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A Gunner in the Pacific, 1939-1944
In the Beginning
I will start this story in 1937 when I joined the N.Z. Army in Trentham. It was a special setup lasting for six months only, for young fellows from the age of 18 years. I had left my job on a sheep and cattle station in North Canterbury -1 had been brought up in Christchurch.
The camp was good but fairly tough. The instructors were permanent soldiers, sergeants, but good straight fellows. There was no hanky panky there I can tell you. We were lodged in big huts, about 30 to a dormitory. The ablutions were outside, cold water basins under a long narrow corrugated iron roof. Long days, hard training, lots of drill.
When we left we were placed in the Army Reserve, and I went to work in a warehouse in Christchurch. In 1939 as world conditions deteriorated and it was obvious that a war was imminent we Reservists were notified of a callup. About a week before war was declared I found myself back in the Army and stationed at a Shell Oil Co. depot in Miramar doing guard duties two hours on and four hours off for 24 hours a day. We slept in a large room, on the floor, that was the staff lunchroom. Lasted there about 3 months I think. Then had a short spell at Army Headquarters in Buckle St Wellington doing more guard duties.
Next stop was to Fort Dorset where I remained for a couple of years. I spent most of my time there at the Colonel's command post up on Beacon Hill, outside the Fort. We were in control of all shipping movements in and out of the port. This included fishing launches as well. In the event of an alarm the Colonel fought his battle through we telephonists and signallers. I turned 21 at the end of 1940.1 was doing a course, Officer Training, when the call came to go overseas. I found myself in Trentham once more. For some reason I was put in the Medical Corps. This did not thrill me much as most of the other blokes were conscientious objectors for religious reasons, and religious nuts. Most of them spent any spare time on their knees praying. As a complete and utter heathen I couldn't get out of there fast enough!!!
I applied for the Artillery, was accepted, and spent the rest of the war alongside guns. We were shifted to Papakura camp for training on 25 pounder guns. We left Papakura in April 1942 on a train, presumably to Wellington and then on to the Middle East. We were not actually told where we were going, that was a wartime secret of course, but everyone knew we would be joining all the other Kiwi forces in Egypt. Anyway we got to Palmerston North and then to go on to Wellington. One of our blokes went on to the end of the carriage to wave farewell to his family who lived there alongside the railway. He came rushing back to yell "We are not going to Wellington, we must be going to Napier!" and that is where we arrived at daylight.
We marched through the town as daylight came and down to the wharf just as two ships approached. One was the Monowai - an armed merchantman as escort - and the other was the Rangatira which we proceeded to board. I was in a four berth cabin - the best troopship I had in the war. Had a good trip, although there were the usual seasick-ites to look after. On the way we were told we were going to Fiji. Disembarked in Suva and were taken to Samabula camp for a week or so.
We then went by truck to the western side of Viti Levu driven by Fiji Indian drivers. Was quite a large convoy from one side of the island to the other. At the top of the main divide the change from the humidity to me dryness of the west side was so remarkable. There was a distinct line from lush bush and growth to open space. I can still remember my amazement.
We set up camp in Esivo, near Nandi, with the 37th Battery. We only had the gear we had arrived in, no rifles or arms of any sort, absolutely nothing. Some 155mm guns arrived from the United States followed by some technicians from the Detroit Dodge factory where the guns had been built to show us how to assemble the guns and operate them. There was also ammunition - l00lb shells, and old Eddystone rifles, about 1908 vintage, .30 calibre ammo and a couple of .30 calibre machine guns with tracers for anti-aircraft protection. There were also a couple of massive GM trucks to tow the guns and carry the gear. The truck deck was about 5 foot above the ground, just great to lift l00lb shells upto.
Our job was to protect the airfield at Nandi from ground forces and attacks through any breaks in the encircling reef. We lived in tents, cooking by kerosene and petrol burners. Water was delivered by small tankers after being treated. That was when I learnt to wash my body and clean my teeth in less than a mug of water.
Life was spent doing gun drills, with me in the signallers sorting out field telephones and primitive radios, night watches, occasionally ducking down to the beach, about 10 minutes walk away, to have a swim, which was really a bath We really enjoyed the Fijians, got on very well with them. The Indians were a totally different matter. They never accepted us, casting their eyes down as we passed, then spitting on the ground behind us. We retaliated by pinching their chooks and giving them to our cooks. We also did not trust them as friends, suspecting them of passing information back to India and then on to Japan. They would walk through our gun lines, especially at night. We tried to stop them with little success. One of our blokes, on night duty guard, swapped a couple of his rifle rounds with a couple of tracers from the ackack machine gun. That night when an Indian walked through the gun line our bloke aimed a shot - tracer - just past the Indian who took one look, uttered a banshee wail and took off. As far as we know that Indian is still running. It cured the habit anyway.
We stayed in Fiji for about six months, returning to N.Z. about October 1942. Had a bit of leave for a short time, my stepfather having a heart attack and dying at that stage.
On 4th November 1942 embarked on the American ship Maui, a cargo ship transporting fruit normally, from Hawaii to the States. We slept down in the hold, 500 of us in one hold, packed tight, with an ablution block at the end of the hold, leaking water and effluent, very, very smelly, 24 hours a day. Two meals a day. I took on Ackack gun duties in charge of a few crews, so I had to swap them around, especially at meal times. So I got in to the Mess four or five times a day.
We sailed into Noumea Harbour at 11- 00 am on 11th November 1942 observing the one minute silence for the Armistice commemoration as we sailed up the harbour. There were 85 American warships in the harbour that day. As we sailed up the harbour an American aircraft carrier and about 4 escorts - a cruiser and destroyers - headed out of the harbour. They eventually finished up at the Battle of the Coral Sea. A couple of the destroyers were sunk and the carrier had a huge hole blown in the side on the waterline. The remnants returned to Noumea.
We proceeded to Point Tere, Naia, 30 miles north of Noumea and 9 miles in from the main road to the coast where a camp had been established by the Americans and a battery of 155mm guns set up by them, along with tents and all facilities for us. We fed and lived, training and all, alongside the Americans for some months, m April 1943 one of our gun Sergeants accidentally shot himself, lasting a few noisy hours before dying.
Getting in and out of the camp was quite an experience in wet weather as the roads were just dirt so we didn't ever know just when the truck would suddenly slide sideways. Somewhat hair-raising.
I was a specialist - spec for short - not an actual gunner, did all the sums, plotting, mapping etc. In this place I spent a lot of time on survey work surveying in the guns. The American figures were all to hell, so our shooting was somewhat wild. We had to walk miles to find a survey point as the Yanks had ripped most of them out. With all the walking our boots wore out and we had to borrow the officers' boots until the Yanks came to light with all sorts of gear including boots and shirts, which also were wearing out and Kiwi forces did not have any replacements. If it hadn't been for the Americans we would just have had to sit on our backsides doing nothing, with no clothing and no food or armaments.
After finishing the survey work and putting it into practice our shooting became very accurate. At some stage the Survey Group turned up to carry out the survey requested much earlier. They only stayed one day, they checked our work and stated that they couldn't do any better. We felt quite proud of that.
The people of New Caledonia were mostly fairly easy to get on with The natives including Loyalty Islanders did not really have much to do with us. The French were divided, Vichyites and De Gaullists. The latter were very friendly but the Vichyites had to be watched and kept clear of. At one stage I was doing a tour of duty at an outpost along the coast at an observation post. Our tent and observation post were on farm land belonging to a De Gaullist, Monsieur Spa. He made a great fuss of us giving us wonderful meals of turkey and vegetables. Monsieur Spa got my name and N.Z. address and proceeded to write to my mother telling her I was ok.
Round about April '43 I went down with Dengue fever, a fairly nasty experience, lasting about ten days including a relapse. We were told that Dengue would not affect us back in a mild climate such as N.Z. How wrong they were. Very soon after our return home, after the war, lots of us went down with bouts every year, my last one was about 11 or 12 years ago.
We stayed at that camp until 18th July when Americans took over from us. We went further North to Nemeara to a new base camp. On the way our truck and an American truck heading south bumped together on the narrow busy road. Rather like State Highway 1 on Labour Weekend. When the dust cleared and we sorted ourselves out we found one of our blokes, D.D. Harris was dead. He is buried at the Service Cemetery at Bourail. The 33rd Heavy Regiment was disbanded. We became known then as Artillery Training Depot - A.T.D. Remained there for a while training on 25 pounder Guns.
The training depot was OK but somewhat boring, days were spent training on the 25 pounder guns and the anti-aircraft wallahs on their Bofors, a light quickfiring gun. One day the ackack boys were having a special practice with American Lightning planes as targets, using blank ammo. I was involved on the communications side, just for practice, when a plane came over the trees quite low down, so no warning, the guns fired and the plane lifted up to flyout over the trees. It didn't lift quite fast enough hitting a tree about six feet down from the top. The plane hit near the centre of the wing alongside the cabin, probably the strongest part. The treetop flew into space, the plane flew on with the pilot's voice coming over the radio "I guess I will take off for home now." He arrived home safely. At the base of this tree was an orderly room tent which went about 20 feet straight up, ropes and all. The bloke inside went about 10 feet straight up along with his table, field telephone and papers. What a sight.
We received, intermittently, a beer ration, one bottle at a time, so went to all sorts of tricks to accumulate a supply so we could have a party which we did now and again, in our tent we had a pet rooster with his own pole style roost. One party we had we included the rooster by giving him his own beer container. He seemed to enjoy the beer and after a while grew as happy as us. He started crowing, and on the high note stretched upwards then proceeded to loop the loop on his perch. Because of the way chooks are made their claws tighten up as their knees bend so they don't let go. That was the most hilarious sight we saw.
About early November we went further north to Guadalcanal going ashore via landing net from the troopship. For a few weeks seemed to be occupied laying timber floors in nurse's tents. The Air Force had a big sawmill operating in the jungle, cutting down massive mahogany trees then sawing the logs into 4x1. The timber was so green it was still pouring sap all over our shirts and trousers.
At the end of October 1943 New Zealand forces landed on Mono Island in the Treasury Group at the top end of the Solomons. It was an opposed landing against the Japs, with a number of killed and wounded. Later in November I was sent up to join them. I was called "That recruit." I had already done 4 years of artillery work but that didn't matter, they had only had about six months in the army but I had not been in the landing. I came up on a landing ship which ran on to a small beach.
The Treasuries was a group of islands just below Bougainville, which looked somewhat like Great Barrier does to us here out on the horizon. There were two main islands, Stirling a long narrow, flat island, and Mono a round island with a steep hill rising to about 1000 feet. In between was water with small islands dotted about. Everything was covered in dense bush - Jungle - hot, humid and smelly. The whole place crawled with insects day and night, some biting, and some squeaking. The sweat just poured out of your pores continuously. Every day we had to take one pill - atebrin - to ward off malaria, except on Sundays. It was a yellow tablet and turned our skin yellow after a while. We suffered from all sorts of skin problems, and sores were very common, including huge deep ulcers especially on your legs. Cleanliness was a must.
The Yanks and then Kiwis brought bulldozers ashore and started clearing the jungle from Stirling Island to make an airstrip. The Kiwis soon taught the Yanks how to clear trees by half cutting trees in a big triangle then cutting one tree to fall and knock the others over. The work went on 24 hours a day so didn't take very long before the planes started landing.
The 38th Field Regiment, with three batteries, 49th, 50th and 51st, were strung out along the inside shore of Stirling. In early January '44, 49th Battery shifted over to Mono, about 500 feet up a hill overlooking Blanche Harbour. So that was where I went and lived for the next few months.
Before I left Stirling two of us were detailed to survey in the Kiwi ackack guns. The Yanks had taken a high altitude photo of the islands, and then drawn a grid, made their maps on that. The result was the guns couldn't hit anything, so that's where we came into it. Once again it was difficult to find a starting point but eventually found an official datum point. The jungle was a different proposition to New Caledonia. The bush was so thick that it was only possible to sight a few yards at a time then take another sight, measuring the distance and men move on. After all this sighting and measuring came the sums. No calculators or computers, just logarithm tables, multiplication, division and addition hour after hour. No rest from the heat either.
During the morning of Christmas Day I and my surveying mate were in a dinghy in Blanche harbour when I heard planes. After a very nervous look I decided they were Dakotas so all was well. They came in fairly low over the airstrip works then proceeded to drop parachutes of many colours. Was quite spectacular. On arrival back at camp at dinner time discovered what all the hooha was about. It was our Christmas dinner - roast turkey, roast potatoes, Xmas plum pud and even a spoonful of ice-cream. The Yanks had sent enough for all New Zealanders too.
Eventually it was all done, the figures given to the ackack gunners and maps redrawn. One lot of guns according to the American figures was 100 yards out to sea. We congratulated the gunners for managing to keep afloat for so long. That night was a stunner. As soon as the searchlights picked up a Jap plane our guns locked on and gave the Japs hell. Our Padre was a Catholic Priest, short, full of fun. I can still see him in a clearing about three feet above the ground, waving his arms and shouting "Bring the bastards down." So I was quite happy with my work.
Shifting to Mono was very, very hard work. The Battery was sighted 500 feet up a hill so a road had to be cut through the jungle and mud to a more or less flat spot which immediately turned into knee deep mud. 25 pounder guns are heavy enough without having to drag them through that stinking muck. And the heat, just no letup. Eventually finished it all then on to the training with shoots lasting hours. That is why I am deaf and the Government pay for my hearing aids.
One shoot I was standing between guns number 2 and 3 when the gun to my right made a very weird sound. No mighty bang, just a half-hearted groan. Then the shell came out of the barrel slowly and dropped nose down. I thought "This is it" but nothing happened. The safety shield in the nose cone had not been flicked aside as in a normal firing. So no explosion.
Once the airstrip was nearing completion the Japs came from Bougainville to make a mess of things nearly every night. They spent hours bombing hell out of the place. We were fairly lucky because the bombs fell on Sterling so we could watch it happening but every now and then bombs would come our way. We soon learnt to listen to the whistle of the bombs and immediately decide how close they would fall. If it was a close one there was a rush for the slit trench. One night this happened, the bomb landed close in the bush, absolute silence, then a voice in the trench said "Get your bare arse out of my face." That was life in the jungle. Another hazard was the shrapnel from the American ackack, their fuse setting was a bit slaphappy and the shells would explode at 500 feet, which was right in our faces. Then the guns down the foot of our hill would fire up the face of the hill and we would have the shells zipping past our tents oombang, oombang, oombang. Sure learnt to keep your head down.
This was our life till April/May 1944 when we returned to New Caledonia and base camp near Bourail. In June/July '44 returned to New Zealand. After a few weeks we were told we would be off to Italy. However I was told that I was not fit to go so I was retired from the Army, however I was Manpowered on to a sheep and cattle station up in Okaihau where I saw out the rest of the war and into peace time.
We had a lot to do with the American Forces, sometimes they were maddening but if it had not been for them we would not have had any food, clothing or arms and ammunition to say nothing of shelter. Their blokes were wonderful to us and would give us all sorts of bits and pieces and clothing etc. We were like the poor relations. They saved us from the Japs who were stopped short after the Battle of the Coral Sea. I still have a high regard for them, in spite of their faults.
I guess I had a lucky star shining for me, no bad accidents, no real illnesses apart from dengue fever, not being sent to the Treasuries till after the landing and finally not having to go to Italy. So my war was not too bad. I thank my 'Lucky Star'.
Forbes Greenfield, November 2005
NZ Artillery of WW2 in the Pacific
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