Pacific Pioneers: the story of the engineers of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Pacific
Chapter Nine — Chippies
On a certain mysterious document called the war establishment table (WE) it is recorded that there shall be 32 carpenters in every field company and a good many more in a works company. The chippies therefore constitute a majority among pioneer tradesmen and get a whole chapter to themselves. Strangely enough, in spite of their skilled work and lots of it, they do not appear in that select band of specialists who draw ED pay.
We carpenters came well into the limelight every time there was a move. In fact we came a little too much into it. For most moves crates and boxes had to be made for all and sundry, sometimes for ourselves. They were usually ordered in a hurry and meant a picture of frenzied activity for some weeks. All around would be pumps, saws and lighting sets being prodded, wrenched or cursed into working order and coaxed into crates. Boxes would be packed, unpacked, repacked, broken down, remade, packed again, lost, put on the wrong trucks, added to lists, crossed off lists, hoisted by swearing, sweating sappers and dropped by the same sappers still swearing. Throughout such a 'scone-do' of the finest baking we chippies would carry on doing our bits. Once we had moved to the new home we started work again on messrooms, huts, hospitals, whares, bures, ro adhouses, YMCAs, tentfloors, QM stores, cinema seats and budgie cages. May the following bear testimony to the Carpenters' Union:—
In the big work of hut provision, for the 8th Brigade Group which was to settle in Fiji, we had the honour of having a big hand. At first the use of Fijian style bures such as the Samambula YMCA chapel or the Namaka 'Three Tree' Nat. Pat. hut had page 53been considered. These would have been elementary constructions with sufficient framing of light bush timber and walls, plus a heavily thatched roof and floors of earth or stamped coral. For general health reasons, however, they were unsuitable. It was found impossible to clean and disinfect them adequately: they lent themselves to the spread of diseases, such as scabies and ringworm; the thatch harboured rats with consequent danger of fire and plague, and, worst of all the possibilities, the yellow-bellied hornet with the fearsome sting might well build his nest over the doorway. The difficulties of supplying sufficient material, particularly thatching, for a large number of huts, finally ruled out bures as possible accommodation. So we lived in huts.
Since the construction of huts called for the employment of specialists the heaviest work of hurricane reconstruction and preliminary hospital building was ours. The erection of all necessary stores and conveniences was again ours, these last including refrigerator stores in camp and Suva conveniences as well. Most of the work was done by contract under PWD. The preparation of Samambula rifle ranges and river booms for defence devolved on the carpenters too, as did the timbering for tunnels and underground hospitals. A total of 86 huts, S4 feet long by 21 feet wide, worth a paltry £160,000, was built by PWD and local contractors, engineers assisting, in Samambula A and B camps and at headquarters round Borran's House. A matter of 825 PWD non-permanent hutments were put up on the Namaka side, these worth another cool £60,000; and when the 300-bed Tamavua Hospital, the 50-bed Namaka Hospital and the 200-bed Sambeto Hospital are added into the total worth, it appears that we helped to add some £500,000 to the war bill.
On many of these bigger jobs we were as much sightseers as overseers, but it was always a pleasant task while boxing concrete for the New Zealand Club footpaths or the adjacent sea wall in Suva to watch the girls go by to the Government buildings, or to take a lemon squash with them inside the club each morning. None of this work, it is true, was the pioneer carpentry of the later period, but it served to emphasize the big part carpenters must play in any engineer unit.
Back to New Zealand in August, 1942. we blazed our way from camp to camp, Manurewa. Opaheke. Hilldene to Papakura, huilding in each case YMCAs for the benefit of the next draft page 54of troops. We shivered in the floor draughts of the four man huts and, at times, yearned for our island homes. It was not long before we were building them again.
Although there were next to no nails on Norfolk we contrived to build, in 12 scattered headquarters, cookhouses, stores and other 'basic accommodation requirements.' Because of limited supplies some were not finished until the end of our sojourn there. Force works included a bakehouse and oven, a slaughterhouse, stores and a hospital. An old house, taken over for the hospital, had to be renovated and, when the wallboard came to hand, an operating block provided. Later we managed a ward of 20 beds, an X-ray department and administrative block, but throughout we were on the cadge from the Australian CCU and felt our poverty.
Arrived in New Caledonia we went native and built no longer six fathom bures but roadhouses in complicated metricals. With working parties of other units we put up the roadhouses at Taom River (14th Brigade), Houailou Road (15th Brigade) and Nepoui Valley (35th Battalion) as well as smaller efforts, In native materials, such as messrooms, cookhouses, and other facilities. Problems of supply of niaouli bark thatching, bamboo seating, heavy timber frames and finally, suitable reed thatching, involved much research far a field in jeep and truck; much gesticulation and vague interpretation with Frenchmen and Kanakas, and some argument with proprietors when we go down on private willow withies or spare thatch huts established for the use of Colonel Dix's 'Forest Rangers.' As a means to supplementing our comfort and general well-being the use of these home-grown materials in place of then unprocurable prefabricated buildings was most helpful. The facilities of the roadhouses were greatly appreciated and at Taom River especially the location of the road-house and the work done in its erection and maintenance was a feather in the engineer pugaree. We freely admit that the bugs got into the roof, especially in St Christopher's Chapel, and showered fine dust upon the forms and altar cloth. Maybe we had failed to take the natives' hint to cut in the last quarter of the moon when wood boring insects are less apt to infect the wood, the sap being down. At Moindah the passing engineer drivers had their fair share of the buns and did not fail to enjoy the blessings of Wharepuhunga as a half-way house on the dusty road to the capital. Both the Nepoui Valley and Houailou Road page 55creations, however, were vacated soon after completion since the need for roadhouse rest cures became obviated by the excitements of a move.
On Guadalcanal the chippies of 37th Field Park did the bulk of the carpentering. Yet another hospital begun by 26th and 23rd was completed as No. 2 Casualty Clearing Station. It was built, rebuilt and rebuilt again, the buildings being typical of the usual body-snatcher outfit. We did an operating theatre, wards, stores, messes, showers, water supply, cookhouses to feed 300, lean-to wash-ups to go with them, and floored and fly-proofed IPP tents, the original wards. Two six-holers, four four-holers and for special patients, special accommodation, not of the steel drum type, however, were also part of that programme. These things are mentioned in such intimate detail as providing a typical outline of our versatility in providing for the mental, physical and moral needs of any or all of our fellow men. Timber was in short supply and slow. So were the necessary machines. However, we salvaged a winch from a derelict Jap barge, cast some pulleys from aluminium plane salvage, and produced a home-made spindle and drive whereby our circular saw could rip battens and slats as required. Large scale production was facilitated by cutting parts to length before sending to the job and also prefabricating where possible. This method kept the sappers busy on the unit site, while building proceeded apace on such as the CCS, the FMC headquarters and recreation hut, the five-ton ice-making plant, the post office and ordnance stores. Malthoid walls, in American style, were a feature of the FMC buildings.
Even in the thick of the fray, however, it was amazing how the CRE contrived to keep us out of mischief. To build a cemetery gate or even assist with a chapel was not an unexpected sort of job when chaps were being buried every day; but no sooner had we settled on Vella than the requests for jobs began to pour in: rifle ranges which everyone else shot to bits, odd jobs for generals, bishops, governors-general, and plain ordinary staff-wallahs, filing boxes, cabinets, bakery safes, folding chairs, sugar bins and flour bins, stools, ramps, signposts, cinema sound-shells, theatre platforms, YMCA forms, tentfloors, not to forget brigade rifle boxes ad lib and particularly rustic seats! We repaired Mr. Gill's house for him. Mr. Gill was the man who lent his coconut trees to the division and was then refused admission to the theatre page 56because he would insist on wearing shorts in defiance of malarial control regulations. We put partitions in his house to make it into the Kiwi roadhouse and cafeteria. We made some nice new front steps, complete with railing, and added a fine scenic attraction with complete staging and diving tower for swimmers. We might even have painted his roof and completed the renovation had not time and paint failed us. Facing the main road we erected a special 'budgie cage 'and caged at least one felonious canary. At Biloa the 20th made their best showing on bush timber work, erecting without nails four large stores for which rafters had to be cut to cling neatly to the ridgepole. The 26th Field were so pleased with their own refrigerator buildings, their flytraps and portable safes, and their personal theatrical possibilities that they built a roofed theatre of their own. The 23rd Field, in moments spared from the beautiful, native-thatched Falamai memorial church and private yachts, also made a flytrap or two. Their star production, however, was the naval control tower on Stirling Island. In bush timber, 70 feet high, it was marvellously compacted without guy rope, nut or bolt. Each log, perforce, had to be joggled into position and there wired. Finished, it was a worthy example of engineer ingenuity and held the weight of a complete bush log hut. At Sangarana, on Vella, attempts were made to start a new hospital, this time by the 26th Field in collaboration with the 77th CBs, but this was unfinished.
We concluded the tour, however, by working for the Americans on Nissan. On this island there were large quantities of stores, huts and tentfloors to go up as a semi-permanent camp for service command personnel. There was a post office also whence we could, by Yankee mail, order our copies of Time, Life and the pulp magazines With our own sawmill platoon on the job and priority requests for timber we hutted here for weeks, enjoying the additional comforts of a well-stocked post exchange and excellent lighting and entertainment facilities. The unselfish spirit so developed expressed itself in making betel-nut floors for the officers' tents and then finally blossomed forth in perfect flower when the remnant got back to New Caledonia.
The Uzama River bridge, another of the 20th Field Company's undertakings on Vella Lavella, was_all all-coconut palm log affair The 23rd Field Company also used the useful coconut palm in order to span the Saveke River, on Mono Island, with a sturdy bridge
Moindah roadhouse, New Caledonia, was built of native materials by the engineers. As with all such building the roof was of niaouli bark and the Walls of plaited coconut fronds. The field post office below, takes shape soon after the landing on Nissan
Men of the 26th Field Company at Biporo, Vella Lavella, jacking mahogany road-bearers which were cut it in the adjacent jungle. The naval control tower, below, was built by the 23rd Field Company on Watson Island, in Blanche Harbour. Bush timber was used
This canvas S tank is being filled with fresh water from an LST which has grounded on the coral in the lagoon of Nissan. Stoves are being unloaded in the background. Men of the 37th Field Park are at work below oil the wards of the Casualty Clearing Station on Guadalcanal