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Medical Services in New Zealand and The Pacific

VI: Aerodrome Construction Unit in Malaya, August 1941 – February 1942

VI: Aerodrome Construction Unit in Malaya, August 1941 – February 1942

In June and July 1941 a selection board chose the personnel of Unit 24, RNZAF, for aerodrome construction work in the tropics. The sound policy was adopted of allowing the medical officer (Captain North1) who was to accompany the unit to take part in the selection. In six months' service in Malaya and on Singapore Island the loss of man-hours due to illness was infinitesimal, and at no time were the operations of any branch of the unit hindered by sickness.

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The unit left New Zealand in August 1941 for Malaya. In addition to the medical officer there were seven medical orderlies, and this relatively large number was required because the unit was to work in as many as three or four places at one time. There were also a dental officer and two dental orderlies. A supply of medical and dental equipment calculated to last one year was taken from New Zealand.

Wherever sections of the unit were working, good food, good housing, and an abundant and safe supply of water were provided. With these conditions and careful attention to hours of work and rest, it was reported that the members of the unit did harder and more sustained manual work than had ever been done before by white men in Malaya. There was very little skin disease, which was attributed in part to the fact that many men worked stripped to the waist, wearing only sun helmets, shorts, boots and socks. Careful attention was always paid to anti-malarial measures, with the result that few cases developed, and there were no cases of venereal disease.

The unit was in Malaya at the time of the Japanese attack. On 3 February 1942, when the unit was loading the ship on which it was to leave Singapore, the docks were severely bombed. One New Zealand airman was killed, two died of wounds, and six were severely burned by the bomb blast and had to be left behind in Singapore when the unit eventually left by two ships on 6 February. On the journey to Batavia both ships were attacked from the air and one airman was killed and 18 others wounded. One had to be left behind in Java when the unit sailed for Australia later in February, when there were heavy Japanese bombing attacks prior to invasion. New Zealand was reached in March with most of the unit in good health despite the hazardous journey from Singapore independent and enabled it to practise continuous reinforcement and rotation of personnel.

1 Wg Cdr N. H. North; Dunedin; born Chandpur, East Bengal, 7 Feb 1908; obstetrician; medical officer No. 1 Aerodrome Construction Unit, Malaya, Aug 1941-Mar 1942; OC Malaria Control Unit, 3 Div, Sep 1942-Aug 1943; SMO Northern Group, RNZAF, Aug 1943-Jan 1945.