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Medical Services in New Zealand and The Pacific

XI: Medical Services with Tonga Defence Force

XI: Medical Services with Tonga Defence Force

In October 1942 New Zealand troops (34 Battalion from 8 Brigade) were sent to Tonga to reinforce the Tongan Defence Forces and replace American units moved up to forward areas. The battalion was accompanied by an RMO, who established a liaison with the American forces on the island. The Americans agreed to accept at their 7 Evacuation Hospital all New Zealanders who needed hospitalisation, and also made medical supplies available.

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Health conditions on the island were satisfactory. Some cases of filariasis were reported to occur among the white population who lived in close proximity to the Tongans. There were occasional outbreaks of typhoid, mostly among Tongans. There was no malaria on the island, although mosquitoes were plentiful from December to March, especially in the coconut areas. Fleas were the most troublesome pests and abounded in the New Zealand camp area. Neither the Americans nor New Zealanders could find a means of keeping them in check. Fortunately they were not vectors of any disease.

Water was drawn from wells but needed to be chlorinated on account of its impurities. The New Zealanders were on American food rations. These American foods were mostly in cans and cartons and, although of adequate food value, were on account of their soft nature not at first well tolerated by the New Zealand soldier. Supplementary rations, including frozen meat, were received from New Zealand.

On 22 February 1943 and 6 March 1943 the main body of a New Zealand force arrived in Tonga to take over the defence of the island from the Americans. A force of approximately brigade strength was posted in detachments of from 20 to 200 men in scattered areas over Tonga and adjacent islands. By May 1943 there were 2662 New Zealand officers and men in Tonga. For medical services Tonga was divided into four areas, with a medical officer in each who was responsible for the health of all troops in the area. There was a senior medical officer (Lieutenant-Colonel Fulton1) in charge of the medical services. The American hospital facilities continued to be utilised, although in August 1943 a detachment of twelve nursing sisters was posted from New Zealand to the staff of the hospital. A small convalescent depot was established in June 1943. In the event of hostilities a scheme of evacuation was prepared. This problem was more a transport than a medical one, as cases were to be sent direct to hospital from RAPs. An inadequate number of trained medical orderlies was at first available for the isolated RAPs.

Tongan recruits were enlisted under the New Zealand force and their medical examinations and subsequent medical attention were a responsibility of the New Zealand medical service. The question of tuberculosis in Tongan recruits was a serious one.

The degree of fitness demanded by the conditions on the island was nearly up to Grade I standard. The climate was especially hard on those with skin and sinus troubles, asthma and post-concussional page 97 headaches. Varicose veins, unless mild, did not stand up to tropical conditions. The majority of men in the ranks over 40 years of age were not suitable for service under the conditions.

Most of the New Zealand troops sent to Tonga in February and March 1943 were Grade II and a check on their medical gradings was made during August. It was found that of the 1110 Grade II men originally sent a total of 266, or nearly 25 per cent, had to be graded III for return to New Zealand. An administrative instruction issued from Army Headquarters, New Zealand, on 6 April 1943 had given an added list of disabilities rendering men unfit for garrison duty in the tropics. Most of the men regraded fell into this group and would not have been sent under the later regulations.

Actually, garrison duties in the tropics were more arduous than similar duties in New Zealand, and the standard of fitness therefore required was much higher. The arbitrary standard laid down by Headquarters 16 Brigade Group in Tonga for Grade II troops fit to remain in Tonga demanded that a soldier should be able to march five to seven miles in a day, to traverse fairly heavy country by day and by night, and to remain out in the open for several days, possibly in the wet, and be an efficient soldier at the end of that time. These duties had to be carried out in a tropical climate with a high humidity, so that a fairly high standard of fitness was necessary. The conditions were specially severe on men over the age of 41 years, and the percentage of rejects in this group was high.

In late 1943 and early in 1944 the major portion of the New Zealand Army force was withdrawn from Tonga. For the few remaining personnel, and for the RNZAF strength, hospital arrangements were undertaken by a United States Navy hospital.

1 Lt-Col J. R. H. Fulton; Dunedin; born Dunedin, 19 Aug 1900; medical practitioner; RMO 27 (MG) Bn Oct 1939–Jun 1941; medical officer 3 Gen Hosp Jun 1941–Jan 1942; SMO Tonga Feb 1942–Feb 1944; SMO Burnham Camp Apr-Aug 1944.