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The Tanks: An Unofficial History of the Activities of the Third New Zealand Division Tank Squadron in the Pacific

IV. Nissan

IV. Nissan

In February 1944 the 14th Brigade and Divisional Headquarters moved north to add to their successes at Vella Lavella the defeat of the Japanese force occupying Nissan Island. The ordnance units, already enumerated as the component sections of the Square Peg workshops, in addition to the ordnance radar maintenance section, an ammunition section, and Warrant-Officers Walkley and Smith as brigade and artillery supply officers, all found Nissan one of the least pleasant of all the islands they had served in. There was no fresh water on the island, and water had to be obtained from sea water! by means of elaborate condensers. The jungle was heavy, and the mud was the worst the men had seen. Furthermore, the island was less than five degrees from the Equator. As the landing ships 'wearing' barrage balloons disgorged their troops like Trojan sea-horses, the men struggled once more with machinery and masses of maintenance equipment, and gradually settled in to their important tasks of handling ammunition, or servicing vehicles and all the mechanical paraphernalia of battle. Carving camps out of solid jungle, more often than not with shovels and page 220axes, as bulldozers were preoccupied elsewhere, was a heartbreaking job. Numerous moves were still more exasperating, as the plans for opening up American construction camps and building large airstrips encroached on areas into which the ordnance men had already put hours of exhausting work.

It was not long, however, before all sections were operating as one of the finest all-round maintenance centres the division had seen. All gun-fitters and instrument mechanics at Square Peg workshops pooled their operations under Second-Lieutenant Sherson and Warrant-Officer J. E. Piercy, United States heavy armament was serviced by the workshops, and this included both 155. millimetre and 90 millimetre guns and instruments. Here, too, in the depths of the jungle, tanks were serviced by a detachment of the tank workshops. An interesting addition to the division's ordnance units was the ordnance radar maintenance section, which arrived at Nissan from New Zealand after having called at Guadalcanal. While at Lunga, two launches were observed by this unit coming alongside before the ship had dropped anchor. The radar men were considerably impressed with the Royal New Zealand Air Force guard, and the heavily armed Third Division picket in the launches, and took them to be an efficient escort for important equipment that was on board. The radar section was still more impressed, however, to learn that the guard was concerned solely with the preservation of some 4,000 cases of beer the ship was bringing for the Kiwis in the Pacific. At Nissan it was necessary to carry out a major alteration to the highly technical radar equipment to cope with certain local conditions. Lieutenant Clark and Sergeant Warren gave details of the work required to the Square Peg workshops, and Warrant-Officers Brookes and Turner carried out the difficult work successfully. The unit's radio mechanic, less than a month out of New Zealand, discovered an extra hazard to that of shaving when one morning, while he was removing the daily stubble, a sniper's bullet struck a tree about two feet from his razor. A week after the brigade landing at Nissan the radar was bulldozing its way through the jungle to test a new proposed site when some Japanese troops showed their disapproval of the idea, and the ordnance technicians spent the rest of the day stalking the enemy along the cliffs and throwing grenades into caves like so many 'infanteers.'

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Nissan Island was, at the time of the New Zealand attack, 100 miles inside a Japanese controlled triangle whose points were the strong base at Rabaul, Buka and Kavieng. As much as possible was done to neutralise these bases by means of allied air attacks. The huge 7,000-foot air base which was carved out by American Seabees in 30 days from a dense jungle of giant mahogany and teak trees at Stirling Island, after the Treasuries had been taken by the 8th Brigade, was immediately used for some of these air attacks which made the Nissan operation possible. For five weeks a shuttle service of Mitchell bombers assisted in the continual bombing of Rabaul and other enemy air bases in support of the projected Nissan operation, while the New Zealand fighter escorts greatly impressed American aircrews by sweeping low over heavily defended Rabaul and shooting up everything in sight. Over 2,000 tons of bombs were dropped on this fortress-base and 790 enemy planes were brought down there in the two months prior to the Nissan landing. No doubt 'honourable breakfast' was somewhat irregular at Rabaul about this time.

Square Peg workshops assisted with some of the packing of captured Japanese equipment for transport to rear areas for examination. In one day—the fifth day after landing—the following were some of the items captured:—100,000 rounds of ammunition, five 20-millimetre anti-tank guns, six machine guns, several mortars, three radio sets, an out-board motor, gas masks, many Japanese packs, split-toed shoes and a quantity of food. The equipment, like that captured at the Treasuries, was up-to-date and of the best workmanship, ordnance experts being particularly impressed by the quality of Japanese periscopic sights and all lenses found throughout the Solomons campaign. Some sake, also captured, was declared not so good, and tasted harsh, like a cheap, unmatured brandy.

For four months Second-Lieutenant Harvey and Sergeant Harrison, with Privates Bowers, Brookes, Webster, Perriam and Gee, had practically to nurse the Nissan Island ammunition stocks. Unless every imaginable precaution against sweating was taken—and this involved much additional work—the ammunition soon became unserviceable. Even their arrival on the island was an inhospitable one. It was the old business again of using the ammunition trucks to smash a way through the jungle at page 222first. Natives were used to help with the handling work, and as they were extremely limited in their linguistic attainments, or, in other words, backward 'scholars' in pidgin-English, 'You carry him bokis. Putem on wheely-wheely; was a very ineffective instruction at first. Towards the end of the section's stay at Nissan termites were found to have affected scores of the reserve ammunition boxes so badly that they would not stand further handling and some had to be dumped.