By Martin Gregorie
My father, Eric, and my uncle, David, were less than four years apart in age yet their war experiences could not have been more different. While David joined up in the second half of World War I and would have fought over France if Armistice Day hadn't intervened (see The first Gregorie to fly) Dad took part in World War II some 23 years later during the Pacific Campaign.
He volunteered for service in 1941 and was sent to Trentham Camp, an army base in the Hutt Valley near Wellington, for training. He completed training as a signaller. This seems to have been a quiet period in his war. He was sent first to Fiji and then to New Caledonia, where he had time to explore the islands and paint water colours. I remember seeing his wartime paintings, but none of them have survived. When Mum and Dad moved to Taupo the watercolours were all stored in boxes under the house where damp, dust and insects soon finished them off. I know that Fiji was quiet because it was never invaded, and guess that New Caledonia was the same because that's where a story he told against himself took place. He was out walking by himself when he met a French civilian. He knew two French phrases; "Comment allez vous" and "Parlez vous Francais?" and made the mistake of using the second when he was intending just a friendly greeting. The resulting flood of French and disappointment when the Frenchman found that Dad couldn't speak the language were somewhat disconcerting.
After this his battalion was sent to the Solomon Islands to help evict the Japanese invaders. This part of the Pacific was anything but quiet. He was at Guardalcanal and Vela Lavela. Guardalcanal was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting in the region though Vela Lavela is mostly mentioned as a US Naval action to evacuate 500 Marines. I remember him talking about a lone Japanese bomber, which was known as Sewing Machine Charlie from the noise it made. It came over every night at the same time and dropped two bombs before departing whence it came. It never hit anything and the Allied forces never shot it down. It isn't clear whether this was because they didn't want to reveal their positions in the jungle or just because nobody could hit it in the dark. This aeroplane, or its mate(s) were well-known amongst troops in the area. I've spoken to Americans whose fathers remembered both it and the name. See Pfc. J.W.Foster, U.S. 2nd Marine division, for a typical account. These shared memories of Sewing Machine Charlie's visits tend to make me think he wasn't at Guardalcanal when it was quiet.
The only other thing I remember him saying about the Solomons was to comment on the large numbers of large land crabs that used to walk about at night, tripping over the guy ropes of tents and making the sentries think that Japanese infiltrators were about.
I also remember him saying that he was pleased to find that being under fire didn't bother him too much and that you never knew how it would take you until you'd experienced it.
The war stories were often told at dinner parties at Gorge End after the women had gone to the sitting room and the men sat round the table and yarned. However, they always told the funny stories and almost never mentioned fighting. I used to stay at the table, ears flapping. This was before we moved to Masterton, so I must have been quite young. I can't recall much at all being said about the war after we returned to the farm.