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

Chapter Five — Roads and Aerodromes

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Chapter Five
Roads and Aerodromes

As the result of a New Zealand Chiefs of Staff conference in 1938, survey parties from the aerodrome construction branch of the PWD conducted widespread investigations for possible airfields on a large number of islands in the Pacific. After consideration of the information received it was decided that two airfields would be constructed in Fiji and one airfield on Tonga. In August, 1939, construction was commenced on the work in Fiji at the Nandi Field. This drome had four grassed and well drained runways, two of them 800 yards long, and two 1,000 yards long, with all the facilities of an air force station provided. Seaplanes alighting areas at Lautoka and at Lauthala Bay were also constructed, buoyed and lighted at about this time. When the Japs attacked in the Pacific the immediate problem was to convert the existing drome into one suitable for use by Fortress and Liberator bombers. This entiled approximately 600,000 yards of excavation, the formation of two runways up to a mile in length with dispersal areas, as well as the diversion of both railway and roads. In this big job the New Zealand engineers were able to play a helpful part.

There were tall stories circulating in Fiji before the CCU (Civilian Construction Unit) appeared. We had heard that fabulous amounts were being paid the civilian workers in it and rumour ran riot. However, in our state of chronic shortages both in men and material, we had occasion ere long to bless the CCU most heartily for all the help, official and unofficial, which we received on our own army jobs. Happily for us, too, the famous signal 'Nandi aerodrome bombed' which stirred the Samambula page 29sappers from their battle headquarters one morning of panic, proved to be part only of a rather too realistic battle practice.

The original 8th Brigade Group had early in 1942 been brought up to divisional strength, but as engineer personnel had not been increased to the same scale as infantry totals, there was an inevitable lack of engineer gear and personnel. Equipment continually expected was slow in arriving, so borrowing perforce, we developed the technique of what were later known as 'Barrow-dough's Forty Thousand Thieves.'

Brigadier L. Potter, officer commanding the 14th Brigade, having decided on strategic grounds against the use of Namaka Camp as a central headquarters, a further network of roading became imperative. The transfer of the Namaka Hospital to Sam-beto, deviation around the airfield, the battery and water point access roads called for a heavy roading programme coincidental with an already full works and defensive demolitions scheme. For all these jobs, too, we were dependent upon loans from the Lautoka district engineer of his equipment The CCU helped with carryalls and bulldozers also. The 23rd Field provided the sappers to supervise gangs and, to the fullest extent of its limited personnel, co-operated with the PWD. Construction of vital communication roads was also a feature of the Suva fide works. Here the sappers with gangs of Fijians and Indians built Mead and Cunningham Roads which acted as communication lines between Samambula Camp, Tamavua Hospital and the perimeter defence area. Re-alignments necessary on the Nausori road bends occupied not only the 20th but also the 24th Army Troops when they came on the scene. At Wainimarama Creek, where Corporal Dave Harris of the 20th Field met his unfortunate and fatal accident bv riding his bicycle into the river, a further shot-firing accident put CSM Bill Cromie into hospital with a sore head and led to the death later on in New Zealand of Staff-Sergeant 'Blue 'Harvey of the Army Troops Company. Then an additional communication road was provided by Army Troops and the 20th running down from the Tamavua ridge to the coastal road and so providing a lateral connecting road and access to an emergency water supply. Constant care and maintenance was necessary to keep going the little equipment we had, but by August, 1942, when we left Fiji, there was no doubt that we had made our mark there.

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Route Coloniale No, 1. running the length of the New Caledonian south-west coast, was never designed to withstand the pounding of heavy convoys. It was already in a bad state of repair when we arrived. While some roading equipment was sent from New Zealand it was in poor mechanical condition and totally inadequate for the work involved. However we set about the task of maintenance and the roads showed a steady improvement throughout our stay, most notably the 23rd Field's Bourail to Houailou stretch and the 20th Koné to Kaala-Gomen stretch along which a dilapidated grader was always preceded by a red flag. Field Park had the busy sector about Nepoui to care for and was kept busy to say the least of it. But although we were glad enough to leave the whole job to the works company when it came, our road work in New Caledonia was the means of many happy contacts with the French and the Javanese. The men in the faded blue trousers who used to cut back the grass from the edge of the road and fill up the pot-holes in the crown with shovelfuls of sand and stone were fellow sufferers (though in even worse plight) with all who had no equipment. We did at least have a little, but for the boys of Bourail and Koné, as late as September, 1944. a bulldozer was still the centre of admiring astonishment. The French officials of the PWD were most courteous and let us have as many 'Javos 'as they could spare to help us on the roading. What we could have accomplished had the equipment been available, was seen on our return to New Caledonia from north in that part through the divisional area maintained by Works Services.

We paused at Vila in the New Hebrides to admire the all American coral roadway and then on Guadalcanal set to work to emulate it. Access roads to waterpoints and the road network throughout the Div ammunition dump were the first tasks. Later came formation, improvements and metalling in the Div HQ area, camp roading and bush logging roads. These jobs kept the 37th Field Park busy for months as well as metalling and maintenance on Wright's Road and alternative road to Div area, the roads about transit camp and FMC. We came at this place to marvel at the wealth of material possessions of the American troops. There were many gaping mouths as we wandered about the dumps at Lunga Point and several truckloads of useful matter passed back under the notice about illegitimate Japs to decorate page 31the New Zealand engineer camps. For the moment we thought that the horrors of corduroying with knobbly niaouli or something worse at the rate of eight yards an hour by day and five yards an hour by night were definitely a thing of the past. But jungle roading in earnest was just about to begin.

On Vella Lavella we got going. At last we had some bulldozers. The 58th Seabees had done the road from the Barakoma airstrip to Uzamba. We therefore tackled the five mile stretch from Uzamba to Joroveto for a start. Coconut trees lining the coast crashed into the ocean or over the sigs' telephone wires. Then they were bulldozed into breakwaters. The existing tortuous jeep trail through jungle night and creepers became within a few weeks a surfaced two lane highway with provision for temporary one way bridges at all river crossings. Difficulties of heavy equipment, of heavy daily rainstorms and of extremely heavy traffic caused by the necessity of unloading LST convoys under heavy ack-ack protection at the southern end of the island, meant that the progress on the road was not so fast as it might have been. By the end of November, 1943, however, an additional four miles from Joroveto to Juno had been added, thanks to the help of the 77th Seabees, so that problems of maintenance now began to come to the fore. The roadways were given a preliminarv road surface by dozing down to the solid coral. This solid surface was improved by fillings and providing in its very nature a good drainage medium it soon developed into a fine roadway. Speeds were kept down by Div orders to 20 mph for trucks and 25 mph for jeeps but difficulty soon arose in restricting the speeds to these limits.

This experience of roading, which clearly demonstrated the need for heavy equipment and plenty of it, led to the establishment of the 26th Field as the heavy equipment company. Their prentice hand in Vella was given full scope in the stretch from Ruravai to Lambu Lambu Cove, a stretch which involved several bridges and of which time prevented the finishing. Extensions to the Barakoma airfield also developed the latent talent of 26th's dozer drivers and gave them pleasant associations with the Seabees there. The value of this experience was to be soon apparent.

Meanwhile on Mono Island in the Treasury Group the 23rd Field Company was having a rather more difficult time with its roads. Mono had no fringe of coral about its shoreline on which page 32a flat roading surface could be easily developed. Instead there were high hills to negotiate and a surface of several feet of mud to be covered with coral instead of just scooping off the mud from the top. Actually the only technique possible was to provide proper drains to take off the water and thus increase the bearing value of the road surfaces before any coral was put on at all. The most noteworthy of these projects was the mountain road up past the old Jap HQ site. This road was put in to enable the guns (field and ack-ack) to be placed in the best possible position for fields of fire. It was one and a half to two miles of sidling road and rose to something over 500 feet through heavy bush. Other highways, including one to the Mono rubbish dump, were of sufficient excellence to be classed as young airstrips, unofficially. In fact, before the 23rd retired not only had the coastal road been almost completely coralled but the whole of the Falamai peninsula was a maze of access roading, a fact not apparent in the small map reproduction. The Saveke 'Scenic Drive' along a coral sea fringed with palms was worthy of inclusion in any collection of Pacific 'pearls.'

Acquaintance with the Seabees was renewed on Nissan. We had the pleasure here of assisting them to get the bomber strip finished in the time scheduled—a matter of less than six weeks. As in no other place we felt that we had a share in the Nissan strips. The formation of a compass octa-rose in concrete (a means of testing the accuracy of plane compasses), the clearing of coconuts with explosives and the later erection of huts gave us that righteous glow of co-operativeness whenever we heard the dawn patrol go out. Admitted that the early morning quota to a night of noises was at times disturbing. However, our efforts were also appreciated officially and our citation read that 'assignments were carried out in a most efficient manner and with untiring zeal and industry.'

The roads of Nissan which began with pieces of marsden matting in Pokonian Plantation on D-day became, ere we left, a lengthy monument of many miles to the work of the 26th Heavy-Equipment Company. The initial reconnaissance for the nine-mile stretch from Pokonian to the Roman Catholic Mission was not without excitement. Blissfully unaware of any Jap concentrations, the recce party was blazing a way through the jungle for the bulldozer 100 yards behind. In so doing thev caught up page 33on the infantry scouting parties and as things suddenly opened up they found themselves flat on their stomachs on the fringe of the fight. But it was not long before the bulldozer was bunting down the forest giants and the blaze of white coral roading began to encircle the atoll. Rifle ranges, access roads and stores areas near the jetties were incidental jobs for the D-8.

Then on one other forgotten island the engineers made roads and aerodromes with borrowed tools. The tale of N Force in Norfolk conveys the same lessons which were learned by the remainder of the engineers further north. The principal road formation work other than re-grading the existing communications, was the access roading to heavy coastal guns. Through hilly bush country a sidling road was cut, formed, and metalled with crushed sandstone. Other roads were made around the air force camps to provide access to settlers' farms which had been isolated by the formation of the airfield. On 5 March, 1943, the airfield itself was taken over for maintenance. Fortunately we were also able to take over the necessary D-8 bulldozers, carryall, Gallion grader, roller, sprinkler truck and tractor. With these, and in spite of wet weather and bad initial drainage of the field, as well as washouts from beneath the metal matting, we kept the planes coming and going.

Some conception of the importance of communications to Pacific warfare may be gained from this record. The Seabees played a no less vital role than the Marines in island warfare, and it was our privilege to assist them in their construction works and to emulate them on the roads and airfields of the Pacific.