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Pacific Pioneers: the story of the engineers of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Pacific

Chapter Ten — Green Water

page 58

Chapter Ten
Green Water

The first care of troops in tropical islands must be health. This is so much so that a whole chapter of this story has been devoted to the RAP and its achievements. Prevention, however, is better than cure and one special task of the engineers has always been to provide a pure and if possible, tasty supply of water for all purposes.

The problem in Fiji was a particularly complicated one. Streams in the coastal areas there are all polluted, some seriously, and could not be countenanced for human consumption, at least by our standards. Many small seasonal streams running down the soapstone gullies, and shaded by hibiscus, provided little more than breeding places or choir stalls for introduced toads. Necessity for treatment was found even with well supplies; and although a lower standard could be accepted for use in washing and bathing it was essential that all supplies should be kept under constant supervision. The initial problem of a satisfactory supply for the troops expected in Samambula was simplified by the existence of an excellent town supply from Tamavua. This had only to be connected with the camp to meet all drinking needs. A reservoir receiving 36,000 gallons an hour and capable of holding 10,000,000 gallons, in a climate which over 56 years has averaged some 120 inches of rainfall and rain on 250 days in the year, was not likely to let us go dry. The task of maintaining this supply presented a growing problem when numbers in camp increased. Consumption reached tremendous figures as the months went by and the weather grew thirstier. Maintenance repairs brought down the total used from 88 gallons a man to 68. Later page 59on, with stricter control and further checking, some reasonable consumption figures were arrived at—reasonable enough to satisfy the army, even if the Suva authorities still found them excessive. A foul water supply run by pumps and motor from the nearby creek was installed to feed three main batteries of latrines and the fresh water supply thereby further conserved. With shower baths and uncontrolled flushing we ran through about 25,000 gallons a day on this arrangement; but a light duty man with nothing else to do but control leaky ball valves, etcetera, kept the system in order. In the Namaka area, 18th Army Troops Company erected a pumping station, rapid sand filter tanks and a holding tank to supply water from the Nandi River. This work and the installation of the chlorinating apparatus was completed and put in operation by the 20th Field. It provided an excellent supply svstem for both Namaka camp and the Nandi airfield, upwards of 10,000 men. Three diesel engine-driven generators supplied light for the area.

On the dispersal of troops, however, the work of water supply was greatly complicated and the increased roading and bridging was chiefly on account of the need for water access, even the 'Singatoka Special' being impressed for transhipping water to Momi. Not that rain was unknown on the dry side Official figures given for 29 years at Lautoka showed an average of 70 inches a year with rain on 111 days, so that every now and then one might expect a little shower to lay the dust.

Again in New Caledonia we found that purification of water was necessary. In spite of what appeared to be ideal sources of supply, medical testing indicated that all Necal water required treatment before use by the troops. Rainfall was only 40 inches per annum and streams often ran very low. Water point surroundings, however, were in some cases idyllic: trees, grass, a tent, the ripple of sparkling green water and the insistent whisper of the inescapable 'mozzie.' Yet with a book in the shady nook and the regular customers satisfied with their quota from the S tank's store of properly bug-proofed and tasty can, the water point was at least restful—unless the pump broke down. Driving the water cart might offer more worries, especially in the wet times when the roads were difficult and the prehistoric Water carts failed to behave sensibly on the slippery bits. We had upset several of the water carts before we were finally reduced page 60to the original idea of a lorry with a tank on it. In this regard it is interesting to note that a request for modern water-supply plants, made before the' move from New Zealand in 1942. was countered from Army Headquarters by the statement that new and up-to-date water carts were being supplied. These, on arrival, were found from experience and dates on the castings to be of 1914-1918 vintage. Repeated further requests finally secured from New Zealand water-supply sets made up locally on the pattern of the American sets and to the CRE's suggestions. Though crude in construction owing to shortage of parts, they proved reasonably efficient in operation under most difficult conditions. It was these sets which, as mentioned below, turned out water on Guadalcanal in astronomical quantities, and were on Mono almost bombed out of existence.

The erection of showers came regularly within the purview of the waterman. Every camp site had to have new ones, on the bank of the stream preferred, lest by soaping the water in the river we should kill the cattle downstream. Finer points were occasionally worked for brigade units by introducing a 'hot-shower unit' lorry. Such was that on the banks of the Taom to which long files of dusty infantrymen trapsed across a suspension bridge to wash their bodies in the lukewarm water. The 37th Field Park had an excellent private hot-water system made from petrol drums which they carefully took with them on their moves. It was heated at first from wood tires, later from oil burners. Since no valves were available they had an ingenious device whereby the water was turned on when the rose was unscrewed. The 23rd Field Company showed its superior capacity for keeping on the water waggon by erecting, on Guadalcanal, a structure known as the 8th Brigade showers. These were run by another ingenious contraption of plugged stoppers in a wooden trough, fed from a small stream by a No. 4 pumping set and producing an excellent shower bath over a platform based on abandoned bridge piles.

It was the same old game again on the 'Canal. We recced for a water point, we established a water point, S tank and stand complete, not forgetting to advise HQ of its whereabouts. Then day in and day out we ran the point for streams of water carts who would try and double their quota of cans and, by all correct army drinking standards make our sums come out wrong. From page 61storied streams like the Kokumbona and the Matanikau we drew off incredible numbers of gallons, supplying five to six thousand at least from an average of 10 hours pumping time daily.

If no water point were adjacent we had recourse to the water diviners. These gentlemen astutely discovered water near the sea and provided us with wells. A diviner's life was not always a happy one, since majors and sergeant-majors were known to threaten one at least with ceremonial burial in his own well. This particular feat of divination was one of two, still bone dry at 20 feet down. With pneumatic tools and explosives; however, results might be regularly expected at 15 feet. If good water was found a shower of sorts could be rigged up, with bucket brigade or pump, in order to wash off the brine of a warm and sticky ocean swim. Reconnaissance along mud jungle trails for a suitable water supply, and that perhaps under fire, was the next advance in our water trail. Rough corduroying of access tracks became immediately necessary in the jungle areas of Vella and Mono and added to difficulties of successful provision. On Mono on the first day of operations, two water points were set up at opposite ends of the perimeter formed across the base of the Falamai Peninsula tongue. Past these sets on the next three nights the Japs infiltrated, imitating toad calls and bird shrieks, tapping and scratching the sets in the pitch black darkness, but strangely enough making no effort to sabotage the plant or to tamper with the yards of canvas hose which lay about waiting to be cut to ribbons.

The value of bulldozers as a means of getting water trucks out of difficult holes was amply demonstrated in the early days of both shows. A single 1,000 gallon canvas tank on a stand of rough timber was the usual picture of a water point, and upward of 2,000 troops might be supplied from one base point. The true nature of the engineer's work in water supply is even better illustrated in the detailed account of water reconnaissance supplied in Lieutenant R. W. Syme's account of operations on Vella.

Washing difficulties were met more easily in the forward area since the streams were purer and water supply abundant. A typical rainfall sequence for Vella was 1.05 inches on the first, 1.9 inches on the second and 4.14 inches on the third day of the month, and this at the end of 50 consecutive days with rain! Mono was little better. Engineer improvisateurs, however, often page 62
This map of Velia Lavclla indicates unit areas and areas of action

This map of Velia Lavclla indicates unit areas and areas of action

page 63had recourse to patent washing machines. These were built on the churn principle with handle and wooden barrel complete. They could do your wash in no time, provided the hot water and suds didn't run away too soon. The necessary hot water was supplied by a special diesel-oil, drip-feed, home-made burner, or alternatively supplied from the cook's burner when he was boiling the CSM's benzine tinful. The improvised tank battery of the 23rd Field on Mono was yet another example of adapting circumstances to meet special needs. Here, at one point, the water supply for drinking was scarcely adequate so seven springs were led into a coral sanded rock trench, thence to a battery of 44-gallon drums, where the sediment was allowed to settle and at the same time a drip-feed purification with alum and chloride of lime was carried out. The lake on Stirling Island and the two water points on the streams supplied their quota of water, but particular care was taken here owing to the prevalence of dysentery among the natives and also among the Japs who had occupied the island. Here too the hot shower, single rose, heated by diesel fuel, came into its own.

As soon as we heard of the peculiar nature of our last island home, Nissan in the Greens, rough attempts were made by some engineer officers to make condenser sets for sea water. The recce patrols assured us that there was no water at all to be found there and that we were in for a dry time. They little knew the mind of the sapper! It was on Nissan, however, that we dug our last well Once more, in spite of diviners, we were still dry at 30 feet, so we used it as a rubbish dump and ceased to recce for water. With the assistance of the gear of the US naval construction battalions (otherwise the Seabees) we were able to provide 250 gallons of fresh water an hour from the Cleaver-Brooks distillation units. This water was quite clear and not salty to the taste, nor did it need any chlorination. It was in this island that sappers were first heard to cheer at the onset of tropical showers. They were badly needed to fill with water the 44-gallon drums, the Jap saki bowls, the tin hats or captured rice bowls, all of which collected by means of betel-nut or bamboo spouting from the tent roofs. This water could not be used for drinking or in the cookhouse because of its flow over camouflage paint, but it was most acceptable for ablution purposes. In fine, a total output of 5,000 page 64gallons drinking water a day from the airfield and mission headquarters plants satisfactorily met the presumed Jap argument that Nissan Island was not worth having.