Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Chapter 7: The Suva Area

It is much easier to use the name Fiji in referring to the island we lived on than to be more specific and say, "Viti Levu." Fiji consists of several islands, the largest of which are Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. But Viti Levu means as little to the average person as does North Island, which refers to that part of New Zealand in which we also spent some time. Thus I use the name Fiji. There is no danger of confusion, anyway, because Viti Levu was the only island in that group that we were on.

We were acquainted with the Western fringe of the island only. What lay in the interior of the island, we were told darkly by New Zealanders, no white man knew, although cannibals were presumed to be still carrying on their ancient practices there. The New Zealanders were not very reliable prophets, however. They assured us that no white man, or soldier at any rate, would be able to stand more than three or four months in Fiji, and that we would probably be relieved in two, they said. We were there eight months, which proved, I suppose, that Americans can do anything.

Our first area was on Princes Road opposite Arjun's store. It was only a temporary site, first, because of the general undesirability of it, and second, because where our gun position was to be was some distance from this area, and we needed a camp site near where the guns would be. As I recall, we were not exactly certain whether we wanted to leave this area or not. It was an open field in which the ground was rolling, and this was bad enough. Our new area was at the bottom of a steep hill, which was worse. Fiji is not noted for its aridity, and where eighty or a hundred men walk repeatedly over a given area, that area is soon going to be denuded of vegetation, and mud, slippery yet sticky mud, will appear. That was true of the first area, and it would be just as true, unfortunately, of the second area. I recall how I watched, with crude amusement, the erratic, dubious progress being made by Ellwood Call returning quite drunk from Suva. I doubt if the carabaos we later saw in Luzon wallowed any more thoroughly in the mud than Ellwood, although I daresay they enjoyed their wallowing incomparably more. In the second area, he would, if he returned drunk from Suva again, have the opportunity of not only rolling around in the mud on slightly slanting ground, but also rolling down a very steep hill in any one of three directions. In fact, someone did do just that. I don't recall who it was now, but I remember that the event was good for laughs for two or three days afterward.

I shall try to describe the type of terrain our second camp was located in. It was characterized by steep inclines, and sheer drops alternating with narrow strips of level land giving the general effect of terraces on a huge scale. The road by which we reached this area ran in a generally east-west direction along the edge of a crest of land near the eastern end of it, following the downward-sloping contour of the land as it proceeded west. At only one point did the road meet our area which was mostly below it. This point was the western end of the camp area, and except for this one place, the road overlooked even the tops of the tents. The climb up to the road, therefore, was a steep one, so to facilitate climbing, steps were dug into the side of the hill and were reinforced with wood. That represented a climb about equal to a trip from the cellar to the attic of an ordinary 3-story house.

Those steps were the curse of the KP's. The kitchen was directly below them, so that meant that not only garbage was hauled up them, but rations were carried down them as well. And the KP's had to do both jobs. I had those chores to do many times. Three times a day the garbage would go up. I would take the can by one handle, the other KP would get the other, and we would count ourselves extremely lucky if the weather was not rainy. Usually it was, however. That meant that we would slip and slide with our full garbage can along the sloping ground before we reached the steps. Then the fun began. The steps were not wide enough for us to walk abreast with the can between us, so we generally went up tandem. If we attempted to straddle the steps, with the can bump-bumping its way up the hill over them, or if even one of us kept to the side while the other took the steps, we'd not get far, for the course denied us any traction. So we would make it in tandem, one step at a time, trying not to let too much of the garbage slop over on us. All this made ration and water carrying (both down-hill) seem like child's play. On hundred gallons of water down hill was nothing compared to twenty gallons of garbage up hill.

Tents were not laid out according to plan. The nature of the land precluded any such arbitrary arrangement. The hill, surmounted by the road that ran east and west, rose like a wall along the northern edge of the area, while a 100-foot deep ravine ran southward along the opposite edge, making a wedge-shaped shelf out of the land we had selected for our camp site. Most of the tents huddled around the kitchen tent. It was the more choice real estate, for palm trees grew quite thick in that spot. Here were the tents of the officers (naturally) and of the gun sections. That was one of the few times when the gun sections were given any kind of a break. The sections whose duties were less strenuous (Instrument and Communications sections) were assigned tent sites in the more barren portion of the area overlooking the ravine.

This ravine was an interesting feature of the landscape. I never explored it, for on week-days I was too busy, as we all were, and on Sundays I preferred to take things easy, or do whatever personal chores, such as laundry, I had to do. Nevertheless, I used to look across the ravine to the other side where a rocky mound of land loomed up, and found a good deal of interest in doing so. The sun rose behind that wall of the ravine, and silhouettes were created against the pink sky by an occasional native hut and a few stray trees. This scene was quite picturesque. Whenever there was a heavy rain, we could watch cascades of water which grew from shy little trickles into falls giving great animation to the scene through the blue-grey denseness of the rain all about us. After the cloudburst subsided, the water would continue to rush its headlong way down to the bottom of the ravine for a while. Then it would gradually taper off until it became a trickle again, keeping alive for a while one dark, shiny, vertical ribbon on the rocky face which was paling into dryness as the returning sunlight hit it. Then, even the ribbon would vanish as water ceased running off the grassy crest above the stony face.

On this grassy crest, as I mentioned, was at least one native hut, and every Sunday morning, sounds seemed to come from this hut, although they might have emanated from elsewhere. The sounds were drum beats, and although they were not eerie, heard in the quiet sunrise hours of Sunday, they were quite fascinating all the same. I always wondered what they meant. The beats would start slowly, without any rhythmical pattern, and increase in tempo and volume. Presently they would stop, and when the drumming resumed it would be in a definite rhythmical pattern, something like this:

Then this was joined by beats from a second drum, and the two of them produced a rhythmical counterpoint which was exceedingly difficult to follow. After we had moved away from Fiji, the next time - and the only other time - we heard drums was on Bougainville. The drums, I think, were in the Fijian Army camp two or three miles down the road from us.

A stream ran long the bottom of the ravine, and at a place not far from the gun positions, the water formed a deep pool of fresh water just below a fall. It was an answer to a cannoneer's prayer, and although discovered by them, it was not monopolized by them. Everyone had a chance to it all day Sundays, and after 5 p.m. on week days. But since the pool was a good three-quarters of a mile from the camp area, it was too far to go before supper, and after supper darkness fell quickly. So, in order to have a bath more than once a week, we rigged up a shower beside a water hole. So long as we did not have too long a dry spell, the water hole supplied enough water to keep the battery in a reasonable state of cleanness. When the water level was low, however, so was everyone's morale, and each day, men would leave the gun pits earlier than they were supposed to, in order to get a bath at the pool before returning to the camp for supper. Those of us who worked around camp all day would sometimes skip supper altogether so that we could bathe at the pool if water at the shower was not available. In their tents, the cannoneers were noisily outspoken about the situation, particularly when there were officers around to hear the griping. They conducted a campaign of ridicule and caustic derision. One would say, "Hey, what's that awful smell in the tent. Don't anybody smell it?" Another would shoot back, "It must be me. I haven't taken a bath in seventeen days." "Seventeen days?" a third would speak up. "You're pretty clean, then. I haven't had more than two or three baths since we've been in this hell hole." And so it would go, the claims getting more exaggerated, comparisons more preposterous. The whole idea of it, of course, was to impress upon the officers the need for shorter working hours each day so that we could have more time to bathe and do our laundry. The working day was long. We had to be at our assigned jobs not later than 7:30 in the morning and we knocked off at 5 p.m. Some gun-sections actually had work to do after supper sometimes, and occasionally on Sundays. Later the schedule was changed so that we started and quit work half an hour earlier, but there was no reduction in hours.

Digging gun pits for 155 mm howitzers was tough, tiring, dirty work, and the working time per day for the men doing that work should have been cut by one-third. We had no bulldozers or tractors in those days, therefore all the digging was done by hand, and the final swinging of the guns into position was done by what strength the men had in their legs, arms, and backs. The pits were dug in just about the worst possible land. The top layer of soil was reddish brown clay with adhesive properties like tar and cohesive properties like cement. Below that was a harder, grey clay, impenetrable to practically everything but a healthy blow with a pick. And below that, slatey rock. Still the cannoneers dug down and down, to a depth of nearly six feet, or, in other words, through four feet of solid rock. Dynamite had to be used frequently. After the general work on the pits had been done, details were attended to. First there had to be a trail trench for the trail spade of the howitzer in each pit. The howitzers we used were the old Schneider M 1918, box-trail type. Traversing, that is, horizontal aiming, was limited to about 40 mils each way from center without shifting the trail. If a greater deflection was needed the gun trail had to be shifted by lifting it up out of the trail trench and dropping it down again at the spot which would give the desired deflection. The reason for the trench was to hold the spade, which in turn held the gun in place during firing. Then pits had to be dug for ammunition. Then personnel pits. Then drainage ditches. From the middle of August of 1943 to the end of November that year, we stayed in that area, and practically all that time was spent working on those gun positions.

I should mention that the rest of the battalion was at the other end of the island. Orphaned A Battery was attached to the 135 F.A. Bn., a 105 mm howitzer outfit. We took our fire commands (when there was firing practice) from the FDC of the 135th, and were known as X battery then. As if one set of gun positions for our four howitzers were not enough, we had to dig an alternate set, about 200 yards to the front of the first ones. Ordinarily a battery front, i.e. the distance between the first and fourth guns is 100 or 200 yards. The battery front for the new positions, however, was 400 yards - a hundred yards between pieces. In view of this, our battery, in regard to firing data and FDC procedure, would be treated as a battalion. That meant separate fire commands for each gun - a very complex set-up, as I shall explain later on. I merely mention these gun positions now to make more clear two of the abundant reasons for the very low morale of all of us during those months.

There were few compensations. We could visit the canteen or see a movie at the post theater in Samamabula, or we could go swimming and bathing in "our" pool. Outside of these, there was little activity besides our regular duties. There was one bright spot, however. There was an English family living just outside Suva, and on two or three week-ends they invited a few men of the battery to their place as guests. There was a swimming pool and tennis courts, and the men who went there had a wonderful time. I forget the reason I could not go; I believe my fire direction work kept me busy all through the week, or perhaps it was OP duty. Anyway, I was not able to make it and regretted it keenly.

Night problems and actual firing practice announced the beginning of the end of our stay in the Suva area. By this time, Bures (prounounced "burrys"), which are the native style dwellings, had been built for the orderly room, mess hall, kitchen, and a couple of the gun sections. This, of course, was proof positive that we were not going to stay long. It never failed. We would live for months at an area, using tents for our living quarters, but just let us start building something elaborate and livable, and that would be the time we'd have to move. And so, near the end of November, 1943, we left behind us several new houses for the Fijians - if they liked the concrete floors whic we put in - and craters all up and down Cunningham Road which would have served as gun positions in defensive fireing, should the island of Viti Levu ever have been attacked from the sea. There were three battery positions along that road, or twelve craters in all; two of the positions lay west of the camp site, and the other lay east of it.

Early one mornign the convoy assembled at the foot of the hill, near the orderly room at the west end of the camp. The operations sections must have been among the first to leave, for I remember sitting in the back seat of a jeep and hearing Captain Eddie Lange saying to me, with a broad grin, "Well, Mac, I see you're here bright and early," to which I replied, dispiritedly, "Yeah; well, anyway, early." I remember his light-hearted laugh when I said that. Still grinning, Lange, with quick, nervous movements, made his rounds of the other vehicles, checking up on personnel and equipment. On hand, to display his toothy countenance for the last time for us was a character we had dubbed Smiling Jack, of whom more later. Out in Suva Bay, the water and the sky were still indistinguishable from each other. There was an ennervating neutralness in the temperature of the air which made even the day itself seem tired before it got really started. Turning our backs on Suva Bay, we started up the hill, started on our long, dusty trip in a generally northward direction toward our new camp which lay twelve miles beyond the town of Sigatoka and a hundred-odd miles from Suva.


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