The 36th Battalion: a record of service of the 36th Battalion with the Third Division in the Pacific
Chapter Twelve — 'Mortars Up'
We should have known better, but our spirits were bruised and shaken, and the haze of Christmas jollity inclined us to think well of our fellow man. Clustered on Papakura's green sward with the sun lulling us into what we hoped was an unobserved doze, we listened with one ear as the sergeant pleaded his case, our thoughts busy with the events of the last few days.
Christmas we had spent at Trentham, but the army, full of that kindly solicitude which impels it to care for its lowliest children, suddenly recalled the Railway Department's appeal 'travel by train this Christmas' and rushed its speedy machinery into motion to whisk us away. The colonel was a gay old spark—'Let's make it a surprise' he chortled, withholding the glad news until noon and then suddenly announcing: 'Everyone packed ready to move by 1300 hours—eat when and as you can'. At 1340 hours, complete with sandbuckets and spades (plus a couple of hundredweight of odd baggage) we found ourselves herded aboard the train and away. Every care had been taken to assure our comfort, and all night we plugged steadily on, carriages devoid of steam heat, with one delicious meal of lukewarm tea and a cold pie to keep spirits soaring until out of the dawn mists our new home appeared and we tumbled out stiff and sore in every limb. So here we were next day, 31 January, silently weighing the curly haired sergeant's appeal as he rambled on.
Even the army's kindly trip had failed to ease our bruised spirits —four hundred of us had been torn from our units after months of specialized training, plonked down here and cryptically told, 'You're in the infantry now'. Dark suspicion clouded our minds as the page 80sergeant continued, extolling the virtues of his unborn mortar platoon, working up toward the final call for volunteers.
'No route marching' he cooed. 'Specialist work interesting—no monotony—initiative required.' Then with the cunning of a serpent and the voice of a dove he produced his joker: 'Of course, no fatigues for mortarmen—too much training for that'. The words had scarcely crossed his lips before a swift amazed glance had sizzled between Ted, Harry, and myself, and as one man we arose.
We retired that night in the spirit of the old hymn: 'Where every prospect pleases and only man is vile'. I repeat, we were but recruits, and the grim cynicism born of experience had not yet replaced the rosy illusions of civilian life. Next morning found us paraded expectantly, to be marched off to the training area where we were to make our first acquaintance with our instruments of torture.
The blight settled early: gone was the easy going, wooing sergeant of yesterday. Though his bodily form was the same, a human dynamo had suddenly commenced whirring in his breast. Relentlessly he drove us—base-plates crashed on toes as we inexpertly set them down; bipods invariably showed their evil spirits by twisting round back to front and we knew not how to correct them; layers stoods hopelessly searching for vanished sight standards. After two days of this puishment we usually managed to mount the mortar more or less correctly in about two or three minutes. Goaded to fury, our tormentor stormed and raved: 'You're not mortarmen's toenails (or words to that effect)—the standard time is 60 seconds, and not a man passes till that is done'.
The third day he sensed our flagging enthusiasm and sought to encourage us with a lecture. Smiling sweetly he produced an evil looking ten-pound bomb and blandly announced: 'This is a live three-inch mortar bomb fused and ready for firing. I will now demonstrate the firing mechanism'. A detailed technical description followed, complete with lurid details of the circle of destruction cleared by the exploding projectile.
An evil gleam lighted his eye as he stroked the nose-cap meditatively. 'The slightest obstruction touching this cap during the bomb's flight is sufficient to set it off immediately. 'But', he went on cheerfully, 'it's perfectly safe, as I shall now prove by dropping it nose first on the ground.'page 81
Five minutes later he was still rounding us up from the surrounding ditches, the record being 150 yards covered in ten seconds flat by our fastest sprinter. The average was round about 100 yards, which he rated not bad from a standing start. His language was frightful. 'You chicken-livered lot of greenhorns', he bellowed. 'I told you it was safe.' Good taste prohibits a full report of his peroration, but we gathered he was not pleased. His lecture on safety devices somewhat restored our faith if not our self respect. Nothing can quite eclipse such incidents as these of our early training until after arrival at our first overseas destination.
The sudden voyage released us from much irksome work, and we fondly nursed the illusion the worst was past and only practice was now required to make us mortarmen extraordinary, the pride of the battalion.
Alas for the hopes of man!
First days ashore revealed a deluge of new terms cloaking unimagined horrors. The first blow fell out of a clear sky. 'Well', observed the sergeant, his voice fairly dripping the milk of human kindness, 'to-day we commence something new—long carries.' Groans escaped our clamped lips, but a sergeant is an ugly customer with whom to argue, so meekly we shoulder our crosses as designated. Numbers 1, 2, and 3 found themselves humping an average of just under 50 pounds of cast metal apiece, each part especially designed to bruise the human frame in as many places as possible simultaneously, and a triumph of the designers' art.
To the craftier brethren, who had hovered in the background, 'ammunition carrier' had now become a grim reality. Sixty pounds apiece was their portion—six bright shiny new bombs which they grew to hate with a consuming passion as the morning sun climbed higher and hotter. Across streams and marshes we lugged our mortars, through brush and thorns, up precipitous hillsides in agonized toil, muscles groaning and bodies a bath of sweat.
Enviously we gazed at the once despised infantry sections marching past us with ease, burdened only with rifle and web, hurling taunts as they went. Wending our tortuous way forward, we reflected on the heartlessness of men in general, and the duplicity of sergeants in particular.
Long ago the fair promise of fatigueless days had proven a mirage. Cookhouse, sanitary, guard, tunnel driving in solid papa rock all page 82made their cheery appearance in seemingly endless succession. Sandwiched between all this, our mortar education was at last approaching the stage of an advanced art where the last subtle tortures were being absorbed. About here we began to realize the parts of the mortar were no inanimate hunks of metal, but perverse ghoulish beings possessed of temperament and subject to moods.
Who but a trained mortarman appreciates the fiendish delight a base-plate takes in live shoots? Carefully select a hard even surface having every appearance of solidity, place it down tenderly, and what will it do? Chortling with glee it leaps, twists and burrows with each shot, invariably discovering a mountainous rock on which to bend every strengthening rib and bounce every bubble askew. Then with a contented sigh it snuggles down deeply until picks and crowbars barely suffice to prise it loose. What shall we say of the contrary levelling bubbles, drunken with tropical heat, splitting into a dozen miniature globules and stubbornly refusing to centralize? Or the snapping of jaws of bipod locking nuts, gouging great lumps of flesh as the unwary snap them shut? Who shall tell of the highly strung recoil spring, joyfully fastening on all and sundry with the sheer joy of living as the bombs chash away. We found them difficult creatures these ghouls, demanding care and consideration before consenting to work in harmony with their sweating slaves the crew.
But at last we found them happy, when the great day came and our mortars poured their iron hail of destruction on a live and vicious foe, proving our toil was not in vain nor our understanding wasted. Base-plate and bipod, barrel and sights clung together in sweet accord, temperament stilled and each giving of its best as the rhythmic crack of fired bombs merged with exploding crashes as they burst among the Japs position ahead in the jungle, spreading confusion and death among the sons of Nippon. Affectionately we patted them, hastily feeding their hungry mouths with missiles of death as they gleefully spat them away with every bubble central and base-plate steady as a rock.
Soon the yellow men were falling back before this vicious curtain of fire, beyond our range, so tenderly we took them down, cleaning and oiling each part with new regard and affection. Forgotten was every tantrum, every hour of sweating toil—we were battlemates at last.page 83
As we took our ease we felt as those who had found the truth, and the truth had made us free.
Let the infantry march lightly by, batmen smile in their easeful sinecures, the carriers may ride for all we care—when the bullets fly the cry will arise: 'Mortars Up' and we will be there.
Almost we forgive that sergeant—we're proud to be 'Mortars'.