Pacific Kiwis: being the story of the service in the Pacific of the 30th Battalion, Third Division, Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force
Chapter Six — Arrival in New Caledonia
Arrival in New Caledonia
The United States troop transport President Monroe passed through the Wellington heads on 3 December, 1942, outward bound for Nouméa, New Caledonia. On board was the 30th Battalion and a medical unit. The Monroe was escorted throughout the voyage by a destroyer and the trip was an uneventful one. On 6 December the troopship dropped anchor in the roadstead of Nouméa harbour amongst the largest collection of shipping the New Zealanders had ever seen assembled. Berthing facilities were very limited and a beginning was made by discharging cargo into lighters. The troops remained aboard ship for the next six days until 12, December when half of the battalion disembarked and was taken to Dumbéa transit camp outside Nouméa. Having completed unloading of the ship at the wharf, the remainder of the battalion arrived next evening, Dumbéa became known to the boys as 'starvation camp' for no one had enough to eat and what there was usually consisted of the detested chili con carne—a highly seasoned mince-like mixture.
After sorting and stacking equipment, half of the unit left Dumbéa for Koumac. A halt for the night was made at Népoui valley staging camp, where everybody enjoyed the best meal they had had since arriving on the island. The journey was continued next day, 16 December, and the convoy pulled into Le Cresson camp, Koumac, in the afternoon.
To those who had known Momi days the signs were unmistakeable. Here was another job of hard graft and pioneering work to be done, of tent sites to be cleared, cookhouses to be erected, mess bures to be built and roads to be made. Once again the men were to make their home in a wilderness, a wilderness of niaouli and guava trees whose sameness was relieved only by the evergreens which grew along the bank of the stream. Two days later the battalion had its full complement under canvas, A company, under Captain Olsen, took over from a small American detachment the defence of the Koumac airfield—an emergency and refuelling air strip. Lieutenant Howatson took his platoon to Pam, 30 miles north on the eastern coast to relieve the Americans who guarded radar equipment. A similar task was assigned to the carrier platoon under Captain Devine, which went south to Gomen. An immediate start had been made on constructing mess bures within the camp. Rough timber requirements presented no difficulties, for the niaouli trees, a species of eucalyptus, proved admirable for this purpose, while its paper-like bark was used for thatching. By dint of hard work the companies were able to sit down to Christmas dinner in the bures. Turkey and ham were on the menu, beer was issued and to each man was given a patriotic parcel. It was a quiet Christmas in those hills with the thoughts of home uppermost in one's mind. On Boxing Day 100 men went south to the Taom River area for a few days to clear a camp site for brigade personnel who had not yet arrived on the island. No one had enthused over the Koumac site when the convoy pulled in, but now that the camp was taking shape, perhaps it wasn't such a bad spot after all. It was just that claustrophobic feeling that seized one and made one scale a neighbouring hilltop to enjoy a view. Looking down, there along the stream's bank nestled the half hidden tents, with the blue smoke from the cookhouses fusing into the background of greenery. Away to the east was that peculiarly shaped landmark—the Corne de Koumac.
Who of you remember New Year's eve? Who could forget it, page 41you reply. C company put on a concert that evening, for which the pioneers had built a stage which was decorated with ferns and lit by Coleman lamps. Tim Belsham sang, Til take you home tonight Kathleen' and Mick Parker, with the help of some watered down whisky, favoured us with, 'Shake hands with a millionaire'. The master of ceremonies with urgency in his voice inquired—
'Is Major Keenan in the audience please?'
'Yes, here,' shouted back the major from somewhere in the gloom. You could tell from the tone of his voice that he thought the Japs must have landed up at the airfield.
'Oh hullo major—enjoying the show?' rejoined Master of Ceremonies Neville Robieson. Shorty Wallbank and Harry Hislop provided humour, but Lieutenant Jim Coe as a schoolmistress had a bosom and a pair of hairy legs which excited cries of delight from the audience. There was cocoa and scones for supper but better still, under the cots up in the tents, was the hoarded beer. By the light of guttering candles the boys gathered in their sixes and sevens to sing and yarn and quaff the nut brown ale. No one knows who started it, but as midnight approached and passed, bursts of machine-gun bullets and rifle fire ripped through the trees and red tracers could be seen disappearing over the tent tops. It was pandemonium for a few minutes. And then a quiet disturbed only by stifled laughter or somebody's peremptory, 'Quick, put it away!' As 'Deejay' later described it in the Koumac Kronicle—
'The officers had all gone out
On business—so we're told.
They do a lot of business
With les femmes and nurses bold.
But their fun had scarcely started
When the colonel's word arrived
"Come home at once," he blurted,
"Or we'll lose our ruddy lives." '
Next morning at a special inspection by the officers not a machine-gun or rifle bore was dirty; not a round of ammunition was missing; not an empty cartridge case was in sight; not a soul had fired a shot. The brigadier was a spectator of the episode and for days the battalion was in disgrace.
One of the first parts of New Caledonia to be settled by the French was Gomen Point and today there still remain the ruins of page 42the mission house and the forts of the gendarmerie. The Americans had established on the point a radar station and the task of guarding the equipment from saboteurs fell to the carriers platoon. During their three months' stay they were closely associated with the American signals corps personnel and at all times their relations were happy ones. Cooking for all troops was done by the American 'chefs' and by the time it came to leave all the New Zealanders could eat and cut meat with their forks, while they were well inured to those favourites of the doughboys diet—flapjacks and maple syrup. For once tea had to give pride of place to 'cawfee', but that was because it was properly percolated and not stewed in an urn for several hours. The American custom of eating jam with meat was something the Kiwis couldn't accept. Our boys learned to play baseball and the Americans learned to play cricket; our lads also introduced a simplified form of crown and anchor—just using the two dice! On the other hand, if the Americans included any tricks of the trade in their game of 'shootin' craps', the New Zealanders probably didn't know it. They came to know the impassioned jingles the Americans used to cry for the turn up of numbers—Niner for Carolina, Eighter from Dakata, Pennies from Heaven, Little Joe from Pokino, and one they used for number five—'Five miles from home and the road is muddy'.
Men from B company photographed at Koumac, New Caledonia The mess queue at Koumac Below: Another group taken at the Koumac camp
Jungle road after rain, Vella Lavella
Some of headquarters company lunching during a route march. Left: A scene in the company mess hut at Koumac. Below: Outside the quartermaster's ration store at Koumac
The general and the brigadier paid a visit to Gomen but they couldn't stay very long—the 'skeeters' were too fierce. Day and night mosquitoes plagued the men, while at night sentries were compelled to wear gloves and head nets. In February orders were received to strike camp and return to B company's area at Koumac. The stay at Gomen had been an enjoyable one although the boys were glad to be returning to an area where they would have more scope for sport and where they would be closer to their pals in the battalion.