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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 Seventeen — Last Days in Vella Lavella

page 98

Chapter Seventeen
Last Days in Vella Lavella

There was mail waiting for those who had been on the commando raid to Green Island and nothing in the army was ever more welcome at any time than 'news from home'. The message which had been sent in clear (that is, not coded) by the colonel from Nissan Island: 'Request air cover—being heavily strafed' had been picked up in Vella Lavella and those of the battalion who knew about it feared that there had been heavy casualties in the raiding force. They were relieved to learn that this was not the case. It had always been part of the original plan that the commando raid was to be merely a preliminary to a landing by all arms later. Those responsible for amphibious operations in the Solomons group now had the information they required and it remained for them to set a date for the landing. One question which the boys asked themselves was— 'Will the Japs be waiting to oppose our landing when we return to Green Island.'

In studying photographic maps of Nissan Island prior to the commando raid specialists were unable to explain what appeared to be certain cleared stone enclosed spaces. No one formerly acquainted with Nissan Island was able to shed any light on their purpose. Bishop Wade, who had been at the Roman Catholic mission station at Burunutui, on Buka Island, Bougainville, thought that they were not the work of natives. The intelligence officer who questioned natives on the commando raid on the existence of these enclosures had himself been a planter in Bougainville prior to the war. The story the natives told him was this. A fanatical native, apparently with very persuasive powers, had convinced his fellow tribesmen that at some time propitious to the gods, food and stores would be delivered to them by a phantom ship. Sheds and enclosed spaces had been constructed on prominent features so that the ship would not miss any at night. All this had happened after the removal of page break
C company grouped on the beach at Nissan Island

C company grouped on the beach at Nissan Island

On the day of the landing-on Nissan Island fresh water was pumped ashore from LSTs and held in large canvas tanks for the thirsty

On the day of the landing-on Nissan Island fresh water was pumped ashore from LSTs and held in large canvas tanks for the thirsty

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Getting to the seat of the trouble. A medical officer from headquarters attending a native boy. Below: This photograph depicts the kind of jungle through which the men had to move on Nissan. Visibility was reduced to a few feet

Getting to the seat of the trouble. A medical officer from headquarters attending a native boy. Below: This photograph depicts the kind of jungle through which the men had to move on Nissan. Visibility was reduced to a few feet

page 99the Roman Catholic fathers by the Jap invaders. To the intelligence officer this belief of the natives was not a new one. This idea had probably been imported from Buka, Bougainville, where cargo was due to be delivered in 1932-35-38 but the Nissan Island natives had gone a step further by building sheds and enclosures in readiness. This cargo stunt had caused the administration officials in Buka much trouble before being stamped out. One enterprising native had sold pages from a novel as being passes for that time when the mysterious cargoes would arrive. The authorities, for his trouble, awarded him a term in prison.

In the ensuing days at Vella Lavella the quartermasters carried on with their packing and crating which by this time had become a routine job. When not engaged on working parties or camp duties, the men went on route marches (the good old army stand-by) to Maravari or northwards to the Juno River. A liberal ration of beer of nine bottles was issued to each man about this time and farewell parties to Vella Lavella were observed in the usual convivial manner. The 'plonk' or jungle juice manufacturers sampled new brews, the results of further flights of the imagination. Down at A company one well-known brewer was observed not to be imbibing his own particular concoction. He confessed to the fact that among the ingredients had been a plug of chewing tobacco. After a few nips Shorty Lane felt inspired to do handsprings and somersaults. Among A company's acquisitions was a launch with a small inboard motor, of which Bert Masters was the skipper. Frequent fishing trips were made in her although a fair amount of bailing was necessary. A battalion swimming carnival was held at the Mumia beach, with the old Jap barge from Gizo as the flagship.

Friendships had been struck up by boys of the battalion with servicemen among the American units on the island, notably the 77th Seabees and the paratroopers. After tea at night, trucks crowded with servicemen not only from the American units but also from the 35th and 37th New Zealand Battalions passed the company areas going to the pictures at Joreveto, Biloa boat pool or Acorn 10. Rain had fallen every day for over 50 consecutive days and very often, as at Joreveto, it meant sitting on a hard coconut log, with a cape over one's head trying to watch a picture that one wouldn't cross the road to see at home. However, it was something to do to relieve the monotony and the cinema had become a common meeting ground for page 100New Zealand units in the area, where mates from the same town could swap news. One evening two inebriated sappers climbed on to the stage and started making love to the lovely ladies on the screen, until they were howled off by the audience. If you ignored the mud under foot, Joreveto, at dusk, was a pretty spot with its orderly rows of coconut palms, parakeets and bats wheeling overhead, and the smoke from the neighbouring cookhouses drifting round the palm trunks. When better programmes offered at the American units cinema at Biloa or the indoor one at Acorn 10, the men hitchhiked along. It was the experience of the 30th Battalion through' out its stay in the Pacific theatre of war that American units were always happy to make New Zealanders welcome to their entertainments, which included pictures and concerts given by celebrity artists. Not only this but from the time the division reached the combat area a free comforts issue of 200 cigarettes and toilet necessities was made weekly by the Americans.

This little story concerns some of the headquarters company boys who, one day after the first echelon had left for Green Island, were taking pot shots at an empty petrol drum floating about 200 yards off the shore. Somone aimed, fired, and suddenly with a loud report and a sheet of flames the drum was no more. What was thought to have been empty was a full drum of gas. Smoke and flames billowed off the surface of the water. A jeep arrived on the scene very shortly afterwards and some American naval officers leapt out.

'Is the pilot out?' hurriedly queried one officer.

'What pilot?'

'Didn't a plane crash here?' said the officer.

Seen from afar it looked as if a plane had crashed in flames into the water and it took a good deal of explaining on the part of the boys to talk themselves out of trouble. Practical jokers have always had scope for their activities in the army. Two officers of a certain unit were all ready to leave Guadalcanal for the forward area.

'Have you gentlemen got everything now,' they were asked by another officer. They assured him they had.

'What about your shrouds—have you each got a shroud?'

'No we haven't got one of those—do we have to have one?'

'You can't go into a combat zone without a shroud—things are tough up there—you'd better come and sign for one,'which they did. They realised later that they had been hoaxed, but on the other hand page 101a shroud makes a good sheet and they weren't sorry.

The operation order for 'Squarepeg' (the code word for Green Island) had been issued by 10 February and companies were practised in the movements they would make on landing. Platoon strengths were to be 25 men, the remainder being appointed to unloading parties travelling with the LSTs. Not all the battalion per' sonnel would move with the first echelon, for some had to remain behind to load tents, bedcots, kitbags and less urgent gear which would go forward with later echelons. One of the problems which confronted the platoon commander was the excessive amount of gear that his men had to carry when going into action. Everything was cut to a minimum with an equitable distribution throughout the platoon, but even so, some men found themselves carrying 60 pounds which, for gruelling jungle warfare, is too much. A light machine gunner, for instance, carried his bren gun (221b.), six loaded magazines, web, water bottle, jungle knife, haversack containing two days rations, waterproof cape, a piece of towel and soap, and other inci' dentals such as mug and spoon, atebrin tablets, mosquito repellent, field dressing, sulphanilamide powder and cigarettes and matches.

On the evening of Saturday, 12 February, there put into Mumia beach two LSTs with their cigar shaped blimps, used as a protection against dive bombing attacks, floating overhead. They had come from Guadalcanal and on board was a troop of tanks which were to be employed for the first time by the New Zealand Division in jungle warfare. The LSTs would load guns and equipment and together with the LCIs (landing craft, infantry), would set out on the journey to Green Island to be joined in the night by the very much faster destroyers carrying the landing assault troops. The final day on Vella Lavella was spent in packing kit bags, burying and burning the rubbish one seemed inevitably to accumulate, trying to find space in kit bags for cakes that somehow always seemed to arrive when a move was imminent, and writing a hasty letter home with its post-script— 'If you don't hear from me for a while, I'll be all right.' Reveille was at 2.30 am on Monday, 14 February, and after a breakfast of the much abused vienna sausages cots were folded and kit bags stored. The companies formed up on the road in full kit and moved off, over the 'million dollar' bridge at Mumia (constructed of solid mahogany) up to Juno Beach. After a wait of several hours, assault boats took the troops out to the destroyers.