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The bushmen of the RNZAF Islands Works Sawmill units, WW2.

 

During World War II, the RNZAF (Royal New Zealand Air Force) established several airfields and facilities in the Pacific Islands to support the war effort against the Japanese. One of the critical components of these facilities was the construction and maintenance of buildings, infrastructure, and equipment necessary for the airfields to function effectively.

The bushmen of the Islands Works Sawmill units played a crucial role in this process. These units were responsible for producing timber and lumber that were used in the construction of buildings, runways, and other infrastructure needed for the airfields.


The men faced many dangers and hardships.

The RNZAF Islands Works Sawmill units were established in several Pacific Island locations. These units used portable sawmills to produce timber from the local forests, which was then used to build hangars, barracks, and other structures. These units supported both American and NZ efforts in some very tough conditions while under threat of attack by the Japanese.


Guadalcanal.

On November 23, 1942, RNZAF dispatched six Hudson Bombers from No. 3 Squadron to Henderson airfield in Guadalcanal for reconnaissance patrols at the request of American Forces. No. 3 Squadron set up a tent camp in the nearby jungle and were heavily dependant on American assistance. Later, when American aid was no longer available, RNZAF sent a party of fifty men, including tunnellers, bushmen, carpenters, and tractor drivers, to Guadalcanal on February 7, 1943, under Flying Officer W.E. Puddy's command. The party brought a small sawmill plant, which was set up near Kukum, powered by a captured Japanese ‘Hino’ 130 hp diesel Half Track personal carrier.

Hino halftrack repurposed for the sawmill

A Japanese halftrack repurposed to power the sawmill.

In June 1943, an additional one hundred RNZAF personnel were sent to Guadalcanal and Santo to aid in construction and building maintenance. By the end of the year, a new unit called No. 1 (Islands) Works Squadron was established in No. 1 (Islands) Group, responsible for all RNZAF camp constructions. This required more timber production, and Lieutenant Stanley Palmer Tuck, an experienced sawmiller, was transferred from the NZ Army to RNZAF to command their sawmill units.

 

The RNZAF No. 1 sawmill was upgraded with American machinery and a marine diesel motor in November 1943, resulting in an average daily timber production of 8,500 super feet. As the Japanese were driven back on the Island, more logs became available for selection, extending the production area from the coast to Mount Austen.


RNZAF No. 2 sawmill arrived in November 1943 and was shipped to Arundel Island, where it produced 800,844 super feet of timber until May 1944. The mill was then shipped back to Guadalcanal and set up as RNZAF No. 2 (Tenaru) sawmill. Production ceased in mid-March 1945, and the mills at Guadalcanal produced approximately 2,635,749 super feet through No. 1 sawmill, and No. 2 produced 1,475,892 super feet from August 1944 to March 1945. The RNZAF No 2 Tenaru sawmill was later transported to Polmalmal near Jacquinot Bay, and the RNZAF sawmill unit was relocated to Los Negros in the Admiralty Islands, operating from September 1944 until the end of the war.


A before and after picture of a log and the finished product at the end of the process.


Arundel Island, New Georgia.

Flying Officer Stanley Palmer Tuck led an advanced party of the RNZAF No. 1 (Islands) Works Squadron Sawmill Unit to Ondonga, New Georgia in November 1943 to establish a detachment and select a camp and sawmill site. Plenty of timber was needed for buildings on the newly constructed Ondonga airstrip. The US Navy had recently built the Ondonga airstrip in a record 25 days despite shelling from nearby Japanese hills and dense jungle. The RNZAF sawmill unit's advanced party chose a camp on Arundle Island near a stand of suitable trees and constructed a causeway. The rest of the unit arrived on November 10, and the sawmill and their camp were constructed quickly.

 

The sawmill cut timber for the US Navy and NZ Army Engineers. No's 2 and 4 Servicing Units left Ondonga for Bougainville Island with 300,000 super feet of timber for camp construction on January 18, 1944. Challenges included felling trees in thick, wet jungle, carting logs to the sawmill, enemy attacks and sniper fire, flying shrapnel, and malaria. The men were especially vulnerable to air attacks as it was almost impossible to hear enemy planes over the noise of the machinery. Shrapnel embedded in the logs from recent battles would go flying when hit by the saws.

Shrapnel was dangerous and hard on the saws
Shrapnel was dangerous and hard on the saws.

The RNZAF Arundel sawmill operated for six months, from mid-November 1943 until May 22, 1944, producing 800,844 super feet of timber. They were then transported back to Guadalcanal and the sawmill was relocated five miles up the Tenaru River and renamed RNZAF No. 2 Sawmill, Tenaru. They cut timber until the war's end in August 1945 and moved to Los Negros, Admiralty Islands. Unit personnel changed frequently, with new members quickly learning to become skilled operators. The RNZAF bushman's ingenuity was demonstrated when they turned a section of the US Navy Torpedo Patrol boat PT109, commanded by the late John F Kennedy, into a powerful motorboat for their fishing needs. The boat section had drifted ashore near the RNZAF Units camp after being cut in half on the night of August 2, 1943, by the Japanese Destroyer "Amagiri." Upon leaving the area, the boat was scuttled.

An eradication crew keeping the mosquitoes away, 1944.

Los Negros Island.

The RNZAF No 2 (Islands) Works Squadron was created to handle construction needs at Bougainville North, Green Island, Emiru, and Munus Los Negros, as the No 1 (Islands) Works Squadron was occupied building additional accommodation at Guadalcanal. The new squadron had detached works flights on the forward Islands. The Americans provided their U.S Navy sawmill at Lombrum Point, Los Negros, to RNZAF sawmill personnel on September 12th, 1944. The sawmill primarily processed Mahogany, Teak, Rubberwood, and Rosewood, averaging 50,000 feet of sawn timber per week. It operated seven days a week to meet the demand. The unit's notable achievement was providing sufficient timber for the construction of a bridge that connected Los Negros and Manus Islands. The RNZAF Sawmill Unit ran the sawmill until the end of the war, it was preparing to move to Borneo when it ended in August 1945.

 

Bushmen axe scarfing so the tree falls in the right direction. Los Negros, 1945.

After scarfing, these bushman are cross cutting with a saw. They are standing on Jigger board's so they can cut above the flare of the trunk. Los Negros, 1945.

 

The bushmen of the Islands Works Sawmill units were an essential part of the RNZAF's efforts in the Pacific Islands during World War II, and their contribution to the war effort should not be underestimated. Without these units' ability to produce the necessary building materials, the construction and maintenance of the airfields would have been much more challenging and time-consuming, which could have had a significant impact on the war's outcome.

 

An RNZAF bushman poses with captured Japanese kit including a rifle that has been sporterised. Possibly Arundel Island or Guadalcanal , 1943.

 

 RNZAF Bushmen cutting a log into lengths.

 

An RNZAF saw doctor sharpening a saw blade. Los Negros 1945.

 

For more information and loads of great photos follow the links below. 

RNZAF - Island Works Squadron (Sawmill Unit) on Solomon Isla | Wings Over New Zealand (proboards.com)

No. 1 and No. 2 (Islands) Works Sawmill Units, RNZAF (cambridgeairforce.org.nz)

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