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

II — Base camp reception hospital — advanced depot of medical stores — base hygiene section

Base camp reception hospital
advanced depot of medical stores
base hygiene section

BCRH, by which four letters the Base Camp Reception Hospital, NZEF IP, was always known, cannot as a unit commence any story of its existence with the oft-repeated words 'When we page 91were in Fiji; for although many of its personnel saw service, long service too, in those isles, BCRH itself was New Caledonian born and bred. The foundations of the unit were laid in January 1943, when the disposition of units in New Caledonia proved the necessity for a hospital in the base area. As a nucleus for this new unit, four men were transferred from 4th NZ General Hospital and, with nothing but their bare hands or with what they could borrow or 'acquire' these four started their sterling" work for the unit by setting about the preparation of a camp site on a guava-covered hillside near the base reception depot in the Téné Valley near Bourail. The first consideration was an area for accommodation tents and this was cleared and the tents erected by-the time the first reinforcement of 23 men arrived on 9 February 1943. From this date, Base Camp Reception Hospital became a unit under the command of Major John Rule, NZMC, who combined with this duty the post of senior medical officer, base area.

It must have been at about this time that the well-known cry of 'AH out general duties' was first heard echoing up the BCRH hill (some of the boys were destined to hear it every morning until August 1944) because by March 1943, with the expert and welcome assistance of two sappers, the cookhouse bure was completed and was closely followed by the mess hut and quartermaster's store. Later, other bures were to make their appearances on a well-ordered hillside. The orderly room and regimental aid post staffs soon were working In these native style huts, and last, but not least, the officers' mess was completed and won renown throughout the length of the land as a house of hospitality. Major Rule, because of ill-health, returned to New Zealand in March 1943 and Major E. S. Thodey, NZMC, took over command of the unit; soon afterwards Captain J. L. Adams arrived to become his assistant. To these two officers, and to Major Thodey in particular, must go much of the credit for the moulding of an efficient unit and for the layout of an excellent camp and hospital.

Construction work proceeded apace during March and a working party from 22nd NZ Field Ambulance earned our gratitude for the construction of ' 22nd Street '—the first all-weather road of a series which was to develop under the eagle eye, strident voice and often caustic comments of Sergeant-Major Bert Hart. During April 1943 the unit achieved its main objective. The page 92hospital opened for patients in a series of Indian pattern tents. Sergeant Phil Scott and his assistant orderlies worked under difficult and primitive conditions to install all the normal features and fittings of a hospital. The operating theatre tent is particularly worthy of mention and credit is due to Private Gordon Poole for the creation and installation of the operating table. Heath Robinson might well have designed it, but no one could deny its effectiveness. At the same time, a little across the guava flat, Staff-Sergeant Ian Fowler and his assistants had organised, in an excellent manner, a department of BCRH which rendered a very necessary service to NZEF IP. Thus by April 1943 was BCRH functioning in all its departments and had commenced, what the staff was pleased to consider, a valuable service to the base area.

In June 1943, there came into being the medical training depot as an offspring of BCRH. Although this venture did not ever attain the maturity that was no doubt hoped for it by Brigadier J. M. Twhigg, DSO, the deputy director of medical services, the initial course for junior non-commissioned officers from all medical units, run by Sergeants Ron Hannam and Brian Richardson, was of unquestionable value to those who attended it. These two sergeants will probably long remember the work which they put into clearing the guava from what they visualised as the Maadi of the Pacific-Lieutenant L. A. Mills joined the unit shortly after the completion of this first course to become training officer cum adjutant.

This stage in the short account of the life of BCRH is a fitting time to mention two other medical units, Advanced Depot of Medical Stores and Base Hygiene Section, which were installed within our area and shared what amenities our camp possessed. The Advanced Depot of Medical Stores had developed considerably since its formation in Fiji in 1941 and, by July 1943, it was the proud possessor of a huge warehouse in the racecourse camp, Téné Valley. This warehouse was the clearing house and store for medical supplies and equipment for the NZEF IP. When the division moved north, a proportion of the unit under the command of Captain Saunders accompanied it, leaving Staff-Sergeant J. O. C. Meredith in charge of the New Caledonian store. 'Joe' and his small band of stalwarts did an excellent job of work supplying our hospitals and camps on the island with their medi-page 93cal requirements and acting as a clearing house for equipment and supplies received from New Zealand.

The Base Hygiene Section, like BCRH, was formed in New Caledonia. Commanded by Lieutenant S. P. Pushman, it performed a most useful function in giving practical help and advice to units on the island to enable satisfactory standards of hygiene and sanitation to be maintained. The hygiene section's workshop, constructed from niaouli timber and bark, was always a busy place and from it issued many excellent improvised contrivances ranging from flytraps to caliphonts. Our camp, and in particular our hospital, benefited markedly by having as our guests the ingenious and hard-working members of this section.

September 1943 saw the arrival from New Zealand of a batch of about 50 reinforcements and, once more, the training depot went into action to initiate these new arrivals into the rigours of life in New Caledonia. About this time, too, divisional troops further north were going into action and those whose unfortunate lot it was not to be with them (and somebody had to do the base jobs) were watching the progress of friends and acquaintances in the division with pride and not a little envy. Soon began the supply of reinforcements to forward medical units and consequently the staff of BCRH began to change. A few of the older divisional men came back to begin useful jobs for the unit, and some of the younger men got the coveted chance of going forward. Both Major Thodey and Captain Adams were given a long-awaited and well-deserved opportunity to join divisional units and they went to the 7th and 24th NZ Field Ambulances respectively. Major J. B. W. Roberton, DSO, returned to take command of BCRH and later Captain S. W. Burcher arrived as medical officer.

Christmas 1943, for some the first away from the homeland, will long be remembered for the festive spirit which prevailed, despite the fact that everyone's thoughts must have been of home. The quartermaster, Sergeant-Major Eric Lash, and his cooks spared no pains to provide, from the material available, a Christmas dinner par excellence. BRCH meals were always good, but this surpassed any that had previously been produced. NCOs took over all fatigues on the day and the manner in which the officers and sergeants handled the serving of dinner bordered on the professional. Good cheer flowed liberally and the meal, in fact the whole day, was an outstanding success. For the patients page 94who were unfortunate enough to be spending Christmas Day in hospital, the wards were decorated, dinner was served in the traditional manner and no effort was spared to make the day for them as happy as possible. In Corporals Maurice Brewer and Tom Lyle, the patients had two men whose main concern was always the comfort of their charges.

In sport, too, BCRH was strong in endeavour if not in success. There were not many sporting activities organised by the base sports committee in which the unit was not represented. The cricket team, under the capable leadership of Private Jim Noble, did particularly well considering the size of the units (BCRH, Base Hygiene Section and Advanced Depot of Medical Stores), from which the players were drawn. A cricket match played in the sweltering heat between officers and sergeants and 'the rest' will long be remembered, if not for the standard of play, then for the singular bowling of Lieutenant Stan Pushman.

January 1944 will probably be marked in the memories of most of the personnel then in New Caledonia by the hurricane which hit the island in the early hours of one morning. Fortunately, the patients in the comparative safety of the wards suffered little discomfort, but for the personnel of the unit, who in a futile attempt to save their homes hung on to tent ropes from 4 am until 8 am, it was an experience which will not soon be forgotten. The regimental sergeant-major and the regimental quartermaster-sergeant, who had the best tent anyway, were the only ones who did not have to seek temporary refuge elsewhere for a few days while new tents were obtained and personal belongings salvaged.

March 1944 saw the erection of the third ward for the hospital: and Corporal 'Shorty' Oborn and his assistant orderlies set about to make this new building the hospital's pride and joy. April saw the first batches of men selected for return to New Zealand for essential industry and BCRH began the task of medically boarding all personnel prior to embarkation. This meant an enlargement of the existing organisation for medical boards and additional medical officers and other ranks were congregated at BCRH to undertake this task. (Camp Oakey' was founded on the old training area as a temporary home for medical officers who often, it is said, rivalled a certain group of 'Indians' who from time to time repaired to their reservation for the beating of tom-toms The medical boarding of successive drafts page 95returning to New Zealand continued spasmodically until the whole force was completed. By this time most people were able to visualise the answer to the question, 'When are we going home?' which had been repeated so often during the preceding months. The matter was placed beyond mere conjecture by August and the task of packing up was begun happily because it meant home, but not without a tinge of regret at the thought that BCRH would be no more-Base Camp Reception Hospital NZEF IP will, it is hoped, be remembered by many people—by the base commandant, for the service it rendered to the base organisation; by Brigadier Twhigg for the useful part it played in the medical services; by the patients, for the good treatment they received there; by the countless soldiers who presented themselves for medical boarding and often for the first step towards home; and last, but not least, by all the personnel, officers and men, who served as part of it because they will surely endorse the opinion that it was one of the happiest units in which a soldier of the New Zealand Medical Corps could wish to serve