The Gunners: an intimate record of units of the 3rd New Zealand Divisional Artillery in the Pacific from 1940 until 1945
Chapter Ten — 54th Anti-Tank Battery
54th Anti-Tank Battery
On 2 September 1942 the unit became officially the 54th Anti-tank Battery. Officers were posted from artillery units returned from Fiji and from officers newly posted to the Third Division. Captain R. M. Foreman was placed in command; Captain J. P. Cooney became battery captain and Second-Lieutenants D. H. Steer, "W. G. D. Wilcox, R. N. Wilson, J. C Bennett, H. R. Black, M. F. LePine, H. Muller and J. F. Scarrott were posted as unit officers. The nucleus of NCOs and other ranks was formed by the men from the old 14th Brigade Anti-tank Troop. The establishment for the unit had been set at 131 all ranks and up till mid-September newly posted men were still arriving. There was an air of expectancy at Papakura which was heightened when the battery commander was called to a lecture by the GOC, Major-General Barrowclough. However, the continuance of normal routine counteracted any likely rumours.
The unit was finally brought up to strength by the arrival of men from the 9th Heavy Regiment, but in the main we were drawn from all parts of New Zealand. The days were spent in getting to know one another, and it was obvious that the officers were the subject of special scrutiny. The battery commander seemed more than happy with his command and lectured to the unit on his ideas of what went and what did not. Despite this, there is definite evidence that the fence at Papakura was not high enough and on a number of occasions the officers had ex-cellent reason to believe that all was not as it seemed, and the old 'crime only if caught' theory was put into practice. The catching was successful oh occasions and the 'public account' benefited thereby. page 219On arrival of the twelve 2-pounders, all hands set to with a will to learn all that was to be learned both of the equipment and of the gun drill. The officers by this time had had ample oppor-tunity to learn of the CRA's view of artillery standards and Brigadier Duff paid us frequent visits which were usually pre-ceded by a minor flap, gradually diminishing in intensity as time passed. Among the newly-appointed NCO's were some ex-infantry, so certain of the arts of the PBI were passed on. By the end of September we had really settled down; we began to feel like a unit and one can be forgiven for saying that a trace or two of unit pride was in evidence. This was heightened by demonstrations given to the infantry and by one or two exercises that we did with the 30th Battalion. There was early evidence that 'ale' was not only the word that Germans said to Hitler, and the last train to Papakura often carried members of the 54th, with possibly one over the eight.
With the arrival of October came many rumours, some highly coloured, some pessimistic, some bearing the stamp of the practical joker, but it was obvious that a move was imminent. The battery commander periodically dashed off to Divisional Artillery Headquarters; then Captain Cooney departed, obviously for some time if the highly explosive language heard from the gunners who loaded his gear on to a truck was any indication. On 10 October the move was announced and off we went to the country.
The location of Tirau was known to some of us as just a township on the Rotorua line, but after our train journey from Papakura we found, what will be to all of us, the ideal unit camp site. We found that things were well set up. We were away from other units and the layout of the area was all that could be hoped. A pleasant stream flowed through the area and the cook-house, later named the 'River Grill,' was set up near the stream. The hot springs and baths at Okoroire were within easy distance and arrangements were made for hot baths at frequent intervals. The unit canteen was functioning well and an obvious choice for custodian, both dry and wet, was found in Gunner McQuame. His pre-war connections proved of great value. The local landowners were only too ready to allow us to perform our training on their farms and many valuable exercises were carried out there. At this stage, the 54th had come to regard itself as a unit and felt that when the time came it would be a force to be reckoned with. The newly appointed BSM, Sergeant-Major page 220Owens, was on the job and the sergeants kept all hands busy. There was much hard work and there was also much hard 'playing.' The name of the gunner who, having visited the local hos-telry, attempted to fight the whole of the 12th Field Battery had better be left unsaid. The battery commander rescued the 12th Battery by conveying the gunner back to camp. Football was played on a really good field within the area and some good games heightened the troop competition. The game—Headquarters versus F troop—was particularly spirited. Possibly this was because of the appearance on the headquarters side of the battery commander, second-in-command, and the sergeant-major. During the game these three retired injured, in order of seniority.
All of our motor transport had now arrived and full oppor-tunity was taken for driving practice. Motor-cycles were tried out by those who had not previously had the pleasure and it is feared that some of the officers cut rather poor figures. Exercises with the infantry battalions were going on all the time and each troop was given its turn, so that we began to get acquainted and see our place in the general scheme of things.
Many of us had by this time become friendly with farmers in the locality and one sergeant was picked as having found his soul mate. Many pleasant hours were spent in these homes and it was a great change to spend an evening with reasonable and proper home comforts. The unit sign-writer was trying his prentice hand and many notices of a humorous and semi-military nature were in evidence. He made a great job of the newly-found battery motto, Nil Bastardis Carborundum. The battery com-mander had his doubts as to the brigadier's acceptance of this motto, but his fears were put to rest on the occasion of the CRA's first visit. At this particular time, our unit sign and number was the cause of many remarks from other units who did not at that «arly stage appreciate the manner of men we were. The No. '13' was promised to bring all forms of dire results and the diamond shape with the yellow streak around it, brought its share of comment. It subsequently proved to be the luckiest of numbers and we lived up to our motto. Some of the men had made good friends among the residents of the Te Poi district and we were all their guests at a dance in the local hall. It was a great evening and the supper placed before us allowed our 'food-spoilers/ Darky, Chook and Sunny, to stay put in their beds and keep their porridge and savoury mince for another dav. page 221Many were the incidents but their authors must remain anony-mous as, for example, the gunner who lost his way after leave and slept the night in a cream stand, and the photo of the battery commander in the creek wearing nothing but his identity discs and the job he had in rinding the negative.
The days of November came to a close. They were days when we knew that we were learning for a job and we applied ourselves. It was evident that 'Bruiser' had been to a conference with Brigadier Duff. The medical officers started to look at our paybooks and fill us with more of the germs we already had and a lot of new ones. There were quite a few of us who deplored the advances of modern medical science. Then such things as-shorts, mosquito nets and other tropical gear began to turn up at the 'Q' store. Leave was put upon a slightly more liberal basis, the pace of training was stepped up, certain of us were put to making packing cases and crates and we then became certain that something was 'cooking.' Would we be home for Christmas? A short furlough was suddenly granted us, but we knew as the days at home drew to a close that our folks would not see us again for many a day. Back at camp we wondered, 'Would we go before Christmas?' Perhaps some of us did have thoughts-of action. We felt justified by past happenings. Then came the day. During battery parade, 'Bruiser' with many papers and a serious look, told us that we were under order to embark and were now on active service. Captain Cooney informed us, too, that our possible crimes would take a far more serious form and we cursed his legal mind. The grape-vine had it that embarkation rolls were being prepared. The pile of packing cases grew. The guns were made ready for travelling and Farmer Read and Gunner Wally had the 'good oil.' We blessed the battery com-mander for keeping open our canteen and we had many visitors to share a bottle of ale with us. The guns and packing cases were taken to the railway yard and loaded. Tents were struck and there was a great coming and going of heads, lesser and greater.
Routine orders of 27 December 1942 read 'Reveille 0330.' This was it. Early on the afternoon of the 27th we got the story. Very few of us went to bed. We had had our last Christmas in New Zealand perhaps for many days to come. The officers had waited on us and we thanked our stars that they were not permanent orderlies. We talked of many things that night and we finished all the beer in the canteen. At last 0330 came. page 222On to trucks and off along the dark road towards the Tirau station. Dawn came as we boarded the train. It was light enough to see Second Lieutenant Bennett bidding one of the blossoms of Tirau a pathetic farewell on the station. Appropriate sad music was supplied by Gunner 'Timebomb' Timewell upon his clarinet which was played through the carriage window. On the station, held back by last-minute information, was our battery comman-der, who was destined for an array course before embarking. We knew that he would have given much to be with us. Some of our drivers who were to take our motor transport to another port of embarkation were there too. Auckland was our destination. The journey was occupied in sleeping. On leaving the train at the ship's side, we beheld an outsize in ships with troops all over the place. On board we went down into the depths to quarters that reminded us of the days of galley slaves. We drew consolation from the fact that our Mr Black was the messing officer for the ship. Rules were stringent. A walk on the deck was not permitted at any but limited hours but we thought we could and we did get around that. No signs of sailing were in evidence and we settled down to spend our first night aboard. We were tired and sleep came easily. But the food was not good and there was not much of it. The music on the ship was largely composed of the tune 'In the Mood/ which we definitely were not. The new day came and there were the signs. We had started on our journey. But no! Another day and another long night—the heat and two meals a day were beginning to sap our full-fed morale. The dawn of 29 December at last came and this time the signs were definite. At 1030 the ship got under way and before we had left the harbour limits we realised that she was a fast ship and that brought consolation.
We now knew our destination to be New Caledonia. The motion did not upset us a great deal for we were kept busy with inspections, parades and keeping out of the way of the BSM. The time passed fairly quickly, but sleep did not come easily and we were glad when word went round the ship on the morning of the 31st that the hospitable or otherwise shores of New Caledonia would be sighted that morning. All eyes were strained and there were many false alarms. Finally at about 2.30 pm the French pilot came aboard and the big ship wended its way through warlike craft of all shapes and sizes into the inner harbour of, Nouméa. It did not look a pleasant land. Perhaps first impres-page 223sions are right. It was clear that one more night would be spent on board. The heat in our quarters was terrific and not many of us slept. Perhaps we were wondering what the New Year would bring, perhaps we were thinking of bygone years and of our present thirst. The first day of 1943. In mid-morning the ship received a visit from our GOC and he gave us his best wishes for the New Year. We wondered then, as we did many times later, how much he would tell us. Were we to stay in New Caledonia as a garrison or were we getting a job to do? Things did begin to move. An advanced party from the unit left the ship. But another night was to pass before we were told to hang all our gear upon our person and prepare to disembark. Over the side we went and aboard a French freighter with the high sounding name of Vingarten. Our thirst and the smell decried an idea that the name of the ship could be translated as 'wine garden.'
Off we started up the coast and our impression of New Caledonia improved, for parts of it reminded us of our home. It was an interesting journey and a picturesque one. Green verdant hills, blue sky and the surf on the reef inshore. And we did enjoy the sea breeze. We finally found ourselves off an entrance to the reef and passed into the calmer water finally to tie up at a small wharf. Disembarkation commenced and we embussed, the meanwhile being regaled by the drivers with a lurid description of the country, which left us with no delusions. Nepoui Valley was to be our home. And this was the Nepoui wharf. How well we would know it in the days to come. The journey to our camp area will live in our memories for ever. We felt certain that the locals, if any human being could live here, had spent their lifetime grinding the country into dust especially for this day. Nature could not be so unkind. It was a dark red, we were hot, and though the journey was not more than five miles, at its end we all looked like fugitives from an explosion in a brick yard. Once again our advanced party had 'done us proud' and we looked with pleasure at our new home. Again a stream, but we were to spend a night or so in a staging camp before we finally got to it. We worked with a will and we were happy with the result, particularly with the cookhouse. The American rations were strange to our palates and we began on what was to be our favourite grouse. Will one ever forget the Vienna sausage, the first plate of chile con carne or that first pink slice page 224of spam! The stream was good after a day on the gun park or unpacking cases. Sleeping under our nets was strange to many but we used them, for the mosquitoes during the day gave us h—1. There were consolations, however. Canteen supplies came to hand and we thought of those at home as we paid our 50 cents for a carton of 200 cigarettes. It was obvious to us that we should have to find our fun within our own camp, for evenings at the local cabaret or afternoon leaves in the local pub were completely out. What! No cabaret, no pub? What sort of place is this ? What few local French we saw did not seem friendly and the Javanese and Kanakas had little appeal.
We were moderately happy, even despite an epidemic of 'Caledonian Capers,' when the bombardier in charge of excavations was a busy man. An outsize in spanners was thrown in the works by a Frenchman who predicted that he had known a flood of at least six feet over the area now occupied by our humble dwellings. So shift it was. Not far, only to the other side of the creek, but all our work was to be done again. Once it was over we were happy.
Though many miles from the brigade headquarters we were now members of the 8th Brigade. We had brushed up our gun drill and were on the job again so that we were ready to take part in an exercise with the brigade. It was a good show and we were able to get an idea of what would be expected of us We did not enjoy our first experience of New Caledonian rain, especially as it chose to arrive after a hurricane warning and our tents had been struck. January flowed into February and we were quite accustomed to all the dictates of overseas service. There was always a rush for mail from home and we sorted out what we could say in our letters and what we could not, for we saw much to interest ourselves. Particularly of interest was an American officer who arrived each day in our area by plane to collect his bread. Active service conditions lent a new seriousness to our work and we all felt that the unit was reaching a stage of efficiency. Suggestions of a live shoot were in the air. During this period our first beer issue arrived—at least it looked like beer and was almost the same colour. During periods of leave we found our way into the French villages but this meant a long journey and a disappointing one. The alcoholic beverages were sampled occasionally with dire results and still more dire after-maths.page 225
On 3 April the battery commander arrived from New Zealand and there was talk that our 2-pounders were to go. During this week Captain Cooney was transferred to 144th Independent Battery and Captain O. J. Cooke arrived from headquarters to become battery captain. Our desire for a live shoot was fulfilled and our first opportunity to fire the 2-pounders came in the middle of April. The moving target was troublesome at first but we soon settled down. As the range was close beside the airfield, the danger to aircraft caused many stoppages, together with the fact that tracers started many fires in the long grass that covered the range. About this time we were visited by the Hon. Walter Nash who gave us his view of things generally. He appeared to be as uncomfortable as we had been on our first day in this 'Gem of the Pacific.'
At this time, too, we were enjoying something unique in sports, for each Saturday afternoon two football teams and a cricket team took the field. Inter-troop soccer matches were held after the day's work. The humourous remarks, not printable here, will be remembered by all—nobody was immune from them. Our life was not without its lighter side. There was that memorable occasion when the battery commander invited a local colonel, ex anti-tank, Middle East, to dinner, and wishing to do the right thing, had a guard mounted at the gate. A lookout was posted to give warning of the approach of the august guest, so that he could be paid a compliment by the guard. Unfortunately the visiting colonel chose other than the authorised entrance to the camp. The sergeant managed to get the 'present arms' over, but only just. When questioned, the lookout man, not knowing that the colonel in question was fond of a suit of near-white drill which made him unrecognisable, said 'I thought that — was a—Javanese.' Another night to be remembered was that on which the battery sergeant-major and the troop sergeants had their fire. At this time, night attire was of one's own choosing, and memory brings back a clear picture of one man who stood reflected in the glow, clad only in a very abbreviated jersey, offering anything from the DSO to a share in his estate to the man who would rescue his complete set of dentures from the furnace. All this was accompanied by the explosion of ammunition which had been stored in the tent for temporary safe keeping.
The big event of these days was the arrival of our new guns, page 226the 6-pounders, which at that time had been seen only by the battery commander, who was plied with questions concerning them. Guns were quickly allocated to troops and the work of cleaning, painting and general outline of the equipment was gone over. We were anxious to try out these new guns and all new features were noted with care. The country close to us was not favourable to the use of artillery but our work on the gun was interspersed with route marches, compass marches and movement through some of the thicker country. We had not long to wait for our first shoot and the zeroing of the equipment was soon under way. We were really impressed with our new gun. Our first shoot was a great success, being on a target towed on Nepoui Bay by a Higgins boat, and at the finish of the practice many successive hits were obtained.
At this time the divisional football competition was in progress, but our entry was shortlived for we were beaten in the first round by divisional headquarters. Shame! But we worked hard, for in addition to learning about the new weapon we were carrying out many practices with small arms. It would occupy much more space than is available in this narrative to record all our doings. Many things happened over the months and the area in which we lived had been improved. We had tried to dam up the stream but it was not successful. The first flood swept it away, taking with it a fine new footbridge which had been erected with much sweat and tears by our neighbours the 4th Survey Troop. A roadhouse and movie theatre had been erected near our camp, so we were saved the long and dusty journey to the airfield. June and July were busy months, for the unit took part in exercises some distance away and spent many days away from our own camp. Some of the exercises were real tests, but we were learning fast the things that could be done and those that could not or should not be done.
As in the early days of the unit at Papakura, there was an air of expectancy which was heightened by the summoning of the battery commander to a conference called by the GOC. There were many alterations to our unit. Captain Cooke had left for a course in New Zealand, Mr Black had returned, Mr Wilcox was transferred to the 144th Battery, Mr Muller to the artillery training depot and Captain E. H. Fowke from divisional artillery had arrived to become battery captain. Lieutenant R. Buist from the 17th Field Regiment had been posted and we welcomed the page 227arrival of our padre, Captain A. S. Ward. It was hard luck that at this late stage we were to lose twelve of the original members of the unit to the RNZAF, for it was evident from the changes in our training syllabus that 'something was on the stove.'
A shingle beach near our camp was used as a landing beach, while upon the other side of the creek a ramp for trucks was marked out and the guns were manhandled into action midst detonations supplied by the engineers—all of it in the early hours of dawn. Our moving target live shoot took place on the range of our friends of the 53rd at the Taom area, but it was marked by the failure of the sledges to stand up to the shock of impact of the rounds.
In mid-August our fate was known. We were for the forward area. It gave colour and reason for the numbers of conditions red we had had during our stay and though they were somewhat different from others we experienced we did learn from them. The 14th Brigade was moving to embark at Nouméa and our sister unit, the 53rd, stopped with us on its way south. We knew that our turn was coming. Once again all unnecessary equipment was returned and the balance stoutly cased; guns with all stores were secured and we awaited orders to join the 8th Brigade under whose command we had been placed. On 22 August orders arrived and the battery moved to the Bouloupari area near 8th Brigade Headquarters ready for the word. These few days were unpleasant, for all but bare necessities had been returned and continuous rain made conditions extremely difficult. At last came the order to embark—battery headquarters and G troop under command 34th Battalion, E troop under command 36th Battalion and F troop under command 29th Battalion.
On 2 September battery headquarters and G troop embarked upon USS President Hayes, E on President Jackson and F on President Adams. We were to undergo a trying experience, for though we had practised on rope nets, the weight of our gear, together with the height of the ship's side, gave quite a few of us an anxious feeling, but all 'made it.' We remained in harbour to practise climbing up and down the nets and to take part in practice landings on a beach within the harbour. At 1430 hours 4 September the convoy sailed in company with an escort of destroyers. The sea breeze was good, but the heat below was stifling and we were pleased to arrive at Vila in the New Hebrides on the 6th. It was our first sight of a real tropic isle though even page 228then we had our doubts about Dorothy Lamour. Six days were spent at Vila, where we had our first real taste of amphibious warfare. But many valuable lessons were learned there. A very-small number were permitted ashore, though there was little of real interest. The battery commander attended a reception given by the British Commissioner.
On 12 September the convoy put to sea again and finally arrived off Kukum Beach, Guadalcanal, on the 14th. Unloading was quickly got under way, for the area was subject to enemy air activity. The heat was oppressive and as soon as possible the battery moved from its beach to its area in a valley in the foot-hills of the island. We were not to wait long for our first taste of real active service. At 0450 on the 15th, condition red was sounded and the drone of enemy aircraft was heard. Anti-aircraft fire was intense and the falling fragments kept everyone below ground in fox-holes which we fortunately found in our area. Amongst other hostilities, the general election was held on 19 September and everyone had an opportunity to vote.
All through September we were kept busy, for in addition to a more intensified programme of training, that old bogey of working parties, which we thought we had left behind in Necal, returned with renewed vigour. It was particularly hot with a high humidity and the route marches we undertook were very real tests of endurance. There was great coming and going. The 14th Brigade spared no pains to tells us that they were to be the first and soon our own battery commander spent many hours at 8th Brigade Headquarters and many talks with our own officers followed.
After the 14th Brigade left we busied ourselves with our own preparations, for our show was under way. Then the news of the 14th Brigade began to come through. There were casualties, not many, but enough to make us think that New Zealand was now really interested in the Pacific war. As our day came nearer we waited for word, for we knew that we all could not go in the first assault. By the process that defies all security, we knew that the 8th Brigade was to make an opposed landing on the islands of the Treasury Group, off the southern tip of Bougainville Island. A skeleton battery headquarters including the battery commander, Lieutenant Bennett and Padre Ward, and G troop did a practice landing from the craft to be used in the actual assault, on nearby Florida Island. The balance of the battery was page 229divided into two echelons to land at Treasury five and ten days after D-day. Lieutenants Steer and Buist with F troop were with the first echelon and Captain Fowke, Lieutenants Black and Scarrott with E troop with the second. We felt that we had a good chance. We were used to air activity, for we had had many conditions red, and had seen enemy planes shot down. We had seen our own ships sunk by enemy air or under water action. The battery commander had been appointed beachmaster for the landing with Lieutenant Bennett as assistant. G troop was divided, two guns going with each of the 36th and 29th Battalions, who were to make the landing.
The great day came and at noon the troop embarked on LST 399 and sailed that night, 25 October. The beach party, with Lieutenant LePine, embarked on APD15 and sailed at noon on the 26th. As we look back, we can feel again as we felt then, responding to the cries of 'Good luck and good hunting.' The convoy, travelling as it did at varying speeds, joined up off the Treasury Group in the early hours of the 27th, and approached the two islands. A light rain caused zero hour to be put back from 0600 to 0630. The naval bombardment opened and the assault waves left the APDs. Two waves went in and the beach organisation was put in hand, though the enemy had only retired a short distance. As the LCIs and LSTs beached, G troop was disembarked, happily without casualty though there were many close calls due to enemy mortar fire. Things went well though the shelling continued. A more sober aspect was brought by the appearance of casualties and the knowledge that our padre had been busy with a ceremony that meant but one thing. But our infantry carried the day and as it wore on the shelling diminished and the beach area was quieter. The four guns of G troop were sited in an anti-landing craft role within the perimeter, and covering the seaward approach to the Falamai village area. Zero aircraft passed over in the early afternoon at high speed, this being due to the fact that our pals of the RNZAF had us under their wing.
The first night ashore was not pleasant. Jungle noises, small arms fire, and finally a bomb from an enemy seaplane in the middle of the dump area made things somewhat lively. Enemy infiltrations did not add a feeling of complete security. A fine day dawned and we felt that the Treasury Group was ours. G troop immediately started to improve gun pits and ready themselves page 230for action. The parties working on the beach were hampered considerably by enemy snipers. The transfer of supplies to Stirling Island had continued since shortly after the landing. The first three days provided many exciting incidents but at the end of that time things were well in hand and our infantry had the Jap on the run. The beach area was quiet and the stores dumps almost depleted. G troop was well in position and the beach job finished so that the battery commander and Lieutenant Bennett with Padre Ward moved to Stirling Island adjacent to the US advanced navy base who controlled all friendly shipping movement within the area. This was made necessary because the unit had been given an anti-craft role for the operation.
Meanwhile the echelons at Guadalcanal had seized on every scrap of news that came through and the news was good. Number '13' had stuck by us—it was definitely lucky. On the 30th the first echelon party with F troop embarked on LST 71 at Kukum Beach for the move to the Treasuries. They arrived in Blanche Harbour on the morning of 2 November and were transhipped immediately to Stirling Island into positions previously reconnoitred and where they found themselves covering the arcs of fire of G troop. Air activity was moderate to intense and many hours were spent in the fox-holes. Everyone had some experience of bombing. All movement was by boat as there were no roads or even tracks, but the settling-in process proceeded. Rations improved and we were glad to see the last of the C ration. Work during the day was arduous, for lack of sleep was evident and the infantry were still in action on the far side of the main island. Our nocturnal visitors were now receiving a hot reception from our own light anti-aircraft fire and from the US heavies.
By the middle of November, all effective resistance had ceased and the landing at Empress Augusta Bay, which we had covered, had been successful. The remainder of battery headquarters with Captain Fowke and Lieutenants Scarrott and Black and E troop arrived on the 7th and E troop was placed under command 34th Battalion, two guns being sited each in the Malsi and Soanatalu area. Effective resistance had not ceased at this time and they had their moments. Throughout the month, air activity continued and though an intensive barrage was put up bombs were dropped causing damage and casualties. The month drew to a close with the whole battery well in and as comfortable as conditions page 231allowed. During this period there were the lighter moments, but we were not together and there was not the interchange of information as in the past. The opening of December brought tropical storms, with rain the like of which we had never seen. Thunder storms were accompanied by vivid lightning and gusts of wind increased to gale force. The tent and chapel which Father Ward had erected with considerable care and pride was razed to the ground. Shipping was now using Blanche Harbour to a considerable extent and the battery commander and battery captain were able to spend an enjoyable hour aboard HMNZS Matai at the invitation of Commander Holden. At this time, the first of our beer issue turned up and some hoarding took place as the issue was on the basis of two bottles a month. But we were fast making friends—battery headquarters with its neighbours of the US navy base, E troop with its friends of the 34th Battalion, G troop with the 29th Battalion and E troop with the 36th. Some of our gunner companions of the 38th Field had formed a very lucrative association with the US Navy PT Squadron and the CBs. Early in December came Lieutenant Steer's promotion to captain and his transfer to artillery training depot, together with Lieutenants Bennett and Scarrott.
All troops were beginning to feel the effects of the climate and the insects which abounded caused skin infections which placed many upon the sick report. Lieutenant Buist was evacuted to the casualty clearing station at Guadalcanal and others received treatment at the Field Ambulance. Inward mail at this time was beyond value and much pleasure was expressed at the speed of its transit. As the unit was on a continuous operational role, it was not possible for members to move round to any extent. As many as possible were permitted to attend the dedication of the cemetery at Falamai. It was possible to obtain some relaxation from the movies, though conditions red were still with us and there were many interruptions. The morning of Christmas Eve was ushered in by a heavy earthquake and one gun of E troop was moved to a more secure platform. However, falling coconuts were the chief danger during the 'quake. Mr Black had been slightly injured by permitting his head to dispute the law of gravity with a falling coconut. There was no one keen to emulate his example.
Much interest was shown in the growing airfield on Stirling Island and this interest was increased by the emergency landing page 232of a damaged Liberator on Christmas Eve. It was evident to us at this time that Rabaul, the Jap stronghold north of our area, was receiving a pounding, for heavy bombers passed overhead at all hours of the day and night. We still continued to have much disturbed rest and a night without at least two conditions red was a rare exception. There were many during the day but with the exception of one dive bomber in early December, none approached the island.
Christmas Day was celebrated in traditional fashion when the officers waited at table and served a meal of turkey and plum pudding. An aquatic carnival was held at Falamai but transport difficulties prevented many from attending. New Year's Day coincided with the arrival of Lieutenants H. Muller, H. Keenan and Second-Lieutenant Sotheran who were to replace Captain Steer and Lieutenants Bennett and Scarrott. Mr, Muller went to E troop at the western entrance to the Blanche Harbour, Mr Sotheran to the eastern entrance and Mr Keenan to Soanatalu.
Soon after the landing on Nissan Island rough roads were pushed through the heavy jungle growth. Later the engineers transformed them into smooth highways. Below: Officers of headquarters, Divisional Artillery, outside their quarters in the jungle
When the Third Division returned from the Solomons and other Pacific islands all guns and vehicles, numbering several thousands, were parked at Mangere, outside Auckland, for final checking and disposal. Photo shows part of the park
Below: Headquarters personnel of the 54th Anti-Tank Battery taken in the Treasury Island. Below on the opposite page is a picture of guns of the 17th Field Regiment being taken ashore from the landing craft on the rough coral beach
For some time it had been felt that with the arrival of liberty ships in the harbour, the old story would return. On the last day of January a request for working parties came, together with the instruction of the brigade commander that our operational role had ceased. We were now getting more sleep at night and it almost appeared that we had ceased to be in a forward area. The divisional concert party and the divisional band gave performances and with the nightly movie life was bearable. We were brought back to earth by an occasional 'red' and warnings of 'sea bogies.' We had our first live shoot in the area during this month on towed targets and some excellent scores were put up. Other branches of the service were invited and complimentary remarks were passed. Working parties continued in March. The gun which the 36th Battalion had captured and left in our keeping was returned to them, this being due to the arrival in the area of the official photographer who took group photos of all sections of the battery. The non-arrival of parcels from home for three to five months was relieved but not all the parcels were in good condition.
The CRA visited the unit for the first time since immediately following the landing but as his time was limited, he confined his unit inspection to the immediate harbour area. Many members of the unit were members of the crews of the small yachts that now plied the harbour and the battery sergeant-major had been elected a member of the sailing committee. A highly successful carnival was held in the Falamai beach area and this gave everyone a real opportunity to meet friends. The working parties continued with renewed vigour but it was felt that many of our battery fully recouped themselves with their efforts. A kit inspection for the confiscation of US stores was held and though little was found, there are grounds for belief that much was not brought forth. As the days moved into April, rumours increased until the old query of 'when do we move out?' was replaced by the announcement that men were invited to apply for essential work at home. This occasioned much filling in of forms at the orderly room and explanations and indecision. There were many volunteers, and as the move was imminent, a concentration area page 234was set up near Falamai, to which the first draft withdrew prior to embarking. There was great excitement and anticipation. Further rumours flew about when it was announced that 50 per cent of the unit equipment would travel with the draft. We were brought back to realities at this point when a section of the battery was attached to a composite unit for a search of the island for suspected Jap coast watchers. A very strenuous three days was spent in trying weather conditions but no Japs were unearthed.
By this time it had become clear that the balance of the battery would soon follow the essential industry volunteers. All guns and a portion of equipment were prepared for shipping. On 25 April the home draft embarked on USS President Monroe and the battery was reduced from 120 to 67 all ranks. To those of us who remained, it was a sad day because of the loss of so many of our friends. On the 27th the guns and stores were loaded aboard USS Abigail Adams, our ammunition having been previously handed back to the ASC. It was decided to concentrate the remainder of the battery in the Cummings Point area at the western end of Stirling Island. Settling in was easy—we had done just this so many times and it was an already formed area. It was obvious that our stay would not be long for there were frequent conferences at brigade headquarters. The equipment, all that remained of it, was again packed and we awaited details. On 11 May a warning order was issued informing us that the unit would embark on USS Tryon on the 15th. The GOC. with Brigadier Goss, had an informal talk with all ranks on the Sunday night before our departure.
The great day dawned fine and clear and although everyone anticipated a sweltering session during the embarkation nothing was a trouble. Everything seemed to move on oiled wheels. Our trucks and guns were left in the dock area and we returned to camp to await the arrival of the ship and the order to move. It came about noon and we moved by truck back to the dock. Standing around in the tropic sun was no joke but how glad we were to bear it. At 3 pm we were all aboard and our quarters seemed good to gaze upon. At 6 pm, after a good evening meal which promised well, we stood on deck and watched the Treasury Group slowly disappear. Once outside Blanche Harbour speed was increased and our former home, with all its experiences of seven months, slipped from our sight into the tropic night. Finalcon-page 235viction that we had left it came with the announcement that it was no longer necessary to take atebrin.
All next day was spent at sea and the ship's routine was a tonic. The meals were good and the company pleasant. The destroyer escort had left us that morning and the good ship Tryon was drinking up the miles to New Caledonia. Just before dusk the promised land was sighted but a drop in temperature warned us that we were getting well south. The only excitement of the day was provided by the sight of a derelict life float and its subsequent sinking by the ship's guns. Before we went to our bunks, 'the well-informed' had it on the best of authority that we would arrive at Noumea before noon the following day. For once they were right and memories of New Year 1943 returned as we passed the lighthouse and Ile Nou and dropped anchor in the harbour. We were sorry that the 'well-informed' had not sent a signal to those ashore, for we found that we were not expected and disembarkation would have to wait until the next day. However, advanced parties with the minimum of unit gear disembarked and proceeded to the artillery training depot area at Nemeara. On 19 May the battery disembarked on to 'sea mules,' gazed with a well-founded affection on the good ship Tryon and chugged its way ashore. Trucks awaited us and we started on our long journey up the island. For many this was their first view of Noumea and the sight of the female sex was extremely pleasant. After lunch on the road at Bouloupari we proceeded on our way, reaching the artillery training depot at 3 pm. Tents were already erected, extra blankets issued, for the wind was keen, and a really good wash and an excellent meal rounded off the day. Later we rejoined our artillery friends of the 14th Brigade and were able to exchange experiences over a glass of ale. Our companions of the draft of the President Monroe were in their area awaiting embarkation, so that we did not see them as often as we would have wished. The routine in camp was a quiet one. Base kit was drawn and many fears laid to rest, for it was in excellent condition. The days until the end of May we spent awaiting immediate return to New Zealand. We were able to spend considerable time at the clubs at Tene Valley and Bourail Beach where New Zealand WAACs lent colour and, in spots, romance to a few of the bolder spirits. Equipment from the second ship had come to hand and there was work to be done. Guns were stripped down and cleaned page 236and the reduced unit did really well. While this work proceeded it was upon a limited basis and much time off was allowed. Leave was given for a week's stay at the beach; there were trucks for picnics and to take us to concert parties, one of which was from New Zealand broadcasting service. All these contributed to the enjoyment of the days that passed. The beer ration was considerably eased and life was almost as good as at home, but not quite. A committee from the unit was formed to make arrangements for a unit dance. This was a great success. The Town Hall at Bourail was filled to capacity and the partners were provided by the WAACs and the local mamselles. Prior to the dance the battery commander was approached and tested on the subject of liquid refreshment. He consented to the use of fruit juice with a small admixture of something stronger but not greater than l/24th part. On being invited to partake during the evening he expressed surprise that his drink had changed to a perfect glass of good beer. It can be safely said that it was the best evening the Town Hall had seen. Captain Fowke was marched out in a hurry to take up draft conducting duties. Sports to suit all tastes were available, though cricket and football were the more favoured in this department. It was a pleasant month but as July changed to August questions were again asked. A small draft had left for army work in New Zealand and we were a small unit. Then overnight word was received that a draft was to be prepared on the basis 'first away, first home.' A rush was made to finish the packing of unit equipment and a call was made for the West Point draft. After they had departed there remained only 12 of us, including the volunteer freezing workers who had not been called for.
Within the first few days of August word went round that a force rear party was to be formed and the orderly room pack of cards saw some happy countenances and some sad ones as the draw was shown. We were lucky and our quota was small. On the 4th and 5th all our remaining guns and equipment were handed over after a feverish compiling of vouchers. On the 6th we said good-bye to Nemeara from the back of a truck on our way to the Tene Valley Camp, where we spent a night in not the most comfortable circumstances. On the morning of the 8th we again embussed for our journey to Noumea to take our ship home but on arriving at the staging area we found that we would be due for a stay of some days. The amenities of the camp were page 237poor but, together with an American bugler who did not appear to go to bed during our stay there, we managed to survive. Leave was upon a day to day basis and we spent some of this time chasing round the post exchanges filling up the few corners that remained in our bags. Finally, when all hope seemed lost, and we felt we had become fixtures, word came to move and on 15 August 1944 all those who remained in the battery, all that now remained of the 54th, embarked upon the USS Torrens. For the gunners it was a great experience. As the ship was full from stem to stern, all officers, of whom there were many, found themselves in troops' accommodation. The weather was heavy soon after leaving harbour at 2.30 pm and it was not long before a number, many of whom were officers, offered up a sacrifice to Father Neptune. Gunners swear that it was the first time in the history of troop movement that a sweeping fatigue was composed entirely of majors. The weather continued to be rough right until the evening before our arrival in Auckland. We could say that we were almost home when the ship dropped anchor in the harbour of Auckland at 8.30 am on 18 August. Papakura Camp, we found, had not changed. Those of us from Auckland were quickly on our way home while those from south were on their way within three days. So ends the history of the 54th. Perhaps there is at the moment of writing some unit, also the 54th, fighting on the soil of Germany or on the threshold of Northern Italy or, more fitting, in the jungles of Burma. We were a happy outfit and we hope that that other 34th is as good as we thought we were. We can do no better, nor pay them a greater compliment, than to hand on to them our motto—Nil Bastardis Carborundum.