Pacific Commandos: New Zealanders and Fijians in Action. A history of Southern Independent Commando and First Commando Fiji Guerrillas
First Commando Fiji Guerrillas was organised, trained, and led in action, by forty-four New Zealanders. The total strength of the commando was approximately two hundred men, and the unit had an unusual composition and function. Commanded by Major C. W. H. Tripp, D.S.O., a member of a Canterbury pioneering family, the unit contained a cross section of peoples from all over the Pacific. There were, in addition to the New Zealand officers and non-commissioned officers, Fijians, Tongans, Solomon Islanders, a few Englishmen, and at times Americans attached.
The New Zealanders, when training in Fiji, investigated the possibilities of commando and guerrilla tactics in the jungle. Knowing that the Japanese fight to the limit of human endurance, the New Zealanders trained themselves to a physical standard previously thought impossible for white men in the humid climate of Fiji. Travel, over the mountainous, bush-clad country, formed the basis of their physical training, and many, without compulsion, walked until they were completely exhausted to attain the maximum standard of fitness. Only the highest degree of esprit de corps could produce this attitude of mind, especially when, at this particular period, the focal point of training was heart-breakingly removed each time the hopes of action reached a climax.
The New Zealanders methodically analysed jungle warfare down to the most minute detail, then they developed a skill which later surpassed that of the Japanese in every way. Camouflage and silent movement were practised until technique became habitual. As they acquired tactical knowledge they passed it on to the Fijians who, in turn, taught the New Zealanders some finer points in bush-craft. There was no "sixth sense" and nothing mysterious about the ability of the commandos; it was just a matter of taking the job seriously; page 10the rest was common sense and hard work. The Fijian language was only one of the early difficulties; and it says much for the adaptability of the New Zealanders and Fijians, that so much was accomplished without adequate training equipment.
The example and leadership of the officer commanding the unit was undoubtedly the greatest single contributing factor to the evolution of the commandos, and he set a standard for other units as well as his own.
Between December, 1942, and December, 1943, First Commando Fiji Guerrillas operated with American forces on the following islands in the Solomons Group: Guadalcanal, Malai-ta, Russell, San Cristobal, Florida, Rendova, New Georgia, and Vella Lavella. However, it was the thirty-five day battle for Munda Airfield on New Georgia Island that provided the Commando's supreme test. Apart from killing several hundred Japanese, the intelligence information supplied by this small unit was of inestimable value to the American divisions engaged. The intelligence information itself is of no interest to the general reader, but this history contains some of the exploits of the men who obtained it. The risks taken by the New Zealanders may be gauged by the fact that forty per cent. of the officers and thirty per cent. of the sergeants were killed in action behind the enemy lines. Many members of the unit were wounded and nearly all suffered with malaria.
By the time the New Zealanders had served two years without a break in the tropics, they were in a very weakened condition, though they could still keep going because walking long distances had become second nature to them. Apart from malaria the damp heat sapped vitality, and long periods of unbalanced tinned diet had a marked effect. In May, 1944, the unit was disbanded, because there were so few fit New Zealanders or Fijians left.
This history would be neither complete nor fair if the monotony and hardships were not mentioned. But the miseries of the commando life are now thrust to the background in the memories of the men themselves, and. only the high peaks of excitement stand out. Commando life had many, compensations, the chief of which was the liberty in choice of action: the effectiveness of the force was due to the cultiva-page 11tion of individual initiative. At times the commandos got to places of interest which were denied the men in infantry battalions. At odd times too it was really good fun, and an effort has been made to preserve some of the humorous incidents in the following pages. The New Zealanders found it interesting to compare the various islands of the Pacific and their native peoples, and to observe the influence that civilisation is beginning to exert over native customs. The commandos discovered some products of civilisation even in the remote villages. The chief of one village in Fiji entertained a reconnaissance party with china plates stamped with the familiar mark of the Union Steamship Company, and at a village in the heart of Guadalcanal, a Singer sewing-machine was seen rusting under a leaf shelter. The New Zealanders lived in the Fijian villages during the training period and, as similar conditions had not prevailed before except in the case of a few missionaries, the unusually close relationship made a profound impression on the native mind.
The first part of this book concerns the life of the New Zealanders amongst the Fijians. The training of the natives for one week in every four, during the first nine months, was not significant at any one stage, although important progress was made in the aggregate before full time training commenced. The most significant feature of commando activities during these months was the influence that the life had in preparing the New Zealanders for their role as leaders of the Pacific islanders. Life in Fiji is therefore dealt with at length, not only because of its interesting aspects for the general reader, but also because it was this experience that gave the New Zealanders the fundamental physical and mental education necessary to their function later in action.
The commandos worked almost entirely with American forces, and reference is sometimes made to the work of the allied units. Comparisons with the main body of troops are unavoidable if the reader is to gain an impression of the specialised nature of the commando unit's work; but it must be borne in mind that the Americans were carrying out a different role from that of the commandos. For instance, the Americans used vast quantities of ammunition on areas where page 12Japanese were suspected to be: this method saved risking lives, and was sound military principle when an abundance of ammunition could be supplied. The commandos, however, could not use this method of clearing a way for an advance because they would have lost their greatest advantage—mobility—if they had carried a lot of ammunition: thus their method was to hold their fire and try to make every shot count.
Garbled accounts of the activities of the First Commando have appeared in newspapers all over the world, and in several American journals the New Zealanders have been described as Australians. This history is as accurate as conditions will permit, and errors are more likely to be sins of omission than otherwise.page 13 page 14