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The Pacific

I: Fanning Island

page 288

I: Fanning Island

NEW Zealand's participation in the 1939–45 War began and ended in the Pacific. Her first expeditionary force was a small detachment made up of two officers and thirty other ranks known as No. 1 Platoon, A Company, which on 30 August 1939 sailed from Auckland for tiny, palm-clad Fanning Island to guard the cable station there and prevent a repetition of the 1914 damage done by a raiding party from the German cruiser Nurnberg. These men learned of the outbreak of the European war on 3 September 1939 as they neared their destination in HMS Leander, at that time commanded by Captain J. W. Rivett-Carnac, DSC, RN.1

Fanning Island is a remote coral atoll lying 3.54 degrees north of the Equator, just off the Auckland-Suva-Honolulu trade route. Its total area of rather barren soil is 15 square miles, the average height of which is only 17 feet above sea level. Cable station and plantation administration officials at the outbreak of war made up a European community numbering about thirty. Most of the 250 to 270 natives were employed on the coconut plantations which cover the island. There was no regular steamer or schooner service with Fanning, which was supplied from Fiji or Honolulu.

In May 1939 the New Zealand Cabinet confirmed its decision to despatch a small force to Fanning Island should the necessity arise, and gave authority for its increase from 60 to 150 men. The total strength of the New Zealand regular forces was correspondingly increased to provide for this garrison, since the country was not at war. Orders for the defence of the island and the installation of one 6-inch naval gun to protect the cable station were signed by Major-General John Duigan, Chief of the New Zealand General Staff, on 1 December that same year. The support and periodical relief of this small garrison is an example

1 Vice-Admiral J. W. Rivett-Carnac, CB, CBE, DSC; born England, 12 Dec 1891; served First World War, 1914–18 (DSC); captain HMS Leander and Commodore Commanding NZ Squadron, 1937–39; Flag Officer, British Assault Area, Normandy, 1944; Vice-Admiral (Q) British Pacific Fleet, 1945–47.

page 289 of the difficulties attending such an isolated expedition, and one which continually exercised the New Zealand Government until the United States took over the defence of the island. Fanning was only one of a number of islands on which New Zealand garrisons, either Army or Air Force, were stationed.

The first men for the defence of the island assembled in some secrecy at Trentham Military Camp in June 1939, as political tension mounted in Europe and an outbreak of war seemed inevitable. The men were equipped and given as much training as the brief period before departure allowed them. The commander was instructed to be on the alert against enemy ruses, as in 1914 the German raider had approached the island flying the French flag and landed a party which cut the cable and temporarily dislocated all cable traffic across the Pacific. He established his small detachment in a camp at Napari, on the shores of Whaler Anchorage, named it Duigan Camp, and constructed machine-gun posts (his only armament other than rifles) to cover the entrance to English Harbour, the only deep-water entrance to the lagoon on Fanning.

Like all other pioneering service units in the Pacific in the early days of the war, the Fanning Island garrison suffered acute discomfort from heat and humidity and the lack of suitable cool storage for food supplies. After the first novelty of life in the tropics wore off, the men settled down to a routine in which work was the only relief from boredom, and swimming and fishing their only amenities. Indeed, from 1939 until 1941 an interesting record was kept of all varieties of fish caught by members of the garrison. During the first six months of 1940, 115 inches of rain fell in exceptional downpours, though the average rainfall is only 99 inches. This produced an atmosphere which hastened the deterioration of both food and clothing. Everything perishable rotted quickly, particularly all supplies of fresh vegetables. Canvas shoes with which the men were equipped in Trentham fell to pieces in a fortnight. Weevils infested the flour and biscuits, and tinned foods soon became inedible because of rusting. Rats were also a recurring pest, so that during the early period of its history the garrison was much concerned with the preservation and protection of food and supplies. Many of these early problems were later overcome by the installation of two refrigerators.

The first officer in charge of the detachment was not temperamentally suited to command an isolated garrison in a trying climate, and his conduct brought adverse reports from the administration because of his disturbing influence among a small community thrown on its own resources. After two months on page 290 the island he was replaced by Captain G. P. O'Leary.1 At a cost of £800, the Union Steamship Company's liner Aorangi was diverted to Fanning early in November to embark one officer and one sick member of the garrison. The new commander's knowledge of the native language enabled work to be speeded up on long-delayed and ill-organised camp construction, and more suitable native huts replaced the tents. By the end of the year the first medical officer, Captain A. A. Lovell,2 reached Fanning and spent the first fortnight repairing skin troubles and ulcers resulting from neglect, though the health of the troops was generally very good. At the end of a six-months' tour of duty, the originally prescribed period for each garrison, members of the platoon were relieved in March 1940 by another platoon commanded by Captain W. A. Moore, MM.3 They left for New Zealand on 29 March 1940, leaving behind them a reputation for good behaviour which brought letters of praise from the officials. After a period of leave, these men joined units for further service overseas with 2 Division.

Moore continued to speed up the work in hand, extending and completing reasonable defences and constructing a road from English Harbour to the camp to avoid sea transport of supplies in lighters. The loss of the Niagara outside Auckland Harbour on 19 June 1940 delayed the arrival of Captain B. Houston, MC, DCM,4 a relief officer for O'Leary, and two urgently required tradesmen, a carpenter and a plumber. These men, travelling as civilians to avoid curiosity regarding their mission and destination, lost all their equipment and personal property. Nine bags of mail and 25 tons of supplies destined for the Fanning garrison were also lost. After being re-equipped they reached Fanning on 3 August via Honolulu, to which O'Leary returned on the same ship to await transport to New Zealand in the Aorangi. The movement of army personnel between New Zealand and Fanning was complicated by the fact that the Government of the United States of America was not yet at war with either Germany or Japan, consequently American passports and a supply of dollars were required for those staging through Hawaii. A direct shipping service to the island was impossible, and any diversions from the normal trade routes were costly.

1 Lt-Col G. P. O'Leary, OBE; Wellington; born Strathmore, Victoria, 9 Sep 1888; Regular soldier; OC A Coy, Fanning Island, Nov 1939-Aug 1940.

2 Lt-Col A. A. Lovell; Tanganyika; born England, 10 Feb 1910; medical practitioner; OC NZ Mil Hosp (UK) 1944–46.

3 Capt W. A. Moore, MM; Auckland; born Auckland, 24 Oct 1892; clerk; Auckland Regt 1914–19.

4 Capt B. Houston, MC, DCM; born Scotland, 31 Jul 1891; public servant; died 26 Aug 1949.

page 291

The second relief, consisting of two officers and 33 other ranks, reached Fanning on 3 October 1940 in the Matai, the hire of which cost the Army Department £3366 5s. In March 1941, however, following an earlier decision by the New Zealand Chiefs of Staff, the garrison was increased by the addition of 45 Battery, RNZA, and the defences strengthened by a 6-inch naval gun obtained from Australia. A draft of 30 artillery personnel and 42 infantry travelled in the Aorangi, which was escorted to Fanning by HMS Monowai, and reached the island on 7 April. Moore, after a period in New Zealand, returned to the island with this draft, and took command of a garrison of 105 all ranks, with Houston as his second-in-command. All ranks assisted with the emplacement of the naval gun, which was completed with urgency and gave the garrison and inhabitants a reasonable sense of security.

Passing ships transported small groups to Fanning during the succeeding months. Four signallers arrived on 11 August 1941, and in five weeks established communication by wireless with Suva and two neighbouring island stations—Washington and Christmas. The Limerick called to embark a sick man, who was not replaced until the Waikato arrived with supplies the following November. Then, on 24 November 1941, the Monterey arrived at English Harbour with the last relief consisting of 41 men, and uplifted 38 who had been on the island for more than a year. These men were taken to San Francisco on the Monterey, arriving there a week before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941. Their return voyage to New Zealand was consequently involved and long-delayed. They embarked on the USS Lurline and reached Honolulu on 22 December, remaining there for a week and then being ordered back to San Francisco. They made their second departure from the Californian coast in the American transport President Monroe on 12 January 1942, and reached Suva on 29 January. Sixteen members of the party reached Auckland in the Matua, via Lautoka, on 6 February and the American transport President Monroe on 12 January 1942, Accommodation for these troops in San Francisco had cost £607.

The Fanning garrison of 113 all ranks was relieved by 150 American troops, artillery and infantry, in May 1942, and returned to New Zealand in the USS Rigel on 17 May. After leave the men were drafted into units, and most of them went overseas, as the previous garrisons had done, to serve with 2 Division in the Mediterranean sphere. Two hundred and nineteen officers, non-commissioned officers, and men served on Fanning between 1939 and 1942. The cost of the garrison, including the gun and its ammunition and transport, amounted to £42,750.