The Dental Section found itself in a similar plight, as the equipment, which left New Zealand the day before it, did not arrive until the end of May. Had it not been for the emergency haversack and the good offices of the United States Dental Service, even urgent dental treatment could not have been provided. The United States transport Louis McLean, with the equipment aboard, had put in to Nouméa in New Caledonia to await further cargo before going on to Espiritu Santo. Requests that the dental equipment be taken off and sent by other transport were answered by the information that it was under 2000 tons of cargo and could not be reached. As this cargo was not unloaded for so long it must have been classified as of low priority and, as such, should not have included the dental equipment. If no faster transport was available it was a waste of trained personnel to send the section overseas when there was ample work to be done in New Zealand. As it was, from the date of arrival, 15 February 1943, to 20 March when it was possible to start building the dental hospital, Captain Allan was employed as Squadron Gas Officer and Assistant Cipher Officer, while the other ranks were used for camp duties. It seems incredible that when it was found that delay in the delivery of the equipment was inevitable, some further equipment was not sent by air freight to enable the section to function.
The original camp for the squadron was poorly situated in the jungle which, in the wet season, made conditions trying but possessed the advantage of providing natural camouflage. Later, the permanent RNZAF camp was established in a nearby coconut plantation, where everybody was accommodated in prefabricated huts.
The construction of the dental hospital was begun on 20 March 1943 by the men of the dental section under the supervision of the RNZAF Works Unit. It was a building 40 feet long by 16 feet wide by 8 feet high, having a surgery for two chairs at one end and a workroom at the other, with an orderly room between them. The entrance was into the orderly room by way of a porch, in which was a basin for oral prophylaxis. The windows were made of gauze.
After commending the efforts of the men of his section as amateur carpenters, Captain Allan wrote as follows to the DDS:
The only building supplies available at the camp were the walls of the building. It is safe to say that every other camp on the island was solicited for building supplies such as nails, timber, netting, taps, pipes, light fittings etc. For instance, the surface of the plaster bench was covered with aluminium salvaged from the petrol tank of a crashed ‘Flying Fortress’.
The hospital was completed on 17 April 1943, two days before the arrival of No. 9 General Reconnaissance Squadron with its own dental section, whose equipment made it possible for treatment to start.
2 Air Cdre S. Wallingford, CB, CBE, Legion of Merit (US); Wellington; born Hythe, England, 12 Jul 1898; AOC No. 1 (Islands) Group, 1943–44; Air Member for Supply 1944–46; Air Member for Personnel 1948–52; retd 1953.
3 The Air Command of the South Pacific.