Pacific Pioneers: the story of the engineers of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Pacific
Chapter Four — Holes
So many and so varied were the holes dug by engineers in so many and so varied islands that a special section has been devoted to their description. For some sappers the knowledge of these hardly goes beyond the fox-hole stage, but for the old hands there are holes worthy of the name; and at least one company considers that its great memorial was just three extra big round holes. Historically speaking the sappers' job has always been to build saps and we have proved no exception to the historical rule. Armed with gelignite and monobel, with pickaxe, shovel and compressor, we have sapped many a sapper and many an officer. The general principle of action has been aptly summed up as: 'If the enemy doesn't get you, the sappers will.'
Long experience gave the sappers of the 20th Field especially the right to pose as experts on 'holes.' Infantry working parties of the 29th and 34th Battalions did their share of the work in Fiji but where explosives were concerned 'bungin' 'em in and blowin' 'em out' was the special delight of the sapper. On Suva side the 20th began with tunnels for air force reserve petrol, at Tamavua. Small ones 30 feet long and seven feet wide complete with doors were followed by a consignment of 10 more, 100 feet long and 10 feet square. It was a case here of all hands to the compressor. The bulldozer grunted about in a valley of limes, the high whine of the compressors was drowned by the clatter of a dozen airpicks biting into the soapstone, willing hands made lighter work of the heavy going and 'gelly' from being a mysterious and dangerous substance became an entrancing new toy. Not only did this and later work prove invaluable in the page 24scheme of peninsula defence but the experience gained in handling explosives was incidental but invaluable training for war. In later days it was easy to send off, at a moment's notice, a couple of men for hole-blowing with explosives; and when, on 7 December, 1941, the war came to our doorstep there were men well equipped to make craters at whichever door the Jap might seek entry.
The sappers' prentice picks were now turned to a bigger and still more important job. This was the Sealark Hill tanks, the biggest single work attempted by the engineers in the Pacific period, and a good job, well done. Excavations were begun on 10 November, 1941 for three bulk petrol tanks for the RNZAF. The project required digging in soapstone and rock three pits. 50 to 70 feet deep, one with a diameter of 58 feet and two with diameters of 48 feet. To dispose of the spoil into the muddy arm of Walu Bay the erection of an overhead runway became necessary. A twenty feet high tubular steel erection was therefore put up over the Walu Bay road for that purpose. In spite of doubts, which the designer never shared, it took the strain.
Operations began with the sinking of shafts near the Suva technical school and the simultaneous driving of tunnels from the cliff face near its base. The shafts were then enlarged, chutes were erected at the bottom and the spoil was trucked away as it was taken out from the top. In the bay the pile of spoil became more and more conspicuous to the prospective enemy plane and as the three months scheduled for this burrowing passed the adventures were many and varied. Courts of enquiry were held to account for at least one explosive charge, laid by an Australian, which effectively damaged a civilian's toe some distance away, a corporal's skull, a few Indian chooks, and the culprit's bank balance. Paddy's immortal lament, 'Ma nawz is broaken' was occasioned by an unexpected fall down the hole, but his was not the only crash. One officer, too industriously inspecting, fell down the shaft and suddenly turned up in the spoil at the bottom of the hopper. Sent to hospital with a broken leg, he earned fame as 'Chief scentsor'. The title was well earned by his attempts to gain experience of gas warfare He wore his respirator while reading the more putrid of sapper letters and, developing tinia beneath his plastered foot, unwittingly gave rise to doubts about the efficiency of drains.page break
Thousands of tons of creamy coral sand were taken from this pit at Torahatup), Nissan Island, for surfacing the roads. Continual traffic and rain combined to turn jungle roads into muddy drains, as shown in the lower picture of Lieutenant-Colonel J. Brooke-White on Vella Lavella
Sealark, unhappily, was situated rather too near the main road for comfort. Since the proprieties must be observed, war or no war, it was considered infra dig to appear bare to the waist, even in 95 degrees of heat, Shirts must be worn, we were told. We might cool off in the camp showers at midnight, singing as we cooled, but even our cobbers did not seem to appreciate that. A taxi or two passing below collected lumps of soapstone, an RAF boat newly painted got spatterings of coral, a sapper collected a permanent headache from lumps of tubular steel, and at least one officer nearly collected a passage to glory before a truck of spoil rushing onward to tip itself into Walu Bay. Greatest of all the scoops, a Pleistocene whale's tooth was salvaged from the mud of countless centuries, evidence together with a broken prehistoric egg that, in spite of any suggestion to the contrary, romance still lingers. The job was finished two weeks before schedule and elicited complimentary letters from the air force and divisional headquarters as well as sighs of relief from the midnight shifts.
While the wet-siders grew grey with soapstone on Sealark Hill, battle headquarters and air raid shelter tunnels, the Namaka men, the 23rd, were also engaged on 'holes.' They were no three-holer team but specialised in a multiple type. Of their operations on a Black Rock, harder than Hardrock's, a later chapter gives more intimate detail. They had other feverish compressor tunnelling put into Red Hill Three shifts worked six hours each for some three weeks for this part of the big airfield protective scheme. Underground ADS shelters, 12 in all, timbered and often roofed with flattened tardrums, were a special line. One at least had concreted floors, walls and roof complete and was only excelled by the great underground hospital at Tamavua. This latter work was not wholly engineer, but provided facilities for Dad and the impish Dave, along with Uncle Bill, to poke about the nurses' home with theodolites, while sappers coaxed compressors and tried to stimulate the working parties to corresponding effort. The 24th Army Troops, not to be outdone, added their quota to the air raid underground shelters.
At the same time, smaller holes, too numerous to mention,. were dug from Suva Point to Londoni with preparations to blow up any Jap who might come. With jumping bar, pick shovel, and a little explosive we became more and more expert, our 'hole 'policy being eloquently summed up by a famous Scot. Our Scots- page 26man is digging a hole at Ballantine's School. Enquires a certain colonel, all curious, 'What are you doing?' Says Scotty, all politely, 'Digging a hole, sir.' Says the colonel, 'What for?' Answers Scotty in Gaelic monosyllable, 'Scrater!' Then asks the colonel, 'Are you going to blow it? ''Maybe 'curtly answers the Scot. 'But don't you know?' persists the colonel. 'Well,' says the sapper ponderously, 'it depends. If it's hard, I'll blow it and' (condescendingly) 'if it's soft. I won't.'
We mapped our New Caledonian progress with a train of drains, latrines and gonophones. Holes were for once at a discount. But we were warned. Officers returning from the forward area brought back tales of diving into fox-holes while Jap planes strafed the countryside; and, while the padre meditated the chances of cornering us at last and having a real heart to heart talk, we pondered the wisdom of supplying ourselves with entrenching tools. We had practised slit trenches during the big scare in Fiji but the first real fox-holes we found were on Guadalcanal. Arrived there we found them really desirable, and though we did not produce anything much more than a slit trench type at first, we took cover on several occasions from the visits of 'Washing-Machine Charlie.' The shrapnel bogey did not seem to be as wicked as some had asserted and, anyway, it was much more pleasant to linger on the logs at the entrance of the hole, in brilliant moonlight, than to sleep or snooze in the continual droppings of dirt down the neck, the attentions of long-legged swaying insects or the fun of having ants in the ear. Searchlight displays and night fighters on the prowl kept the interest up.
HQ Div Engineers and the 20th, arriving first on Vella Lavella, dug in on the slopes of Gill's plantation, but the coral a few feet below the surface everywhere made a compressor a most helpful item on WE (the war establishment table of equipment). Coconut logs made good roofing, although in the early rush for head cover there was such indefensible action taken as making use of corrugated iron from the QM, tent-bags of coconut matting, or anything else that looked likely (even if quite unlikely) to stop a bit of shrapnel. One great difficulty experienced was finding one's fox-hole entrance or the sleepy way back to the tent on those dark and rainy nights which some Japs seemed to prefer for their visitations. Fox-holes, too, were much appreciated by snakes and landcrabs. In fact they used them more than we did.page 27
One tough sapper, sleeping nude beneath his net, woke to the din of ack-ack guns and the crump of bombs. He dived for his hole only to be bitten amidships by a snake. They say the snake died. But generally, in spite of the hovering noises overhead, we preferred to curdle up in bed and hope for the best. We could, if the swishing noises got too near, always roll off the camp stretcher and underneath it!
On Mono there was little need for the doleful wail of sirens to make us dig in, but again we found the coral beds none too easy to construct quickly. For our defensive positions against possible Jap infiltration we aimed at allowing room for four comfortably seated bodies, with possible space for two passers-by. Headroom was always a difficulty unless, as in some of the permanent American shelters, one went the whole hog and dug in sufficiently for bed and all. In solid coral, however, this is not easy. In later days on Nissan, when the evening hate against the pigs opened up, the engineers on Red Beach found a hole or two handy, but in other than these few cases we reverted to the well-digging and general holes of the New Caledonian days.
We have much to be thankful for in that, though we may have slept once or twice on Sealark shift at the bottom of the hole, or even dozed off for a few minutes in a fox-hole, we have not had to sleep in any of the holes we dug, except for the short periods of actual combat on Vella and Mono. Last war pattern trenches were left behind on the perimeter defences of Fiji and for sleeping purposes, and indeed for all purposes, we feel that the most useful holes that we have dug anywhere were those in which we interred 'for hygienic reasons' some of the Japs.