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

Chapter Seven — The NZEF IP Band

page 49

Chapter Seven
The NZEF IP Band

The 8th Brigade Group band, later to become well known as the band of the Third NZ Division, NZEF IP, was mobilised for service in the Pacific at Hopuhopu on 23 October 1940. The personnel of 30 players was drawn from the Papakura, Trentham and Burnham Military Camp bands, and the RNZAF, whilst some were enlisted from civilian bands. In this personnel were representatives of 23 bands. The short time—18 days—which was spent at Hopuhopu prior to embarkation was a busy one, for in addition to being equipped as a unit, each bandsman had to be inoculated and vaccinated and music had to be rehearsed.

Lieutenant W. H. Craven was appointed officer-in-charge. A large marquee had been placed at our disposal as a store and rehearsal room, and systematic rehearsals were held. Such was the keenness of the bandsmen, and so rapid was the progress made, that in the short time we were at Hopuhopu, two band recitals were given for the citizens of Hamilton, and the band was able to take up full duties in camp.

On the morning of Friday, 8 November 1940, reveille was at 0100 hours. We fell in with our kit bags for roll call at 0300 hours. Rain was falling and conditions generally could not have been more unpleasant. On being told that we had to disperse to our tents as our departure had been postponed, there was the usual cursing and growling at being dragged out unnecessarily at such an early hour.

It transpired that our ship, on berthing at Auckland, had been caught in a strong rip tide and had collided with the end of the wharf, with resultant damage to some of her bow plates. However, this was not of a serious nature, and we eventually went page 50aboard at Auckland on 11 November 1940. Directly after the two minutes' silence had been observed—the day being Armistice Day—the ship slowly pulled away from the wharf and we were on our way. The band had taken up a position on the boat deck and several marches and popular song hits of the day were played as the ship moved off.

Land was sighted on the morning of 14 November 1940 and the ship made her way up the coast to Suva, Fiji. The band played a short programme of lively music as the ship was berthing, and in a short space of time the wharf area was thronged with people. Upon arriving at our camp—Samambula—we were agreeably surprised at finding one so modern. Daily rehearsals soon had the band in good trim and ready for any duty. Our morning syllabus provided for parades and rehearsals, while the afternoons found us receiving instruction in first aid and stretcher bearing duties. Upon the entry of Japan into the war, the unit qualified in these duties and we were then armed and became part of camp defence.

Each company could, by making application to brigade headquarters, secure the services of the band for one day each week. By this system it invariably chanced that the respective companies held their route marches on the day on which they had the band allotted to them. For this reason the members of the band came in for quite a good deal of road work. Marching and playing over those dusty metal roads was really hard going; the dust dried our mouths, the loose metal on the roads did not allow for firm lip control, and the dust settling on our instrument valves and trombone slides did not help to make the playing any easier. Generally speaking the conditions were difficult.

On Sunday evening, 1 December 1940, the band made its debut before the citizens of Suva with a concert which was given in the Botanical Gardens, the proceeds being in aid of the Fiji Bomber Fund. On this, their first official engagement, the bandsmen acquitted themselves exceedingly well, and the press reports appearing the following day were decidedly flattering. Our star performer was undoubtedly Bill Limpus, with his 'Pop-eye' and child impersonations, during which he played his own accompaniment on the ukelele. Other entertainers on our programmes were Bert Sawyer, with his farmyard impersonations; Roy White, with his humorous sketches and monologues; Bill Gosper and page 51his piano accordian; and Bunny Gardner, whose artistic cornet solos never failed to please the audiences. The accompaniments were nicely played on the piano accordian by Ben Cunnings. A vocal quartette consisting of Lieutenant Fox, Lloyd Lee, Ben Cumings and Jack Stevenson also added variety to our programmes, as did Jack Stevenson's fine baritone solos sung to a full band accompaniment. After having spent something like 20 months in Fiji it was decided to return the band to New Zealand for leave.

Prior to embarking for New Caledonia, several replacements of personnel had to be made, because of medical boardings. Lieutenant W. H. Craven was medically unfit for overseas service and he relinquished command of the unit. Sergeant Louis Fox was promoted to the rank of warrant-officer and he assumed control. Upon the establishment of a base reception depot at New Caledonia, this was used as our base camp and from here the band departed on duty tours of the various camps, outposts and hospitals scattered around the island. Here, also, the unit had an exceptionally busy time. When not on duty tours new music had to be rehearsed, and small arms training, as laid down in base training syllabus, had to be performed. It was here that the band, when mildly annoyed at some edict of the depot commander, would express its disapproval in music. When some request had been refused the strains of 'Be A Good Scout' would drift over the niaoulis towards the major's tent.

When one of our more wicked members caused the whole band to undergo an hour's drill as punishment, the band repaired to its lines and serenaded the major with 'Why was he born so beautiful, why was he born at all; and the 'Prisoner's Song.' Altogether the band made five circuits of the camps of the division, and also several trips to Nouméa under engagement to the American Red Cross, playing at their camps, hospitals and rest camps. We were certainly popular with the American forces, and it was not unusual to play to audiences of up to seven thousand men of all branches of the American forces at Nouméa.

While in New Caledonia, and later in the Solomons, a change from the usual type of brass band programme was brought into being. Our audiences were allied and, in an endeavour to suit all tastes in musical entertainment, swing and more of the popular song hits of the day were interspersed with classical numbers, page 52waltzes, vocal and humorous items. Eventually it was decided to send the band on a tour of duty in the forward area, and on 18 December 1943 the unit embarked at Nouméa for Vella Lavella-The following is a comment which appeared in the White Ensign, the magazine of the RNZ Navy, dealing with our entertainment there.

'On an earlier occasion when the Third Division was at Vella Lavella, our escort duty permitted a make and mend afternoon free from routine, when we were able to secure three ships together and enjoy the band. One thought from that afternoon —how was the band able to produce such magnificent music on an unprotected deck in such a broiling sun. Two very refreshed ships' companies resumed our escort job that evening veryappreciative of the soldiers.'

During the next six months the band was fully worked in playing to the allied forces on the islands of Vella Lavella, the Treasuries, where it had the distinction of accompanying Bob Deerborn's USO show for eight days, Bougainville, Nissan and Guadalcanal. Although no actual combat came our way, while in the Treasury Group we had to resort to the shelter of the foxholes during air raids, and during the first night on Bougainville, again we went underground during a shell bombardment put up by the Japs.

On our arrival back at our base in New Caledonia, the unit rested for a few days as the six months spent in the Solomons had been very arduous; the bandsmen had become travel weary, and a welcome respite from so much brass band playing was enjoyed. Eventually it was decided that we were to be returned to New Zealand with the division and it was a grand day for us when we sailed up the Auckland harbour.

Now the band of the Third NZ Division NZEF IP is disbanded after a record of three years and nine months overseas duty. Looking back over this period of time it is considered that the unit did the yeoman service for which it was created. No finer crowd of men could have been brought together than the personnel who have at various times served within its ranks. It was not altogether easy to render night after night, almost incessantly, programmes of music under trying tropical conditions. Many a time the men felt weary from the effects of so much travel and had grown stale at their work, but never once page 53during the whole time that the unit was in operation did the boys fail their audiences. Lieutenants Craven and Fox were both men who had made a close study of musical theory, harmony and interpretation, and the band was fortunate in having them as its leaders. The band of the Third Division has gone; personnel are scattered the length and breadth of New Zealand; the instruments are packed away in their cases and the band has played its last rune. During its period of service with the division, no unit was more popular and there are thousands of American and New Zealand troops who will agree that the high standard of musical entertainment the band gave them helped to relieve the monotony of service life in the tropics.

This resume would not be complete if it did not put on record the unit's thanks and appreciation of the driving skill and courtesy of the motor transport and battalion drivers who have conveyed the bandsmen over some 17,000 miles of road without accident or injury. This has been greatly appreciated, and to the many drivers concerned we express our thanks.

While the unit was stationed in Fiji, Sergeant H. H. Neeve was seconded to the Fiji Defence Force as bandmaster. During the operations of the Fiji Battalion on Bougainville he was awarded the Military Cross.