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

IV — 2nd Nz convalescent depot and kalavere hospital

2nd Nz convalescent depot and kalavere hospital

The 'Con Depot' was born at Papakura Military Camp on 28 March 1943 without the aid of even one medical officer; a hybrid medical unit destined to be staffed mainly by members of the infantry corps. We were housed in E block, but even that muddy and coldly unsympathetic environment failed to dishearten those of us who were pioneering the unit. In June, Lieutenant-Colonel J. H. H. Wood, NZMC, was appointed commanding officer. His first action was to move the unit to Trentham—a false alarm to many of the staff as rumour indicated that we were at last on the way. We were not sorry to be leaving E block, which lacked the amenities of other parts of the camp, and it was a grand excuse for levity and celebration. As so often happens, we were not expected at Trentham on the day of our arrival because of some hitch in the paper warfare. However, the other ranks were quartered under the grandstand on the racecourse while the officers were provided with morning tea in one block, lunch in another, afternoon tea in a third and finally took root in a fourth. Subsequently we were allotted huts and stores in the No. 3 Training Battalion area and there we remained while at Trentham. The stack of carefully numbered cases in our store grew in direct relation to the frequent Wellington visits of the commanding officer and the quartermaster, Lieutenant S. H. Williams.

At last, after the usual run of embarkation rumours and an additional final leave, we bade a joyous farewell to Trentham on Thursday, 19 August 1943. The following Monday evening found us in Nouméa harbour with ample evidence of allied naval might page 106around us. Then followed what seemed to be the longest, dustiest, craziest, most hair-raising journey ever inflicted on the uninitiated. We did learn afterwards that the dust was inevitable and the drivers were experienced, but even with these known factors that ride on the back of an open truck left much to be desired. After four days at the Base Reception Depot, near Bourail, we moved to the site of the Gonde roadhouse on the Houailou Road. This had been used as a rest centre for several weeks and 76 convalescents were awaiting us. We lost no time in putting our house in order; tents were erected, orderly rooms established, drains constructed and a training syllabus issued. Five days after our arrival in New Caledonia we were functioning according to plan.

Gonde is a pleasant spot situated in a valley at the junction of two rivers. Coconut palms predominate on the landscape and it is reasonably free from mosquitoes; in fact, if there had been suffiicent room for expansion and development, we could have done much worse than remain there. In these days our work was limited, due to the non-arrival of our equipment but, under the training officer, Lieutenant G. Hobson, the patients were organised into categories for remedial physical training, recreational games, launch trips and outings. A library and canteen were opened, several concerts staged and the first issue of our unit magazine, Relax, made its appearance under the editorship of Lieutenant E. G. Spraggon, Army Educational Welfare Service and occupational therapy officer. After only three weeks at Gonde we received instructions to move to Kalavere, on the western side of the island. An American hospital had been located there and Lieutenant T. Morris was sent in charge of an advanced patty to prepare the site for our occupation. He did this with characteristic thoroughness and the change-over was completed by Saturday 18 September.

The scene at Kalavere was one of intense activity as we strove to establish our depot and look to the welfare of nearly 100 patients. All worked unstintingly as expedience demanded; there were tents to be erected, drains to be dug, trucks unloaded, equipment stored, medical and dental services to be maintained—including a modest ten-bed hospital under Sister Myra Burke, an improvised but none the less effective physio-therapy department run by Sister Jean McKellar, and Captain J. D. Beresford's dental surgery equipped with appliances worthy of the ingenuity page 107of Heath Robinson—and last, but not least, a permanent layout for our camp had to be planned and finalised. The next excitement was the arrival of ten Women's Auxiliary Army Corps personnel from New Zealand. Everything possible had been prepared for their comfort and three small bures were set apart for their quarters. Arriving as they did in the midst of camp construction, these girls are deserving of the highest praise for the manner in which they quickly adapted themselves to their new and somewhat primitive surroundings.

It was early in April that Brigadier Dove, officer in charge of administration, asked us to provide a programme on the occasion of the official opening of the Bourail Club. We immediately commenced rehearsals on 'Splitzkreig III' so named because most of the items were produced by Lieutenant Spraggon from a previous production of that title in New Zealand. The show proved an immediate hit and, after two performances at the club, we visited several other units giving a total of seven performances in all. Humour with whirlwind speed was the keynote of the programme and it took the form of a sparkling revue. The Waacs appeared in a much discussed eastern ballet, but 'The Angels' probably created the greatest impression, when many well-known personalities were introduced. To quote one verse:—

Brigadier Dove,
  Went in his car one day,
He forgot the speed restriction,
  And his auto hit a dray!

There's another little red cap on the sideboard,
  And a dozen mourning colonels standing by,
There's a hundred thousand angels shouting 'OICA,'
  Getting Admin, orders in the sky.

A week after our arrival at Kalavere we had erected hospital expanding tents as wards, each capable of accommodating 20 hospital cases (as distinct from convalescents) and, by the end of November, two wards were in use. Admissions of patients, both to the depot and hospital, showed a steady increase. Brigadier Twhigg decided to expand our hospital to 150 beds to provide medical services for the base area. There was also a possibility that some malaria cases and battle casualties might have to be catered for if the 4th NZ General Hospital in the Nouméa area should become crowded. The engineers were therefore consulted page 108and plans prepared for prefabricated hospital buildings to be erected on our present site.

A detailed procedure for admission of convalescent patients had been planned before we left New Zealand and experience proved that this required little or no modification. While it was essential that adequate control should be exercised over patients in the depot, we dispensed with unnecessary regimentation as far as possible. After all, our principal job was to turn out fit bodies and our training was so designed that it should not impose a mental burden on a patient already suffering a physical disability. Lieutenants Hobson and Morris administered specialised physical training and, under them, was a staff of sergeant instructors, all of whom had had experience in similar work in New Zealand. Organised games also had a valuable place in the training syllabus, for not only do they provide recreation and promote general physical well-being, but they help to develop freedom and spontaneity of movement, making the patient forget his injury in the excitement of the game. Cycling was very popular, especially with the patients from the Fiji military forces, and 30 bicycles were set aside for this purpose. No patient, however, can keep on doing exercises all day long without becoming bored and his muscles overtired, and it was here that occupational therapy proved such a valuable asset, for it provided mental diversion and the medium for remedial exercise at one and the same time. By the beginning of December 1943 an arts and crafts hut, metal workshop and carpenters' workshop were the basis of our occupational therapy department. In the arts and crafts hut men made leather bags, purses, moccasins, writing cases, belts, kiddies' toys in felt and a variety of attractive reproduction in papier mache. Those interested in painting, sketching or sign-writing were also accommodated in this hut—in other words it was devoted to the quieter type of handicraft. Other patients spent many happy hours in the metal workshop. The methods of forming and decorating metal require neither excessive muscular effort nor special ability and men thoroughly enjoyed making picture-frames, rings, ash-trays, ink-wells from salvaged shell cases or duralumin. We managed to secure part of a crashed aeroplane and the metal from this provided material for literally hundreds of articles. In the carpenters' workshop, patients were allowed to make furniture for their tents or work on other articles, but, owing to the formid-page 109able list of camp furnishings required, the majority of the men were quite happy to assist on camp jobs. Another addition to the occupational therapy department about this time was a gardening class and, to any men who enjoyed pottering about in the garden, this was an excellent pastime. We endeavoured to provide relaxation in the form of some class of entertainment each evening. Film programmes were screened twice or three times weekly and on other evenings there were concerts, dances, debates, quiz sessions, the ever popular housie game, table-tennis contests, card tournaments, mock parliaments, community sings and lectures on a wide range of topics.

The engineers commenced work on the erection of prefabricated huts for Waac personnel about the middle of November and eight huts were completed in time for occupation on the 25th, when five more girls joined us. Needless to say they were heartily welcomed by the men at our social functions, as another five girls meant the rationing system then in vogue could be relaxed sufficiently to allow the attendance of ten more men at each dance.

The weather for Christmas 1943 was glorious and temperatures over the three figure mark in the shade were being regularly recorded. Our Christmas dinner table bore a festive appearance that could scarcely have been challenged anywhere in New Zealand even in the piping days of peace. For this occasion, the Waacs (a further 18 had arrived just before Christmas) dined with the men, being judiciously spaced to ensure the best 'coverage.' In accordance with army tradition the officers, clad in white coats, aprons and chefs' hats, served the meal. Later in the afternoon all those who were musically inclined adjourned to the hospital wards and, as there were no patients on the seriously ill list, Christmas celebrations continued to the accompaniment of Captain Wood's violin, Warrie Pile's saxaphone and George Bullen's accordian. An informal dance in the evening concluded a happy day for all and compensated in a small measure for the absence from home.

All who could be spared from camp attended the New Year's Day meeting of the Moindah Racing Club. We entered several horses, notably 'Indiscretion, by Waac out of Bounds,' 'Fitness, by Soldier out of Kalavere,' 'Convalescence, by Patient out of Sorts.' The new year had had an auspicious beginning and we page 110were all feeling the benefit from our relaxation. The commanding officer called a meeting of staff officers on the morning of 3 January 1944 and plans were formulated for our future work-it was almost like a series of New Year resolutions. Lieutenant-Colonel Wood was his usual vigorous self and little did we think that this would be the last occasion that he would preside at our conferences. The following day he took ill and, when his condition deteriorated, he was admitted to Boguen Hospital where he died on the following Thursday, 13 January 1944. We were stunned by our loss. 'Timber,' as he was affectionately known to his intimate friends, had endeared himself to us all, and to quote from a memorial number of Relax, ' … His dynamic personality and genial presence has been the guiding hand of our unit and to him must go the credit for a success which is of social as well as military importance…. He was a man who not only enjoyed living but lived for others that they might enjoy it too. His personality, his thoughts, his hopes, will continue to be expressed in the work of the unit… Such a spirit can never die.'

Our new commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel F. O. Bennett. NZMC, came to us from the 22nd NZ Field Ambulance at a time when we were developing into a very large unit. Our patients were increasing in number each week, the hospital was growing, camp construction was proceeding apace and many decisions had to be made concerning the erection of prefabricated buildings. Five days after his arrival we were instructed to take over the 50-bed hospital at Boguen which had been staffed by the 4th General up to this time and, until facilities would be available at Kalavere, we were to maintain Boguen with a detachment from our own unit. Despite all these factors, Lieutenant-Colonel Ben-net quickly adapted himself to his new responsibilities and participated in as many camp activities as his duties permitted. Our hospital buildings were now beginning to take shape and the main block of two 60-bed wards, together with the theatre block were nearing completion. A tribute must be paid to Major Stan West and his engineers for the thoroughness with which they went about their job. Undoubtedly we cursed the noise and dust of the bulldozers and growled about the muddy roads after rain, but this inconvenience was only temporary and, despite many changes in the original plan, the hospital was ready for occupation on Tuesday, 7 March 1944.

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The title of our unit was now officially changed to No. 2 NZ Convalescent Depot and Kalavere Hospital. Charge-Sister W. M. Gunn assumed the duties of matron of the new hospital and seven additional nursing sisters were added to the staff. One 60-bed ward of two wings was devoted to medical cases, another to surgical, while a 16-bed ward intended for women patients was nearing completion. A week after opening we had 70 patients and this figure steadily increased to the three figure mark by the end of March.

Besides running the hospital and convalescent depot, we were responsible for medical services extending over a wide area, from the engineers' camp seven miles south, to Nepoui about 30 miles north, and Captain F. McConnell made bi-weekly visits to regimental aid posts at each camp en route. We were also called upon to give medical and dental treatment to civilians and a number of French, Javanese, Tonkinese and native Kanakas who became patients at this hospital. The language difficulty was an ever-present problem but even those of us who had not the advantage of a secondary school education in French, managed to pick up sufficient to cope with emergencies.

Our occupational therapy department had shown a steady increase since the beginning of the year. Two new branches were now added—the first, an auto-engineering class which had a 'written-off' motor vehicle available for its instruction, and the second was the 'household services section' which was designed to meet the case of the man who lacked interest in handicraft. In this section a man was taught glass-cutting, soldering, plastering, glueing and simple joinery, how to mend an electric light fuse, how to replace a worn washer on a tap—in fact, all the useful tasks which may be required of any householders. It was dubbed 'The Young Husbands' Club' and proved very popular.

In March we farewelled our adjutant Captain W. M. Mackie. He had been with the 'Con Depot' since its inception and it was due in no small measure to his personal enthusiasm and organising ability that the training of personnel and development of a unit spirit had followed parallel paths during our early history. He was replaced by Lieutenant R. Cato, formerly duty officer. The improvisation of tents and open cookhouse were discarded in April when we occupied our new block containing separate messes for officers, sisters, Waacs, sergeants, other ranks, convalescents page 112and attached personnel. This was civilisation indeed and the facilities were excellent. We moved into the new administrative block later in the month and this completed the erection of prefabricated buildings, except for two more hospital wards, a gymnasium and the Waacs' recreation room.

Another race meeting was held at Moindah on Easter Monday when a large number of patients and staff attended, but the news that dwarfed all else was the announcement of the proposed release of volunteers to essential industry in New Zealand. An additional burden was placed on our medical staff as all returning personnel had to be medically boarded and most of them X-rayed. However, with the absence of battle casualties and the elimination of the majority of anxiety neurosis cases, the average duration of treatment at the depot was considerably reduced. When Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett left for New Zealand in July for a month's furlough, little did we imagine that our next glimpse of him would be at Papakura. It is difficult to express tributes to commanding officers, but no history of this unit would be complete without an acknowledgment of the sincere regard in which Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett was held by us all.

Early in August, the remnants of all medical units were centred at Kalavere and 'the writing was on the wall.' The last patient was discharged from the convalescent depot and No. 2 NZ Casualty Clearing Station rear party took over the hospital on 6 August 1944. Meanwhile the staff spent a hectic week packing and eventually farewelled Kalavere on Monday, 14 August 1944. A few continued on to Nouméa and left that day for New Zealand on the Torrens, while the remainder travelled by the Brastagi a week later, all to enjoy a generous furlough of 40 days at home.

So ended 'Con Depot.' The unit was disbanded during our furlough and the remains received a final stately resting place in the vastness of Mangere Crossing Camp alongside the ghosts of other units awaiting ordnance post mortem. Kalavere will always recall pleasant memories. We worked hard and we played hard, romances were made—and broken, lifelong friendships were formed. Archivists and historians of the future may make passing reference to No. 2 NZ Convalescent Depot and Kalavere Hospital, but those of us who served as members of the staff will never lose that 'Con Depot' spirit as we reflect with satisfaction on something attempted and something done.