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The 36th Battalion: a record of service of the 36th Battalion with the Third Division in the Pacific

Chapter Thirteen — Galloping Gerty

page 84

Chapter Thirteen
Galloping Gerty

'New Zealanders on Pacific Islands build and operate own sawmill'
News Items, New Zealand Papers.

We don't think that headline referred to the outfit operated by B company at Anson Bay, Norfolk Island, but we certainly did 'build and operate' our own sawmill. As every man who took part in that campaign well remembers, the first two months were remarkable for two things; scarcity of food and entire absence of stores. Every enquiry elicited the same reply: 'They are in the bottom of the ship; Tents, stores, rations, tools, all were in the bottom layer of the holds. So, in desperation, B company set to work to provide for themselves.

Reconnaissance patrols speedily located quantities of good wire strung along on posts like telephone lines. Some over-honest soldier was heard to murmur about passion-fruit orchards, but this was treated with contempt. Pieces of lovely pipe and rusty sheets of corrugated iron were found and with our Fiji training we felt confident of being able to construct an entire camp complete with all the usual facilities out of this abundant material.

One 'patrol' brought information concerning an engine and circular saw for cutting firewood. At first this news failed to register in our minds. Never in all our experience had we had any machinery available. But the Kiwi's brain is equal to any emergency and soon the thought of building a saw-mill was born in a resourceful imagination. Could we casually 'acquire' the whole outfit? For a company that had scrounged a complete bath-tub and fittings from the grounds of a gaol, almost anything is possible, but we hesitated about a saw-page 85mill, mainly because the noise of its operation would make concealment of the 'conversion' difficult. So other methods were tried.

That most engagingly diplomatic officer, the company commander, soon brought the owner under his spell to such an extent that permission was granted to take the whole plant away and use it for our own purposes. The 'works' comprised a 10 hp garden tractor that had lain idle for a considerable time, a perfectly good spindle and a slightly cockeyed oval saw, on a bench rather the worse for exposure to Norfolk's lovely weather. The company 'engineers' got to work, and soon the tractor was heading for its new home in uncertain dashes between accumulations of rust in the carburettor. Immediately the name 'Galloping Gerty' was bestowed upon the machine and its sex definitely established as female. She had other and less affectionate appellations hurled at her radiator cap at times but the less said about that the better.

Of course, even island troops require tools to build a saw-mill. We had 'em; an axe found under an empty house and Jack Donnelly's hammer. Under the cunning, if heavy, hand of Alf Tinkham the thing took shape. Two logs roughly squared, a large quantity of wire, four staples and sundry stakes formed the bench. The spindle was held in place by nails, a belt turned up rather mysteriously, pulleys were adjusted by the simple expedient of wrapping sacking, rope and wire about them and such incidentals as rollers and 'gates' were cheerfully dispensed with. In the preliminary gallop various difficulties cropped up, as is only to be expected when pure science and mechanical theory emerge into practical experience. The belt promptly ran off" the pulley, so one man held it on with a crowbar. The belt slipped and our scanty supply of treacle was sacrificed to the cause of progress. The bench proved to be too low on the ground; a trench for the 'shovers in' to walk along put that right, and soon the great masterpiece was in full blast.

For each day's operations the following personnel were detailed:—

  • One mechanic (drawing 2/6 extra duty pay) to keep Gerty going.
  • One man to keep the belt on with crowbar.
  • One man to pour treacle on the belt.
  • Two strong men to carry the free end of log.
  • CSM Tinkham shoving and guiding logs on to the saw.page 86
  • One man pouring water on the saw.
  • One man 'tailing out'.
  • Two axeman squaring and de-barking logs.
  • Four men getting logs from Anson Point.
  • One RAP attendant to take care of casualties.

And, finally, carpenter Donnelly waiting to pounce on each board as it was produced. In action, it was a fearsome spectacle. Gerty roaring, coughing and belching black smoke; the mechanic as busy as a Kiwi on an ants' nest, pulling on wires, shoving levers, coaxing and cursing; the belt holder-on struggling violently with the crowbar; the treaclepourer trying vainly to get the stuff on to the belt as it flapped madly about its uncertain orbit; the log-carriers, water-pourer and tailer-out covered in wet sawdust. Presiding genius and directing brain of the entire performance, Tinkham pushed and heaved, all the while shouting orders: 'Hold it higher!' 'Lower it down!' 'Push the b log in!' 'Pull it out! Pull it back!' 'Oh! You brainless fool!' This last as Gerty labouring under the strain, finally tears the belt off the pulleys and with a triumphant roar, begins to leap up and down, threatening to take off and fly away.

Captain Britton hovered about, alternating between jubilation, when things went well, and exasperated rage when they didn't. Over the scene swirled a cloud of tow torn from the sack pulleys, fragments of belting and a fine mist of treacle. Altogether a good show, a source of endless interest to B company, the neighbours and even the CO of the 36th Battalion.

But, did we get any timber? We certainly did. The mess room was completely outfitted with tables and forms; furniture for our recreation hut, the tables in Anson Bay Hall on which Christmas dinner was spread—all came from Galloping Gerty, B company's saw-mill. When the time came to leave our island home, Gerty was sadly hitched to a truck to be returned to her owner. But the old girl had one more surprise up her sleeve. At the first jerk on the tow-rope, she dug in her toes and bucked violently, tossing Alf Tinkham high in the air, then waited for him to come down on the numerous sharp levers protruding from her hindquarters. Which he did, breaking three ribs in the process. Last round to Gerty.

Yes—'New Zealanders on Pacific Island build and operate own sawmill'.