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Medical Services in New Zealand and The Pacific

XII: Medical Services with Norfolk Island Defence Force

XII: Medical Services with Norfolk Island Defence Force

In October 1942 a New Zealand defence force of 1500 troops (composed mainly of 36 Battalion and artillery units) was sent to Norfolk Island and for this force the provision of medical services was necessary. For this purpose the Army established a small hospital, which was handed over to the RNZAF in January 1944 when the army garrison was finally withdrawn.

Norfolk Island is only a small island of some 13 square miles rising to a maximum height of 1042 feet above sea level and possessing a humid climate. The initial medical survey showed the health of residents to be good. An epidemic of measles had occurred in 1942, being introduced by a soldier of the small defence detachment from Australia. Tuberculosis, chiefly pulmonary, was quite common among the native islanders.

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The units composing the New Zealand defence force were scattered over all parts of the island, living by companies, platoons, sections and even as single gun crews. All detached sections or platoons were provided with a haversack of first-aid or medical equipment, and the RAPs had a greater amount of equipment. The force had only one medical officer at first and he could not visit each RAP more often than once every two or three days. To visit all the RAPs entailed over 20 miles travelling, and the visiting of detached sections would have involved at least another ten miles. A good deal of responsibility was thus imposed on medical orderlies, a number of whom had to be trained for their duties.

Other units on Norfolk Island when the New Zealanders arrived were an infantry detachment of 150 men and an aerodrome construction unit of 200 workmen from Australia, served by a United States 20-bed hospital unit with two medical officers. For the first two weeks after their arrival the New Zealand troops were indebted to the United States hospital unit for the supply of dressings and medicines (their own being held up in the supply ship owing to wrong order of loading), and for admitting a number of medical cases to its hospital.

The New Zealand medical detachment took possession of an old uninhabited house located almost in the centre of the island and there established a hospital. Much renovation was required to make the building serviceable. The one medical officer could undertake only emergency surgery. It was some months before equipment for a hospital operating theatre arrived from New Zealand, and as the American unit had no facilities for major surgery, such surgery had to be performed by the New Zealand medical officer at the civil hospital, employing the services of the local dentist as anaesthetist. The lot of this sole medical officer was to some extent relieved in April 1943 when another medical officer and two nursing sisters, four voluntary aids and extra NZMC personnel arrived from New Zealand to expand the hospital from 10 beds to 40 beds. By August 1943 the strength of the force had been reduced to about 800, with which the medical services were better able to cope. Further reductions were effected in December 1943 and January 1944, when the hospital unit was attached to the Air Force.

The water supply was drawn from tanks, wells and small surface streams. With the exception of rain-water (from tanks) all water had to be boiled or chlorinated before drinking, unless it had been tested and found satisfactory, and for testing purposes the very limited supply of chemicals available was soon exhausted and tardily replaced from New Zealand.

The food supply at first consisted mainly of service biscuits, tinned meat and vegetables, tinned or dried fruit and tinned milk. This page 99 was monotonous and the biscuits caused the dental detachment considerable worry. Later, variety was introduced by the despatch of frozen meat and other supplies from New Zealand, while units grew their own fresh vegetables and produced eggs from their own fowls. Attempts to buy food in bulk from the islanders would have resulted in a serious shortage of food for the civilians.

map of the Mediterranean region


In the relieving force sent to Norfolk Island in April 1943 a number of Grade II troops were included, as they were required only for garrison duty. Generally speaking, it was found that these men were unsuited for service in the warmer climate. Within six months of their arrival it was found necessary to return over 10 per cent of the relieving force of lower grade men to New Zealand on medical grounds. Lack of facilities for investigation or treatment of disabilities was a factor which necessitated the evacuation of some who might otherwise have been retained. It was felt that the medical officers in New Zealand had not conscientiously examined personnel posted for garrison duty in order to eliminate those with unsuitable disabilities. It was further suspected that commanding officers and camp staffs in New Zealand discouraged medical examinations of such personnel in order that drafts might leave the country at full strength.

Disabilities which proved most unsuitable were gastric troubles, chronic otitis media, sinusitis, rheumatic and chest conditions, asthma, bronchitis and skin troubles, especially those associated with hyperidrosis. The rheumatic cases were the most common and were the greatest single worry as there were no facilities for their treatment in the way of physiotherapy and massage.