The Gunners: an intimate record of units of the 3rd New Zealand Divisional Artillery in the Pacific from 1940 until 1945
V — Garrison Duty, Treasury Style
Garrison Duty, Treasury Style
From a distance the Treasury Islands were the South Seas of romance come true. Mono, its steep forested hills rising to over 1.000 feet, and Stirling, a long narrow coral outcrop to the south, were divided by the calm, deep, island-dotted waters of Blanche Harbour. But it took only a few minutes ashore in the steamy, enervating jungle which covered almost every inch of it to realise that the sooner this unspoiled beauty was spoiled the better for all concerned. Man may be vile but nature in these parts is viler. Everything stank of rotting vegetation and decay and it was only when American bulldozers, not to mention New Zealanders supplied with little but their own hands, swept tracts of it clear of vegetation, that it became at all habitable. Only a handful of natives live on the Treasuries and as they produce page 166in neglected overgrown forest clearings barely enough for their own needs the bounteous tropical fruits of the fairy stories were conspicuously lacking. Coconuts were the only local products available and no one who was there will ever look a coconut in the eye again.
Food was, indeed, perilously short for several weeks and consisted chiefly of K and C rations. On the morning of 27 November a Jap plane in broad daylight made an attack on the LST just arriving with rations for the next week, this at a time when supplies were down to a few tins of the M and V hash portion of the C ration. Nobody breathed again until it was certain that the ship was unharmed. There were times when atebrin, to ward off malaria, salt tablets, to replace losses from sweat, and vitamin pills, seemed to form quite a large portion of the diet. American food, a novelty for perhaps a week, was a rapidly acquired distaste to most people. Fruit and tomato juices and tinned fruit did not pall, but dehydrated eggs, spam and Vienna sausage soon became equivalent to terms of abuse.
The supply and equipment position also remained unsatisfactory for many months. Many of those with pistols went ashore with them stuffed in pockets or tied on with string because holsters, indented for months previously, had not arrived. The supply of shovels and axes was for long inadequate. Long after the action many had neither leather nor jungle boots in reasonable condition and went about with makeshift repairs, soles flapping at every step. Even technical equipment lost in action took months to replace. The simultaneous marked increase in American apparel among the troops at this stage might have been a mystery to anyone unacquainted with the Third Division. In such an ideal breeding ground for fungus diseases, skin troubles, which had beset some men even in New Caledonia, became almost universal. It was soon no novelty to see men with faces and bodies painted all colours of the rainbow, and bearing a close resemblance to some of the more highly and embarrassingly tinted monkeys at the zoo. The most virulent local scourge, loosely known as jungle itch, caused swellings and intense irritation about the ankles and was eventually traced to a minute insect. Its ravages greatly diminished after undergrowth was cleared. After the 49th Battery moved to Mono, ringworm was rife, and several men from each battery suffered so severly from septic sores and weeping eczema that they had to be evacuated.page 167
The humidity also caused rust so violent that rifles had to be cleaned twice a day; mildew which rapidly ruined leatherware; failure or insulation in wireless sets and other signal equipment; and fungus growth on binocular and dial sights. The weather indeed, always had something new up its sleeve. Violent thunderstorms which burned telephone cable for miles and set fire to thatched roofs, cloudbursts when several inches of rain fell in an hour, gusts of wind which felled 100 foot trees across the tents, all added to the spice of life.
The batteries were originally sited at intervals along the north coast of Stirling Island, with the 49th to the west and the 52nd the most easterly, regimental headquarters being near the 49th. For long there was doubt regarding the move of one battery to Mono to cover the southern approaches to the group and long hours of conferences and reconnaissance were spent by the commanding officer and other officers in obtaining a decision from the Island Command and finding a site. Eventually the 49th Battery moved on 1 and 4 January 1944 to a commanding feature north-west of Falamai, the two troops being separated by rather over 100 feet. Construction and keeping open of the steep mountain road to these positions, especially during the rainy season, was a constant heavy strain on this battery. Expansion of the airfield and dock on Stirling left the position of the rest of the regiment extremely precarious to the end. Regimental headquarters had the worst time of it and had to move three times. Its longest stay was at Lakemba Cove, toward the eastern end of Stirling. F troop, of 52nd Battery, had to make new gun positions further east because of dock construction, and was continually having to move tents as more space was required. The same applied to the 50th Battery because of airfield and road building. The astounding development of Stirling Island prompted by the discovery that it had great possibilities as a bomber and fighter strip, and that Blanche Harbour afforded an excellent deep water anchorage, was the outstanding event of this period, The methods of American Seabees and the vast amount of equipment at their disposal were a source of amazement which only increased with the passage of time.
Needless to say this also involved work for the New Zea-landers and the 38th got its full share. The unit was on the job from the first, helping to clear the airstrip, unloading supplies first from LSTs and LCTs on the beaches and later form Liberty page 168ships at the wharf, and stacking bombs and petrol in the extensive system of dumps. It would have been hard work anywhere but in that climate it was deadly. During all this time the regiment remained in an operational role. Forward observation parties were maintained at Soanatalu and Malsi with the 34th Battalion and at Falamai with the 29th, with lines back to the batteries, involving incidentally much strenuous maintenance work by the signallers. Each battery supported one of the battalions in accordance with the defence plan and battle practices as well as normal training were held each morning. Several times when unidentified craft were reported off the coast it seemed that these arrangements might be tested but the vessels, if hostile, never came within range.
The finding of suitable ranges for live shoots in such difficult country involved much reconnaissance and the peculiar difficulties of ranging in jungle were driven home by painful experience. Regimental shooting and close target ranging in the jungle was constantly practised and the special attention given to these problems was shown in greatly improved results. In March, following live shell practices with the infantry, it looked as if further action was ahead, and the regiment was placed on 48 hours' notice to move. But the opportunity to put the past months' training into effect was not to come.
Equipment and men of the 53rd Anti-tank Battery at Matusnroto on Vella Lavella, where the heavy jungle made movement difficult. Below: Digging out a bogged jeep on a road in the early days of the Treasury show
A camp site of the 144th Independent Battery overlooking the lagoon on Nissan Island which was beautiful despite the discomfort. Below: The same battery's 'fleet' of small craft which sailed in safety on sheltered waters
Roots of pandanus, growing in coral rock, on the south coast of Nissan Island. A short but hitter engagement was fought out near this area. Below: An artillery observation post on the lagoon at Nissan Island
The 144th Independent Battery lines were on a high ridge overlooking the roadstead off Guadalcanal. Below: The Union Jack flying again over the remains of Falamai village on Mono Island after the New Zealand landing
The rest of the regiment deepened its fox-holes, added splinter-proof tops, and went to earth with increasing speed on every raid. It was too hot at this time even to sleep in pyjamas, let alone blankets, and it was not unusual to see a heavy sleeper who had wakened late, ignoring the mosquito menace and scurrying to his fox-hole clad only in a tin helmet. Extreme discomfiture fell also to an officer who spent several minutes of one condition red bawling 'Put that light out,' with lusty and picturesque variations, only to find he had been addressing his remarks to an unsuspecting and distinctly unco-operative firefly.
The 50th Battery, being nearest the airfield, was chiefly endangered by these raids. The heaviest attack on 12-13 January lasted almost all night. Several members of the unit who were visiting American friends at a nearby anti-aircraft unit found themselves landed with a job and were carrying ammunition almost all night to meet the prodigious demands of the guns. There were 57 casualties in this raid but the unit escaped with nothing more serious than a few splinters in the 50th Battery area. This same battery was well in the firing line on the night of 20 January. Five bombs landed in the battery headquarters and C troop area. One man received a scalp wound, but although tents, bedcots, equipment and personal gear suffered, the foxholes proved miraculously effective. There were also several daylight hit and run raids. In the last of these just after day-light on 15 February the 52nd Battery had a rude awakening. Pickets saw the plane, coming in low, open its bomb bays as it approached the battery, and simultaneously begin machine-gun strafing. The battery escaped both bombs and bullets though a neighbouring unit suffered.
Three-day treks round Mono always provided a sporting chance of encountering a stray Jap. A 50th Battery party saw one near Laifa Point as late as 10 March. He was in good condition and armed with an automatic rifle. He disappeared into the jungle and search proved fruitless. These occasional appearances of fit and well Japs led to a large-scale search of Mono in April for a suspected coast-watching station. Patrols from the regiment found a dead Jap, well armed and equipped, but otherwise the hunt returned empty-handed.