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

Chapter Fourteen — Dental Services

page 113

Chapter Fourteen
Dental Services

(October 1940 - June 1942)

The origin of the Third NZ Division was the 8th Brigade Group or B Force, as it came to be known. This force left New-Zealand for service in Fiji during October and November 1940, and with it were two officers and eight other ranks of the NZ Dental Corps. Two dental sections had been formed. The first under Captain H. a'C. FitzGerald arrived in Fiji on 1 November and it is recorded in its war diary that it spent the first six weeks at the Suva Girls' Grammar School! Subsequent entries in the diary indicate, however, that this was not for the purpose of its education, for apparently the school had been evacuated by its former occupants and transformed into a temporary military hospital. The second section, under Captain R. N. Cox, arrived in Fiji three weeks later and became established at Namaka on the western side of the island, where a military camp was being formed.

In December the first section moved to temporary quarters in the main military camp at Samambula, in the vicinity of Suva. By the end of January both sections had moved into permanent dental huts, which had been constructed for them at Samambula and Namaka respectively, However, the defence scheme of Fiji necessitated these sections being potentially mobile so that they could operate in the field in the event of engagements with an enemy landing force. Thus they soon became experienced in page 114converting themselves at short notice from fully equipped static sections to field dental sections with a minimum of equipment. They actually operated in this way on many occasions in order to carry out routine dental treatment for units holding garrison positions in those parts of the island remote from the-two main camps. In accordance with the general arrangements for the relief, after six months, of the majority of the New Zealand forces in Fiji, these two dental sections returned to New Zealand in May and July 1941 and were simultaneously replaced by two more.

It was with the entry of Japan into the war in December 1941 that it became obvious that the original 8th Brigade Group in Fiji was destined to grow into a division. With the reinforcements that arrived from New Zealand in January 1942 was included a much larger contingent of the New Zealand Dental Corps than had accompanied the original force. Major H. a'C. FitzGerald returned as assistant director of dental services to the NZ Forces in Fiji, and with him five officers and 13 other ranks of the New Zealand Dental Corps.

The dental services were now organised into three main groups—one for the divisional headquarters area, one for the eastern area occupied by the Sth Brigade and one for the western area occupied by the 14th Brigade. These two latter groups were based in the now enlarged dental huts at Samambula and Namaka respectively, and from them, as required, field dental sections were detached for duty with individual units in the field. These field dental sections did excellent work under all kinds of conditions. They moved individually from one battalion to another wherever the battalions were stationed throughout the defence areas of Fiji. The personnel of these sections became experts at improvisation. The idea of adapting the standard IP tent by raising its height and building up the sides with bamboo thatch gave extra head room and ventilation, making the tent more suitable as a field dental surgery under the prevailing conditions. The dental services also provided for the native troops of the Fiji Defence Force. Many of these Fijian soldiers received the first dental treatment they had ever had, and their gratitude was evident. On one occasion a native from an outlying Fijian commando unit arrived at a field dental section for the extraction of an abscessed tooth, having walked 28 miles in bare feet and bringing with him a note from the vunewai (native medical prac-page 115titioner). Dental treatment was also carried out for the RNZAF units, and the New Zealand Naval Forces in Fiji, One field dental section actually put to sea and carried on its work aboard one of the small naval vessels operating around the coast.

In July 1942 the main body of the Pacific section of the NZEF returned to New Zealand, bringing to a close the Fijian prelude to the activities of the Third Division, by which name this force was already officially designated. All New Zealand Dental Corps personnel, together with stores and equipment, returned to New Zealand at this time, with the exception of two field dental sections which remained to provide for those elements of the New Zealand forces to be retained in Fiji, and for the Fiji Defence Force.

New Caledonia and the solomons
(September 1942 - October 1944)

Once back in New Zealand the force which had returned from Fiji was reorganised and built up to form the Third Division proper. In September 1942 the nucleus of the dental services for this division assembled in Papakura Military Camp under Lieutenant-Colonel O. E. L. Rout, who had been appointed assistant director of dental services, NZEF TP. The units comprising this nucleus consisted of a headquarters dental services with advanced base dental stores, a camp dental hospital and a mobile dental section (designated No. 10 Mobile Dental Section, NZDC). Then followed a period of approximately four months in New Zealand while the division as a whole was undergoing training in the Waikato district. These months were fully occupied in bringing the dental units up to strength, outfitting personnel, assembling and checking ordnance and technical equipment, as well as developing the organisation and administration of a divisional dental service as a whole. In addition, as much dental treatment as possible was carried out for the troops during their training and manoeuvres. Despite these duties the social side of life was not neglected and, thanks to the lavish hospitality of Waikato residents and the many amenities for entertainment offering in Hamilton, we all have many pleasant memories of those last few months in New Zealand.

page 116

All dental units embarked within a short time of each other, the final and largest draft leaving New Zealand on 29 December 1942, and arriving in Nouméa harbour on New Year's Eve. We disembarked on New Year's Day and in a 15-mile trip by motor transport to the staging camp at Dumbea, received our first impressions of the island of New Caledonia. Predominant impressions were of intense heat, clouds of dust and almost barren hills, the only relief to the landscape being the ubiquitous niaouli tree which, with its characteristic outline and foliage, was to become a very familiar sight during the following months. After remaining a few days at the staging camp this final draft of HZDC personnel travelled some ninety miles by motor transport-to Bourail where Base Headquarters NZEF IP had been established. Bourail is a small township of some 500 very, very mixed inhabitants—-French, Javanese, Tonkinese, Kanakas and the results of breeding, judicious or otherwise, between these various races.

Lieutenant-Colonel Rout, who had arrived in New Caledonia in advance, had already established Headquarters Dental Services at Bourail in a wing of the public school or l'ecole communale— rather a 'come down' after the Suva Girls' Grammar School! However, this accommodation was excellent for the purpose, including ample space for the setting up of the advanced base dental store. Thanks to the energetic efforts of dental headquarters staff, two rooms were very soon fitted up as a first-class store. The fact is well worth mention, that the efficiency of this advanced base dental store throughout played an important part in the efficiency of the dental services as a whole. On no occasion did any dental section operating in New Caledonia or the Solomons experience any hold-up through lack of supplies.

The camp dental hospital, commanded by Major J. C. M. Simmers, was soon established at base reception depot in Téné Valley, some five miles from Bourail. This valley was surrounded by many hills heavily wooded with niaouli trees, and had a good-sized stream which afforded an excellent water supply and facilities for bathing. For a considerable time the accommodation here for both the dental surgery and laboratory was in large tents. Later when prefabricated tropical huts were available a well-appointed dental hospital was constructed from these, on the same site. The camp dental hospital was responsible for the page 117treatment of all troops in the base area, and on the arrival of reinforcements from New Zealand in later months it examined and treated these incoming troops prior to their being posted to divisional units.

The dental care of divisional troops during their widespread activities throughout the length and breadth of New Caledonia, and later during their operational activities in the Solomons, was the responsibility of the mobile dental section. This section, commanded by Major A. I. McCowan, was completely self-contained with its own transport, camp equipment and cook. Its personnel comprised eight dental officers and 40 other ranks, including 14 drivers attached from the NZASC. For each officer there was a complete outfit of field dental equipment, so that as many sub-sections as necessary could be detached at any time for service with individual units in the field. Its headquarters and sub-sections varied their location according to the dental requirements of divisional units. With these located often hundreds of miles apart in New Caledonia, and later on four different islands of the Solomons Group, the mobile dental section fully justified its name. Whenever it was attached more or less intact to divisional headquarters or to a brigade, a permanent camp was established, and the general set-up of these camps as at Moindah, Bouloupari, and later at Guadalcanal, was a great credit to the officer commanding the section and his staff. Nor should mention be omitted of the excellent work done by the sub-sections which, after a short stay of a few weeks with one unit, would strike their tents and move to another unit, there setting up again their field dental surgeries and laboratories ready to function at short notice—not a pleasant and easy way of doing dentistry but nevertheless carried out efficiently by these sub-sections.

In addition to the camp dental hospital and the mobile dental section, several self-contained dental sections each consisting of one dental officer, one dental mechanic and one clerk-orderly were established. Some of these were temporarily attached to static units located some distance from base. Others were permanently attached to units such as the casualty clearing station, the cpn-valescent depot and 4th NZ General Hospital. The section attached to 4th General was a Maxillo-facial injury section under Major W. R. Hamilton. This was a specialist section which, apart from carrying out routine dental treatment for the staff and page 118patients of this hospital, provided the necessary specialist treatment for battle casualties with facial injuries, and for any of the more advanced oral surgery which was presented in the course of routine treatment at all sections.

During the first few months in New Caledonia the accommodation for all dental sections was limited to tents. The Indian pattern tents were adapted to a more suitable height for a dental surgery as had been done previously in Fiji. Later, prefabricated tropical type huts were available and these were used to replace the tents for the more or less permanently established sections. In two locations native type bures were constructed as dental surgeries and laboratories and served the purpose reasonably well. The members of the various sections, in spite of the great shortage of dressed timber, showed great ingenuity in improvising all sorts of additions in the way of furniture and fittings. Improvisations of technical equipment were also extremely numerous. There was hardly a dental section which did not construct an electric polishing lathe by adapting the starter motor of some wrecked vehicle and running it from a battery.

It was probably in the dental section attached to 4th NZ General Hospital, however, that the greatest height of genius was attained in the matter of improvisation. In the surgery at this section was to be seen an ultra-modern looking cuspidor constructed out of a half differential housing from a wrecked Ford truck, as well as an all-metal welded surgical table made from bits and pieces. The laboratory equipment of this same section included a bunsen burner adapted from a petrol lamp, and a petrol blow-pipe made on the premises from very assorted parts. This latter piece of equipment proved more efficient than the standard type of gas blow-pipe used in civilian dental practice, and it was of great service in the casting and soldering of metal splints for the fixation of fractured jaws, which was part of the specialist function of this section. It has always been the aim of the NZDC to instruct and encourage soldiers in oral hygiene. However, the oral hygiene units erected near the entrance to dental sections, with a notice imploring all ranks to clean their teeth thoroughly before reporting for dental treatment, have failed to attract the attention that they should. It was to solve this problem that Major Hamilton's section applied its inventive skill to the production of the Hamilton Mark IV model oral hygiene page 119unit—a beautifully streamlined structure which was sure to attract attention. It did attract attention, but mostly in the moonlight, when the notice indicating its correct use was not easily read! The Hamilton Mark IV model never came into production.

Both medical and dental sections performed urgent treatment for the French and native population of New Caledonia. The teeth of these people were badly neglected, and they were all most appreciative of what was done for them—with the exception perhaps of one unfortunate native. This fellow who appeared on the doorstep of a medical section one morning was asked by the medical officer the stock question Ou avez vous mal? The patient opened his mouth and pointed therein with his fingers. Without more ado he was led to the nearby dental section. After some time had elapsed the scared face with bloodstained mouth reappeared in the doorway of the medical section and said 'The teeth are out, but the throat he is sore still!'

At all times, but more especially in the first six months of our stay, off duty periods presented a distinct problem to all, as facilities for occupying such time were considerably limited. Reading, writing and sleeping are all pleasant occupations but are inclined to pall a little if they cannot be varied with some other form of relaxation. In this respect the many rivers which provided good swimming facilities were a godsend, as also was the presence in one or two places of excellent surf beaches. As time progressed many types of sport were organised and everyone indulged in at least one in an endeavour to keep fit and pass the time. The most universally popular evening 'time user' was the open-air movie, and one went along regardless of the show or who was featuring in it. Quite a number made friends with the French farmers and their families. These people, the majority of whom seemed to be poorly off, were on the whole most friendly and despite the language barrier gave some of us a little of that home life which we all missed so much.

We all received a sad blow on 24 February 1943 when Captain B. S. Wilkie lost his life as a result of a jeep accident in New Caledonia. Captain Wilkie was a most popular officer and his death came as a severe shock to all who knew him.

In August 1943 the long-anticipated move of the division to the forward area, to take up an operational role, became an actual fact. The entire mobile dental section, and the No. 2 page 120Maxillo-facial injury section tinder Major S. N. Jolly, moved forward with the division. The mobile section established its headquarters at Point Cruz on Guadalcanal, and Major Jolly's section was with the casualty clearing station nearby. The headquarters of the mobile dental section occupied one of the best sites for a camp on this island. Some of the jungle was cleared away, the ground was levelled by bulldozers, and the tents were set in the cleared areas. Some of the larger trees were left for shade purposes, and these also gave the place a more pleasant appearance. This camp, being on the neck of a small isthmus, was close to the sea, where there was a good bathing beach. Initially, the surgeries were in tents, with coral sand floors, but later a building with a wooden floor was constructed. This was a great advantage as the rainfall was high, and violent thunderstorms were almost a nightly occurrence, causing flooding of the lower lying areas. Water for washing and drinking purposes was at. a premium and the rivers, unlike those in New Caledonia, were useless for bathing or for laundry purposes. However, all ranks showed great ingenuity in overcoming these difficulties, and some of the improvised shower baths were masterpieces in their construction.

As units of the division moved forward from Guadalcanal to other islands, sub-sections of the mobile dental section moved with them and were eventually established on Vella Lavella, Treasury Island and Nissan Island In these forward areas the country was a great contrast to that in New Caledonia. The comparatively open spaces of that island were here replaced by dense jungle, coral sand and rock. Clearing tent sites was a difficult proposition, and each section had to set up its own site, which involved much pick and shovel work in the hard coral rock. Considering the small number of personnel of a section, the space required was comparatively large, and usually three tent sites had to be prepared for surgery, laboratory and sleeping quarters. Tightly packed coral sand floors were usual and these could be kept clean and tidy without much labour. Sawn timber was scarce and benches for the workroom had to be constructed of any timber available, this frequently being mahogany, teak or rose-wood.

Climatic conditions in these advanced areas were hard and shorter working hours were necessary, allowing some time during page 121the day for rest and recreation. Hobbies were encouraged, and the amount of scrap metal obtainable allowed plenty of scope in this direction. On Guadalcanal canoeing and baseball were the main sporting activities, and the mobile section had a very good baseball team. Further forward, sporting activities were very restricted and tennikoits was the most popular game, being played in the late afternoon.. Swimming was popular with all ranks, and several men learned to swim while in the forward areas. On most of the islands the American forces had established cinema shows which were held almost nightly in the open air. Rain and thunderstorm did not interfere with these entertainments, and only during air raid alerts were the shows abandoned, and then somewhat hastily. Although it cannot be said that the men enjoyed their stay in these forward areas, it should be recorded that all did their duty to the best of their ability, and the troops appreciated the attention they received from the dental sections at all times.

April 1944 saw the return of the first of the divisional troops from the forward area. These troops were returning to New Zealand for essential industry and as the aim was to ensure that they were all made dentally fit before embarkation for home, subsections of the mobile dental section returned with them to assist in this work at the camp dental hospital in New Caledonia. Within the next two months approximately 9,000 troops were examined and all necessary treatment completed. Early in July the mobile dental section was disbanded. The majority of its personnel were returned to New Zealand, and the remainder were incorporated into sections which became part of the camp dental hospital.

It soon became evident that the Third Division's role in the Pacific had almost reached its end, and the packing of the equipment and stores of all dental units became a very pleasant occupation. October saw the return of the rear party of the division, including the last of the NZDC personnel under Captain B. Judge. And so the history of the dental services with the Third Division drew to a close. On completion of their overseas leave all personnel were soon absorbed into dental sections in New Zealand. Many have since been posted to further overseas service, some to the United Kingdom, some to the CMF, while others have been reposted to the Pacific on duty with RNZAF page 122dental sections. It was a great satisfaction to all ranks of the NZDC who had served with the Third Division to hear that the corps had been honoured by the award of the OBE to Major A. I. McCowan, officer commanding the mobile dental section, and a Mention in Despatches to Staff-Sergeant C. A. Frater, NCO in charge of the prosthetic laboratory of the camp dental hospital.

Despite the hardships of Pacific service, especially in its soul-destroying monotony, there is no doubt that all members of the NZDC who served with the division retain pleasant memories of their service. With the general good fellowship that existed among all, it could not be otherwise.