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Pacific Saga: the personal chronicle of the 37th Battalion and its part in the Third Division's Campaign

Chapter Seven — Northward Bound

page 61

Chapter Seven
Northward Bound

While all the festivities mentioned in the previous chapter were going on, the 14th Brigade was preparing to move. At long last we were given a smell of powder and our next bound was to be Guadalcanal. The 37th Battalion combat team was the same as that organised previously and was augmented for the voyage by HQ personnel of all units attached to the 14th Brigade. We embarked on the President Jackson in Noumea Harbour on 15 August and after two days in harbour, to allow troops to shake down, a course was set for the New Hebrides at 3 pm on 17 August. On the morning of the 19th, the convoy sailed into the Vila anchorage at Efate. Here we remained until 24 August, carrying out landing exercises on Mélé Beach in conjunction with the 30th and 35th Battalion combat teams. We were now in malarial territory and were required to put into practice the anti-malarial measures which had been drilled into us so often in New Caledonia. A daily dose of atebrin had commenced as soon as we embarked at Nouméa. In order to ensure there was no evasion, atebrin parades were held under platoon arrangements. This system continued until we left the Solomons area nine months later, with negligible casualties due to malaria. Landing exercises proceeded according to plan. At times the surf was heavy and a few landing craft were capsized. This added zest to proceedings and no one was hurt. The only incident of note was when the irrepressible Brodie suffered from an unorthodox use of stinging nettles while ashore.

On the morning of 24 August, the convoy got under way for Guadalcanal. The temperature was becoming noticeably warmer. The troops' compartments were like hot-houses, particularly at night when all portholes had to be closed. Interest was caused by daily anti-aircraft practice by the guns' crews on the transports. Guadalcanal was reached on the morning of 27 August. The transports page 62anchored off Point Cruz and debarkation commenced as soon as the anchors hit the bottom. Unloading was completed by late afternoon after an arduous day of slogging in intense heat. It would appear that every unit which has landed on Guadalcanal has set up a new record for unloading ship. This is due to the shrewd propaganda of the transport commanders and officers, whose sole object in life was to get their ships unloaded and quickly away from the dangerous and narrow waters between Tulagi and Guadalcanal. These were happy hunting grounds for Jap planes. During the trip up, ships' officers talked about unloading times put up by previous units and succeeded in inculcating a 'beat the record or bust' attitude among the troops aboard. This resulted in competitive unloading and it always happened that the previous best time, as announced by the ship, was beaten hands down. We shall content ourselves by saying that the unloading and shore parties of our ship did a good job.

The area allotted the battalion was mid-way between Point Cruz and Kukumbona Beach, a march of approximately three miles from the landing beach. It was a narrow strip along the seashore with good bathing facilities. We had struck it lucky again. The battalion was soon settled in and set about the usual task of improving existing facilities. Padre Harford tried himself out as a water diviner with marked success. He picked on a spot in HQ company area, and a good, pure supply of water was struck at ten or twelve feet. This, together with an American water truck borrowed by Lieutenant Newman from a marine unit, assured us of a more than ample water supply. It was in this area that we first made contact with American construction battalions (Seabees). They were most cooperative, helping us out on every possible occasion and later we were to find out their real worth in action.

Lieutenant Peter Tuckey replaced Lieutenant Ryder as medical officer.

Although many changes had been wrought in the landscape since the marines had made their initial landing, one had not far to look for signs of fighting. During training, one came across rotting skeletons, discarded equipment, ammunition and arms, trenches and bunkers, while on the beaches south of Cape Esperance, where many Japanese had died in an endeavour to relieve their comrades, could be seen the wrecks of Japanese ships and landing craft. Names page 63which previously had been names only—Henderson Field, Mount Austin and Gifu strong-point, Lunga and Matanikau Rivers, and Tulagi—now took on a deeper significance. Guadalcanal had developed into a huge base with ships constantly arriving with more men and more supplies. Consequently, the cry was for working parties, and still more working parties, to unload ships and clear the beaches. Training time was limited but useful patrol exercises were carried out. Odd Japs were known to be still in the vicinity, which necessitated the adoption of strict internal security measures.

We experienced our first air raid on 13 September. Jap planes passed overhead, making for the area of the airfields, where bombs were dropped. On subsequent nights condition red was frequent, but nothing was dropped in our immediate vicinity. During tree felling in the camp area a baby parrokeet was captured. It was adopted by the intelligence section and christened Hercas Hunt. The Christian name was soon shortened to Herc, and the bird accompanied us on all our subsequent adventures.

On 7 September we learned that the brigade was to move to Vella Lavella and take over from an American regiment which was fighting there. On 12 September, an advanced party, which included the brigadier and Major Moffat, Lieutenants Dean and Hobbs, set out for New Georgia in an LST. The party arrived at Munda at 10 am on the 14th after spending some anxious time on a reef outside the entrance. At 7.15 pm they embarked on an LCP and set out for Rendova from whence they were to complete the journey to Vella by PT boats. A lone raider appeared during the trip and dropped two bombs. Both fell well clear of the craft, and Todd City, Rendova, was reached at 9 pm. The journey was continued by PT boats which travelled wide round Gifzo and arrived at Biloa Mission on Vella at 2 am on 15 September in the midst of an air raid. Condition red continued until 6 am. At 8 am the party con' tinued up the coast in an LCP and, after passing Barakoma, seven Jap planes came over and bombs fell in the vicinity of Boko Point and on the airfield which was under construction at Barakoma. One plane peeled off with the apparent intention of strafing the LCP but was forced up by accurate AA fire. Nevertheless, the coxswain made for the shore and the party took cover until the formation had departed. It is an unpleasant and helpless feeling being at sea in a small boat while hostile planes are looking for juicy targets which page 64can't hit back very hard. Maravari was reached at 10 am and the next few days were spent in reconnoitring and selecting unit areas for the brigade.

In the meantime, back on Guadalcanal, preparations were pro' ceeding for the move. The first flight was to consist of the 14th Brigade HQ and the 35th and 37th Battalion combat teams. The 30th Battalion combat team was to follow later. This time we were to forsake transports and travel on smaller craft. We made acquaintance with various craft — APDs (Army Personnel Destroyers), which carried up to 200 troops; LSTs (Landing Ship Tanks), which carried everything; LCIs (Landing Craft Infantry), used for the transport of troops and stores which could be man-handled, and LCTs (Landing Craft Tanks). On 15 September LSTs were loaded and on the following afternoon embarka' tion took place at Kukumbona Beach. In the late afternoon a practice debarkation from APDs and LCIs was held.

The convoy, consisting of 23 small vessels with destroyer escort, sailed at 4 am on 17 September. All was quiet. Everyone knew that we were sailing into dangerous waters. Although we realised the allied air forces were doing great work, we also knew that we were not yet strong enough in the air to preclude the possibility of Jap raiders getting through. However, it was a grand and reassuring sight to see the destroyers moving at speed on the outskirts of the convoy, and keeping their ceaseless watch. On the 17th, votes were recorded for candidates in the New Zealand general election.

At 2 am on 18 September, the calm was broken by the alarm bells indicating condition red. We were passing Munda, which was enduring a raid. Bomb flashes could be seen and the sky in the distance was alive with tracer and AA bursts. The speed of the convoy was slowed down so that there was no wake which could be spotted from the air. It was the job of the convoy commander to get us to Vella unseen if he could and he was not taking any risks. We slid past apparently undetected, and there were sighs of relief when the allclear was given. At dawn, the APDs speeded ahead, followed by the LCIs, leaving the slower LSTs to follow on. The latter were scheduled to beach half an hour after the leading troops had landed. The APDs moved close to the densely wooded shore-line, and at 7 am hove to just off Maravari. Landing craft were lowered and within a few minutes the troops were ashore. LCIs page 65were beached and quickly unloaded and as soon as they were clear, the lumbering LSTs came in. Much to our surprise and pleasure, there was, so far, no hindrance from Tojo's airmen.

An officer from the advanced party was waiting on the beach and those not required for shore or unloading parties were led off to the battalion area. Major Wilson soon had his shore party organised, and fox-holes dug, and the unloading of the LSTs proceeded merrily. There was an alert during the morning but nothing eventuated. At 12.45 a second alert was sounded and this time the Jap arrived. We dived for our fox-holes. Our air cover, working well ahead, had intercepted Jap planes. Some had got through and we heard bombs bursting down towards Barakoma where the 35th were unloading. Several dog-fights were witnessed and a spontaneous cheer went up when two Japs came hurtling down in flames. The fight moved out of our vision but we heard later that six enemy planes had been accounted for without loss to ourselves. By 5 pm the battalion was dug in in its new area three miles north of Maravari, between the Joroveto and Mumia rivers. All battalion equipment and transport was moved into the area by 20 September and we were ready to move on the 21st. Air raids were a nightly occurrence but caused no casualties within the brigade.