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Shovel Sword and Scalpel: A record of service of medical units of the second New Zealand expeditionary force in the Pacific


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The story of the New Zealand medical services in the Pacific is being compiled in the form of a collection of unofficial histories of the individual medical units. In this form, details affecting the general medical organisation and the relation of the medical services to the force as a whole will not appear in their true perspective, but such aspects will receive their due consideration in the official accounts which it is intended will be published later. Such was the influence of medical problems in these special circumstances of campaigning in the Pacific, however, that it seems fitting that this earlier opportunity should be taken to give, at least, a broad outline of the bearing which these problems and our efforts to solve them had on the well-being and the efficiency of the force.

At a critical stage in the South Pacific campaign New Zealand undertook to provide a force to work in cooperation with and under command of United States forces already engaged in active operations in the Solomons. For this force there was available a body of troops who had had a good background of training and were acclimatised to island conditions—the Third Division, recently returned from Fiji. With these troops as a nucleus, the division was reconstituted and a base organisation added. Between November 1942 and July 1943, what was now the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Pacific concentrated in New Caledonia, where details of organisation and training were completed. The Third Division and attached units moved forward to Guadalcanal in August 1942 and from there, active operations took place in Vella Lavella, Treasury Islands, and Nissan Island.

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The continuous task of the medical services is to maintain the health of the troops and, in these areas, we were faced with unhealthy and trying climatic conditions and with combating a variety of diseases already rife—the more important being malaria and the dysenteries. We had the background of experience in the Middle East and Fiji and the lessons of the Australians and the Americans in New Guinea and the Solomons. Their story emphasised the importance of the medical problems, and it was on the basis of such experiences that our medical organisation was established. The effectiveness of the measures adopted is reflected in the standard of health maintained throughout the whole of the campaign. While this is a matter of satisfaction to the medical services, it must not be overlooked that such an achievement was made possible only through the full appreciation of the problem by the commander of the force and his staff, the interest and example of the officers and non-commissioned officers of all arms and, lastly and most important, the intelligent cooperation of the soldier himself.

Due acknowledgment must likewise be made to the United States Army medical services and the United States Navy medical services for the assistance and consideration shown to us at all times. The limitation of New Zealand's resources led to an arrangement whereby the United States services undertook the responsibility of maintenance of medical supplies and for the evacuation of casualties by sea or by air from port to port. We were treated generously and were met in every way to cover the peculiar requirements of our organisation. On our part, the New Zealand medical services undertook the responsibility for the medical and hospital care of all British troops and civilians.

The campaigns turned out to be more favourable than was anticipated with corresponding moderateness of casualty rates, both for battle casualties and for sickness. The medical services as an organisation were at no time extended, but from this it must not be inferred that the individual members had an easy time. Heat, rain, mud, mosquitoes and other pests, but above all the monotony, made conditions particularly irksome and trying for patients, with an increasing demand, therefore, on those whose task it was to care for them. Full credit must be given to all engaged in these duties. There is no need to recount their achievements, suffice it to say the job was done and done well and cheerfully.

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I should like to pay a tribute here to two groups of NZMC personnel to whom passing reference only is made in the pages that follow. First, the members of the several medical headquarters which existed at different stages in the development of the force. According to popular belief, headquarters' staffs lived lives of ease and comfort, glorying in 'red tape' and voluminous correspondence. In actual fact, they were extremely hard working and invariably had no greater ambition than to join a field unit where responsibilities were lighter and opportunities for comradeship and enjoyment were greater. Then there are the regimental medical officers. Mention of these officers will, no doubt, be made in the stones of those units to which they were attached, and I believe that due appreciation will be expressed for the work they did. To a soldier wounded, injured or sick, the RMO is the first link in the chain which leads back to the _ specialist facilities of the general hospital. For that reason a good RMO is of the greatest value to the confidence and morale of a unit. We had many good RMOs.

It is a matter for regret that an organisation which, through the keenness, cooperation and enthusiasm of all concerned had reached a peak of efficiency, should never have had the opportunity of proving what it was capable of and should have been sacrificed irrevocably in consequence of the withdrawal of the parent force. The units have gone, but there is still a call for service on the part of many of their members—namely, with the New Zealand forces in the Mediterranean area. We know they will give a good account of themselves and we wish them well,

13 January 1945
Halifax House