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

Chapter Six — Graves Registration and Stationery

page 43

Chapter Six
Graves Registration and Stationery

The Graves Registration Unit was formed in Rugby Park, Hamilton, in October 1942, Lieutenant D. G. McL. Smith being appointed temporarily in charge. He had under him a unit photographer, a draughtsman, and a clerk. In December 1942 the unit arrived in New Caledonia having its headquarters in Base Reception Depot, Bourail, and early in January 1943 Lieutenant A. G. Lowry assumed command. With us was amalgamated the Divisional Stationery Unit. The stationery unit played a major part in our various duties, as it was responsible for supplying the whole division with stationery, typewriters, and—yes, even red tape—in order that the efficiency for which the division was noted could be maintained.

A fine cemetery was established in Bourail, New Caledonia, where 31 New Zealand servicemen and one New Zealand service-woman, together with a member of the Fiji Military Forces were laid to rest. Before leaving New Caledonia for New Zealand the cemetery was beautified, and the work earned high praise from many senior officers.

Prior to the division moving from New Caledonia to the Solomons, the unit was re-organised so that its future employment, which we found to be very extensive, could be readily maintained. Captain J. R. Wink assumed temporary command of the unit at base during Lieutenant Lowry's absence with the sections in the forward areas. So on 15 August 1943 we said 'Cheerio' to New Caledonia for a few months. On our arrival in Guadalcanal, after proving ourselves good sailors and showing our worth in the invasion manoeuvres at the New Hebrides, we settled down for a short stay, becoming accustomed to 'Washing Machine Charlie' and the thousand and one jungle pests.

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With the move of the 14th Brigade to Vella Lavella and later the 8th Brigade to the Treasuries, the unit was split up into sections so that it would have representatives with each brigade and also at the field maintenance centre on Guadalcanal. Corporal R, A. Fitz-William was the NCO in charge of the latter section, later assisted by Corporal K. F. Harris, of the DAG's branch. At Guadalcanal a bulk stationery store was established, where stationery and typewriters from New Caledonia were received and distributed to the units and formations in the forward areas. This entailed a great deal of organisation, considering the difficulties of transport to the forward areas, but it was not long before the whole show was working very smoothly. A section in the main American cemetery was set aside for our use, and during the time the division was in the Solomons 14 burials took place at Guadalcanal, three of which were RNZAF personnel.

On the 25 September 1943 Lieutenant Lowry, with Sergeant Varnham as photographer, Corporal Preston and Privates Clare and Warwick, left with the 14th Brigade for Vella Lavella, where our time from the start was fully occupied. As the Third Division held the Island Command on Vella Lavella, the responsibility of the graves registration for the island fell upon our unit, and during our stay there we laid to rest 51 of our own New Zealand comrades and over 100 of our American allies. We were often called upon to perform many arduous duties, but they were always overcome efficiently and well, aided by the fine co-operation of those called upon to help us. The cemetery was one of the finest in the South Pacific and nothing was spared to make it a lasting memorial to our gallant comrades who rested there. The natives of the island expressed their desire to erect a chapel to show in some small way their appreciation for those who fell in freeing their island from the Japanese. The chapel, including the altar and the various other fittings, was really a beautiful example of the craftsmanship of the Solomon Island natives. The chapel and cemetery were both dedicated by the senior chaplain to the division, the Right Reverend G. V. Gerrard, CBE, MC.

In addition to his normal duties, Lieutenant Lowry was asked to choose a site and establish the 3rd NZ Divisional transit camp of which he became camp commandant. The camp quartered all transient officers and the various entertaining units which visited the island, besides the 5th NZ Provost Company, the 6th NZ page 45Field Hygiene Section, and the canteen and bulk stores. Perhaps one of our lasting memories of the transit camp would be Boxing Night 1943, when a party was held in the jungle, the divisional band being present along with the band of the 58th Naval Construction Battalion. It certainly was a great show; after all the 'jungle juice' had been consumed, many found it rather difficult to retrace their steps homeward. A box of 'urgent stationery' arrived from Guadalcanal on Boxing Day, and it was soon opened and every 'envelope' in the case readily consumed.

On one of his visits to Guadalcanal by plane from Vella, Lieutenant T.owry met a number of reinforcement officers who were on their way up to Vella, one of their number being a certain signals officer. Questions were being fired at Alf in all directions. He stated that things up that way were 'pretty sticky' and enquired of the signals officer whether he had drawn his shroud. Upon receiving a negative reply, big-hearted Alf informed his friend and colleague that each officer going to the forward area had as a personal issue a shroud which he could use as sheets until such a time as its proper use was necessary. After a visit to our graves section in Guadalcanal, the officer was quite-happy in that he had procured the necessary shroud, which he proudly took with him to Vella, only to find that Alf had indulged in one of his famed 'leg pulls.'

One of our number, during his stay on Vella, became an expert sprinter—especially during air raid alerts. We all remember the time one very moonlight night when 'Tojo's' visits were quite regular. No sooner had the siren started wailing than our ack-ack opened up overhead. All we could see was one streak of white through the dark—that was Bill tearing for the fox-hole, in the 'nuddy,' carrying over his arm his shirt and trousers. Once in the fox-hole Bill felt the presence of mosquitoes and started to dress himself. After fumbling for some time we heard him moaning and 'telling God all about it.' He could not find the other leg of his trousers. We discovered eventually that Bill had one leg in the sleeve of his shirt and was feverishly trving to find the other 'leg.' Our stay on Vella Lavella, although at times very monotonous, was quite a pleasant one, and we often look back upon the many 'headaches 'we had there, and the many friends we made.

Sergeant A. G. Hill was the NCO in charge of the detachment page 46at the Treasuries, and on the morning of the 27 October 1943 he, together with Privates Raymond and Lashlie, left Guadalcanal to represent graves registration and stationery unit with the 8th Infantry Brigade Group in the Treasuries. There again the New Zealand brigade commander was also island commander and the work of the island graves services fell upon the unit. Thirty-nine of New Zealand's warriors fell in action or died of other causes in the Treasuries, together with over 50 of our American allies. A fine cemetery was established on Mono Island, together with a beautiful chapel which serves as a splendid memorial to our fallen comrades. For his work in the Treasuries, Sergeant Hill received the highest commendations. He left there with the first manpower draft to New Zealand, and his work was ably carried on by Private Lashlie.

On 15 February 1944 our section from Vella Lavella landed with the first shore parties on Nissan Island. On this trip we experienced our first attack at sea. From our ringside seats on the landing craft we saw the 'Nips' meet their end when they tried to prevent the capture of the island which was to be our home for the next five months. As was the case on Vella Lavella we lived for over a week on those delicious K and C rations, put up with a few isolated air raids, and did our turns at going on guard in order to secure our safety from a couple of wandering 'Sons of Heaven' who were known to be in the vicinity of our camp. In a few weeks we had settled down to the normal routine and once again we were called upon to take charge of the island graves services, as the divisional commander was again the island commander. The job of establishing a cemetery on Nissan was an extremely difficult one, and the going was very hard for all concerned. Each grave had to be blasted in order that the hard masses of coral could be removed. We laid to rest there 16 divisional comrades, together with over 50 of our American allies. Again the natives built a fine chapel which was dedicated by our own and American senior chaplains. Once again Lieutenant Lowry established a transit camp and was appointed camp commandant. The site was near the old Roman Catholic Mission, and many a time, during the height of a storm and gale, some excitement prevailed because of falling trees. Eventually the area had to be vacated.

From Nissan came news of the first manpower drafts for page 47return to New Zealand, and soon we were to lose two or three of our number, at a time when we were doing a very important job of work in moving the cemetery. However, the difficulty was overcome and the job completed. The remainder of the unit left Nissan in June and rejoined the rest in New Caledonia. After a comparatively short stay in New Caledonia we had the glad news that we were bound for home.

The history of the Graves Registration Unit would be incomplete without tribute being paid to those of our gallant dead whom we laid to rest in the various islands in the Pacific. What could be a more fitting tribute than the following poem written by Sergeant G. S. (Duke) Windsor, late of the Base Pay Office, NZEF IP.

White Crosses
White crosses of the fallen brave
  Where palms their silent watches keep;
They lie within each narrow grave
  Untroubled in the last long sleep,
And all is hushed save where a bird
  Sings sweetly, gently overhead,
The leaves, by gentle zephyrs stirred,
  Pay homage to the gallant dead.
They rest in peace, their travail o'er,
Brave hearts of home that beat no more.

No more the blood of youth leaps high
  Within their veins; the thrill of love
And life and laughter spent, they lie
  In silent rows; the sun above
Beats down upon each mounded bed.
  They heed it not, for dark that night
Enshrouds the fallen; life is fled
  Beyond the gleam of this world's light.
They rest in peace within the Vale,
Untouched by moon or starlight pale.

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They fell in battle, each calm face
  Towards the fate which struck them low;
And as they fell, to take their place
  Lo! Others stood to mock the foe
And died in turn, and yet again
  Until the victory was won.
The life they gave was not in vain
  For in that life the task was done.
Their zvearied eyes are closed at last,
The turmoil of this world is past.

As glorious the sun's last ray,
  Touches each cross at daylight's close,
Tread softly, ye who walk this way,
  Lest ye disturb their last repose.
For all that life held dear they died,
  And for their faith they fought and fell
Pay homage then, with reverent pride
  And bow your head in hushed farewell.
'Tis hallowed ground, where marks each grave,
White crosses of the fallen brave.