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The Gunners: an intimate record of units of the 3rd New Zealand Divisional Artillery in the Pacific from 1940 until 1945

V — On Vella Lavella

On Vella Lavella

The task of clearing the remaining Japanese from Vella Lavella island was allotted to the 14th Brigade. American forces had already cleared the southern part of the island but there were between 500 to 700 of the enemy left in the north-western sector. The brigade was organised into three combat teams, one troop of the 207th Battery being allocated to each: A troop to the 37th Battalion team, C troop to the 35th Battalion team and B troop to the 30th Battalion team. D troop remained under the control of battery headquarters.

On 18 September, battery HQ of 207th and A and C troops in their respective teams disembarked at Maravari after an un-page 117eventful trip in landing craft from Guadalcanal. D troop landed at Uzamba on the same day. As attacks from the air were still considered likely the troops were deployed at the respective landing beaches immediately they got ashore. B troop arrived with the 30th Battalion team a week later. The landing areas were moderately civilised in the sense that plantations and native villages were dotted along the coast, providing breaks in the dense forest, and some road making had been done.

On 21 September reconnaissance parties, including the troop commanders of A and C troops, left by barge for the forward areas. The 37th Battalion party went along the north coast to Doveli Cove, where A troop eventually came ashore a day or so later, while the 35th Battalion party, coming up from the south, picked on Matusoroto Bay as its base, and C troop disembarked there on 24 September. Both troops had been pruned down for the operation. There were no roads nor any heavy road-making equipment in the sector and communications with base areas on the island were by sea only. All equipment taken had to be manhandled and consequently the bulky and weighty fire control instruments were, left behind as was camp and cooking gear. Half a shelter tent and the proverbial toothbrush and spare pair of socks were about all the personal gear that could be carried on the man. Gun teams were cut down to nine men and they were nine very busy soldiers. No early warning information was available and the approach of enemy aircraft was signalled by spotters on each gun—up to three men at a time being employed on this task during daylight hours.

Once the guns were ashore the tasks of clearing the jungle to provide arcs of fire and of setting up gun emplacements were undertaken forthwith. Much to the disgust of C troop all sandbags at Matusoroto had been sequestrated to satisfy the requirements of Brigade HQ for its command post, and as coconut logs were being levered painfully into position where the sandbags should have been, hearty denunciations of all higher formations, their ancestry and habits thickened the air. While the digging in process was going on the infantry were making steady progress in reducing the enemy remnants and by 7 October, after some hard fighting in most severe conditions, the two teams completed their task at Marquana Bay.

Although not in the firing line, both troops encountered many of the hardships peculiar to the combat area. The look-out kept page 118was not in vain, for 'C 2' gun bagged one of a group of dive bombers which ventured into Matusoroto Bay after breakfast one morning. In the closing stages of the campaign a large Japanese flying boat flew over every night to drop supplies to the dwindling enemy garrison. Both troops were anxious to get at it, but the target would have been almost impossible to see and it was considered that anti-aircraft fire would only reveal our positions without offering a reasonable chance of success. Both troops remained in the forward area for some weeks after the fighting ended but conditions became gradually more civilised. The greatest landmark was the change to B rations (i.e. the normal type of meals with bread) on 18 October. By this time most of the men were quite unable to face any more of the American army field rations, C and K, on which they had existed for more than three weeks without a break. Kitbags and camp gear were brought around by barge and mail also began to appear regularly. There were still occasional alerts but the bombs dropped in the distance or in the sea. Meanwhile B and D troops had been holding the fort at Joroveto village on the south-east coast and it happened that they got quite as much shooting as the troops in the combat zone. D troop was, in fact, the first of the regiment to engage an enemy target. This was 21 September and although the enemy was not hit he showed no inclination to press home his attack. Guns from the same troop engaged two more planes over Vella Gulf four days later but no positive results were seen.

During the last few days of September enemy air activity was increasing and on 1 October the main body of the 209th Battery arrived from Guadalcanal in a large convoy which proved irresistible bait to the Japanese. Despite the curtain of fire put up by the guns on the ships and ashore, the Japs made persistent attacks on the landing craft when most of the 209th guns were still mounted on the decks of the LSTs on which they had travelled. A detachment from K troop, under Sergeant L. A, Donovan, distinguished itself by getting smartly back into position after it had been scattered by the blast of a near miss and shooting down one of the attacking planes. Then occurred the most tragic event in the history of the regiment when a bomb landed directly on another LST, killing Sergeant M. J. Healy, of M troop, his whole detachment and several Americans. Several others were wounded, the gun and much equipment destroyed page 119and the ship was set on fire by the explosion. in the resulting confusion Battery Sergeant-Major W. D. Campbell and Gunner W. G. Donnelly—to mention only two—played a gallant part in getting wounded personnel off the ship and salvaging equipment. Later in the day another gun crew had a miraculous escape when a bomb crashed through the deck alongside them and failed to explode. Some 207th Battery guns on the beach had a busy day also and 'B 2' gun claimed a probable kill, although it could not be credited to them for certain as no wreckage could be discovered. The 209th got ashore without further incident and the victims of the raid were buried on the following day. A monument was later erected to their memory by members of the battery and it was unveiled on 28 November at Nairovai by Major G. H. Turner in the presence of Major-General Barrow-clough, who praised the good work done by both batteries in the Vella Lavella engagement.

Early in October a gun operations room was set up, to which the two troops of the 207th Battery at Joroveto and the southernmost troop of the 209th were linked by 'hot loop.' This enabled early information of targets picked up by radar to be conveyed to the guns without delay. The 209th Battery was used mainly for beach protection at first but later settled down along the east coast from the mouth of the Mumia River northwards to Biporo. Battery HQ was at Ruravai, linked up by a road with Joroveto and Barakoma to the south. The tasks of the battery included the protection of an American battery of 90 mm anti-aircraft guns and their radar installation at Ruravai and the 209th guns were linked with the American early warning circuit. Stand-to at dawn and dusk was the rule at Vella until just before Christ-mas, by which time attacks had fallen off and it was considered that the early warning system was reliable enough to ensure that the guns would be manned in ample time in the event of a raid. The ending of the stand-to periods, which were a continual strain on the gun detachments and were rather a sore point with many, was received with acclamation.

The re-introduction of a training syllabus was received with grunts all round, but the programme was not unduly strenuous and the completion of camp construction and the dropping of stand-tos eased the burden considerably, but maintenance of equipment always called for vigilance and constant work in the hostile climate of the Solomons. Working parties could also be page 120relied on to fill in those idle moments. To make up for the lack of. enemy planes, live shoots were carried out by day and night and bush patrols and small arms training were later added to the syllabus. Grenade throwing was also indulged in, to the discom-forture of Hec Sutherland, the battery sergeant-major of 207th, who trusted in the protective power of a tree once too often and was injured by a burst which came from the wrong angle.

After combat operations had ceased recreation was encouraged and both batteries combined to represent the regiment in swimming sports which were held at Joroveto on 27 December. Christmas was celebrated by an excellent dinner and the relaxation of duties to the greatest possible extent. YMCA huts were set up and a roadhouse for recreational purposes was opened in a former plantation building near Joroveto. The National Patriotic Fund Board service showed a marked improvement about this time and a number of welcome extras were supplied for the festive season. By the end of the year occasional refrigerated cargoes of food began to arrive and fresh meat, butter and vegetables were very welcome items for a few days after each ship came in. Entertainments followed the usual island pattern. Picture shows were soon introduced and there were occasional visits from the Kiwi concert party, the divisional band and sundry American entertainers. A native choir gave one or two performances which impressed all who heard them. The natives of Vella Lavella in particular gave great help to our forces and, in common with the natives of the other islands on which the division fought, they undertook to care for the graves of our fallen.

Vella was blessed with abundant streams and rivers and the water supply was never the problem here that it later became on the Treasuries and Nissan Island. However, the island was otherwise quite typical of the Solomons and had their normal characteristics; humid heat, scorching sun, drenching rain, magnificent timber, creeping mangroves, jungle creatures, jungle noises, 'jungle juice,' land crabs, scorpions, bats, birds, bugs, coconuts, the mosquito anopheles and General Mud. Hardened no less by these surroundings than by their introduction to com-bat, the two batteries moved on to take part in the Green Islands occupation, heartily sick of the Solomons, but confident of their quality and determined to give of their best as long as duty called.