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Pacific Kiwis: being the story of the service in the Pacific of the 30th Battalion, Third Division, Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force

Chapter One — Early Days in Fiji

page 9

Chapter One
Early Days in Fiji

As the ferry clock tolled the hour of eleven on the morning of 11 November 1940, soldiers thronging the decks of the Rangatira, stood to attention to observe the two minutes of Armistice Day. Hardly had the sound of the siren which signalled the end of the hush subsided, than hawsers were cast-off and the ship slowly moved out from the wharf to the accompaniment of cheers and farewell messages to those on the quay below. With the 30th Battalion on board, the Rangatira, preceded by her escort HMS Monowai, passed down the Rangitoto channel on that sunny November morning, out' ward bound from Auckland for Fiji.

The 30th Battalion was originally formed from men who had entered camp with the first three echelons, the officers and other ranks being withdrawn from mobilisation centres in both islands and sent to Hopu Hopu camp at Ngaruawahia. There they were formed into a mixed infantry battalion and became part of what was subsequently known as B force. The majority of the men of the 30th were South Islanders, the 29th (the other infantry battalion in the force) being comprised mostly of North Islanders. With the exception of certain officers, the association of these men with the 30th was to prove a brief one for, on completion of their tour of duty in Fiji, they were to return to New Zealand and be absorbed in reinforcements proceeding to the Middle East.

Spirits were high among the the troops on the Rangatira on the day of departure, for the prospect of an introduction to island life, a trip home, and then abroad again, lent a pleasant angle to soldiering. For the moment the disappointment at not going to Egypt was forgotten. Days at sea were pleasant, except for those soldiers who page 10on their first sea voyage found they were not good sailors. Near Suva, the Rangatira parted company from her escort and, moving up the coast, passed through the reef to dock at the Lautoka wharf on 14 November 1940. Leaving a company behind to clean up the ship, the remainder of the unit moved by motor transport and by the Colonial Sugar Refining Company's cane train to Namaka, 17 miles from Lautoka.

The camp was still under construction by the 18th Army Troop engineers, and settling in was attended by all the disadvantages of a hot climate and strange surroundings. Showering facilities were inadequate but the Nandi River fulfilled the wants of the troops in this direction. The commander of the battalion was Lieutenant Colonel J. B. Mawson MC, ED, who had organised the formation of the unit from its inception in Ngaruawahia in September 1940. After the unit's arrival in Fiji, Major M. Steele acted as second in-command of the battalion, in which appointment he was later confirmed. In reflecting on those early days on the island one officer says—'Order came out of chaos only by dint of hard work on the part of the engineers under Lieutenant Goodsir, and our own chaps. We were woefully short of equipment and had to improvise at every turn, until gradually our stores came through and conditions improved.'

On 25 November there occurred one of those many scares that troops in Fiji were to come to know so well. Information was received that what looked to be an armed merchant cruiser had been observed off the Momi passage. Confirmation that she was a friendly craft was not obtained and the battalion was ordered to take up battle stations. Our troops had rifles and ammunition, vickers guns and a number of light machine guns, though these were much below the normal establishment. A plane from the RNZAF flight at Nandi, piloted by the late Flight Lieutenant Griffiths, flew over the ship and after much difficulty he exchanged signals to confirm that the vessel was the Monowai, Liaison between the services, it was said officially afterwards, was poor. The boys expressed themselves in much less euphemistic terms.

'We were like a bunch of tramps in those days' says one old Fiji and Middle East veteran. 'We were issued with shorts that had been stowed away in ordnance stores since the last war. The metal buttons had rusted through on to the cloth. The shirts, also of World War I vintage, started to rot across the back. Our felt hats page 11refused to assume the prescribed shape and our knee length puttees were moth eaten. We scrubbed our worn out old-time web and cleaned both sides of our brass. No wonder they gave us smartening Up exercises.'

The band arrived from Samambula before Christmas, and on Christmas Day preliminaries were carried out for the sports which were held on Boxing Day. Next day, his Excellency the Governor of Fiji, Sir Harry Luke, KCMG, accompanied by Brigadier W. H. Cunningham, CBE, DSO, commander of all troops on the island, inspected troops and air force personnel at the Nandi aerodrome. In January 1941 one platoon of D support company left for Momi bay, to construct a semi-permanent bivouac area. It was intended to relieve the platoon on duty there every two weeks. The remainder of the battalion were on camp fatigues or on the 'bull-ring' doing elementary training which in a tropical climate is even worse than it is in a mobilisation camp in New Zealand.

On 20 February word came of a hurricane warning, and tents were struck and men moved with their gear into the mess rooms which were reinforced with cross beams. The Nandi River rose 20 feet but the camp was spared the full force of the hurricane. Suva, on the other hand, was in the direct path of the blow and sustained considerably more damage than did the western side of the island. Power lines were down all over the island and communications were maintained only with difficulty. The camp at Momi was blown down by an 80 miles an hour wind and the 35th Field Battery's camp there suffered a similar fate. By 22 February the gale was a spent force and the men at Namaka were able to move back into their PWD tents.

All roads led to the Lautoka hostelry on Saturday afternoons, although some men preferred to stay in camp to do their drinking, where beer was but half the half-crown charge for a bottle in the township. One still remembers that 17 mile trip to Lautoka with a suicidal 'wog' driver at the wheel. Apparently the Indian drivers thought that to be passed by any other station waggon was to lose face in the eyes of their customers. Town picket was a job to be avoided if possible, for many soldiers found the combination of heat and several beers too much for them, and had perforce to be conducted home. The town's restaurants were fully taxed by soldiers eager for a change from the uninteresting army diet. A soldiers' page 12club had been opened in Lautoka, where afternoon tea was served by-lady helpers, mostly wives of the CSR company officials, and it was a service much appreciated by the men.

Indian tailors found their services much in demand making shirts, shorts, and a more presentable version of a 'monkey jacket' than was the issue one. At night there was the cinema or perhaps a dance at the CSR hall to attend, although most preferred to make their way home after tea with their purchases of dress lengths, silks, tortoise shell and other souvenirs. Taxi drivers appeared to be fair game, for some soldiers were known to stop the taxi at the guard house in order to hand in their leave passes, and fail to return to pay their fare.

Of many 'don'ts' proclaimed to the troops two were continually stressed—'Don't fraternise with the natives and don't enter their villages unless you are invited.' All villages were out of bounds after sunset. It was soon apparent to everyone, after their arrival on the island, that the Fijian people were a very likeable race, and the natives themselves were very happy to welcome any self-invited soldiers who visited the villages. It wasn't long before the peculiar qualities of the native drink, kava or yaqona, were being related and descriptions given of native dances or ta'ra-la-las as the Fijians called them. Native dances in Lautoka were of course taboo, and any soldier who ventured on the dance floor was very quickly escorted off it, forcibly if necessary, by the provosts.

'A11 the men sit round the room' said George in describing a ta-ra-la-la in a village 'and then a bula girl sidles up to you and with a hissing noise and a hitch-hiking gesture, indicates that she wants you for a partner. Side by side, with arms round each others waist, you do a shuffling mincing step to the chant of the younger kiddies and the older women. After a while the combination of coconut oil and BO—boy!'

Saweni beach, on the road to Lautoka was a popular visiting place on Sundays, and on one occasion the motorists of Lautoka arranged a trip to the beach for 100 men. Nandi township was somewhere to go to fill in a few hours, perhaps to order a pair of sandals from the local Indian shoe maker, watch the Indians playing soccer, and then adjourn to the back of one of the local Chinese stores for a cup of tea and to hear the latest gossip. Life was quite bearable and each month's service brought one nearer a trip home. Mosquito nets page 13weren't proof against 'mossies' and the beds had bugs in them, but the climate was good, there was plenty of beer, and yes—there was always that trip home. Cricket was played on the top parade ground and one evening a boxing tournament was held with visiting competitors from the Fijian Defence Force and the Nandi Boxing Club.

It had always been the intention of force headquarters to give troops on the eastern and western sides of the island an exchange of roles, for although Namaka had the better climate, Suva had the social amenities and places of entertainment. Orders were issued for the change over and by 7 March the whole of the 30th Battalion was installed in Samambula camp while the 29th Battalion had moved to the vacated Namaka camp. On 10 March Brigadier Cunningham, accompanied by Lieutenant-Colonel J. G. C. Wales, MC, attended the camp for a ceremony given by the natives of the island of Kandavu who handed over five tons of fruit and vegetables as a gesture of goodwill to the New Zealanders. A kava ceremony was held, which is one of the most ancient and honoured customs of the islands of Polynesia. When a new governor arrives in Fiji his authority is recognised by a ceremonal kava drinking attended by all the island chiefs, who thus show their loyalty and allegiance to the British Crown.

The unit found its sectors on this side of the island very different from the lonely mosquito ridden stetches of Nandi and Momi Bays. Work already begun by the 29th Battalion on the positions at Lami, Suva town and Suva Point was continued by the 30th. It was hardly fair to site a section post outside the bar-room door of the Metropole Hotel—at least that's how the sergeant felt about it although the men considered it a very good idea—even if it was an expensive one. It was usual to march down to the sector from Samambula camp in the morning, passing the neat little Indian girls in their pink uniforms going to school. The troops arrived with their shirts, such as they were, sopping with perspiration but in the interests of the white man's prestige, shirts were not allowed to be removed in public. Coming as they did from a white man's country, the men found it difficult to appreciate the position of the white residents of Fiji, who are so very much in the minority. After lunch, which the quartermaster brought down from camp, one could go for a stroll round the town in hobnail boots, and perhaps just pop one's head in the door of the bar of the Garrick to see if any friends were page 14breasting the rail.

Some days were devoted to training in the camp area, which was preceded by an inspection and sometimes a battalion parade. Clothes, apart from their condition, had to be clean, both sides of web brass polished, web scrubbed white, scabbards blacked and all mason bee nests extracted from the bores of rifles. Instruction followed through-out the day ranging from a little revision of 'one-Stop-two' to the ever popular 'cover from view'. It is related that a corporal, while giving instruction on the lewis gun, held up the feed arm pawl, and asked one of the class, who was partly Maori, to name the part. The private scratched his head for a moment and pondered. A big grin came over his face and then he replied—'Him te mess orderly.' Which reminds one of another Maori in the battalion who in spite of his almost incorrigible behaviour which brought him before the colonel on numerous occasions, still retained the happy ingenuous traits of his race. 'You know,' Colonel Mawson said to him, 'you keep on coming before me and I have to keep on punishing you. I'm going to ask you this time what would you do if you were in my place?' The Maori hesitated and then with a twinkle in his eye said—'Sir, if I were you—I'd give him another chance.'

Platoon stunts took place on the hill among the guava trees at the back of the camp. These normally ended with the 'I saw you first' arguments until dismiss for the day sent everyone scurrying for the showers. Dinner was at five o'clock and the evenings were generally free. Letter writing and reading occupied the men at night, providing they could survive the banter and chaff of their companions who might have returned from the wet canteen. Attendance at the wet canteen was dependent on the nearness to, or distance from, pay day. The rendering of 'There's a troopship just leaving Fiji' was best heard on pay night. A picket of sergeants was on duty at the wet canteen at nights, their main job being to prevent the smuggling of beer from the compound. Many were the subterfuges employed to get it out. Some preferred to suspend the bottle inside their trouser leg from a string on the belt, others found that a bottle could be carried out in one's sock, while still others pushed it under the wire netting to collect later.

Back in the hut the inevitable ukelele would appear, and all would join in singing sentimental songs of home and mother, or the always popular south sea island melodies. 'Lights out' came at 10 o'clock, page 15but before that came the preliminaries of searching one's net with a torch for mosquitoes or bed bugs. The 'last post' sounds from battalion headquarters hill, the slat beds protest as their occupants turn, and someone starts to talk in his sleep under his white canopy.

On Anzac Day, 25 April 1941, a ceremonial parade was held at Albert Park, Suva, and was inspected by Brigadier Cunningham. Each day now brought its contribution of rain towards the 120 inches average annual rainfall. The wet weather syllabus consisted of weapon training, sand table exercises and lectures on the role of the troops in the Suva area. Football and hockey were played at Albeit Park on Wednesdays, while at the week-ends games were played against local civilian teams. The time was now drawing near for the relief of the garrison by fresh troops from New Zealand. On 23 May there arrived in Suva on the Rangatira the first section, first relief, some of whom were posted to the 30th Battalion. The 29 May saw the first exodus of men returning to New Zealand. On 18 July the troops were inspected by General Sir Guy Williams, who was homeward bound for England after having advised the New Zealand government on the defence of the country. Of the first section, second relief which arrived in Fiji on the 14 August, 17 officers and 389 men were posted to the 30th Battalion and a week later the second section, second relief marched into Samambula camp. By the end of August 1941, with the exception of certain officers and hospital cases, the original members of the battalion had arrived back in New Zealand. Each draft before leaving had been addressed by the brigadier, who complimented the men on their good conduct and the willing spirit which had characterised all their endeavours on the island.

All newly arriving troops were dubbed 'white leghorns' by the old hands who were tanned by months of tropical sun. It was a term which aptly described the reinforcements when they made their appearance in shorts, displaying pink knees and white legs.