The New Zealand Dental Services
IN May 1941 applications were invited by the Royal New Zealand Air Force from the Public Works Department in New Zealand for men to form an aerodrome construction unit for overseas service. It was to consist of 16 officers and 132 other ranks, divided into a headquarters and three specialist flights or sections. It was neither the first of its kind to be formed in New Zealand during the war nor was it the last, and there was nothing essentially different in its composition from any others. That is to say, it was an engineering unit carrying out work usually done by the Public Works Department, but for convenience coming under the control of the RNZAF. There was, however, one noticeable difference. It was perhaps the seal of secrecy set on its destination or possibly the baldness of its official title, ‘Unit 24 RNZAF’, that immediately lifted it from the common rut and clothed it with a mysterious mantle of excitement. There was a promise of something out of the ordinary for the officer, orderly and mechanic of the dental section chosen to accompany it. This was better than working on the assembly line in a mobilisation camp or Air Force station.
The unit was assembled in Rongotai aerodrome in July 1941 and there Captain A. I. McCowan was able to glean something of the nature of the unit and of the dental problem he would have to meet. He found a collection of men of above the average age of troops going overseas, key men from contracting companies, engineers and tradesmen. Large numbers of artificial dentures could be expected, some carrying the full burden of mastication and some leaning on shored-up buttresses, strained to the limit of endurance. A closer examination bore this out and the DDS laid further stress on it:
It will be remembered that 66.9% of the personnel are wearing artificial dentures and must rely on these, and in some cases a few well-filled natural teeth, to assimilate their daily rations, apart from being middle-aged men serving under severe climatic conditions. Under such conditions artificial dentures are readily broken and as easily lost and the wearers must be considered as potential casualties unless facilities for the supply and repair of dentures are available as close as possible to the sphere of activity. The same applies to recurring dental caries for there is nothing like dental pain to weaken a man's morale.
The destination of the unit was revealed as the Far East or, more specifically, Malaya. There were a number of squadrons of the Royal Air Force already in Malaya with certain dental sections attached to them, so that it is not surprising that representations were made from there that it would be unnecessary for a dental section to accompany Unit 24 from New Zealand. The DDS, however, insisted and wisely so as will be seen later.
The section was equipped with panniers and chair case containing a full NZDC field dental outfit and three months' supply of expendable stores. Included in this was a bottled rock-gas pannier containing two cylinders, each of 20 lb. content, and fittings all ready for use. This gas was a product of the Imperial Gas Company of Los Angeles, but it was found that refills of a similar type of gas could be got through agents in Singapore. As a precaution kerosene primus stoves were carried also in the surgical and prosthetic panniers. There was some difficulty in getting refills of exactly the same type of gas in Malaya, but it mattered little because of the rapid retreat from that country. The establishment of the section included a 30–cwt covered lorry but, in fact, this was never provided. Actually, in contrast to most other theatres of war at that time, there was ample transport available for the asking. Replacement of equipment and expendable stores was to come from the nearest Advanced RAF Base Medical Store.
The control of the section was vested, as far as practicable, in Air Headquarters, Wellington, and it was to be administered by the Commanding Officer of Unit 24, Squadron Leader E. C. Smart, RNZAF,1 and on the advice of Captain McCowan would be allocated as circumstances and facilities permitted.
The unit left Wellington in SS Narbada and, after five and a half days of atrocious weather, arrived at Newcastle in Australia. Here it left the Narbada, which was to undergo a survey, and was sent to No. 2 Embarkation Depot at Bradfield Park, Sydney. Here it stayed for about a month. As Captain McCowan reported to the DDS:
Due to an outbreak of parotitis and rubella the greater portion of the unit is still in Australia and the date of embarkation is still indefinite.
Seventeen patients have had urgent treatment since leaving New Zealand, eleven have been denture repairs, four acute apical conditions, one osteomyelitis, which I am treating in hospital, and one serious ulcerative stomatitis which has since developed parotitis and has been isolated at Prince Henry Hospital.
1 Sqn Ldr E. C. Smart; Wellington; born NZ 11 Jun 1903; aerodrome engineer.
The medical officer of the unit, Captain N. H. North, NZMC,1 had gone ahead with the first party to Singapore. When, therefore, No. 3 Advance Party and men from Unit 25 were to sail for Malaya, they were without a doctor for the voyage. Instead of providing one, the RAAF asked Captain McCowan to accept the responsibility. It would have been difficult for him to refuse, although it was unreasonable to expect him to shoulder such a responsibility. Apparently he acquitted himself well for all fifty-three of his charges arrived in Singapore in spite of a case of dengue fever, four of tracheitis and tonsillitis, one of rubella and a suspected fracture of the forearm.
The voyage took eighteen days and began in SS Bontekoe, a Dutch ship of unimpeachable standing until she took on a deck cargo of cattle at Soembara Besar. Fortunately the British agent at Sourabaya managed to transfer the New Zealanders to a KPM ship which landed them in Singapore via Samarang and Muntok, on the island of Bangka, on 13 October 1941.
On arrival the dental section went to Tebrau, about seven miles from Johore on the Kota Tinggi road. Headquarters for the unit was established there and it was decided to set up a general hospital with medical and dental sections, with sick quarters detached from it.
Having regard to the opposition from the RAF to the sending of an NZDC section to Malaya, Captain McCowan, as soon as he had set up his equipment, invited Group Captain Bodie, commander of medical and dental personnel in the Far East, to come and inspect. He also extended an invitation to Squadron Leaders Grey and Jessop, RAF dental officers at Seletar.
1 Wg Cdr N. H. North; Dunedin; born Chandpur, East Bengal, 7 Feb 1908; obstetrician; medical officer No. 1 Aerodrome Construction Unit, Malaya, Aug 1941–Mar 1942; OC Malaria Control Unit, 3 NZ Div, Sep 1942–Aug 1943; SMO Northern Group, RNZAF, Aug 1943–Jan 1945.