The 36th Battalion: a record of service of the 36th Battalion with the Third Division in the Pacific
Chapter Seven — The Treasuries
The Treasury Islands are only 300 miles from the 'Canal' and we made the voyage in perfect weather. This was very fortunate as the ships were packed with men and any sort of a swell would have made conditions very unpleasant. The American sailors did all they could to make us as comfortable as possible. We passed the Russell Islands, Rendova, New Georgia and dozens of smaller islands. It was an uneventful day, and the only planes sighted were our own. During the daylight hours maps and aerial photographs of our objective were made available to all ranks, together with every bit of information that was known regarding enemy strength and dispositions. Plans were gone over again and every detail checked until every man was sure not only what his particular job was, but how everyone else fitted into the general plan. By nightfall everything that could be done to make the landing successful had been done. We could only wait for whatever the morning might bring forth.
At 0500 hours on the morning of Wednesday, 27 October, the convoy was off the west end of Stirling Island. The naval bombardment was scheduled to commence at first light and zero hour was to be 0606 hours. For some reason, probably owing to bad visibility occasioned by heavy mists that hung over Mono Island and Blanche Harbour that morning, all times were delayed twenty minutes. Zero was now 0626 hours. As the dawn broke we could see in front of us the steep, rugged, jungle-clad slopes of Mono Island, wreathed in mist and looking very sombre and forbidding in the early morning light. Slightly to the right and nearer lay Stirling Island with vegetation of a lighter shade on its low, flat surface.page break
Crossing a river on an improvised bridge. This sort of exercise was all part of the battalion's excellent training
At 0545 hours the peacefulness of the scene was broken as the five-inch guns of the destroyers opened up and simultaneously the small landing craft pulled away from the APDs and dashed toward the entrance to the harbour. The first wave was on its way to the beach. As they raced up Blanche Harbour the LCPs were protected by gunboats which kept between them and the shore, all the time pouring a hail of fire into known enemy positions. Some small arms fire reached the LCPs but did not cause any casualties.
The naval gunfire lifted as the landing craft neared Falamai and, at a given signal, the line of small craft turned and sped toward the shore, hitting the beach as planned at exactly 26 minutes past six. It was during this last phase that the LCPs came under fire from enemy positions at Falamai, and a number of casualties were suffered. No opposition was encountered as the men of A and B companies raced over the lowered ramps and across the narrow beach to the thick cover that came down almost to the water's edge. Once there they formed up and moved inland, securing that part of the coast for the landing of the next wave.
The second wave, aboard the LCIs, had entered the harbour in the wake of the LCPs. Their speed was timed to make them reach the shore at 0646 hours. One of the immediate tasks of the first wave was to plant beach signs to indicate to the commanders of the LCIs the exact points to which they were to bring their ships, so that the second wave troops would land in the secured area.
At 0646 hours precisely the LCIs grounded on the rough pebbles and coral just east of the Saveke, twin ramps were run out and the remaining two rifle companies and battalion headquarters rushed ashore. D company immediately moved to the right flank and filled the gap between B company and the 29th Battalion, and the unloading parties, without a moment's delay, commenced their task. In less than 20 minutes the ships had been unloaded and had pulled out from the shore, leaving the beach clear for the LCPs which were again approaching the shore, this time with the remaining personnel and all equipment from the APDs. The movement of the three forward companies through the thick vegetation was very slow. Contact was difficult and A company had been momentarily disorganised by fire from the gunboat on to the mouth of the Saveke and the area just west, from which Japanese small arms fire had been coming.page 52
While A company re-established contact and reformed for an attack on the enemy headquarters, Lieutenant T. G. Holmes opened fire with his 3-inch mortars and put down such a heavy and accurate concentration that it completely disorganised the enemy. Then in an encircling movement Captain K. E. Louden personally led his company across the Saveke and captured Japanese headquarters, driving the enemy on to the hill. In their haste to get away the Japanese had abandoned a large quantity of clothing, food and medical supplies and much documentary data of considerable interest. By midmorning the intermediate perimeter was established about 250 yards from the shore and extending from Cutler's Creek on the right flank and circling down to the shore west of the Saveke on the left, taking in the Japanese headquarters area.
Meanwhile on the beach the unloading had been proceeding, but not without its difficulties. From 7 am onwards the beach had come under fire from Japanese mortars and mountain-guns. They had the range to the beach well-gauged and their accurate fire caused some casualties. The LSTs which had arrived at about 7.30 am and were unloading the heavy equipment and vehicles on to the beach at Falamai, became one of their main targets, and our unloading party suffered a number of casualties. Other casualties, including Major J. F. Britland, who was mortally wounded, were inflicted by a party of a dozen Japs in a pill-box near the ships. The prompt action of a bulldozer driver put an end to their interference. He raised the broad steel blade in the front of his machine and, using it as a shield against the enemy's fire, drove forward and crushed the pill-box and its occupants. At just about this time also a single Jap plane managed to evade the RNZAF and US aerial cover, and he strafed and bombed the LSTs, luckily doing no damage. He certainly had not time to be very accurate, as he had a couple of Lightnings on his tail, and they downed him over the sea a few miles east of Falamai.
The highest credit goes to C company and headquarters company for the excellent job they did under the most difficult circumstances. Because of the rugged nature of the country and the almost complete lack of visibility from near the shore, it was not till about 10 o'clock that the location of the enemy's guns were narrowed down to the vicinity of the OP on the high feature to the west of the upper Saveke River. When naval gunfire failed to neutralise it, two patrols were despatched from the battalion to deal with it.page 53
The carrier platoon under Captain H. W. Williams moved out through D company with the intention of turning left and crossing the Saveke behind the enemy position. Second-Lieutenant L. Booth with Number 6 platoon left from A company in the Jap headquarters area and advanced up the steep country on the right bank of the river directly toward the OP. At about 1100 hours his patrol made contact with the enemy, and after a hard fight uphill they captured two 75 mm howitzers and a 90 mm mortar, accounting for eleven Jap dead and suffering seven wounded in their own ranks. The other patrol had met with very difficult going; before it reached the river the action was over. Thanks to Second-Lieutenant Booth and his platoon the work on the shore proceeded without further interruption or casualties during the rest of the day.
In the meanwhile the battalion had been moving forward toward the final perimeter. Progress was of necessity very slow. Contact page 54had to be maintained throughout, and the country had to be thoroughly combed to ensure the complete security of the beach' head. By 2.30 in the afternoon the front line had reached its furthest point inland, some 600 yards north of Falamai, and from there it curved round to the coast about 200 yards west of the mouth of the Saveke River. Patrols were sent forward and diffeing-in commenced. Inside the perimeter there was much activity. Battalion headquarters was established in approximately the centre of the area. The signal platoon under Lieutenant G. N. Utting, which had done a splendid job throughout the day, now established line communication with the various headquarters. The engineers had bulldozed rough roads along the foreshore to the various dumps, to the water point they had set up and to battalion headquarters. The battalion transport section did yeoman service, carting necessary supplies, equipment and water over the primitive roads, and it was not until evening that they and the beach parties came into an area near battalion headquarters to dig in for the night.
The memory of that first night on Mono will long remain with us. We had accustomed ourselves to the jungle noises by night on Guadalcanal, but the noises here seemed deafening by comparison, and to tired troops, with nerves keyed up and all senses alert to detect enemy movement, the night was never-ending. Nor did it pass without incident. In their hurry to get away from their head' quarters the Japs had left behind about ten tons of food, the main source of supply for their force. It was probably in an attempt to rectify this omission that they came into our lines during the night, causing some casualties.
There were other casualties by enemy mortar fire from an unknown location and from aerial bombing. We were visited throughout the night by enemy planes which were apparently based not many miles away, for they returned to the attack with horrible regularity at about hourly intervals. We could hear them approaching round the high land of Mono to the north; then they would cut their engines, and we could hear the soft swish of the planes through the air as they dived, followed shortly afterwards by the bursts of fire as they strafed our positions with uncanny accuracy; and then came the sibilant swish of the falling bombs and the crash and concussion from the explosions. We were grateful for the protection page 55afforded us by our trenches. Cramped and muddy as they were, they were utterly desirable places that night. It was a relief when not on guard to stretch out in the muddy bottom of the trench and rest, perhaps even to snatch a little sleep. And so the seemingly interminable night wore on. When at last morning came it brought tremendous relief. The awful strain was lifted. We could relax, have a cigarette and, best of all, we could talk again. Never had the daylight been so welcome. It was a new and pleasant world. Even the planes overhead had changed, and what a thrill it gave us to look up through the trees and see our own planes, bearing the RNZAF roundel, cruising protectively above.
The next few days were spent in improving positions, in bringing up supplies of ammunition, food and water. The first cup of hot tea was made—a memorable brew. Patrols went forward daily and, though they found indications of the enemy's presence, there were no Japs to be seen. The area inside the perimeter was also scoured to make sure no enemy were concealed there. At night we were still visited by enemy bombers, but from the third night on, our ack-ack fire disturbed their aim, though they still inflicted some damage and casualties.
By 30 October it seemed apparent that there were few, if any, Japs left inthe vicinity. Our heavy concentrations of 3-inch mortar and 25-pounder fire which were laid down outside the entire perimeter, no doubt discouraged them. We felt that they had moved inland or around the coast to some spot from which they would attempt to be evacuated. Our task now was to prevent this from happening. In order to spare men for extensive patrolling it was necessary to have a shorter perimeter, and a reconnaissance to this end had already been made. Accordingly on 1 November the battalion withdrew to a shorter line and dug in. The second echelon also arrived that same day, and with them came a welcome mail.
Because of the steep nature of the country, the dense vegetation and the weight of the heavy cable, progress was slow. However, communication was maintained with headquarters, and the numerous signs of the enemy, accurately interpreted by Sergeant Ilala, were reported to battalion. The Japs had obviously been making for the north of Mono; so the patrol pushed on toward Ulapu with the intention of catching the enemy between the Besara River and Soanatalu. Meanwhile the Laifa patrol had made contact with a small party of Japs, but without casualties to either side.page 57
On 3 November another patrol, from B company of the 34th Battalion, which had relieved A company on the perimeter, ran into a small party of Japs in the upper Saveke area, killing one, the others escaping into the bush. In the afternoon of the following day the D company patrol which had found the going increasingly difficult reached the coast and was met near Ulapu by a barge with very necessary rations and additional cable. The next morning they set off along the coast on the last lap of the journey to Soanatalu. On crossing the Besara River Sergeant Ilala detected fresh Jap tracks leading up the right bank. A short distance inland a newly-constructed raft and paddles were found. The Japs had evidently taken cover and could not be found. After destroying the raft, the patrol followed another fresh trail, and about a quarter of a mile along the coast from the Besara, contact was made with the enemy. They had made their hide-out in a series of caves in the face of the cliff. In the ensuing action, which lasted about two hours, ten enemy were killed, and one wounded and taken prisoner. D company lost one sergeant who was kilted early in the engagement. The patrol pushed on to Soanatalu that night without further incident, and the following day returned by barge to Falamai.
During this period A company had been under command of the 34th Battalion. They had been withdrawn to Stirling Island for a spell, but they were not left long to enjoy their well-earned rest. On 2 November at very short notice, they were transported to Malsi where they were to give additional protection to the native village, a necessary precaution in view of the reported Jap movements. On 4 November A company made a through search of the country between Malsi and Soanatalu, accounting for one Jap and taking two others prisoner. Other patrols from the company were active on the coast both sides of Malsi but without further result, and finally the whole company left for Falamai on 8 November, sweeping the country as they advanced and arriving back with the battalion on the afternoon of the next day.
That same day B company left to cover the coastal area between Laifa and Ulapu. They had, a few days previously, relieved the carrier platoon patrol at Laifa, and set up a small base there. During the next three days the whole of the west coast of Mono was searched but without positive result. This marked the end of the phase of page 58intensive patrolling. From now on we were to be mainly a garrison force. The few isolated Japs left on Mono could do very little harm, and an occasional small patrol would be sufficient to keep them on the run.
It is not possible to enumerate all the fine acts done during the action, but the battalion picture would not be complete without some reference to Padre W. Parker who, throughout the entire action and often under the worst possible conditions, always had a cup of tea and a cheery word for all comers. Nothing could deter him. Rain and mud could not dampen his spirits or extinguish his primus; enemy fire—and he was subject to plenty of that with one or two narrow escapes—did not interrupt his tea-making activities, and many a wounded soldier or weary patrol passing through headquarters has reason to remember the padre's kind services.
The battalion was now able to commence settling down. Pup-tents had been erected, cookhouses set up and a certain degree of comfort introduced. It was a treat to be able to shave off the 14 days' growth of beard, to wash and change into clean clothes and to enjoy a hot meal of B rations. The third echelon had arrived on 6 November, together with another batch of mail.
On Sunday, 7 November, a short but impressive thanksgiving service was conducted by Padre Parker and attended by all the battalion except A company who were still at Malsi. A tribute was paid to the fallen; 14 members of the battalion had made the supreme sacrifice. The battalion had suffered a large number of wounded, too; these, together with five cases of sickness, brought our total casualties at this time to 77. Four days later the fourth echelon arrived from Guadalcanal. Tents, bedcots and all equipment were now to hand, and we were ready to establish camps in areas which had already been reconnoitred and allotted to the various companies. B company were to remain on Mono Island, but they were to move to the mouth of the Avon River and establish themselves there. The rest of the battalion was to go to Stirling Island, battalion head-quarters, headquarters company and A company near Soala Lake, C company at Wilson's Point, alongside Lakemba Cove, and D company at Cummings' Point on the western end of the island.
A panoramic view of Blanche Harbour, Treasury Islands, from the slopes of Mono. On the extreme left is the tiny peninsula of Falarmai where the battalion landed. The long strip of wooded island is Stirling, where glimpses of the airfield may be seen between the trees
At the end of November Lieutenant-Colonel Muirson returned to New Zealand, and the command of the battalion was taken over by Lieutenant-Colonel Pringle, who, as second-in-command, had been with the battalion since its formation in Papakura in December 1941. Major H. F. Allen was transferred from divisional headquarters as second-in-command. At about the same time a large reinforcement draft arrived to fill the gaps in our ranks. Life once more became more or less a matter of routine with our time spent, when not on patrols or training, in improving our camps, or in unloading and handling supplies, or working on the new airstrip on Stirling Island, or on a host of other necessary tasks connected with the smooth functioning of the allied force in the Treasuries. Our anti-malarial squads scoured the areas about the camps, finding and destroying possible breeding places for mosquitoes, and oiling those places where water collected that could not be drained.
At first the principal means of transport was by barge, and each day the battalion barge crossed and re-crossed the waters of Blanche Harbour, taking rations, water and other things to the outlying companies and to the mortar detachments on Watson and Wilson Islands. Gradually the roads improved and our vehicles were able to take over a great deal of their work, only B company and the mortar platoon being entirely dependent on barge traffic.
Early in December, with Christmas less than a month away, we began to make preparations for that festival. Mess-rooms were improved and made large enough for everyone to sit down to Christmas dinner at once. Designs were prepared for souvenir menu cards which would be filled in later when the exact bill of fare was known. Even the weather had a hand in making it a pleasant Christmas. Up page 60to 21 December we had rain almost daily; from then on until after New Year's Day, the weather, if a trifle hot, was beautiful. 'Nat. Pat.' parcels, fruit and cream—both in tins—the ingredients for Christmas puddings, cigars, and, last but not least, beer—all made their appearance. Finally, on Christmas Eve, the turkeys came. That clinched it. Christmas dinner was a great success. The day itself was a most enjoyable one, even 'Tojo' contributing to the fun by dropping a bomb at daybreak near D company's camp. Boxing Day was also observed as a holiday, nearly everyone attending the acquatic carnival at Falamai, where Americans and New Zealanders were competing in the various events.
Life soon became—well, not humdrum, but very well regulated. It was at all times interesting, watching the rapid growth and development of the strip and and the taxiways, and the many other activities in the area, but, except for an occasional patrol or a spell of training on Mono Island, we had almost ceased to be soldiers. We had become stevedores and lumberjacks and labourers in a host of jobs. True, we were still here for the defence of the islands, and the Japanese-held Shortland Islands were less than twenty miles away, but nothing ever happened. The seas around us were well patrolled. The only attacks we were subjected to were from the air. And there is no doubt that these raids, coming as they did for a period of over four months, served to break the monotony. At first they were nightly raids, just one or two planes that came over often, several times in one night. They were mainly nuisance raids and, while they kept us out of bed during the night, they did little or no damage, sometimes not even coming in close enough to drop their bombs. The anti-aircraft fire was particularly effective, and 'Tojo' had a whole' some respect for it. By Christmas the attacks had become less frequent, but with the air-strip coming into operation early in the New Year, the Japs became active again. Then the attacks were made in greater force, and in January and February the two biggest raids took place. There was some damage and a number of casualties. On these occasions the anti-aircraft barrage was a wonderful spectacle. The sky seemed full of tracer and the ground was lit up with the reflected light. The apprehension engendered by the sound of the planes overhead and the falling bombs was at times forgotten, as men left their fox-holes to view the brilliant sight.page 61
By the end of February the period of air raids was over, and there was very little to disturb the serenity of our existence. There was some danger of our becoming stale. However steps had been taken early against such an eventuality. The companies organised concerts; race-tracks were constructed and meetings held, complete with 'totes' and horses made out of coconut or some similar material; card evenings were very popular, particularly as the cooks usually made something special for supper. Of course picture shows were more plentiful, and before long there was a movie on somewhere handy every night. Sports, too, began to make their appearance. There was very little suitable ground for games, but usually a tenni-quoit court was possible. As larger areas were cleared, basketball and baseball commenced.
There was one pastime that is worthy of special note, as it typified the New Zealander and his habit of adapting himself to his environment and making the most of the circumstances in which he found himself—the pastime of making things. It began with making his living conditions better. In his spare time he constructed tables, chairs, washing stands and improvised showers, and lots of other utilities that helped to make his tent a home. Once this was done, he began to look around for a suitable hobby. Boat-building immediately began to boom. One or two individuals had found broken native canoes and these were soon patched up and launched, but the bulk of the fleet which soon made its appearance was made entirely by the enthusiastic owners. Many and varied were the types of vessels constructed, perhaps it was only a raft of drums and coconut logs from which the owners could fish or swim, but which as a means of locomotion was an 'also-ran'. Others selected their tree, felled it and, with much painstaking effort, produced a dug-out canoe complete with outrigger. Still others undertook the more ambitious task of building sailing canoes and small yachts. This involved, apart from the tremendous amount of work, a very vigorous search for the necessary material. And what could not be acquired was improvised with so much skill that some really fine craft resulted.
Boat-building was by no means the only hobby indulged in. The Treasuries abound in fine timber. Saw-mills had been established during our first weeks here, and mahogany, teak and a number of other beautiful timbers were turned out. It was not long before useful and ornamental articles began to appear: trinket boxes carved out page 62of solid pieces of teak, cribbage boards of teak inlaid with mahogany or rosewood, draughts boards, paper knives, picture frames and a host of other articles. Tools were at a premium and it was amazing what could be done with only a pen-knife. Some enterprising individuals constructed a lathe, and wooden bowls, candlesticks and other symmetrical objects almost entered the mass production stage. Of course knife-making was revived and with it lots of other metal work. Shell cases provided the material for paper knives, model aero-planes, ash-trays and articles too numerous to mention.
It must not be supposed that life in these islands was one long holiday. Far from it. There was always plenty of work. It seemed that no sooner had one ship finished unloading than another took its place. Unloading usually went on, night and day, until the ship was cleared. Still, there was an incentive to the work. We saw the bombs that we had unloaded being carried away on planes as they went out on a strike; we saw the machinery, petrol and supplies all put to good use. Perhaps we liked best to unload the ships that brought us fresh food. It was a pleasure to unload fresh meat, vegetables, fruit and New Zealand butter. We always knew when there was to be fresh food on the menu, and these meals were eagerly looked forward to. Not that our normal diet wasn't sustaining. It must have been, because we kept remarkably fit. We had expected a fairly large incidence of sickness, as the Solomons are notoriously unhealthy, but our food, our work and our play must have been well-balanced, because the number of our sickness casualties was very small.
Most of us had our share of heat rashes, eczema and other skin troubles, not the least irritating of which was the bite of the 'chigger' —for want of a better name— which burrowed into the skin and caused a very itchy spot which easily turned septic. But on the whole we were in good condition. Our spirits were high, too, though we continually wondered when and where our next move would be, and we felt that the sooner it came the better. We felt that we had already had our share of long spells in one place. We were ready to move at short notice. There was talk of fresh tasks for us, but none of them eventuated. In April the first of a series of events took place which ultimately sounded the death knell of the battalion. Due to increasing difficulty in maintaining production in several essential industries, the New Zealand Government decided to with-page 63cluded men from the Third Division to help to alleviate the manpower shortages in these industries. All those men who, prior to the war, had been employed in these industries were asked to volunteer to return to their old positions. Quite a number of men were affected by this scheme and towards the end of April the first draft of them marched out of the battalion under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Pringle.
Major Allan assumed command of the battalion and the outlying companies were brought in nearer to headquarters. B company reluctantly gave up its ideal camp site on the Avon River and came to live with A company at Soala Lake, while D company joined C company at Lakemba Cove. By now, those of us who remained realised that it would not be long before we, too, were evacuated from the area. Except for working parties very little work was done and the last few weeks in the Treasury Group passed by in comparative ease. The middle of May saw the arrival of a relieving American unit and on to May we embarked once more to return to base in New Caledonia.
This time back in New Caledonia all units of the division were centralised in the area around Bourail with the infantry at the old base training depot in Tene Valley. This was the first time in the history of the battalion that we had been so near to other units and many friendships were made or renewed. What impressed us most perhaps was the almost entire absence of mosquitoes and the extremely cold nights. Whereas we did not always use our one blanket in the Solomons we were only too pleased to crawl under three blankets and a great-coat back in New Caledonia. The general theme for life here was a rest from normal routine with trips and sport taking the place of training.
The country around Bourail was new to most of us and no time was lost in finding out the good spots. Most popular of all was Bourail Beach about seven miles from our camp. The new Kiwi Club was situated there and it was quite a treat to visit the club and have a meal prepared and served by New Zealand WAACs. From time to time we were able to send small parties to be guests of the club for a few days. Another popular trip was over the central mountain range to the opposite coast at Houailou (Walu). A small party spent several days' leave at the old Ruahine camp on the Houailou Road.page 64
Inter-company and inter-unit rugby, hockey, cricket, soccer and basketball matches were played each week and the sports fields were seldom free. Perhaps the highlight of these inter-unit games was the rugby match against our old rivals, the 29th Battalion. We had our colours lowered again in a very close game—the only score being a penalty goal. Towards the end of June we received the news which was uppermost in our thoughts—the all important furlough. All troops were to return for leave on the basis that the longest away from home this time were to return first. Because of our stay on Norfolk Island, this ruling placed the old Norfolkians still with us in priority one for leave.
On 1 July these men departed much to the envy of those left behind. Lieutenant-Colonel Allan (recently promoted) remained in charge until he left several days later when Major I. G. O'Neill took over the reins.
Once more packing became the order of the day and all unit equipment was crated and numbered ready for despatch to New Zealand. The final leave draft left New Caledonia on 13 August 1944, after a few days' stay in Noumea, thus bringing the overseas life of the battalion to a close.
After a generous furlough in New Zealand, members of the battalion began to re-assemble in Papakura Camp until the Government brought out their new policy regarding the Third Division. The division was to be disbanded and the men were to be used to reinforce the Second Division overseas. As a result of this decision all ranks at Papakura were sent out to their various district mobilisation camps to await the day when they would proceed overseas once more. A small rear party under Lieutenant Tricklebank was sent to the Third Division Base at Mangere to return all unit equipment and officially wind up the Battalion. Thus the 36th Battalion becomes only a memory. We will be able to look back with pride on what has been accomplished and with many happy memories of the friendships we have made and the good times we have had together in the battalion.