The 36th Battalion: a record of service of the 36th Battalion with the Third Division in the Pacific
Chapter Fourteen — Entertainment
For troops in modern war not only must supply lines of ammunition and rations be maintained, but means of entertainment must also be priority one, if a high morale is to be maintained. In the isolated outposts and forward areas of the Pacific, this is a tremendous problem. It is no small tribute to all companies of the 36th that so much was done, under such difficult conditions, to relieve the monotony and isolation of our life by the entertainments we enjoyed.
Apart from the motion pictures, which we will mention separately, and the occasional welcome visits of the Kiwi (Divisional) and Tui (Brigade) concert party, the divisional band and travelling USO shows, most of our amusements were the result of our own efforts.
In Fiji the problem was least pressing. Stationed in or near the township of Suva with its baths, hotels, two picture theatres and the fine New Zealand Club and hospitable CWO—these two were our homes away from home—no great importance was attached to the organising of entertainment. Yet it was here that the first and only battalion concert—as distinct from the many later company concerts —was held, and Padre Pearce's skilful direction made it an outstanding success.
Norfolk Island faced us with the problem in its full magnitude. Here there was no township, no movies, nothing in the way of entertainment at all. Certainly our morale would have dropped to zero and remained there, had nothing been done. The necessary committees promptly got to work. It was discovered that a set of band instruments were available, and no time was lost in setting up a battalion band, which later became the force band. When the 'At Home' afternoons, organised by the various companies, were page 88under way—first at C company—the band was available and contributed greatly to their success.
Great praise is due to Padre Liggett for his organising work on Norfolk. Under the greatest difficulties for lighting, costumes, and all the necessary material for a successful concert, his first concert was staged in the Four Pines area with outstanding success. The back of a truck was the stage; curtains and scenes were of scrim; but it was this success which led to the formation of a force concert party which attracted a large audience of soldier and civilian at fortnightly intervals throughout our stay on Norfolk. Then Major Pat Webster introduced an indoor race meeting system on different lines. The radio was tuned into New Zealand for the acceptances, bets were placed accordingly, and later the radio was again tuned in to hear the winners. The familiar indoor racing, where model horses fight it out with the aid of dice or cards, was a steady favourite to the end. Most companies organised these, and they again proved popular in the forward area of the Solomons.
Other companies organised their debating and 'Critics' Clubs', which provided many lively evenings. Among lectures which were organised were RSM Arkless on 'My Experiences as a Prisoner of War 1917-1919'; Major Webster on 'A Tour to England with the All Blacks'; Neil. Pharazyn on 'Experiences with the International Police in Shanghai', and Gordon Watson on 'Impressions of Modern Russia'.
One or two dances were held on Norfolk, although there were far too few womenfolk on the island to provide partners for the many who wished to dance. However, these evenings were always enjoyable and showed the hospitable Norfolk Islanders to best advantage. It was not until the advanced party had already left for New Caledonia that the talkies arrived on Norfolk, with the advent of a 16 mm machine, donated by the National Patriotic Fund Board, and we were favoured with only three screenings before we left.
From the entertainments point of view, first impressions of New Caledonia were hopeful, and these impressions were correct, as leisure hours were fairly well occupied. A nearby American negro engineers' camp generously gave us permission to visit their theatre, which gave a regular show of either movies or the current USO performance.
Oddly enough, it was during our brief stay on Guadalcanal that entertainments reached their peak. In the first place, there was a page 89nightly picture show at the 'Regent', right on the outskirts of the camp; and Kiwis, Tuis, the USO and even a concert party given by the Fijian and Tongan commando units, passed before us in rapid succession.
It was not long after the last shots had been fired in the Treasuries that the 'silver screen' appeared again in the dense jungle, and brought relaxation to the hundreds of action-weary troops. With the Japs all the time only 18 miles away from us, it is really amazing how much was achieved in the Treasuries.
Gala days, which were really a brigade carnival, with side-shows, sports, races, wood-chopping events and boxing and wrestling bouts were very popular. With practically no material at all A company broke the ice and produced the first local concert, on a small rough stage with pup-tents for a curtain. One especially amusing feature of this show was a 'cavalcade' which presented the history of the battalion from the humorous side. Then Padre Parker, whose efforts on behalf of the men were always unremitting, and his HQ Company Committee introduced the most successful 'Coral Diggers' concert party. Two shows, 'Coral Diggers of 1943' and 'Coral Diggers of 1944' were presented—an amazing medley of can-can girls, choir, ballets, hill-billies and bar-room singers. D company put on two shows on the excellent stage in their own area, 'Fuel Dock Follies' and 'All Over the Place', while the outstanding item in B company's lively concert was the sergeants' ballet.
Movies were not as handy as on Guadalcanal, but were always well patronised. Perhaps a few words are needed about our 'theatres', lest the wrong impression has been conveyed. The thickest of the undergrowth was simply cut away and the screens set up. There were no usherettes, no cushioned seats, no Neon lights and no waiting in queues. The sky was our roof; logs, stumps and even the ground our seats. After the first few performances, however, ingenious souls got busy, and within a few days every movie-goer had his own little folding seat which he carried to and from the various shows. Many a time Tojo interrupted us, but as soon as the all clear sounded, on went the show.
Reference must be made to a few of the outstanding personalities of the concerts. Female impersonators who will be remembered were Hal Robinson, Athol Wheatcroft and Athol Isdale, while prominent page 90among the comedians were 'Steggo' (Lieutenant Steggles), Frank Carroll, Roly Rough, Murray ('Pinocchio') Bowie, 'Lofty' Gregory and Freddie Frith.
It was found that the most popular item of any concert was the ballet, and we pass in quick review the unforgettable Suva Ballet, the Officers' Ballet on Norfolk, and the famous Sylph Flussian Ballet of the Treasuries which presented two numbers, 'There are Fairies at the Bottom of our Garden' and 'Schehzerade'. In the forward area, where only absolutely vital equipment could be brought up, improvisation was the law for all concerts. Atabrin and jungle face' dyes, it must be confessed, played a prominent part in the dyeing of frocks, scenes, draping and costumes.
The conditions were not often favourable for the production of company newspapers, though headquarters company published Butch's Block, B company ran a regular weekly paper called Strewth on Norfolk and D company produced a Christmas edition of an elaborately illustrated wall-newspaper. A great part of all this work would not have been possible without the co-operation and assistance of the YMCA, and special credit for their work goes to its field officers, Keith Harwood, Stan Olds, Roy Trigg and 'Thornie' Dick. So, when for the 36th the curtain of happy times is lowered and the lights of laughter have faded out, the memories of comradeship gained will still remain.