The Gunners: an intimate record of units of the 3rd New Zealand Divisional Artillery in the Pacific from 1940 until 1945
IV — We Reach Maturity but Suffer the While
We Reach Maturity but Suffer the While
For the next few weeks artillery headquarters had only one purpose; to plan for the landing on Green Islands (Operation Squarepeg). For this operation artillery personnel had to be gathered from three different islands. For the first time we were to have three American units under our command and good liaison with them in the planning stage was of the utmost importance. Not only had the staff to be thoroughly conversant with American army and naval terms, but they had to be able to understand the broad lazy drawl of Lieutenant-Colonel Jere Moore from New Georgia, and his other 'rebel' officers. In the main, 967 AA Gun Battalion was from the south and it was thought for that reason it had chosen the code word 'Rebel.' Certainly at first it was difficult to understand them but later it was found that we did speak the same language. There was the handsome Major 'Pee Willie' Ferrell; Lieutenant Tom Wann from Minnesota—when not smiling he was worrying over obtaining his captaincy. Easy to remember was Captain Jack Smolens— 'Think of Smolensk,' he used to say. Then there was courteous Lieutenant Joe Aherne, the adjutant, commissioned in the field for good work at Guadalcanal during a heavy raid. These were interesting days, finished off usually with a visit to 'Hollywood Bowl' for the movies. With its ceremony and surroundings this was quite the most magnificent open-air theatre in the Solomons. Major Spragg left temporarily on 28 January to go with the commando raiders to Green Island. His reconnaissance carried out, he returned on 2 February. Conferences became more frequent; there were despatches for units. Discussion with radar personnel took place. Talks with air spotters followed. Liaison had to be made with US naval forces participating, to study their methods of fire control in case fire from naval ships should be needed to support the landing. Maps and models were studied. On 9 February the first packing was begun and on the 12th, in the afternoon, the first echelon embarked on LCIs for Vella page 49Lavella. Two later echelons were to follow, the first under Captain Crawley, the second under Lieutenant Owen. The sight leaving Guadalcanal was inspiring. There were 12 LCIs in line screened by six destroyers. Bringing up the rear was a vessel which looked strangely out of place until someone said it was used for salvaging any craft which might strike uncharted reefs. Shortly after lunch the next day, Vella again loomed out of the haze. Slowly we all wheeled, making for a landing beach, while the destroyer escort raced up and down the channel between Vella and Kolombangara lest there be a lurking Jap submarine in these waters. More troops were taken on board. Above was the ceaseless drone of friendly aircraft on patrol. How secure we felt!
At 0900 hours on 14 February we were passing the Treasury Islands. From now on there were friendly planes covering our approach. During the night there were two night fighters. Even so, several LCIs were bombed and strafed. Dawn on the 15th saw us off Nissan Island. It was only the activity that caused one to look again, for land was scarcely visible. The highest point is only 100 feet above sea level. But there ahead, by straining our eyes, we could see the first wave going in from the APDs (assault personnel destroyers). These were some of the old four-stack flush deck type, 50 of which were transferred by the US to England in return for the lease of naval bases. They had now been modified; two funnels and two boilers had been removed and they now carried four small landing craft to convey each wave of men to the beach. These destroyers had been in a separate convoy and had come by a different route. The first was to hit the beach half an hour before personnel from the LCIs landed. As we circled, awaiting our turn to go through the narrow entrance into the lagoon, an alarm was sounded. Above us were Japanese aircraft about to attack. Orders were for everyone to| go below but they were difficult to enforce. There was suddenly a loud cheer as first one and then two more enemy planes were shot down by New Zealand fighters and fire from the destroyers. By now we could see signs of heavy mortar fire ashore.
During the next few minutes, away on the horizon, we noticed the barrage balloons of the convoy of LSTs (landing ship tanks). These were much bigger vessels and were carrying all the heavy equipment such as bulldozers, guns and vehicles. As a protection against hostile aircraft each had unleashed the barrage balloon page 50carried on deck. By now we were in line again and racing towards this tropical atoll. Slowing down to pass through the narrow entrance, our hearts were glad to see our own troops patrolling on either side. They had prevented any enemy fire being brought to bear on us at such close quarters. Hurriedly we turned sharply to starboard and headed for the white coral beach. Everyone was alert and ready. Aircraft flew low overhead. They were friendly. Then came a slight bump. Yet the ramps were not lowered. Someone had sighted a Jap barge well camouflaged under overhanging branches. The LSTs were now in the lagoon. They had seen it too. Motors roared in reverse. We backed away and then came the crack of 20 mm oerlikons as they blazed shore-wards. Support was soon added by the 'de-plonk-de-plonk' of 40 mm Bofors. Even 50 calibre tracer could be easily seen. The atmosphere was tense, eased only on one ship by the US captain rushing forward and firing his 45 colt revolver! Suddenly the fire died down. Again we edged in. There was another bump: the bow rose slightly and the ramps were lowered. As we raced up the beach, away to the left came the spatter of a machine gun. We had landed on Nissan Island.
In this unofficial history it is not thought necessary to record the official part played by artillery headquarters during the next few days. By 1030 hours line communication had been established with divisional headquarters and 17 Field Regiment. Other artillery units could be contacted by wireless. For the first few hours artillery headquarters could be seen disappearing below ground as fox-holes were dug. In siting headquarters, part of a swamp, unfortunately, had been chosen, and this was not conducive to comfort. One advantage, perhaps, was that a large hole was dug into which seeped brackish water. With this we were able to wash. Green Island had no natural fresh water and it was some days before the salt water distilling plants began to function properly. As was expected, there was an air raid the first night. Because the radars were not functioning the heavy AA could not fire. When they are in action one is not filled with such a helpless feeling. The terrific crack of a 90 mm gives a great uplift to morale; there is that feeling of 'hitting back.' But this night all one could do was to hug the ground a little closer. Gradually the peculiar whirr of their motors could be heard. Would they pass to the right or left? No, these seemed to be coming directly at us. Suddenly the engines stopped and in the page 51stillness could be heard the swish, swish, as the planes went into a dive. Hearts began to beat a little faster. In the night, when you cannot see a yard ahead in the jungle, it always seems as if they are. looking for you personally. There was the roar of motors in full throttle as each climbed out of his dive. Above the roar could be heard a horrible whine. Bombs, and several of them too. Tenseness grew. The whine became deeper and there was the swish, swish again. Then a kind of smothered 'wumph, wumph' and instantly one relaxed. These must have landed somewhere near an unloading beach. 'Bick,' with a small party, had gone down earlier to watch our dump of unit equipment. There was relief the next morning when they appeared.
The first evening will also be remembered for an incident which might have had its tragic side. An officer had gone out from headquarters to investigate a breakdown in communications of one of the artillery units. Lest anyone should mistake him for an infiltrating Jap, he left us, calling out his name in a very loud voice. Some little time later he returned, but by now his voice must have grown tired, or perhaps he felt he was on friendly ground. At any rate an NCO on the perimeter of the camp decided that the noise was not wandering pigs. He reached for a grenade, raised himself quietly and flung the grenade in the direction of the sound—two, three, four seconds, and then bang! There was silence for a brief moment, followed by a string of oaths. The grenade had missed its mark; the officer was safe.
Having completed a reconnaissance of the new camp area, a small advanced party moved down to the southern end of the island on 22 February. This was to be our final camp site in the Solomons. Only the previous day about 70 Japs had been found in this area and it was reported that there were still several roaming the jungle tracks. Many times was the party awakened that night by noises in the undergrowth, though by now we had become accustomed to the jungle waking up at night. There was always the shrill 'yap, yap' of the jungle toad, so well camouflaged that it was a waste of time looking for it. One could also hear the screech of iguanas. Near at hand rats squeaked, always loud and frantic when they were caught in the vice-like grip of a large land crab. These last could be heard clattering all over the ground as their inquisitiveness took them into everything which might be lying on the ground, whether it be a haversack or a pair of boots. As the days went by more trees were cut down, and as page 52the undergrowth was cleared another tent would be erected. Early on our arrival at Green Island, Captain Swan left and his place as staff captain was filled by Captain Crawley.
Twice during our four months' stay on the island there was an unpleasant plague of small furry caterpillars. On crawling over the skin they left a slight swelling which, at first, was itchy, and then became painfully sensitive to touch. These caterpillars let themselves down from the trees on their thin threads and, having reached the ground, they then began to climb again. They were such a distressing inconvenience that there arose a practice of taking some simple precautions. On waking in the morning, the tent and one's clothes were searched. People inspected each other when they met. The last thing at night was always the habit of making sure there were none inside the mosquito net before it was tucked in.
On 20 March we had our first visit from the official photographer, who took many photographs. In the evening he returned and caught the 'brig' in his bath. This bath was a piece of canvas which fitted inside a light folding frame. It had travelled with the brigadier all over the world. There was one day when suddenly a snap kit inspection was called to find out if any US equipment was held by members of the division. Some of the articles recovered from the unit were 45 colt revolvers, carbines, even two 30 Browning machine guns. One fellow had a large boatswain's lamp used by the US navy; another reluctantly parted with an airman's flying jacket. Once again boredom was relieved by the movies. There was even a USO show, when Eddie Peabody, of banjo fame, entertained us. In the late afternoons we often played deck tennis. In April, a draft left for return to essential industry. Major Spragg. went with them and Captain Horrocks became acting brigade major on 14 April.
The staff will always remember the relief occasioned when the Mark XVI radars were removed. These were surface radars attached to the coast artillery. When operating they picked up all manner of things, from ionized clouds to lumps of land which were submerged at high tide. Unfortunately, there was no means of telling whether the object reported was friendly or otherwise. Liberty ships which came to Green Island could not enter the narrow passage, so during the daytime they lay off the entrance. At night they retired on a set course to a certain point, when they changed course for another point, and so on. By the morning page 53they would again be off the entrance into the lagoon. It follows, therefore, that all through the night reports would be coming in for checking, to see whether the objects reported might be a liberty ship on her 'retirement' track. Several times, too, it was thought that Jap barges were approaching, but on investigation it was found that the objects were American PT boats whose intended arrival had not been notified.
On 13 June work was begun in striking the camp. Never has it seemed so easy; and never has it been done so quickly and willingly. For the last night everyone was able to sleep under cover. Early on the 15th advice was received that we would be embarking at about 1430 hours. American officers paid a last call, and many of the men were noticed saying good-bye to other allied friends. The 967 Gun Battalion sent a party over to gather up the chickens which had been wandering around the camp. We had gone to Green Islands with the Americans to establish bases for air operations and PT boat patrols. Our engineers had helped to construct the two airfields; the bomber strip over 8,000 feet long was the longest in the Pacific theatre. During our stay many of us had made lasting friends with American sailors, soldiers and airmen. In parting from them we were sorry. The thought that this time we were going back towards New Zealand filled us with gladness. Our particular friends from 967 Battalion took us to Halis Wharf, where we embarked on an LCT. It was very hot. Someone was passing round the bottle. Without asking what it was, Percy James took a mouthful but opened his mouth too wide. He spluttered and coughed. Tears came into his eyes. He thought it was coco-cola. It was neat rum!
Slowly the LCT ploughed across the lagoon to the entrance. There were five large vessels lying off the island and arguments could be heard as to which was our ship. For a while we circled and then approached a liberty ship, US transport Rotanin. Once more, fully equipped, we climbed up the nets. Discipline was not so severe. There was a lot of excited talk and loud laughter. One officer had difficulty in scaling up with a small puppy inside his shirt. Having been given a meal, everyone went up on deck and gazed out towards Nissan Island. How long had we waited for this situation! Other troops were taking our place and we were returning, at least to New Caledonia, probably to New Zealand. As it grew dark, lights could be seen ashore. One felt the ship shudder and almost imperceptibly Nissan and its lights began to page 54fade. We were under way. A soft cheer was heard passing round the ship.