Pacific Saga: the personal chronicle of the 37th Battalion and its part in the Third Division's Campaign
Chapter Eleven — The Return Home
The Return Home
Mid-June brought us definite news of our departure and as a result clearing-up operations were intensified and the general atmosphere became one with which we were now so familiar. Crates made their appearance and the inevitable loading lists and shipping schedules were completed. A redeeming feature was that we did not have to sleep under the stars during the last few nights on the island, as we were permitted to leave certain tentage erected for the use of the native labourers. It should be stated that soon after our arrival on Nissan all natives had been evacuated to Guadalcanal, and medically examined and treated. The more healthy were organised into a labour corps and returned under an Australian officer, Nissan Island having been under Australian control before the war. By 4.30 pm on 15 June (four months after our landing to a day) we were on board the USS Rotanin. Although we had expected a swell out in the open sea where we embarked, no difficulty was experienced in climbing the landing net and we hoped that this experience of climbing up the ship's side carrying every thing except the kitchen sink would be the last for some time.
A sight of Treasury, Vella Lavella and Guadalcanal en route brought back mixed memories of our introduction to jungle warfare nine months before. Our sleeping quarters were much more roomy than was usual on these trips and, although the heat was oppressive, it was not stifling as we had found on larger transports. Despite the fact of having only two meals a day the quartering staff handled the situation well and everyone agreed that we were as well fed as circumstances would permit. The voyage was without incident and again the weather was calm. The cool sea breezes and change of diet did wonders for our sores and rashes. We berthed at Népoui, New Caledonia, at 9.30 am on 21 June. A so-odd mile journey in motor trucks then brought us into the base tiaining depot at page 100Bourail and we were more than pleasantly surprised to find that for the first time since we left New Zealand we could go into a camp area and find tents, mess huts and cookhouses already erected for us.
We at once set to work to improve our camp and take full advantage of the healthy and comparatively invigorating climate of New Caledonia. Universal recreational training, rest and a modicum of leave was the order of the day and it is remarkable how the health of the battalion improved. Although we had not realised it, our nine months of primitive life in the steamy tropical jungles had taken toll of our physique and we set to work with a will to regain lost weight. We very much appreciated the amenities the base organisations had prepared for us in New Caledonia. A meal at the Bourail Club or at the Bourail beach in the Kiwi Club served on a table with linen and china, by New Zealand WAACs, was a real treat especially when it is to be remembered that most of us had not seen a white woman (much less a New Zealand girl) for nine months. Probably the greatest boon of all was the plentiful supply of fresh water and hot showers. It was absolute ecstacy to stand under a hot shower and get up a good lather, and it took some time for us to get used to the idea that we could drink as much fresh water as we desired, and wash ourselves and our clothes in it to our heart's content. While recuperating in New Caledonia for several weeks manpower and furlough drafts so depleted our ranks that by the end of July the battalion was a mere shadow of its former self. The days passed pleasantly enough but the burning question was 'when do we move to New Zealand?'
At length instructions began to drift in, then pour in, until finally they seemed to flow in one continuous stream. We found that we were to say goodbye to New Caledonia, have our furlough in New Zealand and then we would receive further instructions. An excellent organisation called the force rear party under the command of base headquarters was to handle all our stores and provide guards, and each unit was instructed to provide a proportion of its men for this job. Our quota eyed us with envy but quite unnecessarily because their arrival in New Zealand was delayed only a month or so.
Lieutenant O. Nicholls, killed in action Vella Lavella
Officers of Battalion headquarters at Sior, Nissan Island. Left to right Lieutenant-Colonel Sugden, Captain R. A. Stokes, Lieutenant S. J. Bartos, MC, Captain W. A. C. Smith, and Major D. E. Trevarthen
Suddenly from the blue came the order to move to a transit camp at Nouméa to await a ship. We were faintly excited but the passage of day after day waiting for a ship dulled even that. However, after about a week's wait, the remnants of the battalion were aboard the USS Torrens in Nouméa Harbour anxiously waiting for that gap between ship and shore to widen. Shipping between New Gale donia and New Zealand was very restricted at this time and so the accommodation on the Torrens was taxed to the utmost. Unfortunately the elements decided to do their stuff and much was the sea sickness thereof. We were quartered in the bow of the ship and were pitched about but, bad as were our conditions, we were sorry for the WAACs who were quartered aft, over the racing propellers. The skipper and ship were Norwegian and had not been back to Norway for over five years. The captain did all that was possible to alleviate the effects of the storm and even ran 10 degrees off his course for a considerable distance. However, the trip was a fast one and the sight of the New Zealand coastline revived even the worst cases of sea sickness. On 17 August, 1944, the Torrens tied up to the Princes Wharf at Auckland. We were there at last! Almost immediately we dispersed to our homes for several weeks' furlough but not before arranging a rendezvous or two, such as 'Under the clock straight after the second race!' You, our mothers and wives and/or sweethearts will know how glad we were to be home again.
At the conclusion of this short break (we felt at the end of it that it had been short) we assembled at Papakura to learn our fate —the Third Division was to be disbanded and with it, of course, our own 37th Battalion. Our old friend the QM and five trusty henchmen proceeded to Mangere Crossing Camp to unpack oncepage 102more, check and pack the unit equipment, and the remainder scattered over the length and breadth of New Zealand to farm, factory and mobilisation camp. The 37th Battalion had virtually ceased to exist, but for several months longer a spark of life remained at Mangere where the unit equipment was being checked, cleaned, sorted and disposed of. It was a tedious business, but the six who were there were of 37th Battalion stuff—Captain Clarkson, Sergeant Gardiner, Privates Boddington, Murton, Wallbank and McMillan—and the work proceeded with a will, in the best Captain Morgan tradition. Ten weary weeks of handling gear before the last article was returned to the main ordnance depot and all but Molar' transferred. He was left to wrestle with vouchers and auditors and keep the spark of 37th Battalion life still going.
With the help of RQMS Wootton, who had unexpectedly arrived on the scene, the books were balanced and all papers handed over for audit towards the end of January, 1945. The RQMS departed for civilian life and even the moral support of our late second-in-command, Major Trevarthen (who was then camp commandant) was withdrawn. A fortnight later the sole surviving official member of the battalion, the quartermaster, followed and with his departure on 9 February, 1945, that last spark flickered and went out. All that remained of the 37th Battalion was the memory of our well-loved unit to which we had all given something and of which we were all so justly proud.page break