The 36th Battalion: a record of service of the 36th Battalion with the Third Division in the Pacific
Chapter Two — Fiji
The month of January found the battalion settling in, occupying battle positions in the Suva town area and carrying out a complete reconnaissance for defence in depth. Then digging and wiring commenced, a task which was to occupy us continuously during our seven months in Fiji. Daily, companies could be seen, marching along the dust-clouded roads leading into Suva, ready for a day's hard work in the boiling summer sun, picking at soapstone, siting positions to give arcs of fire, erecting miles of double-apron fencing.
In Samambula Camp, on the rolling, guava-clad slopes overlooking the peninsula, airy huts suitable for army garrison use had been built. The use of Indians and Fijians for work in the cookhouses and for keeping the camp tidy freed the troops for more urgent tasks. In order to eliminate the daiiy march to town, billets were occupied at Huon Street Methodist School, St. Felix Boys' College and St. Anne's Girls' College. The two last were airy buildings, well ventilated and commanding a splendid view of the harbour. Few will forget the view looking up from Nambukulau Creek to the hillside below St. Felix, ablaze with pink and purple bougainvillea, hibiscus and the variegated reds of crotons and poinsettia, or the broad harbour outlook from the verandah of St. Anne's. Headquarters company found a permanent home at Huon Street, and one rifle company was maintained permanently at Samambula Camp. Besides facilitating work on the defences, the new arrangement of the companies now provided the maximum dispersion, and in the event of an emergency, we would be able to occupy our posts within a matter of minutes on the receipt of orders.page 13
Nobody will ever forget the rapid ringing of the alarm gongs in the dead of night; the frantic rush to dress in battle equipment in the dark; the march into Suva, with the tumble-down Indian houses silhouetted along the roadside and everything quiet but for the rhythmic crunch of marching feet. Then, the silent move into weapon pits against which the sea water was lapping, or into head-quarters tunnelled in the soapstone hills of the town. Here, we watched through the dawning hours and awaited the welcome 'All Clear', when we could march back through an awakening town.
By March the Japanese threat was drawing nearer. In rapid succession what had been assumed to be insurmountable obstacles to the enemy's advance were taken. Portions of New Guinea and the page 14Solomons fell into enemy hands. Darwin was bombed. The threat to our homeland became more and more acute. The tempo of the battalion's work was stepped up. In the disastrous fall of Singapore we had seen what it meant to leave the back door unguarded, and, in our own defences, we were determined that, small though our force was, there would be no loophole or weakness.
The work on the 'Three Pimples' had been commenced by our predecessors in the Suva area, the 29th Battalion, and improvement and extension of the existing positions was undertaken early. It was foreseen that in the event of an enemy attack in overwhelming strength, every house which held a commanding position would become fresh protection from which to resist his advance, until finally in the 'Three Pimples' we had a defensive line where a last stand' could be made. Here miles of wire were laid, and each day would see hundreds of yards of apron fencing creeping round the hillsides and through the tall native grass. During this work we had our first introduction to the 'sensitive plant'. Its scratches rapidly turned septic, and we incurred for the first time those tropical sores, ulcers and skin infections, which were to be a constant menace to physical and mental health over two years of tropical soldiering.
Work was also commenced on what was known as the 'back line'. A natural obstacle was found for tanks in the terrain of this area. Deep, bush-filled ravines and a mat of trailing vines made it impassable for machines and hazardous for enemy infantry. Clinging to the ridges were the primitive Indian gardens, with their patches of dalo, yangona, tapioca and water-melon (irresistible to the thirsty New Zealander). For most of us it was a revelation to see the simplicity of these natives' lives, as they daily tilled their gardens, breaking in new land with nothing more than a hoe and living in shacks of corrugated iron with earth floors. In their eyes we New Zealanders must have seemed a strange sight as, toiling and sweating, we painfully hewed our weapon-pits out of the resisting rock. The war had no reality for them. They had probably heard of the advance of the Japanese almost to these shores, but still it must have seemed far-off. Now their own lands were being occupied by scores of soldiers, daily arriving at daybreak with their picks, shovels and the ever-present container of tea. These soldiers were a laughing cheery crowd, clad in boots and shorts, by now deeply tanned by the page 15sun, full of curses about the heat, their tools, the rock on which they expended so much energy, but withal content, because there was point and purpose to their work. Such names as the 'Chinaman's Hut' and 'Dirty Corner' became familiar to us. 'Dirty Corner,' for example, was a tortuous system of ravines where five separate streams joined in an inextricable tangle of bush and vines.
At 2322 hours—or 11.22 p.m.—on Sunday, 9 March, a message was received from brigade headquarters that a Japanese convoy with naval support had been sighted some 60 miles north-west of the island of Mololo, off the coast of Fiji. Companies were warned to be ready to move at a moment's notice. Battle equipment and 24 hours' rations were issued, and we were allowed to rest, provided everyone remained fully clothed. Few had nerves strong enough to allow them to sleep peacefully under what seemed an imminent threat of invasion. At 3.45 in the morning a message was received to move to our battle positions. They were grim sentries who stood in their weapon-pits staring across the water as the dawn broke. The remainder of the men were working feverishly to complete defences. One company's arcs of fire were blocked by trees and hedges in the Governor's residence; so in a matter of minutes they were felled and cleared. Someone had discovered a grindstone, so whilst one party felled the trees the remainder ground their bayonets to battle sharpness.
Another company had constructed log frameworks which were strung with barbed wire, and could be hauled into position whenever required. When they came to put them in place, they discovered that the river barges had the previous day unloaded thousands of bamboo poles there. These were accordingly hurled into the harbour, and the fences erected. This was to cause the air force a great deal of work and anxiety over the next few days until all the bamboo poles had been retrieved, as they endangered seaplanes in the harbour. Streets and intersections were blocked. The citizens of Suva, arriving to work in the morning, were amazed.
At 7 am word was received that Nandi on the north-west side of the island had been shelled and that the Japanese convoy was approaching Suva. Our next information was that the enemy had landed and was advancing overland from Nausori. Since this was absolutely impossible, it was then that we realised that it was only page 16a manoeuvre, and the keyed-up nervous tension relaxed. The exercise was not completed, however, until we had carried out a forced march of some ten miles to stem the so-called enemy. Never had a march called for such physical endurance. There was little spirit behind our footsteps and along the hot, dusty roads, every step was an effort. The manoeuvre was concluded at mid-day, and we returned to camp. All were annoyed at being hoaxed, but one thing was evident—that if and when the real test came, the enemy would have to face ready and resolute men who would make him pay dearly for any attempt to close with them:
This was but one of many alarms and stand-to's which were carried out in order that a continual state of readiness might be maintained. They were continued in earnest until after the Coral Sea Battle was fought on 4 May 1942. We knew of the concentration of enemy shipping in the Solomons which was expected to move south-west against Australia or south-east to Fiji, and thence to New Zealand. In that sea battle it was American naval supremacy which stemmed the Japanese naval penetration south and proved to be the turning point which led to the subsequent powerful wave of Allied sea, land and air power, which swept northwards.
The Government Buildings, Suva, Fiji
Crossroads of the South Pacific, the Fiji Group lies some 1,100 miles north of Auckland. Largest and most important is the island of Viti Levu. Suva, the capital, with a population of 14,000, is the finest township and port in the South Pacific. The 100,000 native Fijians are usually described as Melanesians, but have many of the most attractive qualities of the Polynesians. They are now almost equalled in numbers by the Indian population. Fiji was annexed by Great Britain in 1874 and is administered as a crown colony by the Colonial Office in London
Perhaps the exercise which provided the high lights at this time— May, 1942—was the attack on the Indian mosque feature along the Nausori Road. Here 'Steggo's Panders'—comprising motor cycles, carriers and beaverettes, achieved lasting glory. One rifle section, could have been observed advancing gingerly along the half-submerged, narrow Indian tracks through the paddy-fields, and then taking the wrong turning to continue the rest of the journey up to their arm-pits in muddy water—a spectacle more amusing for observer than participant. By far the most important of our training exercises in Fiji was our clash with the First Battalion of the Fiji Defence Force. On this occasion the FDF was the enemy whose object it was to attack Suva and destroy installations. They were to land at Navua some thirty miles away, and the 36th Battalion was to go out to meet them and to prevent their advance at all costs. In order to provide training for the engineers, it was ruled by the umpires that all bridges were down, and that no transport could cross until new bridges had been constructed.
During the week preceding the exercise much thought was given to ways and means of outwitting the redoubtable Fijians. Colonel Barry appreciated the fact that, approximately half-way between Navua and Suva, the line of the Naikorokoro River provided excellent facilities for defence, and that the task before him was to ensure that he reached this point before the enemy. With the majority of the bridges down in his sector, it looked like a hopeless task. However, the idea of amphibious operations was just dawning. The CO decided to keep up with the times, and a barge was commandeered. At 0600 hours on 10 June the news that the 'enemy'— the FDF had landed at Navua had been received. By 6.30 'Steggo's page 18Panzers' and Number 5 platoon of A company had left the Suva wharf by barge for the Besari River, well on the way to the proposed defence line, and by 8 o'clock this was manned by the advanced guard. Meanwhile, the remainder of the battalion went as far as they could by transport, and then began to march, fording or negotiating each river on rafts of petrol drums or ropes, The speed of this advance completely upset the 'enemy's' plans. Mid-morning saw the battalion plodding along in the midst of a tropical deluge, and since this showed no signs of abating, it was decided to call the exercise off.
Another minor but interesting experiment in this exercise was the 36th Battalion's first experiment in 'fifth column' work, when Corporal Cooke, dressed as a Chinese gardener with wide straw hat and a pole with twin baskets on his shoulder, together with Private Robinson, who had dyed his hair black and made up to look like an Indian, penetrated the Fijians' lines and returned with information as to all their dispositions.
It is well said that 'where there is smoke there is fire', particularly where rumours are concerned. These had been coming thick and fast for weeks past, but with the arrival of the Americans and the beginning of the New Zealand-Fiji ferry service, we knew that it was now only a matter of waiting patiently until our turn came. It was a shock to learn that there was still more defensive work to be done before the handing-over to the American forces could take place, but never was work done with such a will. The slogan was 'Dig for home'. Pits were dug and renovated and more miles of wire appeared.
It soon became apparent that the 36th Battalion would be the last to leave. As other battalions were being withdrawn from their sectors, our position as the battalion stationed in Suva, made us the natural rearguard. Between the months of July and August every effort was made to see places we had not visited before.
On 14 June an All Nations parade was held in Suva, where the growing strength of our American ally was to be seen. All New Zealand, Fijian, Free French and naval units were represented. It was an impressive sight as they marched past the saluting base. Athletic sports had been held at Albert Park under ideal conditions early in April. Few will forget the sight of the park that day, with page 19beflagged greens and the background of palms and imposing buildings. The excitement was intense, as the companies fought for the lead. Sir Harry Luke, Governor of Fiji, presented a beautiful tortoiseshell shield which he had given for the competition to the A company team, as its first winners. At the end of July the battalion swimming sports were held at the Suva baths. Again competition was keen, and headquarters company narrowly carried the day.
The suggestion that a battalion picnic be held was greeted with subdued comments about 'Butchers' Picnics' and the like, but when we arrived at Nasinu experimental farm on a gloriously fine Sunday in July everyone set out to enjoy themselves, and there was plenty to do. Besides side-shows run by the companies, there were novelty races, swimming, and rest under the shade of mango-trees after a typical picnic lunch. At the conclusion, even the most critical voted it a first-rate day. Many members of the battalion were privileged about this time to visit the Fijian native collage at Sawani, also arrangements were made for each company to visit the Nausori sugar mills, where they saw the processes involved from the time the barge loads of cane arrived from the fields up the Rewa River to the final emergence of the refined sugar.
The Fijians took well to soldiering, and the well trained battalions of Fijian troops we saw parading outside their barracks in Suva, drilled with a precision and apparent liking for the job, reminded us of our Maori battalions. A considerable number of New Zealanders went to the FDF as NCOs and when it was first decided to form two Fijian commando units, it was natural that we should lose some members of our battalion to them. Among these were Lieu-tenant (now Major) C. W. H. Tripp, Sergeants F. Williams and P. Holmes, Corporals Collins (killed in action with the commandos in the Solomons), Conn and Jackson, Lance-Corporal Kells and-Private Larsen. Each of these men was later selected for the First Commando Fiji Guerrillas, a unit which, under Major Tripp, distinguished itself in action behind the Japanese lines in the early campaigns in the Solomons. Major Tripp was awarded the DSO for outstanding leadership and bravery, and Sergeant Williams (now Lieutenant) was awarded the American Star during action on Guadalcanal in December 1942. Sergeant Williams was the first member of the 2 NZEF to shoot Japanese in this war.page 20
No account of the battalion's activities in Fiji would be complete without at least a reference to the fine people who are the native inhabitants of these islands. The Fijian is of remarkable physical build, intelligent and friendly, and during our stay a real and lasting friendship was established between the New Zealand soldiers and the islanders. When, later, we met Fijian commandos on Guadalcanal, it was simply the renewal of an old friendship. Ethnologists may argue as to whether the Fijian is a Melanesian or a Polynesian —to us, he was a fine fellow and a loyal ally. When we were working under the blazing sun on unyielding rock, often a party of Fijian women and children would come up to us, bringing refreshing drinks of kava or baskets of mandarins. Should we pass by a Fijian village on manoeuvres or treks our reception there was that of visiting royalty. 'Isa Lei', the Fijian national song, became the best liked and most frequently sung melody for all New Zealand troops in the Pacific.page 21
About this time, company dinners were held, and these functions took the nature of a welcome farewell to the tropics. Wonderful results were achieved by the various committees in charge of decorating and collecting festive fare. Perhaps the prize went to the brewers who concocted some wicked 'punches' which served admirably to 'break the ice', but every dinner went with a swing. On 20 July a guard of honour was provided by the battalion upon the departure of the Governor of Fiji at the conclusion of his period of office. Both the guard provided on that occasion and the representative company which marched through Suva on the departure of the band were a credit to the battalion. Our Fijian chapter would not be complete without recalling to the minds of those who were fortunate enough to enjoy them the sunny days of relaxation spent on Nukulau Island, and the two-day trips organised to Levuka. These are memories which will last when the darker days and hard times are forgotten.
The first days of August saw the handing-over to the American units completed and the final 'rush of packing. The President Coolidge had arrived, and at 1500 hours on 5 August the battalion embarked. There was still much loading to be completed, and advantage was taken of the delay to make final purchases in Suva. On the afternoon on 10 August the ship pulled away from the wharf to the haunting strains of 'Isa Lei' and 'Bless 'em All'. Perhaps it was as well for the safety of our return voyage that the weather was very rough and overcast, as reports had reached us that enemy submarines were operating in the area.
The welcome accorded us by the lovely Waitemata upon our arrival on Thursday, 13 August, was not outstandingly cordial—it was cold and bleak with continuous drizzling rain. But this was of slight importance, for we had at last reached home. Disembarkation was carried out on the following morning, and we entrained for Papakura. Here our advanced party under Captain D. C. Williams had prepared the camp sites and had already prepared all the rail warrants and other material necessary to get us away on our fourteen days' leave. The first draft left at 4 am on 15 August and in a matter of hours everyone was eagerly heading for his respective home.