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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 Eight — Village Vignette

page 49

Chapter Eight
Village Vignette

Butch tells the story of a certain sergeant at Koumac who had a fear of the poisonous spider commonly called the 'Black Widow'. On his nightly visits to the 'five-holer' sarge was wont to light a match and by a process of rigid inspection and elimination reassure himself that he wasn't putting a vulnerable part of his anatomy in range of the 'widow'! However, prior to one of his nightly ventures, the 'ole had been treated by the sanitation squad with high octane petrol. That night there were still lots of inflammable fumes, it seems. Our sarge lit his match, lifted the lid, and you can guess the rest. Next day sarge was walking round camp with singed hair and eyebrows.

In a letter to his mother a soldier describes some of the places and people that men of the 30th Battalion came to know so well. 'All is well here in our home in the hills. The days pass pleasantly enough in training, roadmaking or doing camp fatigues. We have been on some short route marches lately. We went to a little mining village called Chagrin the other day. Nearby is mined chrome which is used as a hardening agent for steel and it is especially valuable in war time for armour plating in warships and tanks. On one side of a grubby stream reside the French people. It was refreshing just to see people living normal suburban lives, to catch a glimpse through open doorways of easy chairs and carpets, to see starched linen airing, and kiddies playing in the garden. Somewhere a tinkly piano is being played. Memory tugs at your heart strings and you think of those country dances at home on Saturday nights and the girls you knew. On the other side of the river lie those people who are several steps down in the social strata—the Tonkinese and the Javanese. The Tonkinese are indentured labourers from Indo-China. Their women folk wear half-mast black sateen trousers and bolero-like coats with wooden mules on their feet. Their teeth are page 50stained black with betel-nut chewing, but even so with smooth olive complexions some are not without good looks. The kiddies, usually trouserless, stand on the side of the road and in shrill voices cry— "penny, penny". Tonkinese shanties seem to be built from packing cases with pages from last year's illustrated papers used as wall paper. Fowls and bantams perch on the doorstep while the inevitable mongrel scratches its fleas. Many of the Tonkinese have completed their term of indenture but the war prevents their return to their homeland. Seven miles from our camp is the straggling village of Koumac We have come to know some of its residents by sight. It consists of a school, hospital, post office and a few scattered houses. A local dignitary who is usually in his bare feet gives us a wave from his verandah as we march by. Then there is the baker who makes crusty French twist bread and we know, too, a widowed French' woman and her little kiddies who does sewing and laundry for the boys. We are not the first allied soldiers to be stationed here, for a company of Australians was here soon after war broke out. They were followed by US troops who were in turn relieved by ourselves. I came across a homestead far back in the hills the other day. A New Caledonian, a veteran of the last war who served in France, lives there with his lovely teen age daughter. He told me that on returning from the battle fields of France he resolved to quit the towns and carve for himself a home in the wilderness. Inscribed in the cement of his living room floor is this legend—Persévéres et la vie sera belle (Persevere and life will be beautiful). He grows his own coffee, has his own cattle, makes his own wine. He is an escapist who has apparently succeeded in his mode of living. His daughter showed me some fur covered bats wings which she uses to make purses and bags.

'Some of these lonely people like little Lorraine are pathetically eager to have someone to talk to. Lorraine lives with her mother and brother in a thatched mud-walled cottage. She showed me photos of relatives in France, of French soldiers of the last war, of Australians of this war who were camped close by. Would I like some oranges and freshly ground coffee—yes? She hurries away to get them for me. Fanny, a Javanese woman, is a well-known character to the boys. Her spouse, a Japanese, is interned now. Nevertheless she is quite happy to cook eggs and an occasional chicken for the lads, The officer or NCO who happens to be in charge of a small page break
Going on board an American destroyer for the raid on Nissan Island, which paved the way for the landing a month later

Going on board an American destroyer for the raid on Nissan Island, which paved the way for the landing a month later

A jungle home pictured by one of the official artists with the Third Division

A jungle home pictured by one of the official artists with the Third Division

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The New Zealand cemetery near Bourail, in New Caledonia is sited on rising ground near the main road to Nouméa. All the New Zealanders who died in the Pacific are now gathered there

The New Zealand cemetery near Bourail, in New Caledonia is sited on rising ground near the main road to Nouméa. All the New Zealanders who died in the Pacific are now gathered there

page 51detachment nearby, she always calls "my capitaine". Within the camp natives have made a start on thatching the officers' mess. They bring mandarines and oranges to camp to barter or sell to the boys. Especially do they like to obtain old clothes or smoking pipes. The natives are under control of the local gendarme to whom payment is made for their services. This I take it enables the gendarme to deduct any taxes or dues which may be owing by the kanakas. It has rained heavily during the week. One officer while returning from a route march stepped into what he thought was an innocent puddle was a newly dug latrine which had completely filled with water. Darkness falls early now. I attended church service on Sunday evening in the dimly lit bure. Our closing hymn was:

Holy Father, in Thy mercy,
Hear our anxious prayer
Keep our loved ones now far distant
Neath Thy care'

On 2.7 March the road-house at Taom River, erected as a recreational centre for men of the 14th Brigade, was opened. It was necessary to have two members of the battalion to serve on the management committee of the road house. There was no dearth of candidates offering and here they are with their electioneering campaign catch-cries:

  • Brownie, C. C: Brownie for blondes, brunettes and beer.
  • Cosgrove, C. J.: Ready and right for the road house.
  • Crone, T. M.: For care of your interests.
  • Ferguson, P. D.: Service for the soldiers.
  • Nicholl, A. L.: For new ideas.
  • Rattray, C. L.: What you want is what I want.
  • Ryan, S.: The man for results.
  • Spencer, W. P.: Service is my aim.
  • Waters, A. F.: The man for the men.
  • Westphal, W. R.: The wiliing worker for the workers.
  • Privates Ferguson and Cosgrove headed the poll.

The Styx was the name given to the exercise by brigade units which took place in the vicinity of Pouembout township at the end of April. It was on this manoeuvre that the jungle hammocks made their debut and proved their worth. In a letter home here is how one infantryman described his experience:— 'Our task demanded that we spend one night on a river bank prior to crossing in assault page 52boats just before dawn. The mosquitoes decided to be there in mass to mark the occasion. I tried everything including wearing my respirator to escape them. I had a towel wrapped round my head and a jersey covered my face and neck. My hands were a problem. I tried putting them in my pockets, under my armpits, or wrapped in a groundsheet—all to no avail. At zero hour we crossed the river, formed up, then mopped up the "enemy" in the village and moved on. Then lo and behold up comes the rum ration. I had one sip and it took me a minutes to get my breath back. Never had I tasted such chained lightning. It was terrific. Some of the lads were delightfully vague about their subsequent movements. It transpired later that the rum should have been watered down before it was issued. Back then to the bivouac area tramping through mud which gave one an added sole of six inches. It was hard going and we were glad to reach our camp. At night the boys lit fires and sat round singing "Deep in the heart of Texas" until their mattress of pine needles called them. Next day we left on our 70-mile trip to Koumac. We had lunch on the truck—one ham sandwich and two dog biscuits. Home looked good to me when we arrived.'