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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 Twenty-One — Nissan Island Activities

page 120

Chapter Twenty-One
Nissan Island Activities

Lone escaped Japs continued to be picked up by different units throughout the island. On the day of the Tanaheran action some A company men had watched from their beach bivouac site, two Japs in a canoe who were putting out to sea. Fighter planes circled over them and shortly afterwards a patrol torpedo boat arrived post haste on the scene. In spite of the disadvantage of being in a tippy canoe and having only rifles for armament, the cheeky Japs gave battle for the supremacy of the seas. The heavily armed patrol boat promptly returned the fire and one Jap was killed and the other wounded, the navy vessel closing in and taking off the wounded man.

It was' estimated that 102 Japs had been killed in the different actions in which the 30th Battalion had taken part. From reports by the natives it was assumed that 17 had been killed on the com' mando raid, 16 were killed on Sirot Island, while the remainder was made up by the enemy casualties at Tanaheran and those Japs who were wiped out by the company patrols. Offset against these figures were our own casualties in the 30th Battalion of five killed and 10 wounded. In addition there were the casualties suffered by attached troops from other units who took part in the actions on Sirot Island and at Tanaheran, and the total here was six men killed and several wounded. The American naval forces had suffered three men killed on the commando raid to Nissan Island.

The companies had now taken up bivouac areas on or near where they would be making their permanent camp sites. Some of the boys in their camp near the roadside made an impressive display of bloodstained Jap flags which had the effect of attracting numerous American souvenir hunters anxious to buy them, and also the Jap rifles which had been acquired. The swapping of flags and rifles for page 121American weapons reached such a proportion that a halt had to be called. All American equipment had to be handed back, with the result that the boys found themselves without their Jap souvenirs and also the weapons they had received in exchange. Those who had sold their battle souvenirs (for anything from 20 to 50 dollars) were not affected by the order. In the early hours of 23 February, two platoons of G company were ordered to make a search of the lagoon shores for an unidentified barge that was reported to have passed through the entrance in the night. They moved out in the dark and in passing through headquarters company lines, the patrol boys were more than fearful that some aroused sleepers might think they were Japs and that they might stop a stray bullet. No trace of the phantom barge could be found and the platoons returned to their bivouacs.

Changes were made in the allocation of camp sites and C company joined A company on the beach, while D company occupied an area near headquarters company. B company remained on Sirot Island, with the platoons separated on different parts of the atoll. Tents, bed cots and kit bags came forward from Vella Lavella and the companies went through the old routine of clearing the vegeta' tion and erecting cook-houses and mess rooms. Fresh water was rationed, for all troops on the island were dependent on the output of the distillation machines, each of which processed 3000 gallons of sea water a day. Every downpour of rain was the signal for the men to hop out in the nude and, standing under a pandanus or coconut tree, give themselves a good lather. Tins of every size and shape were used to catch water off the tent flies to use for ablutions and in washing clothes. The bridge schools got under way again. One night when a four was in progress in Tim's tent a parcel was thrown on his cot. 'Here's a cake for you Tim.' Tea was made on the primus and Tim said—'Open up my parcel,' and in double quick time the contents were devoured. Then Tiger handed Tim a note from the sender. "Well wouldn't it bowl you,' Tim said, 'that wasn't my cake at all—it was somebody else's.

For the first few weeks convoys of LSTs and Liberty ships arrived off the island nearly every five days. Working parties both day and night were supplied from the battalion to handle rations at Tangalan and Halis, or heavy bombs and equipment for the airstrip. The American Seabees working round the clock had cut an page 122airstrip from the Tangalan plantation which was ready for opera' tional flying four weeks after D-day, 15 February. Many of the natives from the Green Islands, women, kiddies and old men, had been taken back to Guadalcanal in LSTs. Deprived of the care of medical missionaries over the past two years, numbers of them were riddled with tropical diseases and were consequently a source of infection for servicemen on the island. As it was, the constant sweating had brought on an outbreak among the troops of boils, septic sores, ringworm, prickly heat and rashes. Particularly prevalent were cysts under the armpits and those men so afflicted were dubbed 'corsairs' by their mates, because of the manner in which they held their arms—something akin to the upswept wings of the well-known Corsair fighter plane. Mail and parcels came through regularly and just as well, for life on Nissan Island reached an 'all time high' in monotony. I always know,' said old Joe, the cook, 'when parcels have arrived—the boys don't come back for a second helping.'

Not since the second night of the landing, such was the allied air superiority, did any Jap plane ever actually get over the island, although air raid alarms were frequent. A new air alarm had to be devised in order to notify craft in the lagoon at night that enemy aircraft were in the offing. The alarm was the firing of three red tracer bullets, and several times working parties returning home in landing craft had to remain in the lagoon and wait for the all-clear. Every day our fighter, dive and torpedo bomber planes took off from the strip to strike at Rabaul and other New Britain targets, and Kavieng in New Ireland. New Zealand Kittyhawks based on Bougainville often took part in these raids. When the bomber strip was completed Liberator heavy bombers took off on their 11-hour sorties to the Jap naval base of Truk, over 600 miles away. Such was the confidence of air and sea executive officers at Nissan Island, that Liberty ships in the roadstead used to unload at night with the lights on. Every evening at 7 o'clock, and you could set your watch by them, patrol torpedo boats set out for the Buka passage or Feni Island, for New Ireland or New Britain shores, hunting Japanese barges.

Not very long after A and C companies had settled down in their new area, information was received over the phone at midnight that our planes had reported seeing twelve Jap barges leave New Ireland shores and head east. Many of the boys aroused from page 123their sleep thought they were going to have another fight on their hands, but nothing happened. Unloading parties, patrolling, and camp duties were the main tasks to be done. Apart from these there were tenniquoits, canoeing in the lagoon, swimming and looking for shells on the reef—all of which gives an impression of a carnival air to life on Nissan Island. Actually after 17 months in the South Pacific, any zest for island hopping that ever existed had gone. But there was always time for a laugh; without a sense of humour in the islands one would have fallen victim to melancholia. Johnnie, a Cockney lad, was sitting opposite a chap who happened to have a rather explosive method of expressing himself, and who, accidentally of course, spat in Johnnie's mess tin. Johnnie looked in his tin, then at the offender and squeaked, 'Gawd blimey chum, there's no charge for that, is there?'

On 2 April Lieutenant-Colonel J. McCrae marched in to the battalion and a few days later took over command of the unit from Lieutenant-Colonel Cornwall who was returning to New Caledonia after seven months' service with the unit. An axemen's carnival was held on the same day over at Tangalan near the air strip and as chips flew in the standing chop dive bombers passed overhead on the way to Rabaul to drop their 1000 pound 'eggs'. Ships of the Royal New Zealand Navy, the Matai, Tui and Breeze, patrolled the sea nearer the lagoon entrance and an opportunity was given for soldiers to visit pals aboard the ships and return visits were made by the sailors to the camps ashore. On 7 April a bombshell was dropped in the battalion in the form of a circular calling for volunteers to return to New Zealand and work in essential industries. Over 60 per cent of the unit volunteered, including bank clerks prepared to work in freezing works, teachers on farms and clerks in building construction. Those who had offered from the different companies moved to headquarters company area on 16 April, there to await transport south.

Private M. J. (Sammy) Syme of B company died of sickness on 17 April and was buried with military honours next day. Due to a high incidence of stomach trouble in the battalion, blood smears had been taken of all personnel and after testing it was suspected that a large proportion of the men were suffering from hookworm. Many were flown to the New Zealand casualty clearing station at Guadalcanal for the short treatment. After not having seen a white page 124woman for eight months, the boys stood a little goggle eyed and non' plussed when confronted by a nurse who said to one lad:

'What is your name?'

'Brown, Sister.'

'Have your bowels moved today, Brown?'

Not everybody was flown, some being treated at the field ambulance unit. Treatment consisted of a very liberal dose of salts, followed by a fair amount of sprinting practice. You followed this up by taking a couple of pellets the size, and colour of tommy gun bullets. These produced sensations similar to being drunk and you promptly curled up in the 'nest' for a few hours, after which you were presumably cured.

An investiture ceremony for those who had won decorations in the Green Islands campaign was held at Tanaheran on 20 April and for two recipients on the actual battle-ground where the awards were won. Those who received the ribbons of their decorations from Major-General Barrowclough were:— Major Bullen, DSO, Sergeant Reesby, DCM, Corporal Davidson, DCM (brigade defence platoon), Private Jefferis, MM, and Private Aylward, MM.

The first draft of essential industry men left in a Liberty ship on 27 April for New Caledonia. Private George Hampton of B company was seriously injured when he was crushed during embarkation between the Liberty ship and the smaller craft. Two days later the remainder.of A, B and C companies moved to headquarters area. A clearing had been made for a cinema and Private Len Gare, after a lot of coaxing, was able to get the machine in working order and towards the end of the stay several good films were screened. Now ensued another one of those dreary waiting periods which men of the Third Division had come to know so well. You looked at the well handled photo of the wife on the ration-box dressing table and thought—'It won't be long soon.' When not on working parties over at the other side of the lagoon, the boys squelched round the muddy area in underpants and boots, the almost uniform dress of officers and men alike, dropping into tents to hear the latest rumours or hieing off down to the YMCA tent for a cup of stewed tea. Cards —cribbage and bridge—occupied leisure hours and the reading of well-thumbed magazines and out of date newspapers. Generally speaking, apart from the occasional appearance of a crown and anchor board, very little gambling was engaged in by the men during their page 125service in the islands. Indeed thousands of dollars, the savings of the men, were remitted home to New Zealand through the pay office. The story is told of one unit-where a lad sold tickets to the boys for a raffle with substantial cash prices. The organiser announced that the raffle would be drawn on Sunday morning

'Who's going to draw it?' the boys enquired.

'The padre, but he doesn't know it.'

'The padre,' they incredulously exclaimed.

'Yes—Ill pay prises to the first three hymn numbers announced at church service on Sunday morning.'

There was an excellent attendance at church service.

'We will begin our worship this morning,' said the padre, 'by singing hymn number-r-r 23—"All people that on earth do dwell".' Somewhere in the congregation there was ill-concealed jubilation. And so the padre was an unwitting drawer of an art union.

The dedication service of the cemetery and chapel, attended by allied soldiers and sailors and natives, was held on 21 May. A chaplain of the American and New Zealand forces consecrated the church erected by the natives of Nissan in the burial ground. In his speech, which was translated from pidgin English by an Australian administrative official, chief Kiaplubun said: 'We natives of Nissan present you with the cemetery-chapel we have made. You soldiers of New Zealand and America are our friends. You have driven out the Japanese. You have given us medicine and food and you have looked after us well. We appreciate the work of the doctors and of the chaplain. We wish to thank you for these things. We will look after this cemetery for you and when we die our children will do the same. Now the Church belongs to you.'

Major-General Barrowclough in his speech of acceptance on behalf of the Allied forces said: 'On behalf of the American and British forces stationed on this island, I thank you warmly for the chapel which you have built and presented to us. This cemetery contains the bodies of our comrades who gave their lives in the struggle to free Nissan Island and all the territories in the Pacific from enslavement by the Japs … This chapel is proof of your wish to help us. I thank you for all you have done and all you will do to care for these graves.'

The General's speech was translated into pidgin English for the benefit of the natives.

page 126

Talk belong number one soldier. Me fella thank him you fella along house lotu you workim belong me fella. Me fella plant (buried) him, all soldier he love along fight along Nissan, along this fella mat mat (cemetery). This fashion you been work with house lotu (church) make him me savvy you can look out him good. Me talk thank you along all the work you make him behind along mat mat.'

On 29 May, 1944, the 30th Battalion embarked aboard the USS Naos and sailed south for New Caledonia.