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The Mono menu, 1943

On a volcanic island in the northwest of the Solomons in 1943, the New Zealand Expeditionary Force’s 36th Battalion’s men took a creative approach to their Christmas dinner menu.

A good part of the parchment’s significance is that it is a window into how grunt humour, lightly spiced with cynicism, defuses the pang of separation from home.

As Captain John Miller says in the movie Saving Private Ryan when asked if the men will be alright, “They’re fine. As long as they can gripe, they’ll be alright.”

The wit in charge of the menu, its light-hearted gripes and old-fashioned jokes describes his company, in a subtitle to the heading “36BN mortar platoon HQ coy NZEF”, as “stove pipe artists of the Treasury Group”.

Could “stove pipe artists” be an old-fashioned, polite, particularly on this Christian occasion, way of saying “bullshit artists?”

Treasury Islands was the name given to a small group of islands to the south of Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. The 36th Battalion was one of three infantry battalions raised to help stop the Japanese military’s advance south through the Pacific.

The mortar platoon was based on Mono, one of the largest islands in the Treasury group, to help American allies clear the island of Japanese defenders.

Having landed on the island in late October, 1943, the New Zealanders were still there by Christmas Day.

The menu heading, “Xmas Dinner, 1943” is decorated with a little sketch of a tiny island with a single tent and a palm tree. A man paddles nearby in a canoe as cumulus clouds rest on the Pacific horizon.

The sketch captures a sense of isolation but it is peaceful, even idyllic, in tone, presumably because Christmas in these men’s culture signifies a time of peace and goodwill.

Near the bottom of the menu a line reads “RSVP. Our island paradise (like H-!)”. The irony is like the healthy griping Captain Miller talks about, but the circumspection around swearing is touching. Then again, who wants to invoke Hell in wartime?

As the signatures on the menu show, the mortar platoon’s men came from all over New Zealand. Three or four (the names are hard to read) were from Wairoa while “Killer Kane” was a Gisborne man. The New Zealanders were joined by Bob Odell of Hollywood, California and another from California but whose name is mostly illegible.

The artist who created the Christmas dinner menu hits his stride with the list of entrees, main, dessert, extra dessert, drinks and cigarettes. Dishes are annotated with jokey asides.

The entree’s oysters are “a la Bluff”, and the whitebait has no bones. The author queries the army’s assertion the turkey is fresh, the plum pudding is minus brandy sauce, the fruit salad and cream is “tinned cow”, the fruitcake, chocolate and biscuits — “genuine dog” — while beverages include coffee (“spelt kawfee”) and tea “for the ladies — what ladies?”

The suggestion any gripes about the food should be referred to the war cabinet, ends the menu.

As if hailing from the Northern Hemisphere, the almost calligraphic line in the holly pattern near the bottom of the menu will strike an atavistic chord for many.

The holly pattern is a very English habit and the hand behind the simple rhythm in the design here seems as practised as the annual dragging out of the Christmas decorations box before its return a few weeks later.

CHRISTMAS WITH KILLER KANE: The name of Gisborne serviceman “Killer Kane” features on a wartime menu from the Pacific theatre. Gisborne woman Bonnie Dwyer came across the 1943 menu while using her time during lockdown to sort through boxes of family photographs, clippings and memorabilia. Picture by Paul Rickard