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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 Seven — Interlude in Noumea

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Chapter Seven
Interlude in Noumea

Training areas at the back of the camp had been allotted to companies and a syllabus was adhered to as much as working party commitments would allow. On 9 January, 1943, B company took over from A company the defence of the airfield at Koumac. Like-wise the platoon defending the radar at Pam was relieved. The road to Pam passes through some of the most heavily mosquito' infested country of the island. Pam itself was once a French convict settlement and the ruins of the old copper mine worked by the deportees still stand. Art old settler and his family live close by there now and he took many of the boys on fishing trips in his launch. Parties would arrive back in camp with a sack of giant edible crabs taken off the reef, and sometimes a dugong or sea-cow, a mammal whose meat tastes and looks like pork. Some miles down the coast from Pam, near a place called Balade, Captain Cook landed on 4 September, 1774 to obtain supplies of fresh water and wood, and it was he who gave the island its name because of the resemblance of the coast to the shores of Scotland.

Opposite the camp at Pam was a shack which housed a French' Kanaka, his dark corpulent wife, the majority of their 14 children, half a dozen pigs, several filthy mongrels, and what room was left was claimed by the roosters and fowls. Poultry was usually on the Sunday menu in camp, for the Frenchman was very happy to trade his fowls for flour, salt or bully beef. The natives from the neighbouring village brought pawpaws and bananas to barter for anything the cook might care to give. Roman Catholics from the camp attended the natives' church, where mass was said by the good French father. Any misbehaviour by the native kiddies while singing the Gregorian chant in Latin, was rewarded with a hefty clip over the ear by a Kanaka elder. The lads played an occasional game of page 45cricket on the sand flats, while others preferred to swim or wander on the reef looking for 'cats eyes' or sea snakes. Everybody liked Pam for its warm sunny days and cool nights, for the walks along the beach after the evening meal when only the distant voices from the camp or dogs baying at the moon broke the silence.

Food rations at Koumac round about this time were a little on the lean side. Vienna sausages and again the awful chili con carne were the staple diet. Deer stalking parties went out by day and also by night in order to augment the rations. One day when the boys were out after deer a Frenchman came into the camp and asked to see the battalion commander.

'Ah m'sieu mon colonel,' he said, 'ze soldats' ave shoot my cattle —two of zem.'

'Oh no, impossible, m'sieu,' said the colonel. It wouldn't be anybody from my battalion. Must be from some other unit.'

The Frenchman was not appeased.

'Come and we'll have a look in the cookhouse,' said the colonel.

There was not a vestige of meat to be found. As the Frenchman made his way out of the camp an army truck passed him going in. On the floor of the vehicle were his two beasts. Brigade head' headquarters took a very dim view of the initiative of the boys who, finding no deer, had bowled over something on the hoof. Once again the 30th Battalion was in disfavour. A battalion concert compered by the padre was given on 23 January and among the invited were the local French civilians and American soldiers from Néhoué and Gomen. The divisional band conducted by their maestro, Lieutenant L. Fox, assisted with items such as 'In the Mood' and 'Ma I like your apple pie'. Len Kerr, accompanied by the band, sang 'Sons of the brave'. Cowboy songs were given by Private Hogan while other numbers were sung by Corporal Carter, Corporal Thew, and Captain D. Dalton. Supper was served to the visitors in the sergeants mess. A week later A company presented a concert, some of the jokes of which were more than a little risqué, and the edict went forth—'no more smut'. A mobile film unit came to Koumac but half way through a 'March of Time' the machine broke down and that was the only picture Koumac ever knew.

Personnel supplied by the battalion established coast watching stations at Koumac and Poume. Reconnaissance platoons under Major Cauty went out for five days, carrying their rations with them.

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They moved over particularly arduous country while mosquitoes at night made sleep impossible. It is recorded that one such 'recce' unit when out in the niaoulis came upon a Frenchman's homestead. The officer asked permission for his men to bed down in the barn for the night. The Frenchman wouldn't hear of it—they must sleep in the house. To the officer was given a four-poster bed of Louis Seize period with net, embroidered canopy and frills and furbelows. The men slept on the floor on mattresses without nets. Dive bombing mosquitoes forced the soldiers outside at dawn. But the 'one-pipper' slept on. At last one embittered private could stand it no longer and going over to the officer he shouted through the net—'Come on Abdul, get off your b—throne.'

The island commander had requested the New Zealand Division to supply working parties for the wharves in Nouméa. On 9 February, 200 men and six officers left Koumac for Noumea to relieve a detachment from the 37th Battalion. Work consisted of unloading or loading ships and barges, operating winches and stacking goods in storehouses. The unit had been allocated the five o'clock to mid' night shift and Staff-Sergeant Upton brought down a hot meal from the camp at nine o'clock. Stores unloaded were of every conceivable kind—bombs, aeroplane parts and landing field mats, rations, clothing and general equipment, which included beer. Of them all the closest supervision was given to beer. A case was 'accidentally' dropped overboard from a barge one night and Bob Purdie showed the white soles of his feet and a bare bottom as he dived to the sea bed to salvage bottles of some American brand. American negro soldiers resorted to the subterfuge of tying a rope to a case, lowering it under the water and bringing it up when the coast was clear. The dry phlegmatic ways of the negroes amused our boys. They could sleep anywhere and stacks of baled hay on the wharf proved too much of a temptation for many tired coloured boys. During their meal hour they played complicated card games. It was either that or 'shootin craps' and dollar notes changed hands to the accompaniment of impassioned appeals of 'speak to me bones'. While the New Zealanders were working in the hold of a Liberty ship unloading food rations, a negro clambered down the iron ladder and said to them—'Youse Noo Zealand guys, have youse seen any lemon essence about.' You wondered why he should want lemon essence until you picked up an empty bottle on the wharf and read the label '80 per page 47cent. alcohol'. One ship which berthed at the wharf had been out in the harbour for a long time waiting to be unloaded. Apparently it had been forgotten that included in the manifests was a consignment of fresh potatoes. The hold when opened was one stinking mass of 'goo' and flies. While trying to control a stack of timber in a sling Ginger Hickey fell from the wharf into the water. All that could be seen for a time was Ginger's felt hat floating on the water. When pulled to the wharf he roundly abused his innocent mates who were laughing too much to make any defence. The boys came to learn some of the finer points of stevedoring. After having laboured for hours loading 1000-pound bombs in the aft hold the ship's master would decide that in the event of an air raid the vessel would not answer the helm promptly enough. The bombs would have to come out and be distributed throughout the ship.

On their off-duty nights the troops attended the pictures at an American camp near the Magenta airfield. Here, in a natural amphi-theatre upwards of 2000 men gathered to see some of the latest film releases from Hollywood and to hear the island's regimental swing bands. The glowing ends of hundreds of cigarettes punctuated the darkness. Here and there the smoke from fires of rags and papers, lit to drive mosquitoes away, drifted among the servicemen. Some soldiers brought flit guns to use at intervals throughout the performance. It needed only one pair of chorus girl legs on the screen to create bedlam in the audience. Pathetic cries of 'Take me home' could be distinguished from other inarticulate groans.

Nouméa, the capital city of New Caledonia had a peace-time population of 11,000. Its populace consists of a polyglot mixture of French, Javanese, Tonkinese, Kanakas and people of indefinable caste whose skins varied from café au lait to 'off' black. During the day time the residents were in the minority to American soldiers, and marines, New Zealanders and Free French white and native troops. It was pleasant to sit in the town square under the shade of the flowering flamboyant trees and watch the activities of barefooted Javanese women in their multi-coloured sarongs. Perhaps the charming French mademoiselles are quitting their shops and offices for lunch. An American sailor adds an incongruous note as he promenades through the park with a Japanese sunshade over his shoulder. Javanese boys of no more than four years smoke cigarettes given them by servicemen, with all the aplomb of their elders. French house-page 48wives out shopping greet each other with a touch of the hands and animatedly exchange gossip. Army trucks, crowded with soldiers who have eyes only for the girls, rattle through the town. The men, of course, after many weeks in the bush welcomed an opportunity to discover Noumea. Many invited themselves aboard a famous aircraft carrier in the harbour, and not the least interesting point about the 'flat-top' was its excellent ice-cream. Providing it was in stock, liquor could be bought in the beer garden triangle in town, although it meant going to the end of a 100 yard queue every time more beer was wanted. One soldier, having patiently made his way to the head of the queue, was confronted with—'Sorry fellers—all sold out.' The Kiwi turned to his mate and said—'If I had a gold mine in New Caledonia and a home in Hell do you know what I'd do?'

'No,' said his very dry pal.

'I'd go home.'

If the beer ran out there was nothing else to do but to patronise the milk bars, cafes or the American Red Cross Centre. For something with a kick in it there were French dives and 'honkey-tonks' which sold synthetic or low grade spirits. Those who came to know 'Butterfly' brandy or 'Marie Louise' gin or so called Pernod were reminded of it for days afterwards. Nouméa has several excellent beaches where swimming and sunbathing can be enjoyed. A weekly trip was made to the Dumbéa River to enable the men to wash clothes. The post exchange and navy canteens were patronised by the troops who bought cigars, cigarettes, candy and shoes. Major Keenan later was wont to call the working party 'the well dressed men from Noumea'. Not all their acquisitions were from canteens—some, shall we say, were 'presents from the seaside from Uncle Sam.' At the completion of the month's work the party returned to Koumac to end what had been an interesting break from normal army routine.