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

Chapter Twenty-Six — Field Maintenance Centre

page 223

Chapter Twenty-Six
Field Maintenance Centre

The abbreviation FMC is frequently mistaken to mean the 'Forward Movement Control' when it should be 'Field Maintenance Centre.' Not that the terminology is very important, except, perhaps, to the 'NZ Form XYZ in triplicate' enthusiast, who leads every spearhead in the paper warfare. What is important about this junior 'Base Wallah' is that it should be called the 'Granpappy' of the NZEF IP at the 'Canal,' for it was made up of detachments of Divisional Ordnance Workshops, Base Ordnance Depot, Base Pay and Records, Postal, Movement Control, Base Supply Depot, Divisional Signals, Army Educational and Welfare Service, Public Relations Group, Chaplains Branch and Patriotic Fund Board. All the above units were under a headquarters commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel C. E. Lees, with Captain C. Iversen as adjutant and Lieutenant E. J. Martin as unit quartermaster. The headquarters staff consisted of ten other ranks.

In July 1943 the Field Maintenance Centre came into being at base training depot, New Caledonia, and embarked for the 'Canal' on 15 August 1943 with the divisional troops group on the Hunter Liggett which arrived on 3 September. The main duty of the FMC was to act as a channel through which munitions, food, transport and troop reinforcements were to reach the divisional units in the forward area.

Transportation of troops required, as can be imagined, a camp at which the reinforcements could be assembled and quartered and receive the necessary attention. This necessitated the erection and maintenance of a transit camp which came under the jurisdiction of FMC. This transit camp was situated about a quarter of a page 224mile from FMC Headquarters and, when first opened, was under the command of Major L. Cutforth who was succeeded by Captain S. V. Gooding. On the transfer to the 29th Battalion of Captain Gooding he was succeeded by Captain H. P. Glen. The camp was known as Snake Gully, for the spot had all the slippery-treachery of a snake in the wet weather when a foot of water on the tent floors was not unusual and the mud outside sent the unwary sliding. After many experiences of this kind a bulldozer was put into action and a terrace scooped out about 20 feet higher up the side of the gully. On this terrace 100 tents were erected and by a process of beg, borrow or steal the Kiwis who came and went had a tolerably happy time. To the troops who were transferred to the forward area must be added the troops who, on their discharge from the casualty clearing station, were marched in to the transit camp. If fit to return to the battle zone they were placed in the reinforcement pool and so rejoined their previous unit. When the division went into action this phase of FMC's activity was speeded up.

FMC headquarters, as distinct from transit camp, consisted of 30 tents erected in a natural horseshoe shaped valley. Again the bulldozer was called in to terrace out a site for the tents. Once the word to get busy on the tents was given the supply of milled timber from the RNZAF mill, and what could be scrounged from other quarters, was converted into tent floors and nick-nacks for the tents. In the centre of the horseshoe fresh water showers and ablutions were built. Wooden mess and recreational buildings were erected and a picture theatre was scooped out of the hillside. In charge of most of these engineering projects was 'Our Bob,' 'you know how it is.' Most of FMC personnel had been in New Caledonia long enough to become acclimatised but the increase in temperature in the 'Canal' was noticeable. Once the camp and its surroundings was licked into shape, the formation of a cricket team under Lieutenant D. A. Cocks produced a keen team which met teams from the RNZAF throughout the season, and in this weather an endless one. In these matches the honours were pretty even. United States recreational centre held weekly boxing tournaments at which a Kiwi from FMC would 'have a go.' To those who were not interested in the sporting activities there were many points of interest which could be visited.

page 225

Death Valley, as the name suggests, was the scene of one of the South Pacific's most ferocious battles. Mount Austin and Gifu strong point were other centres where a pleasant hour could be spent. Though there were no official hitch-hiking posts as there were in New Caledonia, it was easy enough to thumb a ride. In the evenings the cards received a heavy thrashing and those who had not previously played, and there were a number, soon learnt. By a judicious saving of the beer ration, it was possible to hold a bridge evening that would have done credit to the best host. Before the division withdrew from the South Pacific area, a good number of Kiwis surprised themselves by their inventive ability. All over the islands where the Kiwis were scattered were to be found odd looking machines bearing a faint resemblance to Heath Robinson's inventions. FMC's contribution to this collection was a self-regulating automatic feeding billy boiler. It could be depended upon to boil a quart of water in the minimum seven minutes. This unusual contraption consisted of a gallon tin filled with heavy oils and connected to the fireplace by piping. The oil trickled down the piping into the bottom of a potato tin where some refuse was kept alight by the slow dripping oil. Considering the number and variety of vehicles, the primitive roads and the degrees of caution exercised by the different drivers, the fatal accidents that occurred in the islands indicates that some people bear charmed lives. Take the escape of the orderly room sergeant at FMC, for instance. One morning this NCO, feeling the strain of war work, decided, during a lull in operations, to visit the 'old sack' and rest his jarred nerves. As he lay resting he thought of all the good things he would eat on his return to New Zealand. Such pleasant thoughts were almost his downfall. Lulled into dreamland he paid little attention to the noise he heard in the distance. After all, trucks, jeeps, cars, tanks and others motors were coming and going all day and night. But this one sounded suspicious. Throwing off his lethargy he bounded off the 'old sack' and was outside the tent in a leap. No sooner had he reached the open air than a jeep, minus the driver crashed down on the tent from the road above. Sixty feet above the jeep had left the road and the driver, to crash directly on top of the orderly room sergeant's bed.

Towards the end of May 1943 a decision had been made to withdraw troops from the forward area and return them to their page 226base in New Caledonia. With their withdrawal, Field Maintenance Centre's duties were no longer required and so this combination of units set sail for New Caledonia in early July 1943. Upon arrival in New Caledonia, the respective detachments rejoined their parent unit and so the Junior Base Wallah went out of existence.