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The New Zealand Dental Services

Air Mobile Dental Section

Air Mobile Dental Section

At the time of the formation of the No. 1 (Islands) Group, RNZAF, the dental services to the Air Force in the Pacific, with page 353 the exception of those at Fiji and Tonga, consisted of three sections. One, as already mentioned, was at Espiritu Santo with 3 General Reconnaissance Squadron. One was with 9 General Reconnaissance Squadron and one with No. 15. With the reorganisation of the RNZAF in the Pacific the three squadrons and 4 Repair Depot were amalgamated under one command. No. 9 Squadron arrived at Espiritu Santo on 19 April 1943 and No. 15 at Guadalcanal on 31 May. The Repair Depot was already on Espiritu Santo.

It therefore became apparent that the dental services should be reorganised and on 19 April 1943 Captain Allan made a recommendation to the Director of Dental Services that this should be on a Group basis. At the same time, Group Captain Wallingford asked Captain Allan to assume the duties of Group Dental Officer until matters could be finalised and the new establishment authorised.

Early in May 1943 the Director of Dental Services visited Fiji, Espiritu Santo and Guadalcanal and, as a result of his visit, decided to confirm the arrangements already made until a more permanent organisation, capable of expansion with the rapidly growing Air Force in the Pacific, could be set up. After a short visit by Captain Allan to Colonel Finn in Wellington in late July, an Air Mobile Dental Section was officially formed on 4 August 1943. Captain Allan was given the temporary rank of major and confirmed in his appointment as Group Dental Officer, responsible through Group Headquarters for the dental health of all Group personnel except those in Fiji and Tonga. He was also Officer Commanding the Mobile Dental Section and adviser to the Air Officer Commanding on dental subjects. His position was similar to that of the ADDS of 2 NZEF (IP) as described in a previous chapter.

The Air Force in Fiji had its own dental service which had been working satisfactorily since 1942, and the detached flight in Tonga was included in this service. In the original memorandum of August 1943 it was the intention of the DDS to add this service to the command of the Group Dental Officer, but written corrections added to the typewritten script make it clear that he changed his mind and decided to retain the Fiji dental services under his own control. Possibly he was influenced by the fact that in Fiji the dental service to the Air Force was so intimately bound up with those to the Army and the Navy that he feared a change in command might upset the delicate balance between the services. Fiji and Tonga, therefore, although included in the No. 1 (Islands) Group under the command of Group Captain Wallingford, were excluded from the dental services under his Group Dental Officer.

When the Air Mobile Dental Section was first formed it was divided into two:

page 354

A headquarters section consisting of two officers and eight other ranks.


No. 1 Sub-section consisting of one officer and three other ranks.

Actually this organisation was a change in name only as already Major Allan and Captain J. Hawksworth1 were on Espiritu Santo and a section under Captain H. W. Washbourn2 was operating on Guadalcanal. It did, however, give facilities for expansion within the framework of a Mobile Dental Section by the addition of subsections. Actually, until May, only one sub-section was added, but it was reasonably certain that the Air Force was going to expand and disperse and the dental organisation was ready to meet this.

All reinforcements and replacements for the Corps were sent direct to Group Headquarters in the first place. Postings for duty were then made by the Group Dental Officer. The tour of duty within the Group area for dental officers and other ranks was to be a minimum of twelve months, with the exception of the Group Dental Officer where a maximum of two years was recommended. The reason given for the longer tour of duty for the Group Dental Officer was that it was considered better to interfere as little as possible with the official relationship with the Americans, especially regarding stores.

Despite this arrangement, however, Major Allan handed over his command to Major W. M. Cunningham3 on 15 March 1944 and returned to New Zealand. His report on the activities of the Air Mobile Section, the dental condition of the men, supplies, and the health and morale of the Corps, gives a picture of the position at that time:

R.N.Z.A.F. personnel on arriving at Espiritu Santo, where the headquarters section was located, were immediately examined and, as far as possible, those going to forward areas were made ‘Dentally fit’ before leaving. The … men were more readily available for treatment at Base….

The dental condition … was, on the whole, excellent. Number 3 Squadron had been without treatment for six months before N.Z.D.C. facilities were available and on examination needed only one filling per man….

Later, when the establishment of the R.N.Z.A.F. was being increased and reinforcements and replacements were arriving frequently, a number of drafts required treatment on a scale that was higher than average. This state of affairs was soon rectified in New Zealand and then the necessity for examining drafts on arrival disappeared.

page 355

Throughout my tour of duty in the Pacific I observed that the standard of dental health was particularly high and maintenance, in my opinion, was less than that needed in New Zealand. It was anticipated that, owing to the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables, there would be a relatively high incidence of gingival conditions but this was not the case. From February 43 to April 44 not one case of Vincent's Stomatitis was reported while the number of cases of simple gingivitis was very low….

The health of all ranks was excellent. During the period February to May 43 Dengue Fever was rife at Espiritu Santo…. Dysentery, sinusitis and a transitory type of Migraine were prevalent…. Malaria control units throughout all the islands were exceptionally efficient….

The morale of all N.Z.D.C. personnel was excellent and all ranks were willing and conscientious in the performance of their duties. One of the most pleasing results of my tour of duty was to note the way in which all ranks turned their hands to carpentry and constructed the dental hospitals in the areas. It is not boasting to say that all the dental hospitals were a credit to the New Zealand Dental Corps.

As at April 1944 the establishment of the Air Mobile Dental Section was as follows:


Headquarters Section at Base Depot, Espiritu Santo, consisting of two dental officers, one of whom was the Senior Dental Officer, an administrative NCO, five dental clerk orderlies and one dental mechanic.

There were approximately 1250 men stationed at the Base, representing a ratio of 625 to each officer, although the Senior Dental Officer, by reason of his administrative duties could not spend much time at the chairside. There was a monthly intake of 500 transient personnel which makes the figure 1250 an underestimate.


Sub-section 1 at Guadalcanal consisting of one dental officer, two clerk orderlies and one mechanic.

There were 1300 men to whom must be added 225 of No. 6 Flying Boat Squadron and 75 of the Royal New Zealand Navy based at Tulagi, making a total of at least 1600. At this time they only needed maintenance but it was still a large number for one dental officer.


Sub-section 2 at Bougainville was similarly staffed to that at Guadalcanal.

There were 1200 men of the RNZAF but, in addition, there was a Fiji Battalion for whom urgent treatment had to be available. Later the scope of treatment for this battalion was enlarged as described in the chapter on Fiji.

There were therefore four dental officers, or more accurately three and a half, responsible for the full treatment of 4050 men and limited treatment of over 2000 of the Fiji Military Forces, mostly natives.

1 Capt J. Hawksworth; Gisborne; born NZ 20 Dec 1908; dental surgeon.

2 Lt-Col H. W. Washbourn, OBE; Timaru; born Timaru, 8 Apr 1909; dental surgeon; ADDS (Navy, Army and Air) 1944–46.

3 Maj W. M. Cunningham; Dunedin; born Dunedin, 29 Aug 1908; dental surgeon; CO Mobile Dental Sec, No. 1 (Islands) Gp, RNZAF, 1944–45.