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

Chapter Sixteen — Public Relations

page 137

Chapter Sixteen
Public Relations

The Public Relations Office was one of the tail-enders amongst base units. When those of its members who were recruited in New Zealand arrived in New Caledonia in April 1943 they found that 2 NZEF IP was already a going concern. As the publicity link between the soldiers and the reading public the office auto matically came in for a measure of criticism. No soldier yet born considers that he has had a fair or adequate deal from his own public, and this attitude extends also to the publicity organs of his country. The Public Relations Office came in for even more criticism from those soldiers who had been chasing the war for some years either in Fiji or in New Zealand and were as a consequence gradually storing up arrears of frustration. The publicity boys no less than other rather more familiar whipping-boys in the army felt the lash of their tongues. This is perhaps as it should be. It is the soldier's practice to question and, if he must, curse, such extra-regimental services—this possibly serves as a corrective to a too academic or easy appreciation of publicity work and it reminds one of the difficulties in balancing the aspirations (or grouches) of the ordinary soldier against the publicity requirements of a country at war. The attitude of some of the Pacific soldiers towards the Public Relations Office was in part a reflection of these current feelings.

It was against this background that the units of the office began their different activities, and what with war correspondents, war artists, photographers, the mobile recording unit, and that problem child, archives, these activities were quite varied. The war correspondent would write his despatches and, unless it were operational in scope, mail it immediately to the Director of Publicity, Wellington. During those long months in New Cale-page 138donia while we watched the war slipping by, press news of our activities was overshadowed by reports from the other side of the world. Newspapers were limited in space and the public seemed to demand news of the bayonet and flame thrower and shrank from reports of fatigues and 'stand-tos' in some little known island. So if someone took calipers and measured column space—this may be a standard for phrenologists but not neces sarily for other equally estimable citizens—he may learn that we have not received the attention that is usually recorded to an 'Aunt Daisy,' Editor Hogan, or a rabbit board rumpus. So, the war correspondent is perhaps unjustly blamed. Add to this a direction from a distant place to the effect that such despatches should not 'overcolottr' such experiences as mud, mosquitoes, and monotony, and we begin to understand some of the limitations within which the correspondent must operate. But as soon as the division moved north, and the niaoulis echoed the whisper that we could soon expect to justify our raison d'etre the corres pondent's difficulties increased. He had first of all to establish liaison with the US authorities who, by virtue of their command in the South Pacific, exercised censorship over all correspondents. This was the least of his problems, for censorship was both rapid and sympathetic. At times there would be a small flood of US and Australian newspaper men (all of whom represented indi vidual papers or syndicates, and did not enjoy the mixed blessing, as we did, of writing through a Government agency for every paper in the country). It was then necessary to see that reports from these people did not break before our despatches reached New Zealand. This could only be achieved by streamlining' cen sorship and communications, and the correspondent had no staff for this purpose. He had to do all this work himself. On one occasion at Guadalcanal he had to travel several miles to file a despatch with the press relations officer. On the road back from this US navy camp he ran into a typically heavy and sudden downpour. Rivers rose and bridges were swept away. After being marooned for some considerable time, and debating the virtues of an 'alligator' over a jeep, he managed to get himself off his rapidly disappearing island, and finally retreated to his starting point. The next day a landing barge returned him, minus his jeep, to FMC. This competition with other correspondents necessitated a speedy return from any trip, especially when one page 139considers the facilities placed at the disposal of US newspaper men. We just had to edge them when the news broke.

Further, it sometimes requires a nice sense of judgment to determine whether a certain story should be published or not. Particularly on Vella Lavella and Mono Islands many brave things were done, but concerning which there was at the time a conflict of evidence. Several times good stories were killed be cause one could not reconcile discrepancies. Split up as the force was on several islands, any correspondent would have required a more comprehensive intelligence system than a division allows itself, if he were expected to maintain a parity in the flow of news from each group. This parity is still worshipped by some people, soldier and civilian alike, and any deviation from it is denounced with the vehemence that one usually reserves for treachery.

When, on the eve of the landing on Nissan Island a second correspondent was appointed, a shuttle service was maintained between Nissan and Guadalcanal. One could remain with the forward troops while the other would nurse the messages through the censorship, expedite their despatch to New Zealand, and attend press conferences for news they had not gleaned themselves. These despatches were also printed in Kiwi. Thus they amounted to a news service for the force paper, and also enabled the more sensitive warriors to see for themselves how they were being described in the press of their home town.

Perhaps the photographic side of the office had a more dramatic value for the majority of the men. An attempt was made by using the good offices of the AEWS to circulate contact prints of all official photographs among the units most concerned. This was designed to allow the men an opportunity of ordering similar prints from the Government film studios in Wellington. The nature of this undertaking can be appreciated when one considers the scattered nature of the force and the complete absence of any photographic facilities in New Caledonia. At first the photographer had to supply his own camera, though the graves registration unit rallied round by supplying an aged but still effective model, But the film available for this model was far from suitable for New Caledonian conditions. A darkroom had to be built in the disused school building occupied by the AEWS, but since this meant stealing space from a rapidly expanding unit, we had page 140to confine ourselves to a humble 12 ft. by 6 ft. The New Cale donian summer made this a veritable hot-box. The water drawn from Bourail's famous town supply was cut off every afternoon. In addition to its scarcity value it had some curious properties which played all sorts of tricks with the negatives. Considerable boiling, though, modified these anti-social tendencies. The electric light was provided by an even more erratic generator; this chose the most embarrassing times in which to give trouble. Then the Americans, especially our friends at COMSOPAC, came to the rescue. They made a gift of cameras, paper, and all the materials necessary for a photographic service. We had no enlarging plant and they supplied even that, a few months before we left. The official photographers in just over a year had to work hard to expose, as they did, more than 3,200 negatives, but their work was paralleled in the dark room, where in spite of the heat and lack of space almost 30,000 contact prints were run off.

The war artists, too, were not the least estimable of this troupe. The first, who had sprung from some distant but distinguished Scottish ancestry and had refurnished his line's traditional martial ardours in a battalion of the Scottish Regiment, looked in vain for some glimpse of heather on Mount Boa's shoulders; most of us on the other hand sighed for a glimpse of either tussock or manuka. Still less did the Nouméa nickel docks area suggest Auld Reekie. But in spite of this affiliation with, and sympathy for, a dying phase in Scotland's tattered history page, the artist's work in oils, watercolours, chalk, pencil and combinations of line and wash constitutes an unfolding record of camp life in the newer world of New Caledonia, the embarkation from Nouméa, the Guadalcanal period, the mopping up on Vella Lavella, and the landing on Nissan. It remained for another official war artist, before he succumbed to the blandishments of the RNZAF, to reconstruct some of the experiences of the landing on the Treasury Islands. Some of the former's paintings were sketched within a very short distance of enemy positions in Timbala Bay, Vella Lavella. In the same area he acted as both stretcher bearer and ration fatigue. Yet the jungle does not lend itself to any dramatic or spectacular incidents, and in spite of the grim nature of such fighting much of the work portrays seemingly peaceful scenes. The artists' struggle was rather with humidity, heat and rain. Oils ran all too freely while the rain was a standing threat page 141to watercolours. Painting with the 8th Brigade in New Caledonia, an area notorious for its mosquitoes, must have been a trial, while the humidity of the Solomons Islands would have brought tears of exasperation to any Goya's eyes.

The mobile recording unit was the Elusive Pimpernel of the group. These people were mobile in every sense of the word. They used jeeps, 15-cwt and six-by-four trucks (the latter usually meant plenty of dust and discomfort), the familiar DC 3s, troop transports, and landing barges to carry their equipment to the most outlying units. How all their apparatus weathered the twin furies of jungle and ocean is still a mystery known only to the director of broadcasting and the technician. Units would ballot among themselves for the opportunity to record personal messages, and would be given facilities for recording talks, interviews, concert parties, choirs and so on. The percentage of a unit recording was just over four per cent of its strength, though in the case of smaller units the percentage was usually stepped up. RNZAF and Fiji military forces were given similar opportunities in the Solomon Islands. Songs in Fijian, including the inevitable ESA LEI by members of the latter, and others by New Georgian natives made particularly fine records, similarly with singing by French school children. Sometimes, though, the commentator must have become tired of the same rather dull and stereotyped pattern of messages. Perhaps his discs were not the best medium for encouraging reasonable or even unselfconscious messages to those they had left behind in New Zealand. Even if the listening public has become inured to 'I'm fit and well, hoping you're the same,' 'My time is nearly up so cheerio till next time,' 'I'm in the pink so keep your chin up' and so on as they've come to accept other repetitive nonsense as an inevitable part of radio programmes, the mobile recording unit staff must sometimes have felt like protesting. Perhaps it is not safe even yet to ask them if they are 'fit and well.'

The small archives section completes this public relations de calogue. Possibly because this section had little in common with the publicity and propaganda media of the force its members did little to distinguish themselves. They stayed behind to read war diaries, catalogue photographs, file units newspapers, and wonder how things were going on in the north. Its work was still going on after the others had earned the right to play.