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

Chapter Seventeen — Kiwi Company NZ WAAC

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Chapter Seventeen
Kiwi Company NZ WAAC

Paradoxically, the history of the Kiwi Company New Zealand WAAC goes back some six months before it was officially constituted a unit of NZEF IP. It commences with the posting of six WAAC personnel to Papakura Military Camp attached to 4th NZ General Hospital overseas. They duly proceeded overseas with the hospital, arriving in New Caledonia on 1 January 1943. Their story is one with all those units who pioneered NZEF IP and a very sincere tribute should be paid to their hard work and unfailing cheerfulness under all conditions. The main body of WAAC personnel were marched in to 4th NZ General Hospital on 16 July 1943. This draft consisted of two officers, Subaltern M. Hardcastle and Second-Subaltern A. Shannon, and 76 other ranks. From this date on reinforcements and replacements arrived at frequent intervals for the staffing of 4th General, Convalescent Depot, BTD detachment and, at a later date, the Kiwi Club. In September 1943, Junior-Commander G. V. M. McClure, Officer Commanding Kiwi Company NZ WAAC arrived to take command of all WAACs in New Caledonia. The duties carried out by the WAACs varied considerably. In the two medical units they were employed as nursing orderlies, clerks, batwomen, telephone exchange operators, in the hospital laundry and in the laboratories. The clubs found work for waitresses, cashiers, clerks and cooks, but wherever and whatever the work done, it had this in common—the adaptability of the WAACs to new types of work and their willingness to fit into a monotonous routine that was as changeless as the hills surrounding the camps. The novelty of the first week soon disappeared and adjustments had to be made to a new way of living that had only the necessities of war to justify it.

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4th NZ general hospital Detachment

In July 1943, when the main draft arrived for the 4th NZ General Hospital detachment, the hospital was situated in Boguen River valley some 11 miles from Bourail. The hospital was tented and the WAAC's and Sisters' lines were set in niaouli trees a little distance from the main hospital wards and adminis tration block. They had their own recreation hut and mess and their own swimming pool in the river. There were showers for their use (three only to start with) and an ablution block with benches and basins for laundry work, but most of the girls preferred the river; the water supply there was unending and it was not necessary to carry buckets which had an annoying habit of toppling over and spilling their precious contents the moment they were set down.

When the WAACs first arrived their quarters were bare—tents with gravelled floors—but when, after three months, the first half of the detachment left for the new site at Dumbea those bare tents were home indeed. Kerosene-box furniture had coped with the problem of space for clothes, while gaily coloured curtains and covers for these dressers, with the quickly flowering gardens the girls had cultivated, combined to make the WAAC lines a pleasant place. The crowding, which tent shortage in the early days had made necessary, had been overcome and alto gether they were as comfortable as circumstances and their own ingenuity could make them. Early in October the detachment was split up, half remaining at Boguen Valley to carry on the hospital there, and the other half proceeding some 100 miles down the island to Dumbea Valley, where the new hospital was being built. It was by no means finished at this date, but some wards were open and living accommodation, in the form of tropical huts, was available. After the pleasant greenery and comparative freedom of Boguen, the prefabricated huts set in a red clay hillside seemed bare indeed, the beauty of the view alone making up for the loss of peace and privacy.

Here, joined two months later by the balance of the detach ment, they remained for the next ten months. Gradually, the same transformation which had taken place at Boguen was re-page 144peated, but this time the girls had more scope and much assistance from patients and friends with a turn for carpentry. In due course their own mess and recreation huts were built and life became as pleasant as could reasonably be expected. The recreations and amusements available to the WAACs were largely of their own making—sing-songs, dances, debates, picnics, swimming and sunbathing. Debating, in particular, was very popular and the hospital team had the distinction of never having been beaten.

Early in January, the normally peaceful life of the camp was disturbed by a storm which struck New Caledonia without warning. Mess huts, cookhouses and tents were flattened and although, comparatively, the hospital did not suffer badly, it was complete evacuation as far as some units in the vicinity were concerned. Rain pelted down continuously, huts leaked, doors blew off their hinges, and rivers were formed round huts, some of which were in danger of losing their foundations. Dress that day was strictly informal—anything went, from bathing costumes to battledress—and indeed the girls were hard put to it to find any dry clothes at all. Towards the end of the afternoon a lull descended on the island and the storm calmed as suddenly as it commenced. Within 48 hours little evidence remained to remind them of their experience.

In time improvements were achieved in all branches of work. They are too many to mention in detail, but a few are typical of all. In the beginning at Boguen the laundry consisted of three coppers, three tables, three tubs and the river. Later two tents were erected, one for the wash-house and one for the ironing room. Three petrol-driven washing machines were used and petrol irons. With this equipment, the laundry staff handled over 400 garments a week. Dumbea brought the promise of steam—a dream that never came true. The washing machines, now numbering five, ran from 7.30 am to midday daily, after which there was the ironing to be done—no joke in that heat. Here the total work done increased, until 4,000 articles passed through the laundry weekly—a grand effort. In the hospital, too, the nursing orderlies worked under difficult conditions. At Boguen all water had to be carried, sterilising was done in half kerosene tins over primus stoves and the service blocks at the back of the wards consisted of a thatched roof shelter housing tubs made from oil drums cut in half. Steam sterilization was available throughout page break
When the first. WAACs arrived in New Caledonia they lived under canvas, as in the picture below, and endured some of the torments of the mosquito menace. Later they were housed in huts, as above

When the first. WAACs arrived in New Caledonia they lived under canvas, as in the picture below, and endured some of the torments of the mosquito menace. Later they were housed in huts, as above

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A guard of honour presents arms on the arrival in Bourail of Major-General Rush B. Lincoln, the American island commander

A guard of honour presents arms on the arrival in Bourail of Major-General Rush B. Lincoln, the American island commander

The control post at Moindu Pass, where men of the Provost Corps endured the continuous attack of mosquitoes night and day

The control post at Moindu Pass, where men of the Provost Corps endured the continuous attack of mosquitoes night and day

page 145the hospital when it was completed at Dumbea and water running from a tap was never the commonplace that civilisation's amenities would make it.

In all, five weddings took place at the hospital among WAAC personnel—the only detachment where Cupid came to any finality in his dealings—and the following were married with all the pomp and ceremony active service would permit: —

  • Private G. M. Rolleston (WAAC) to Second-Lieutenant J. Keeling (LAD).
  • Private Betty Findlay (WAAC) to Staff-Sergeant M. Iggulden (ATD).
  • Private C. E. Yandle (WAAC) to Private J. K. Winter (BTD).
  • Private J. C. Butson (WAAC) to Lieutenant R. W. W. Green (4th MT Coy).
  • Private N. M. Gray (WAAC) to Private R. Clarke (BRD).

Btd Detachment

The first arrivals, consisting of Second-Subaltern Shannon and three other ranks, were marched in on 14 September 1943. They found a camp prepared for them on the opposite side of the river to the main camp and everything possible had been done for their well-being. These three girls were the beginning of the detachment at the Base Training Depot. They were employed at National Patriotic Fund Board Headquarters in Bourail and travelled to and fro daily, by jeep first and later, as the numbers grew, by truck. On 9 November, Subaltern Hardcastle replaced Second-Subaltern Shannon as officer commanding and shortly afterwards the first party of WAAC personnel arrived from New Zealand to staff the Bourail Club, which was officially opened by the Governor-General, Sir Cyril Newall, on 12 November.

Living conditions for the first few months were uncomfortable. Nearly all ablutions and washing of clothes were done in the river. Early in 1944 a shower-block and laundry were constructed and some months later a bathroom was added. By this time the WAACs had also acquired a hot-water system and woe page 146betide anyone caught using hot water without first having put her portion of fuel in the firebox. Before the rainy season of floods and mosquitoes, tents were replaced with tropical huts, electrically lit, and the area became almost homelike. In the evenings the girls scattered—some to sit under the starlit sky and watch the movies, then to make a dash for the supper queue; others would dance in the club, clad in battledress, boots and gaiters! And the rest-—they just sat on the 'boat-deck.' Somebody said—' The WAACs are a race on their own—the good old Guavanese! 'But, no matter, all dashed over the bridge at 2130 hours, or 9.30 pm to the uninitiated. Later, the floods came and swept the bridge away, leaving the girls to spend a miserable night sleeping on chairs in the club, A temporary swing bridge served long and well after this, till it was replaced by the Nissan bridge.

However, the life of the WAACs at BTP was by no means all play and no work. Girls from this detachment staffed the offices of the YMCA in Bourail, as well as National Patriotic Fund Board Headquarters. The greatest number were employed at the Bourail Club and some idea of the work they did can be realised when it is known that an average of 200 cooked meals were served daily, as well as 642 morning and afternoon teas. In off duty periods the WAACs attended official functions, mostly dances, but also two race meetings, swimming sports, in which they sometimes participated, and they were always keen [unclear: spectators] at Saturday's football. However, their favourite outings were the days when they went for picnics to the rivers and sunbathing on Bourail beach.

When the time finally came for departure, Subaltern Hard-castle and 20 personnel remained to assist with the closing of the club. On the evening before the detachment split up, they held their first and only dance, which was a great success.

2nd Nz Convalescent Depot and Kalavere Hospital

On 23 September, 1943. the first party of ten WAACs arrived at No. 2 Convalescent Depot. They had been quartered at BTP since their arrival on 14 September. The WAAC quarters were page 147over a tortuous route to two native bures not far from a pretty winding stream. These bures had concrete floors and to their amazement the WAACs found that provision had been made for them prior to their departure from New Zealand, which explained such comforts as wardrobes, dressing tables, mattresses and sheets.

The camp was in course of construction. The girls daily threaded their way through the maze of uprooted niaouli trees, torn up concrete, wire and surveyor's pegs; they fell in the pitfalls in the dark; they were bogged in the mud where the roads were to be constructed—they saw the convalescent depot grow. The walls of the native bures were infested with bugs of all descriptions—even specimens of the much-feared 'black widow.' They shook and examined all garments before putting them on after one girl had found a black widow spider and young living in the sleeve of her great-coat. One night Marcel was found sitting outside the bure—she could not go to bed because there was 'something' sitting on her bed. The bolder spirits went forth to investigate and revealed the shining black top of a knitting needle! Washing of clothes was carried out in the river and the popular method was to get into the river in a state of undress, and work in comfort. Marion was so employed, clad in the minimum of underwear. A thin old Frenchman approached from the other side of the river and took the washer unawares. 'Mademoiselle! Mademoiselle!' He removed his high-crowned hat with a flourish and presented Marion with a bunch of bananas! What could a poor girl do but say 'Merci' and accept them with all the sang-froid she could muster.

Lieutenant-Colonel J. H. H. Wood was the commanding officer and his motto for the staff was 'Work hard and play hard' and 'The patient comes first.' Patients were graded according to the state of their disability. Evening entertainment was part of the 'get fit' campaign and all members of the staff were expected to take part in all activities. Entertainments took various forms —pictures, concerts, mock Parliaments, debating contests, community singing, dances, housie, AEWS classes, etc. And how those girls danced! They danced on concrete slabs with the niaoulis overhead lighted with coloured hurricane lamps; they danced on rough wooden floors, they danced on gravel; they danced thousands of miles with men who could dance, couldn't page 148dance and who 'hadn't seen a white woman for 12 months.' The danced with the colonel, the convalescent (sometimes with an arm in plaster) and the cook. Monday was ice-cream day and hot-shower day. The mobile shower arrived and 'set-up' beside the river. A tarpaulin was placed round it and. 16 at a time, the WAACs enjoyed 'the benison of hot water.' 'Ready?' said the man at the pump. 'Here it comes!' One minute to get wet, one minute to soap and one minute to rinse!

The WAACs had more than their share of M and V, Vienna sausage and spam, rancid butter and dehydrated veges. Their thoughts and their dreams were of food—even their 'pin-ups' were of luscious meals, and the look of glory in a girl's eyes in the morning was explained by an ecstatic, 'I dreamed I had a baked potato—hot and fluffy with lots of butter!' Before Christmas two new drafts arrived, the first of five and the second of 24, and early in the New Year a WAAC officer was attached to the unit from 4th NZ General Hospital—Second-Subaltern Pat Mason, who gained her commission 'on the field'—a great distinction.

Early in January, 1944, Colonel Wood was suddenly taken ill and died within a few days. He was a man of great understanding and the feeling of goodwill and fellowship he created among all ranks made his death a personal loss to every member of his staff. Just a fortnight later, 30 January 1944, a fatal road accident occurred one mile north of Plaine des Gaiacs. Memories of Kalavere will always include a plain white cross, a cross whereon is written 'Marcel Hartnett—NZ WAAC,' for Marcel's bright red head and gay laughter are essentially a part of the sunshine and cool shadows that the 'Pioneer' 2nd New Zealand Con Depot knew and learned to love.

The WAACs will not forget Kalavere where they exercised their 'soldier's privilege' and grumbled about the mosquitoes, the ants, the heat, the road, the transport, the food, the rain, the mud and the monotony, but they will remember, without a doubt, all the silly happenings, the amusing incidents, the kindly thoughts, which brought the pattern of laughter into the daily routine.

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Kiwi Club Detachment

On 20 December 1943, Second-Subaltern Paltridge and 47 other ranks arrived from New Zealand to staff the Kiwi Club. At this stage the club was not finished and they were posted to BTD to assist at the Bourail Club. It was quite some time before the Kiwi Club was ready for business and it was not finally opened until 14 April 1944. Just prior to this opening, the detachment moved from BTD to its new quarters at Bourail Beach to make ready for the big day. It was a busy few days, making curtains, setting up the canteens, and preparing quarters for the first leave parties. The club was ideally situated on the beach, itself, with the Pacific surf just a few yards from its doors. The duties assigned to the WAACs here were similar to those performed at Bourail Club and they did not take long to settle down in their new quarters. These consisted of the prefabricated huts now common to all detachments.

The club being surrounded on three sides by a lagoon and on the fourth by the sea, the WAACs main recreation was of course surfing and swimming. In the evenings, when they were not dancing, bonfires on the beach were a great joy and many were the popular songs which were sung to the accompaniment of the surf. Pets were very popular with the detachment and they had quite a number—Bambi, a fawn, who arrived as a very small frightened creature, but soon responded to the kindness of the unit; also Kiwi—a fat impish scrap of puppyhood, and Agnes and Junior, two adorable white kittens.

The amenity which was most appreciated by all was the mobile hot shower brought once a week by 'Andy.' At the beginning, the girls had to shower in bathing costumes, but this was soon remedied by 'Andy' who erected a matting fence against which he backed the truck and they were able to shower in comfort and complete nudity. These bathing costumes were one of the girls' major worries. The difficulty was overcome by the enterprising, however, who fashioned suits from khaki towels, prints and anything else that came to hand. These were known to come to grief in the water, but a towel rushed to the scene of the disaster forestalled any serious developments.

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Although this detachment was in existence for only a short time, it did a grand job and many battle-weary Kiwis, returning from the forward areas, remember gratefully the peace and quiet, good times and excellent service they found there. The following figures give some idea of the amount of work done by the staff; From 14 April to 5 August 1944:—
  • 42,287 cooked meals served.
  • 39,378 morning and afternoon teas.
These figures do not take into account the many thousands served by the club's icecream soda fountain, nor does it include the many thousands who, thronging the beach at week-ends, were provided with hot tea for lunch, morning and afternoon teas, provided and served on the beach by the club staff. Nearly 3,000 officers, nurses, WAACs, NCOs and men enjoyed a holiday at the club. The Kiwi Club finally closed its doors on 5 August 1944 and two days later the personnel departed for 4th NZ General Hospital at Dumbea, there to await embarkation to New Zealand. They said good-bye with regret for although the work had at times been very arduous, they had the satisfaction of having done a good job and took with them the memory of many happy hours spent there.

There were many aspects of life in New Caledonia which were common to all detachments. The climate itself was the same for all, despite the distances that separated some of them. The heat was trying to girls accustomed to New Zealand's temperate climate, but gradually they became seasoned to it. No one, however, became more than mildly impervious to that never-ending pest, the mosquito. The usual weapons available to all, such as mosquito nets and 'repellant, were used against it. Efficient as this repellant no doubt was, however, it had its disadvantages in that humans liked the odour no better than the ubiquitous insect, and as one girl remarked dolefully on returning from a moonlight picnic—' It kept everyone at a distance!' We've read advertisements along the same lines too! During the time the Kiwi Company was in New Caledonia, the girls took part in two ceremonial parades in Nouméa. The first was on Armistice Day 1943 when the Governor-General of New Zealand,, Sir Cyril Newall, took the salute, and the second on 22 February 1944 in honour of Free French volunteers returning from Africa, when the salute was taken by the Governor-General of New Caledonia page 151and Dependencies. On both occasions personnel from each detachment took part and they were complimented on their steadiness on parade and the precision with which they carried out their drill.

When the time drew near for the return home, detachments from Kiwi Club, Convalescent Depot and BTD were collected at the 4th NZ General Hospital. Dumbea, awaiting embarkation. A rear party was left at BTD to assist in the closing of the Bourail Club. Although to everyone the news that they were going home was good news indeed, it was with a certain amount of regret that they proceeded down the Nouméa road for the last time. The past 13 months had brought good times and bad, but to all it had been a memorable experience which they would not easily forget. In actual fact, the Kiwi Company did not cease activity until a month later when, with the departure of the rear party in September 1944, the last of the New Zealand WAACs left New Caledonia.