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

Chapter Twenty-Five — Canteen History, 3rd NZ Division

page 219

Chapter Twenty-Five
Canteen History
, 3rd NZ Division

The wheels of the canteen service for the Third Division started to turn early in October 1942, when the original staff under Captain R. B. Murray began the work of assembling stores in Wellington. The bulk of the supplies were held in readiness by the Canteen Board in their bulk stores in Wellington and Auckland. As well as everyday necessities for the men, there were quantities of beer, wines, and spirits also packed ready for shipping. A machine capable of manufacturing soft drinks was also purchased and packed. Always it was necessary to keep in mind that in the district in New Caledonia to which the division was going there were no shops. The men had to rely on their own services and organisations. It therefore became obvious that a great deal of forethought was necessary in order to predict the range and quantities of supplies which would be required, to purchase and assemble them, and to ensure that they were shipped according to estimated priorities. D Day for the advanced party, consisting of Warrant-Officer B. F. Jordan, Sergeants C. E. Young and W. P. P. Jones came on 5 November 1942, and the first stage of the journey finished at Nouméa on 11 November after a quiet and uneventful trip on the USS Maui.

The first canteen store was set up at DP 1, St. Louis Road, north of Nouméa. Operations commenced two days after the arrival of stores. At this time only a few hundred men of the advanced party had to be catered for, but the experience gained gave the canteen staff a useful guide to future requirements. The first shipment of beer arrived at the port of Népoui, and another canteen store was set up in this mosquito-infested valley. The shipment was most welcome and was, as the troops will page 220agree, well guarded. This area was famous for the red dust of the surface soil, which drifted in clouds and settled in layers on everything exposed. While the ship was being unloaded Captain Murray and the remainder of the staff composed of Staff-Sergeant Pople, Sergeants A. A. Fisher and J. P. O'Neill arrived in Nouméa aboard the USS Munro with further supplies, including beer. About 31 December 1942 all the canteen stores were moved to the centre of the island to the second largest town, Bourail. An old farm house belonging to a French farmer was obtained and canteen headquarters for the division was set up there. The dairy belonging to the farm was ideal for the soft drink factory which was soon in full swing.

Contacts were made with the United States supply depot in Nouméa and large quantities of goods were obtained during the whole period the division was in New Caledonia. Supplies were also obtained from the US navy and marine supply stores. Shipping space was very difficult to obtain from New Zealand, and the division was indeed lucky in purchasing goods from American sources, although supplies had, of course, to be carted by truck over 100 miles of very bad roads. American cigarettes, tobacco, candy and magazines soon became very popular and as large stocks of New Zealand tobacco and cigarettes had been brought over, these had to be returned to New Zealand, which assisted to alleviate the shortage there.

To give some idea of the amount of business handled, and emphasize the soldiers' proverbial sweet tooth, in one month 600,000 bars of US candy were sold. Cigarettes were also very popular as these were retailed at 50 cents for 200 or about 2/6 New Zealand currency. Huge quantities of magazines were also disposed of, as the men were permitted by the censor to post these back to New Zealand. Over 350 different items were obtainable at the canteen stores, which seemed a reasonable assortment. In the more forward areas cigarettes were issued free to the men, as well as such items as soap, toothpaste, matches, the cost of this being borne by the New Zealand Government. Before going any further, an explanation of the set up of the canteen service may be of interest. The Canteen Board operated and controlled bulk canteen stores, but each unit conducted its own canteen, a small discount being allowed on goods to cover expenses. In all, about 130 small unit canteens staffed and controlled by unit personnel page 221were in operation, in addition to the Canteen Board's retail canteens, which acted as warehouses to the units.

When the division went into action a bulk store was opened at Guadalcanal in charge of lieutenant B. F. Jordan. As supplies were scarce in this area at the time, large shipments of goods were forwarded from Nouméa. This base store at Guadalcanal operated until the final return of the division to New Caledonia. When the division moved into Vella Lavella, canteen supplies were landed on the island about fifteen days after the first troops. Another bulk store was set up, and Sergeant Fisher was in charge, with Sergeant McLean as assistant. This store operated until the divisional troops were moved on from Vella Lavella to land at Nissan Island. As well as catering for our own men on this island, we also supplied a large number of US troops, and all New Zealand navy and air force men in these areas. When landings were made at Treasury and Nissan Islands, more bulk stores were set up and the supplies left on Vella Lavella were shipped to Nissan, and then, when finally all these islands were taken over by the US forces, supplies were shipped back to New Caledonia, and the service continued until the day before the last man of the division returned to New Zealand. During the period our troops were in the forward area, large stocks of supplies were built up in New Caledonia. Among these were large quantities of novelties suitable as gifts, the bulk of which were taken back to New Zealand as presents for the soldiers' wives, mothers and sweethearts, and when any item was in short supply there was fierce competition among the troops for its purchase. Tact thus became the chief stock-in-trade of the canteen staff.

The job of the staff was never an easy one, and was at times mildly exciting. On the landing of the canteen supplies on Treasury Island by LST the boat was attacked by a Japanese divebomber and one bomb hit the water about 100 yards away, close enough when one considers the valuable cargo of cigarettes and candy. On several of the islands the staff had to put up with the nightly bombing, but neither personnel nor stocks ever suffered serious damage. Many a time the staff have been told by members of the division, 'I will be in the canteen in the next war,' but the duties the staff had to perform in New Caledonia and the other islands were at times trying and involved long hours. A typical day would follow something like the following programme: Rise page 222at reveille, shave, wash and clean up, and be on duty in the retail canteen by 0730 hours. At 8 am the job of opening cases and filling the fixtures commenced, in readiness for the day's business, and when 9 am arrived the first wholesale customers would be waiting on the doorstep. Generally about thirty unit canteen men would call for supplies every day, involving moving and opening innumerable cases, checking or orders, and the necessary book entries. 'Close down' was at 5 pm and the staff would then have a bathe in any nearby creek, and a general clean up. After mess the retail canteen would again be open for business, and it was invariably a rush to satisfy the crowd which always attended. But about 8 pm someone would nearly always say, 'Hear those trucks? The boss has been buying more goods and here it comes from Nouméa. What goes out must come in. Come on, off with your coat.' Probably about 9 pm these would be unloaded, and the staff could crawl under mosquito nets for a quiet read. When ships arrived there was little sleep for nights on end, unloading and checking the goods, and even on Sundays the retail canteen was opened in the evenings.

In addition to the supplies for the men, the nurses and WAACs had to be catered for in clothing and other lines, and the soldier staff had to make some quick mental adjustments and learn the feminine language in the undies and cosmetics sphere. However, their salesmanship was apparently fairly good. Many of the fair sex, for months after their return to New Zealand, were carefully hoarding the latest and most chic of American cosmetics.