Monday, December 13, 2004

Chapter 2: Our "new home" - for six weeks.

We had traveled southward for so long that I was sure we would be getting into South Polar waters before long. When we saw our first land in almost three weeks, it was in the shape of tiny islands, but icebergs they might have been. They rose sharply from the ocean and the straits, they were extremely angular, and they looked cold and lifeless as icebergs, but they were colored grey, brown, and other indeterminate shades. Nevertheless, they looked strange and inhospitable, and I felt like a member of an antactic expedition. That was ridiculous, of course, because the climate was quite mild.

To the amazement of most of us, New Zealand presented a civilized appearance. What gave it the unquestionable aura of civilization was, I think, the sight of trolly cars, or "trams," as they were called by the natives. In the golden light of a sinking sun, New Zealand looked inviting, charming, and supremely fascinating.

We might have made the landing quite differently from the way we actually did make it. Near the entrance of one of the straits or channels approaching North Island, a Japanese submarine was spotted and probably sunk. Had it attacked us, we might have made the landing in life boats at the nearest beach, rather than at Queen's Wharf with bright lights and loud music. I was blissfully unaware of the presence of any such menace even after the first depth charge was dropped. My attention was drawn away from the scenery by an air of excitement which had developed along the stargoard rail. Somebody said, "See, there goes another one!"

"Another what?" I asked.

"Depth charge."

Then I was told. There was the first depth charge. (Hadn't I heard it? Well, maybe I had; I wasn't sure.) The men down in the hold had heard it all right, became quite alarmed by it, in fact; it was quite a jolt down there. Then, just now the second depth charge.

I digested this information calmly. The fact that a submarine was that close (about a quarter of amile astern) didn't impress me somehow. I suppose I figured that as long as we had not been torpedoed yet, why worry? Then too, there were islands all around us and not far away, and that fact gave me all the confidence I needed. I wish that I had had that much confidence at times in the Solomons and on Luzon, however, when solid, dry land was right under my feet!

When we debarked, our barracks bags were put on trucks and taken to our camp at Papakura. We marched with our packs and Springfields to the Auckland railroad station. I don't recall whether the band was leading us or not. I suppose it was, for Shafer hardly took the battalion anywhere without band music. I do recall, however, there were little crowds of people at intervals along the sidewalks who applauded politely as we passed. I recall, particularly, my reaction, which was one of mild disappointment that there was not a noisier demonstration. Weren't we the first American division to land at New Zealand, or at any rate, in Auckland? And weren't we there for the express purpose of defending New Zealand against the Japanese aggression which was at that time threatening Australia? Then I decided that this was just an example of typically British lack of demonstrativeness. I realized, too, that Auckland was not New York City, and Queen Street was not Fifth Avenue. It didn't take the people of this new and wonderful country long to tell us in their own quiet way how grateful they were to us and to the United States for being there. They just didn't go in for a lot of whoop-la and ostentation and paper-throwing as New Yorkers will do if given a little encouragement. The Aucklanders showed their appreciation in a nicer and more sincere way than that: they invited us to tea, to supper, to dinner, to the theater, not collectively, of course, but individually, and with hardly more than an informal introduction.

Bob Mull, an Ohio boy, got to know Mr. and Mrs. Colin Hill in a typically off-hand way, and my introduction to them was with as little ceremony also. Bob was walking along a street in Auckland one day, when the Hills stopped beside him in their car and asked if they could take him somewhere. He told them he was just looking the town over, so they suggested that he come up to their houseand have tea with them. He did, and found them most hospitable. At camp the next day, he gold me about them, and asked if I would like to meet them. I immediately jumped at the invitation. So when he and I got passes together, we went to see the Hills. They were grand people. She was teaching music at the time, and he was a mechanic in a garage. They liked music, so in the evening they gave us a little music, he with the accordion, she with the piano. It doesn't sound exciting, but Bob and I were not looking for excitement, so we enjoyed our visits with the Hills completely.

I wasn't looking for excitement the day I went to Auckland with Jim Bishof either, but we almost got it anyway. Walking along the street, Jim and I became aware of someone addressing us in rather surly fashion. We turned to see where it came from and noticed two British sailors, one of whom was quite drunk - and consequently rather belligerent. "Oh-oh," I thought, "here's going to be one of those historic soldier-versus-sailor scraps. I've heard about 'em, but never thought I'de be mixed up in one." I didn't like the idea. There were too many M.P.'s around, and I, having only about five months of Army behind me, had not learned how much I might be able to get by with, had not learned all the ins and outs, so I was extremely cautious. I had kept my nose clean thus far, and I had no notion of landing in the guard house this early in the game. I was just young enough that even one night's confinement in a guard house, would have been a crushing, humiliating experience.

Jim did not like the idea, either. He was rather near-sighted, and to him glasses were practically indespensable. If he took them off, he couldn't see to fight; if he kept them on, they'd certainly get smashed. We used the better part of valor: we talked our way out of it - and we didn't have to buy the sailor a drink, either. We told him that we had never seen him before and that he had never seen us, so we saw no point in fighting. Then we asked him why he had singled us out as objects of assault and battery. He was not reluctant to tell us. He had been to America, Boston, specifically, and he had been rather shabbily treated by some "Yanks" while he ws there. If that was the kind of hospitality a New Zealand chap received there, he would be only too glad to return the hospitality to visiting Yanks in New Zealand. We smiled, and murmured something to the effect that there were plenty of Yanks in Auckland, and that he could find someone else to shower his "hospitality" on. With that we left, and the sailor made no attempt to pursue us or the argument any further. His chum was probably holding him back - or up.

At the Auckland station, following our march from Queen's Wharf, we boarded a three-quarter sized train. This train, by its "digest" size seemed to typify everything in and about New Zealand that I saw except the people. The automobiles, with the exception of an occasional American car, were in miniature. The whole North Island that I saw, indeed even that part which I could view from the train during the hour's ride from Auckland to Tironui station, seemed to be a condensed version of America. We passed through cities and suburbs; through cattle country and past agricultural farms. We went through dense woods of the semi-tropic, jungle-like kind one sees in Florida; got an occasioinal view of a fishing town. It was so like America, yet so unlike it, too.

After we got off the train at Tironui, we marched to the camp which was apparently just across the town line in Papakura, less than a quarter of a mile from the Tironui station. Surrounded by a border of what I took to be eucalyptus trees, and generously adorned with gardens of blossoming flowers (although it was wintertime down there), this camp was in many ways nicer than any camp I had seen in the states. Its chief disadvantages were the complete lack of heat or provision therefor in the barracks, and the plumbing facilities housed in separate buildings instead of within the barracks. But aside from these shortcomings, the Papakura camp was a very fine one to be garrisoned in. It was near enough to the railroad to make passes to Auckland a definite pleasure, and a highway was near for those who wanted to try their luck at hitch-hiking their way to the city.

As for recreation and entertainment, Papakura was provided as well as any Stateside camp I have seen. There were two canteens: a "dry" one whose stock of merchandise was almost as varied as the post exchanges in the States; and a "wet" canteen where one could buy beer and drink it. I believe drinking was restricted to that building. Besides these, there were various "huts," small buildings maintained by church organizations, the YMCA, and the Salvation Army. Most of these huts served tea, soft drinks, and malted milks for liquid refreshment, and also sandwiches, cookies, etc., all for very little. Tuppence for a cup of tea, a penny apiece for cookies, and not more than a shilling (about twenty cents) for a malted milk that was, in the current popular phrase, out of this world. For creaminess, I have never tasted milk anywhere that equalled New Zealand milk, so the malted milks and milkshakes were the most delicious I have ever had. Besides these snacks, the huts provided tables for ping-pong and pool, and libraries with wood-burning fireplaces, where one could read in practically solid comfort. As for the movies, that was the one point on which the camp fell down. The theater was a large, wooden, barnlike building, as heatless as the barracks. (We soon found out that heatlessness was to be a general rule in the milder portions of North Island for the duration.) The films were mostly Grade B and often years old. The situation was about the same in Auckland, however, so most of us patronized the camp movie house when we went to a movie at all.

This, then was our camp where for six weeks we were garrisoned. During one of the orientation talks which were given while we were there, we were told that we would be under the command of Admiral Ghormley, and that our (i.e., the 37th Division's) mission would be to defend New Zealand, and that the field artillery would become coast artillery in the event of an invasion or threat of an invasion. That included not only the 136th Field Artillery with its 155mm howitzers, but the 135th F.A. as well, the 105mm howitzer outfit stationed in the less lush surroundings of the town of Manurewa. I suppose we all mentally dug in and accepted our fate. Actually, not all the digging-in was mental. All around the camp machine guns were emplaced, complete with underground shelters, sand bag bunkers and so forth. Other personnel trenches were dug here and there, constant menaces to nocturnally carrousing soldiers. But even so, the diggings notwithstanding, to most of us the war was a remote thing, and the possibility of our remaining on North Island as coastal defense indefinitely, perhaps throughout the war, was not unpleasant to contemplate. And the amazing thing was that we actually did consider it a possibility. Thus it was a jolt of the rudest sort, when we learned that New Zealand no longer had any need for us there. That was about six weeks after we arrived there.

In those six weeks, however, we grimly went ahead, preparing for war. Like standing formal retreat and semi-formal guard mount every evening and reveille formation every morning. And inspections every Saturday morning. Nothing like Saturday morning inspections to make a fighter out of a man. His first impulse is to shoot every officer on sight.

There was a more practical side to our training, though, while we were there. The howitzer sections had a drill every day, known as cannoneers post and dubbed whimsically, "cannoneers hop." Not having ever been a cannoneer officially, I am not acquainted with all the refinements of that quadrille, but the general idea is to familiarize each cannoneer (there were seven in those days) with the job and position at the piece (howitzer) of every other cannoneer. This was done by rotating the men during simulated firing, or "dry runs" as it was called. It is a useful but extremely tedious performance. It is also a very tiring one. At that time the men were using a dummy projectile weighing nearly 100 pounds. (Real ammunition weighed around 95 pounds.) A man would place the dummy on the loading tray, two men would place the tray on the slides just behind the open breech, a fifth would push the dummy shell halfway into the breech, then he and one of the others would ram it all the way into the firing chamber. Another man would close the breech block after someone had put in the imaginary powder behind the shell. Then, an imaginary primer would go into the firing mechanism block, and the man who closed the breech block would pull the lanyard to "fire" the piece. After that, the breech block would be opened, the dummy projectile removed, and the whole monotonous process would start all over again. This is what the cannoneers continued to do during our six weeks on North Island. They resumed it again on Viti Levu in the Fijis and kept it up for eight months. When we went to Guadalcanal, the cannoneers were at it again in the humid heat of the Solomons. There, for three months, prior to entering our first combat, the howitzer sections continued to train as they had done in Fiji; in New Zealand before that; in Indiantown Gap before coming overseas; and before Indiantown Gap, in Wisconsin, Mississippi, and Louisiana. In Guadalcanal, however, they took the drastic step: they pitched their dummy projectiles over the hill and down into the dense undergrowth of the jungles! Nobody ever saw those accursed things again. They were putting away childish things, for they were men now - headed for New Georgia! Who could blame them?

While the gun sections were getting worn ragged on the howitzers, I would slink guiltily off to Battalion Headquarters along with the other computers in Fire Diretion, and there I would undertake to comprehend such things as firing large T and small t, computing K, decoding metro messages or "MIF MIF", and determining a point by short base intersection. These classes were interspersed with field survey practice. I always got more out of field practice than I did out of stuffy lectures and chalk-talks. But we never seemed to get enough of them, or I didn't. Just as I'd begin to grasp something out in the open (my head cleared of cobwebs by then), back we'd go to the lecture room, and I would get confused some more. It was very like Fort Bragg that way.

Another reason I preferred going out was that we got to see some of the country. Tru, we never went very far - only around Papakura, Tironui, and Manurewa - but it was something, and the scenery was lovely. I was expecially impressed by the frequency with which rainbows appeared. It seemed that we saw one every time we went out. The sight of a rainbow - sometimes a double one - curving over the verdant hills lighted by the afternoon sun, is something I still remember with a great amount of pleasure.

Our being in garrison, it was natural to assume that Colonel Shafer, the battalion CO, would make the most of it. And so he did. Although his insisting on a spit-and-polish regime came as no great surprise, it nevertheless produced great anguish and dismay, all the same. Accordingly, we held a formal reveille every morning, with its interminable succession of "all-present-and-accounted-for" pronouncements. In a way, of course, this was better than a straight roll call, because men could stay away without any great risk of getting caught. And since it was dark, the colonel couldn't tell whether or ot the captain was lying when he reported, "all present."

Fiction has dealt with the ceremony known as formal retreat as though the occasion were a stirring and inspiring one. The band plays or the bugle sounds the call, and the salute to the Colors is rendered. That is an attitude definitely of another day. True, for many an old line sergeant near the end of his thirty-year hitch and for many an officer for whom the FA is his endeared profession, there may be a thrill, a lump in th throat, a tear welling in the eye, when the Call to the Colors is played on the bugle, or when the National Anthem is played by a full band. But the younger generation, the new army, is made of far different stuff, and I imagine most of the men in the army reacted to retreat the way we of the 37th Division did. For us, retreat was a chafing, tedious performance which was borne with an "Oh-when-will-this-thing-be-over?" attitude. Thus, a Regular Army man would have been horrified could he have seen some of our retreats. At the command from Col. Shafer, the battalion would shuffle to a sort of attention and start fidgiting a little as the bugler sounded off.

One afternoon we had an inspection in ranks by an assortment of generals and admirals, both New Zealander and American. We were at ease when they drove up. As the admirals, the generals, and their respective retinues stepped out, Col. Shafer snapped us to attention. It was one of the few times we really snapped. Even the 136th was impressed. The band was on hand, of course, and the trumpets and drums sounded off with the ruffles and flourishes followed by the general's march. I have often wondered why such a silly tune, if it can be called that, is used. It is played briskly, with a thump-te-thump on the drums and the result on this occasion particularly reminded me of something out of Gilbert and Sullivan - a comical sort of pomp, as in the satirical "Ruler of the Queen's Navee" for example. It was very hard for me to not laugh right out.

The most memorable retreat of all was one that had the whole battalion talking for days afterward. It was not strictly formal, I suppose, for it was sans band. I forget who the regular bugler for Headquarters Battery was, but some how the job had been wished of on Cordiale, a sad-sackish sort of fellow who had come to the Division from Fort Bragg with me. Battery buglers ususally rotated the duty of bugling for retreat, and this time it was Cordiale's turn. Now Cordiale knew little more than I of the art of bugling, but he was game. Came the big moment; the battalion staff was lined up next to him; the entire battalion was out in front of him. At the proper time, Cordiale raised the bugle to his lips and blew the only call he knew - mess call. That was too much even for the staff. Dignity and solemnity dissolved; hilarity reigned. "Well," a major was heard to say, "that ought to bring 'em out!"


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