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

Chapter Twenty-Seven — Postal Unit

page 227

Chapter Twenty-Seven
Postal Unit

In October 1940 the Postal Unit NZEF IP came into being. Sergeant Colin Campbell was the first representative of postal to leave New Zealand for Fiji. Later in October 1940, Neil McIntyre (Warrant-Officer in charge), Ted Lonsdale, Mark Fagan and Keith Hamilton landed at Suva from a well-known armed cruiser. Next to arrive, at Lautoka, on the other side of the island were Alf Harbott, Sam Woods and Barney Brambley and ten days later Jim Coats and Jim McGaughley arrived. Christmas 1940 was spent at this spot, and because of shipping priorities we had rather a meagre meal. However we did not lack the spirit of Christmas.

Our next move was to Tamavua, about one and one-half miles from town. This was a pleasant spot, and we lived in comfort. A field post office was established at Samambula and Mark Fagan, who was in charge, visited us daily to uplift mail. The Namaka mail was transported across the island by our ASC. The hurricane that shook the island will always be remembered by Ted Lonsdale and Jim Coats. However, apart from the damage and inconvenience, we managed to survive the ordeal—thanks to a supply of 'tea' that we acquired. Severe damage was caused in Suva by the same hurricane.

In June 1941, Colin Campbell, Alf Harbott, Jim McGaughley and Keith Hamilton returned to New Zealand and all except Alf Harbott left for the Middle East with a reinforcement draft. A week later Ted Lonsdale, Barney Brambley, Sam Woods, Jim Coats and Mark Fagan also left for New Zealand and sailed later to the Middle East. Later additions to the strength included Sid Smyth, Mick Zane, Jack Craies, Jack Surman, Bill Collins, page 228Len Davis and Ted Meyer, other transferees from outside units being Johnny Goodsall and Jack Canavan. This enabled additional staffing at the field post offices of the two brigades, where the staff was handling a considerable volume of business in cramped quarters. The Base PO at brigade headquarters, Tamavua, was severely taxed and when big mails arrived the records office was used for storage. Chain gangs passed the bags from the windows of the base post office and through those of records office, this being the shortest rouxte, when it was found that the floor of the base post office had sunk three inches through the weight of the mails which, when stacked, put a stress of 600 lbs. to the square foot on the available floor space. A building previously occupied by the air force was put at our disposal and we then had about 5,000 square feet of floor space to work in as against the original 500.

Transfers between base and field post office staffs were made at frequent intervals to give the boys a spell and an opportunity to move around. Leave was on a generous scale, but it was not possible to make extended tours and all activity was confined to the area near the station. When the Japanese came into the war life took on a new aspect—digging slit trenches, and similar warlike preparations which everyone engaged. Even hurricane warnings seemed to increase to keep things moving. The middle of the year saw the arrival of the first of the Americans, and rumour that the engineers were going back became certainty. Some fine American ships were used to convey the men home. It was not very long before the majority had again set foot on New Zealand shores.

Postal unit men were returned to New Zealand from Fiji in various drafts and short leave was given before reporting to Papakura military camp. An office (distinct from Papakura MC post office) had been opened and the various duties in connection with readdressed mail matter were performed. When considering the latest Pacific war news it was obvious that a further overseas trip was inevitable, but in spite of rumours the ultimate destination was unknown. We wonder how many were disappointed at not seeing Australia. In early October of 1942, Second-Lieutenant F. W. Purton arrived at Papakura and assumed control of the unit. Soon afterwards Pete Jefferies and Frank Meredith arrived. These two, however, were destined for the lonely outpost of page 229Norfolk Island so their stay with us was short. Jack Surman and Johnnie Goodsall also departed soon afterwards—going to Tonga. In October the writing on the wall became clearer, and Noel Kilgour was despatched to Wellington with orders to sail with an advanced party comprised of a few men from each unit of Third Division—destination still unknown. Then followed seven days' leave for all, except small rear parties. Bill Head and Ernie Parnell were left in this category. However, on 3 November 1942 a signal was received to send Bill Head to Wellington, and on 4 November he embarked for that 'unknown destination.' Leave completed, we returned to Hamilton, and when we learnt of the hurried departure of Bill Head it was felt that our stay in New Zealand would be short. Every day brought fresh rumours of our departure. It was not until 27 December 1942, however, that the main draft left on the West point.

But what of those who had already left for Nouméa, New Caledonia! Noel Kilgour had arrived with the small advanced party—soon to be scattered throughout the island. Bill Head arrived on 11 November with a large draft and was met by Noel Kilgour, who had been particularly busy touring the island with the advanced draft. The future Officer in Charge of Administration had arrived and no time was lost by OICA in calling together representatives of units in Necal. Subsequently a base post office was established on 12 November in a portion of a building in Rue D'alma, Nouméa. The 2,000 men who arrived were first stationed in Dumbéa but their stay was to be short. These troops, generally, were attached to light and heavy AA batteries—it must be remembered that in those days the Japanese menace was acute. Batteries were deployed at different points in Necal. With troop mail being received and despatched from the Plaine des Gaiacs airfield, it became necessary for the postal unit to be represented at that airport. Consequently Noel Kilgour left by "RNZAF plane from Magenta Bay, Nouméa, and opened up the first field post office in New Caledonia.

Second-class mails were being received regularly at Nouméa, and although small they entailed hard work for the men at base. The number of ships calling at Nouméa was exceptional; it was not unusual to receive a ring from USAPO to say that there were from 200 to 300 bags of 'N.Zee' mail on the dock. This was in the days before the unit sort, when the bags had to be trucked page 230from dock to office, sorted, and then reloaded on to trucks again to destination. The days were very busy and, to add to our discomfort, an epidemic of a form of dysentery was rife. However, the men carried on, and with the field post office functioning efficiently an excellent mail service was maintained. At this stage the base post office in Rue D'Alma was becoming very crowded. Approximately 4,500 troops were in Necal and they were certainly taking advantage of the postal facilities. On 31 December 1.942 information was received that the Westpoint had arrived with the main draft and we felt that, after our two months of hard work, we would at last get some relief. Bill Head boarded the ship and after contacting Lieutenant Purton met the rest of the members of the unit. For those on the Westpoint that New Year's Eve was a very sober affair. We disembarked on New Year's Day, and, apart from two members being lost for two hours at Dumbéa, no untoward incident occurred. We settled in at Valée du Tirs, and Lieutenant Purton lost no time in getting himself established. The proposal was to shift all base units to Bourail and at a later date we all moved to our new headquarters. How well we remember that dirty, hot and dusty journey through New Caledonia and the refreshing swim in the river on arrival at Bourail. We then prepared to settle ourselves in our new quarters at base signals camp, later known as Bourail Camp. The following day the base post office was in operation—thanks to the handy work of Ernie Parnell. Ernie and his hammer and tools will long be remembered by us. In no time this very ancient house began to look like a real post office, but it was obvious from the start that the building would be inadequate. Many months later, however, we had a bure erected at the rear of the building. The extra work entailed in shifting mail here and there during sorting was somewhat of a strain. The bure certainly solved our troubles although it was a belated effort. A unit 'sort' was instituted, and we would like to express here our appreciation of the staffs in the New Zealand post office who made it possible for the mails to be despatched so expeditiously to the units of 3 Div. letters continued to be received and despatched by air, and all agreed that it was a wonderful service.

But what of the leisure moments at Bourail Camp! Life was sometimes very boring. However. Bourail Beach was only four miles away, and the river was very handy. Pictures were shown page 231once in a while and provided our sole source of entertainment. In most cases we made our own fun. The first beer ration was a memorable occasion. We never had much but the little we received kindled the flame of fun and good fellowship. We 'Stood on Street Corners' with Ted Toase and listened to Laurie Rose rendering very 'softly' his well-known songs. The pleasant voice of Lin McKenzie always appealed and he had that 'certain something' which stirred our hearts and imagination. Mac was a happy chap with his Scottish way of expressing himself. The man from 'Goore' with his 'fud,' 'bootchery,' 'pooshing out boat,' and the 'jokers he struck' at different times. Bourail Camp in the early days was not the best, tropical rains making the camp site a sea of mud and the millions of mosquitoes adding to the general discomfort. If ever a unit enjoyed good fellowship with other units it was ours. We believe that no one spoke ill of us and, after all, we were there to give service to the troops, and it was as much a pleasure for us to hand out their eagerly-awaited mail as it was for them to receive it. We were always willing to work a little extra to get the mail despatched and no doubt this was the reason for our popularity. Our team spirit was excellent and we were a happy family. Work in the office went along smoothly. Although statistics are not necessary in a narrative of this type, it may be mentioned that for a period the volume of mail receive at NZAPO 150 exceeded that received by the 2nd NZEF, Middle East.

'Népoui nights' were a nightmare to us. Occasionally ships arrived at Népoui, and the practice was for a team of men to go up and unload the mail. Somehow it always seemed to rain when mail came to Népoui and dry storage was a problem. But it was amazing how the parcel bags were kept dry. The first morning the men arrived back at Bourail (at 2.30 am) very wet and very tired will be remembered as one of the many trying experiences over there. A slight hurricane had flattened out the living, quarters and strong language was used in Bourail Camp that morning. Yes, Népoui nights were far from pleasant, and it was a happy day when headquarters decided to unload all mails at Nouméa. In April 1943 dengue fever attacked Bourail and laid low many of our members. At one stage it appeared we would all go down at once. Fortunately we were picked off at intervals. A dinner was held at Bourail Hotel on Anzac Day 1943, but unhappily dengue kept some members away. Representatives from field post offices page 232came to Bourail and a grand day was spent. The beer ration, of course, was a very popular item on the menu. One mistake was made on this occasion, however, in that we arrived back at Bourail Beach too soon after dinner. But thanks to Ted Toase's swimming capabilities no one required resuscitation.

In August 1943 the division was changed over to combat status and provision was made for an advanced base post office at Guadalcanal. Those selected were Karl Halliday, who was a warrant-officer, Noel Kilgour, Ted Toase and Fred Conway-King. Bill Collins and Jack Mclntosh were to proceed with the 14th Brigade; Bert Hjorth and Lin McKenzie with divisional headquarters, and Leo Murphy and Laurie Rose with the 8th Brigade later. However, at the last moment Bill Head was promoted to commissioned rank and subsequently left in place of Karl Halliday. Thus the unit separated. Although we were all scattered over the Pacific, we were still a part of the Postal Unit NZEF IP. Not all the unit had the honour of going into the forward area. However, the good fellowship still existed and no one who had been forward came back with any ideas about having won the war. Those in base did great work and were neither displeased nor discouraged because they were not selected for duty in the forward area. Prior to leaving Nouméa a signal was received to expect a letter mail at Vila, New Hebrides. Those at base lost no time in making the necessary arrangements for this service. The mail was duly received and distributed, and once again we earned praise from the highest to the lowest, We made up mails for base and delivered to the air force some miles out. We got around at Vila and found there were some rare drinks for sale. On Friday, 3 September, we arrived at Guadalcanal—and what a time was had! Some 400 bags of parcels were on our ships. Fortunately for us Bill Collins and Jack McKenzie were established, so they were able to take care of this mail. On Saturday, 11 September, we experienced our first alert, and immediately went into foxholes. We spent about three hours popping in and out of them but after several nights of alerts we became used to them. Jap bombers were over on many nights, and to see one come down in flames was indeed a pleasure. Soon after this alerts ceased and we were not troubled any more by enemy air raids.

There was no time for pleasure during these hectic days; mail was beginning to come In and troops were writing home even more page break
Népoui, with one small wharf, became a busy litlle port where large quantities of stores and equipment for the NZEF IP were handled. These two views show unloading operations, after which there was a long haul by lorry to the stores at Bourail

Népoui, with one small wharf, became a busy litlle port where large quantities of stores and equipment for the NZEF IP were handled. These two views show unloading operations, after which there was a long haul by lorry to the stores at Bourail

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New Caledonia has a magnificent coastline, along which inviting sandy beaches give way to lagoons and rocky headlands on which the rollers break in restless beauty. The French colonists endeavour to maintain the pageantry of their homeland, as in the celebration of a Joan of Arc festival In Bourail. Below, Joan is seen with her knights prior to the parade. On opposite page is a drawing of Pic Ouiliambu, a landmark which was well known to New Zealanders who were stationed near Bouloupari

New Caledonia has a magnificent coastline, along which inviting sandy beaches give way to lagoons and rocky headlands on which the rollers break in restless beauty. The French colonists endeavour to maintain the pageantry of their homeland, as in the celebration of a Joan of Arc festival In Bourail. Below, Joan is seen with her knights prior to the parade. On opposite page is a drawing of Pic Ouiliambu, a landmark which was well known to New Zealanders who were stationed near Bouloupari

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When the Thrid Division returned from the Pacific a huge vehicle park was established at the Mangere Crossing Carp, near Auckland. Here some thouands of the division's vehicles were overhauled and repaired. This view shows a section of the park

When the Thrid Division returned from the Pacific a huge vehicle park was established at the Mangere Crossing Carp, near Auckland. Here some thouands of the division's vehicles were overhauled and repaired. This view shows a section of the park

page 233frequently. We at least found time at nights to visit the movies and this was about the extent of our social life. On 23 September 1943 Bill Collins, Jack McIntosh and Ted Toase left Guadalcanal for Vella Lavella with 14th Brigade combat troops. Bert Hjorth and Fred Conway-King embarked later with divisional headquarters for Vella. These five men did an outstanding job of work on that island. Air raids were frequent and with rain and mud to contend with, the mail service given to the troops was remarkable. Daily life was as full of excitement and thrills as the front line., and no doubt each man could fill a chapter on his experiences. 'Bert Hjorth and the Coconut' is a story already glamorized in Kiwi newspaper. Bert was indeed lucky that he did not suffer permanent injury when a coconut fell on his head.

On 25 October Leo Murphy embarked for the Treasury Group with the first wave of troops from the 8th Brigade. Leo had an unenviable experience on landing. He was used as a guard on the perimeter and consequently postal duties were curtailed. A few days later Harry Merry and Mark Wright embarked and it was not long before the field PO at Treasury was functioning efficiently, despite many difficulties encountered. These men experienced many air raids and the discomforts of the ever-present rain and mud. One day a Jap plane dropped an anti-personnel bomb. Fortunately for the three men, who had a miraculous escape, it landed in a coconut palm, demolishing the post office and causing slight damage to the mail. With true postal tradition the men were hard at it next day erecting a new office and repairing damage. Leo Murphy's application to duty and leadership did not go unrewarded. Some months later he was awarded the British Empire Medal. All three men remained at Treasury until the New Zealand troops were withdrawn to Necal. One must pay tribute to these postal units in the islands. They did a magnificent job, always under adverse conditions; and their expeditious handling of the mails will always be warmly appreciated.

In 1944 the field post offices at Vella Lavella left for Green Islands, but before detailing the events that happened around that time, let us return to the advanced base at Guadalcanal. On 16 November Les Hillier, Ernie Parnell, Sid Smyth and Reg Dobson arrived from base PO at Necal. It was a struggle for all concerned to get these extra men. However, thanks to the efforts page 234of Captain Purton and the recent visit of Brigadier Dove, we at last received reinforcements. We made the four new boys (the cream of the unit we called them) very welcome and had a job waiting for each one. It was good seeing Sam Hillier again. He had brought some of his 'second-hand shop' and Ernie had brought his hammer. Sid brought along his capable hands—and Dobbie just brought himself, and how we enjoyed his tales of New Caledonia, especially the typewritten one of famous sayings. After we had worked for months under conditions that were totally inadequate, Lieutenant-Colonel A. Murray, CRE, got busy on our behalf and, within ten days, we had a building that was really magnificent. Built of mahogany, it was 100 feet long and 25 feet wide, with plenty of height. We called it Mahogany Castle, and I doubt whether there are many post offices built of this class of timber. The office was completed in time to receive a record parcel mail of nearly 5,000 bags. For his efforts on our behalf, we toasted Colonel Murray many times. Skin diseases, jaundice, etc., worried us at times and casualties were frequent. In later days a team was formed known as the 'Guadalcanal Gurglers,' but what the aims and objects of the team were we never discovered. It was said some could 'play' and others 'stay.'

During the period of our activities in the forward area, seven bags of letters were jettisoned from a plane because of engine trouble, and 29 bags of second-class mail were lost on a steamer through enemy action. On 11 March 1944 Lieutenant Head was returned to base to take over control of the unit, and Captain Purton left for New Zealand later to take up a position in the Air Department. The usual farewells took place. Captain Purton was greatly missed around Necal and many were the enquiries after his health later on. Lieutenant Head was replaced by Lieutenant Surman, who had been transferred from Tonga and who had received his commission in New Caledonia. Jack fitted in well at advanced base and under his capable administration mail for the troops was always expeditiously handled. Karl Halliday left Necal by plane to replace Jack Surman at Tonga.

At this stage we will leave the forward postal unit and return to the base post office, Necal, to observe what changes had taken place. An electric light plant had been installed in the building and the old days of sorting mail by hurricane and coleman lamps page 235were a thing of the past. Life in Bourail had become a little more pleasant by now, and mosquitoes, though still around, were not so plentiful as in early days. Dengue had paid its yearly visit, and fortunately again had picked us off at intervals. Floods added to our discomfort at times and often disrupted the mail service. Dave Naulls and Frank Buchanan were cut off from Bourail for two days but the mail got through somehow. Nouméa leave was a bright spot in an otherwise monotonous life, and if not exactly seething with glamour we could at least buy things from the American canteens. We were not living in huts, Bourail Camp having been improved 100 per cent. Incidentally, our transfer to huts was pending when a hurricane hit Necal in early January 1944. The camp was flattened and we had a hectic time evacuating at daybreak in pouring rain with all our belongings. Our bure was a godsend that day and we gave fervent thanks for its sturdy construction. Needless to say the work of erecting the huts went on apace after our blow. The Kiwi and Bourail Clubs were popular in our off-duty moments, but by now we began to think of home. After 18 months or more in the Pacific we were all a trifle fed up. A leave scheme was inaugurated during March 1943, and the two lucky members selected for New Zealand leave were Frank Buchanan and Bernie Leabourne. These two, naturally, were the envy of all. Fourteen days in New Zealand didn't seem overlong, but to most of us who were getting very homesick; it spelt HOME in capital letters.

Leo Murphy, Harry Merry and Mark Wright returned to Necal in May 1944, from the islands (Treasury Group) and we were all pleased to see them back in good health. Soon after Leo's arrival he was informed by the General Officer Commanding that His Majesty the King had been pleased to award him the British Empire Medal. The citation referred to Leo's outstanding services at Treasury—already mentioned in this narra-tive. The honour conferred on Leo met with unanimous approval by all members of the unit. That was a proud day for us all. In making a short speech, Leo referred to the fact that he would like us all to feel that the decoration was given to the unit as a whole. The staff could not allow such an honoured event to pass without suitable recognition, and it was decided to celebrate the occasion, which took the form of a smoke concert. The beer ration was drawn and supplemented by some extra bottles; and with the page 236co-operation of Paddy Shipton (cook at Bourail Camp) an excellent supper was provided. The smoko was held in the bure and full credit was due to the organisers. Special commendation must go to Dobbie in the capacity of 'OC Eats' and to Laurie Rose as MC for this highly successful function. The usual speeches were made. Unfortunately, it was one of those still tropical nights and consequently the function had to be closed down at 11 pm—although it was continued later at another spot.

By 12 June 1944 all postal unit personnel north of Necal had been returned to base—with the exception of Les Hillier, who had remained with rear troops on Nissan Island. Each mail received from Nissan reminded us that Les was still taking an interest in his 'second-hand shop.' Manpower was discussed from morning till night, and the story changed daily. Those were very busy days for the unit, and all hands were required in the records room at every opportunity. The large drafts of men returning to essential industry necessitated the redirection of thousands of letters to New Zealand. This was no small job. The next story that spelt the end of the Third Division was the leave scheme of 44 days, and in July 1944 the first draft left. We expected to return to Necal after the 44 days' leave had expired. However, fate played some queer tricks, and the majority of these men were drafted to the United Kingdom in another postal unit. For those remaining, there were many days of hard work in readdressing mail and packing equipment. The base PO in the old French building at Bourail was removed to a pleasant site in Téné Valley, on the banks of a stream, and on 26 September was removed to Nouméa.

Sometime prior to the departure of the final draft a base post office was opened at Mangere Crossing, as it was thought at this stage that the Third Division would once again be building up to a fighting force. However, circumstances changed and official information was received that the division was to be disbanded. Of the 40 members of the Postal Unit (3 NZ Div) some have returned to civilian jobs while others are still on military service. A fine team of men was broken up. At times we had our differences, but friendships were formed that will last a lifetime. There will be many occasions in future years when reunions of members of this unit will be held, and toasts will no doubt be drunk to the Gods of Fate and Chance who, during the trying years of page 2371940-1944 decided the fortunes (or misfortunes) of these men, welded them into a body which survived many trials and tribulations, and finally cemented the bonds of true and lasting comradeship. It is to this end that this narrative has been written, so that we may individually and collectively retain this spirit of comradeship. The writer, in offering apologies as an amateur, expresses the hope that the 'saga' of the postal unit, as set down, will in future years bring a few moments of happiness to those readers who are interested.