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Base Wallahs: Story of the units of the base organisation, NZEF IP

I — 4th motor ambulance convoy

page 87

4th motor ambulance convoy

The 4th Motor Ambulance Convoy was conceived in January 1941, but its period of gestation was long and anxious. It was not until one year later that definite labour pains showed that the unit was not to be a stillborn child of the medical services. Captain E. T. Saunders was the officiating midwife and, in his own peculiar Way, slapped the infant into lusty life and severed the connecting ties with the 10th Field Ambulance. The offspring was small, but its vigorous squawkings soon made all immediate neighbours aware of its existence. Fed on a typical army diet it showed small increase in size until it was decided that red tape was the retarding influence. From the moment that this was eschewed from the diet, it quickly gained strength and size until the encouraging figure of 53 all ranks, 15 ambulances and one dog was announced as its official weight.

For ten months the 4th MAC was stationed at Greytown where the salubrious climate proved greatly beneficial to its well-being. During this period we trained and absorbed all the information that the army insists on being taught in the fond delusion that it will be of use to soldiers overseas. About October 1942 the powers above decided that such a vigorous and well-behaved child deserved no less a fate than to be allowed to grow to manhood in the tender care of the Third New Zealand Division. After the usual indescribable confusion attending such events, the unit was safely-conveyed to the scene of future operations and the first page 88motor ambulance convoy to leave New Zealand shores, greeted its new home—La Nouvelle Calédonie—early in January 1943.

Those at home soon knew from our letters how we had journeyed through submarine-haunted, shark-infested waters; how we landed in morasses of mud at the grim and unwelcoming port of Nepoui; and how we eventually struggled to a halt at Moindah. Apart from the fact that we had no rations for three days, no transport and no home, the boys were reasonably cheerful at the prospect of (living dangerously.' The OC's habit of sleeping with a loaded tommy gun beside his bed made the night pickets avoid his tent as a plague spot. However, initial feelings of nervousness soon subsided and those condemned to night wanderings decided that every niaouli tree did not harbour the cohorts of 'Tojo.' The unit quickly settled into its routine of carrying the sick, the dying and the dead. Any spare time was fully occupied with the never finished work of fatigues and camp building. Ambulance cars were stationed out with the field ambulances of the three brigades in the north, centre and south of the island, at 4th NZ General Hospital at Boguen Valley, at Base Camp Reception Hospital at Téné Valley and at Nouméa. Thus the entire island was well serviced by our vehicles. During these early days the difficulty of replacement of vehicle parts, the really appalling condition of the roads and the considerable mileage travelled by the cars (32,000 miles in one monthly peak period), made it necessary for constant and careful checking of all vehicles to be maintained. The work of our mechanical staff and of the drivers in charge cannot be too highly praised.

As we had arrived in Necal early in January, we did not have long to wait for the rainy season. The land soon became an endless series of muddy vistas. Roads flooded so quickly that vehicles out on jobs were frequently marooned. Fortunately, such conditions lasted for only two or three months and thereafter one drove through a continuous haze of dust and more dust. The mosquito, too, was most annoying to the tenderly nurtured Kiwis but eventually we accepted him along with the spam and chili con carne of the American rations. An ambitious drainage scheme which we hoped would decimate the island's mosquito population was put under way but unfortunately was never carried to a conclusion. At this stage, May 1943, the authorities decided that the ideal site from which our motor ambulance convoy should page 89direct operations was not Moindah, but from a hill covered with guava and niaouli trees, infested with red ants and mosquitoes and liable to be isolated at certain seasons by flooding. So in our covered waggons we trekked south to the Racecourse Camp at Téné Valley—that garden suburb of the NZEF IP in New Caledonia Here our growing pains began anew but the result was a camp of which our new officer commanding, Captain R. G. G. Wilson, could and did frequently say, 'Home was never like this.'

When the 4th NZ General Hospital removed to a site in the Dumbéa Valley near Nouméa, a section of 12 ambulance cars was attached to it there. Our vehicle strength by this time had increased to 40, 28 being ambulance cars. Unfortunately our personnel strength remained unchanged and the secession of this comparatively large section to ' 4th General' caused much juggling of personnel to maintain a driver for each vehicle. The transporting of sick and wounded New Zealanders and Fijians evacuated from the Solomons, from sea and air ports to hospital, transferring patients to the convalescent depot, and performing the hundred and one jobs required of ambulances by a hospital, kept the section fully occupied. Personnel claimed that they were happy at this location because they were kept busy, but outside opinion maintained that the presence of Waacs and proximity to the flesh pots of Nouméa enhanced '4th General's' popularity. The establishment of a further section at the convalescent depot and hospital at Kalavere further depleted the numbers at our headquarters until at times the camp assumed the aspect of a ghost town haunted by an OC, our senior NCO, Staff-Sergeant 'Mac' McMillan, our artist and quartermaster, Staff-Sergeant 'Pete' Petrie, the orderly room' stooge,' Corporal Bob Kennerley and our inimitable cook, Private Hec Webber. The deficiencies in our numbers were more than often balanced, however, by an ever-increasing flow of visitors who had heard of the delicacies which emanated from Hec's kitchen.

Local news from our camp at Téné was supplied to personnel detached from the unit per medium of a paper called The Sticks Chronicle. This contained all the latest peccadilloes of the boys, together with classified 'ads' and sporting news. Corporal Hec Gray was the editor, Bob Kennerley publisher and Sergeant Laurlie Poynter was printer's devil. After many false starts, page 90much 'acquiring' and repeated advertisements for material in the Sticks Chronicle, the camp was eventually wired for electricity, power being supplied by courtesy of a neighbouring unit. The change-over from candles, kerosene and improvisation was a welcome one and the long wending way to the men's lines no longer offered treacherous hazards to ensnare the weaving steps of the gay night reveller on his way to his tent. Jaundice, the true 'Yellow peril' of the Pacific, struck heavily at our unit and at one time, to the discomfiture of the several sisters in charge, the majority of inmates of one ward at 4th NZ General Hospital comprised members of 4th MAC. Apart from this, the general health of the unit remained at a high level throughout its service and very few fell by the way through sickness. On Captain Wilson's transfer to Headquarters (Medical) NZEF IP, a veteran of action in the north, Captain J. G. Oliver, occupied the magisterial chair in the orderly room. About the same time our transport officer, Lieutenant F. M. Hill, was replaced by Lieutenant A, Brown.

One of the chief occupations of all was the manufacture and discussion of rumours. Eventually that grand old man of rumours —' I was speaking to someone who knows someone who saw someone unloading crates of what someone said were battledress' —came true and, after 20 months of tropical dress, we received a woolly outfit called by courtesy a battledress. A certain carnival spirit became manifest and no one minded the inconvenience of gradually disappearing tent lines and telescoping of facilities. The main body of the 4th Motor Ambulance Convoy embarked, with few regrets, late in August 1944 and we looked our last on the island overseas station which we had come to know so well.