Pacific Commandos: New Zealanders and Fijians in Action. A history of Southern Independent Commando and First Commando Fiji Guerrillas
Chapter X — Special Party
The American Navy's victory in the Battle of the Coral Sea was the turning point of the Pacific war. From, then on Fiji gradually faded into the background, and it became increasingly obvious that the Japanese could not attack Viti Levu in spite of well laid plans.
Having no immediate objective for training, the New Zealanders became less energetic. It was not possible to remain at the peak of fitness constantly, so the men had to give their muscles a rest for short periods. But if the rest period was carried too far "malua" set in, and it was difficult to rouse one's self to reach the peak again. Captain Tripp did not expect his men to keep burning themselves out with training either; but he knew that it was fatal to let them get too stale. He was well aware of the weaknesses of human nature, and when he visited the platoons, he would pretend to believe that the men had been training like the devil since his previous visit. This would make the New Zealanders feel so ashamed of themselves, that, for the next few days at least, they would be inspired to hoe into their training, then relax until the next visit. While he kept his men going in this way he tried desperately to get the men into action. He was well known to all the high ranking American officers on the Island, but these men had nothing to do with the American offensive just starting in the Solomons. However, His Excellency, Major General Sir Philip Mitchell, K.C.M.G., Governor of Fiji and High Commissioner for the Western Pacific, took an intense interest in the commandos, and he wanted to see the Fijians in action too. It was Sir Philip Mitchell who finally persuaded the Commander of the South Pacific to try out a sample force of commandos.page 76
At the beginning of December thirty commandos were selected from the Southern and Eastern commando units. This sample force was officially named "Special Party," and David Williams, who was promoted captain, was placed in charge of the force. The Special Party comprised Captain D. E. Williams, Lieutenant D. Chambers, sergeants S. I. Heckler, L. V. Jackson, F. E. Williams, R. H. Morrison, M. V. Kells, J. C. Kingdom, I. Bale (Fijian interpreter), Staff-serge ant N. Uraia (Native Medical Practitioner) and twenty Fijians who were granted ranks of lance-corporal and corporal to increase their meagre pay of two shillings a day. (See appendix II).
This unit assembled at Kalokolevu, and spent a very hectic ten days preparing for embarkation. The Fijians had to have medical examinations and injections for Yaws, Tetanus, and Typhoid. They also had to be clothed, and equipped with web and rifles. The fitting of boots was a problem in itself, as this was the first time the Fijians had worn them.
On 11th December, 1942, the Special Party embarked on the U.S.S. Talamanca which arrived in the New Hebrides on 15th December. After five days waiting the unit continued the voyage on the U.S.S. Fomalhaut, and arrived at Lunga, on the northern coast of Guadalcanal, on 23rd December.
As this stage the Americans were holding a ten-mile beach-head from the Matanakau River to Koli Point; the perimeter extending two miles inland and encompassing the Henderson Airfield.
Captain Williams met the District Officer, Captain D. Trench, and the Special Party made its first camp at Teneru.
The first assignment given to the unit by the Americans was a patrol beyond the perimeter up the Lunga River to see what Japanese forces occupied the area. Sid Heckler led this patrol on Christmas Day, and he took six Fijians with him. For three days the patrol reconnoitred the area beyond Hill Twenty-Seven, which had recently been the scene of fierce fighting; but no enemy was seen. The remains of a Japanese hospital were found and some equipment including a mountain gun. When this was reported the Americans were surprised to find that the Japanese had vacated this part of the perimeter.
The next commando patrol set out on 28th December on page 77 page 78a similar route but more to the west. Frank Williams and four Fijians led an American infantry company around to the south-west side of Hill Twenty-Seven. They passed through the front line held by 182 U.S. Regiment at one o'clock and followed a track along a ridge on the west bank of the Lunga River. Frank Williams, Sailasa and Emosi, were well out in front of the American company acting as scouts, and they had been on the march only half an hour when they met three of the enemy. Both parties saw each other at the same time, and both took cover on either side of a large Banyan tree. A brisk exchange of grenades took place, but the Japanese had the advantage because they were on a steep slope and Frank had the uphill side of the tree; his grenades rolled too far down the hill to do any damage to the enemy. One Japanese grenade exploded at Frank's feet and he received splinters in his buttocks and head; but the wounds were only superficial. Frank then decided that it would be better for him to jump clear of the tree and rely on quick, accurate shooting. The first attempt was a failure for his rifle misfired and a Japanese pistol shot grazed his forearm; Sailasa who was doing his best to assist Frank was also wounded in the left forefinger. Frank took cover behind the tree again and reloaded for a second attempt. This time he was successful: he shot the Japanese officer who was now charging at Frank with a sabre. Reloading quickly Frank shot another Japanese through the head. The third Japanese started to make a get away, and was about twenty yards down the track, when Sailasa and Emosi fired together: it was found on inspection that both their bullets had entered the enemy's head one inch apart.
Frank continued the patrol for three more days and returned to headquarters with a great deal of information. The three Japanese that had been killed had maps of Henderson Field and explosives in their possession, and it was obvious that they were a sabotage party.
The initial success and subsequent experience of the com mandos gave the Special Party extra confidence against an enemy whose fighting prowess, though considerable, had been exaggerated by the Americans who fought in the Philippines and the British who fought at Singapore.page 79
Two other patrols reconnoitred the area south-east of Hill Twenty-Seven, and reported that the enemy had withdrawn, making it apparent that the Americans had been maintaining troops on their eastern perimter unnecessarily.
On 28th December, Captain David Williams also set out on patrol with five commandos and five Solomon Islanders who were familiar with the area. Captain Williams's object was to find out exactly where the Japanese right flank was: the active fighting at this time was confined to the area between Hill Twenty-Seven and the mouth of the Matanakau River.
This patrol travelled up the Teneru River, climbed two thousand feet to the west and dropped down into the Lunga River. They passed considerable quantities of Japanese equipment and about fifty dead Japanese along the riverbed. There were indications that some two thousand enemy had been camped in this area about a month previously. At this stage the five Solomon Islanders refused to go any nearer the enemy and turned back. The commandos continued up the Lunga, and on the third day of the patrol, 30th December, located strong Japanese forces near one of the many gorges through which the river cut its way. The enemy had sentries posted on each side of the river and their main camp was on the far side (west bank). The commandos were in the bush on a high bank, and although the camp was well camouflaged from aerial observation, the commandos had a good view across the water. It was impossible to cross the river without being seen, but the patrol crept to within a few yards of the sentry on their side of the river, watching the camp for several hours. The Japanese were taking life pretty easily; some were lying down reading what appeared to be newspapers; others were working behind the camp chopping trees and carrying equipment down a steep hill at the back. During all this observation the sentries were covered with rifles, and the commandos felt a strong temptation to squeeze their triggers. The patrol was solely on an intelligence mission however, and it had orders not to let the enemy know that his positions had been discovered. They returned to base camp on 31st December, tired and hungry; the operation had proved more strenuous than anticipated, and the energy expended page 80could not be fully replaced by the amount of rations that it was possible to carry on the back in that rugged country— there was no food to be found in the jungle.
The following day Captain Williams flew over the area and pin-pointed the enemy positions on an air photograph for the American Commander. Major-General A. M. Patch, who was Island Commander, visited the commando camp on Captain William's return, and he congratulated the unit on the work it was doing.
During the first week of January five patrols went out beyond the southern perimeter, and found much equipment which had been abandoned by the Japanese, but only one of these patrols sighted the enemy. Lieutenant Chambers' patrol shot three Japanese on the Lunga River, about half a mile from the enemy camp that had previously been located. The enemy were "sitting shots," but the commandos were not in a position to take them prisoner at the time.
On 4th January, 1943, the Special Party was attached to the Command of Major M. Clemens, an Englishman and a member of the Civil Administration in the Solomons. Major Clemens had just returned from leave in Australia after spending weeks in the mountains of Guadalcanal during the Japanese occupation. As District Officer he had made a hideout in the jungle when the Japanese invaded the Island. He kept the headquarters of the South Pacific Command informed, by wireless, of the enemy's activities. His native boys visited the Japanese camps as friendly natives then returned to Major Clemens with an account of what they saw. When the Americans Marines landed on Guadalcanal, Major Clemens and his native boys came out of hiding and were attached to the intelligence section of the American Force. Although he had little military experience, Major Clemens was given military rank to enable him to move about the American beach-head: for the same reason all the members of the civil administration who returned to the Solomons received honorary commissions.
Major Clemens had under his command two Englishmen, Lieutenants K. Crass and L. Barrow, who were cadets in the civil administration, and he was ambitious to form a battalion of Solomon Island natives. Now that the Special Party was page 81attached to his command, he wanted the New Zealanders to train his native boys in a few weeks. The New Zealand sergeants were not very pleased about forming and training this new unit: they were not impressed by the lighting qualities of the small, primitive Solomon Islanders. The new unit was to be, called "Dukwasi" (meaning first man in the bush) and training meant withdrawal from action, just when the Americans were beginning their drive westward. The American command too, released the commandos reluctantly.
On 14th January the Special Party went to Baunani, on Malaita Island, where two hundred natives had been assembled by the Resident Commissioner. The natives were given one shilling a day, a green pair of shorts, a green shirt, and three good meals of bully-beef and rice every day. The Solomon Islanders, besides having a language of their own, speak Pidgin English, which is more difficult to understand than most people imagine. Nevertheless, the New Zealanders and Fijians persevered with the training, knowing that the sooner they got the natives into shape the sooner they would get back to Guadalcanal.
The Solomon Islanders responded fairly well to their arms drill, but it was ridiculous to expect them to condition their minds to the noise of fire-arms within a few weeks. The Solomon native was small in stature, and generally had a distended stomach as a result of malnutrition and various diseases such as malaria. Malaria, if not checked with quinine, swells the spleen. In spite of thia the natives were surprisingly strong, and they were useful for carrying stores over rough country. Their knowledge of local tracks was useful too, but these factors were not sufficient to make the average of them good commandos or good soldiers.
During January, the American artillery on Guadalcanal, aided by the Navy, finally broke the Japanese resistance, and by the beginning of February the Japanese on the Island were trying to evacuate from the north-west corner. The Americans recalled the commandos to Guadalcanal, and four patrols went straight to Maravovo by destroyer for the mopping up operations. These patrols were made up from the Special Party, and included the best of the Solomon Islanders: the other Solomon Islanders went to the base camp at Teneru. page 82The four patrols combed the Cape Esperence area for two weeks, but most of the enemy escaped in submarines or destroyers before 10th February.
On 3rd February, Vic Kells was leading a patrol ahead of an American company at Maravovo when he ran into the enemy rear-guard. A rapid exchange of fire took place, and several Japanese were killed besides five Americans, and one Solomon Islander. The fight lasted only a few. seconds and both sides withdrew. During the next few days the Americans brought up some artillery and shelled the Japanese positions; the commandos climbed the mountains in the vicinity looking for stragglers. On 10th February, Dudley Chambers' patrol shot four of the enemy and took eight sick Japanese prisoner. On 12th February, another Japanese was taken prisoner, but after that the enemy disappeared. The ones that failed to escape from the Island went deeper into the jungle, and it was futile chasing them.
The commando patrols returned to Teneru where they continued training the Solomon Islanders. Some of the Japanese weapons captured during the campaign were used for instruction. The natives, by this time, had acquired enough Japanese bowls and utensils to enable them to eat according to European standards. The enemy had used a lot of equipment which he had captured earlier from the British in Malaya. The commandos used a methylated-spirits refrigerator which had had a chequered career in enemy camps, and some of the Japanese pots and kettles that they used had travelled thousands of miles.
The Americans estimated the enemy losses in the Guadalcanal Campaign at forty thousand dead. More than half of these Japanese were drowned before they reached the shore. The American Navy had considerable success in preventing the Japanese from landing reinforcements; bodies were washed up on the shores of Guadalcanal for weeks afterwards in spite of the great activity of the sharks around Savo Island. It was thought that over a hundred Japanese were still roaming the jungle on the Island.
On 12th February, the Americans followed up their success with the occupation of Russell Islands, fifty miles northwest of Guadalcanal. Lieutenant Crass with two Fijians and page 83twenty-six Solomon Islanders accompanied the advanced landing party. The Japanese evacuated the islands just before the landing, and the patrols covered the islands for a month without striking the enemy: Lieutenant Crass then returned to Teneru.
The camp at Teneru had a number of drawbacks, so Major Clemens and Captain Williams prospected the northern coast of Guadalcanal to find a better site. The most suitable place was found to be the pre-war Government Station at Aola Bay, although it was thirty miles east of American Corps Headquarters. General Patch had cabled to Fiji for more commandos, and the Special Party was expecting reinforcements at any moment. Accurate dates of troop movements were not shouted to the wide world or even to those intimately concerned, but the Special Party knew that a larger camp would have to be prepared.
The Teneru camp was near the Henderson Airfield which received a salvo of bombs from the Japanese planes that came over every night; it was therefore necessary to have a base camp where the commandos could sleep after their arduous patrols. Mosquitoes were thick at Teneru too, and the unit had many cases of malaria. The Americans in the surrounding camps were making a big fuss of the Fijians to get the Japanese souvenirs that they had, and the Fijians succumbed to the American flattery to such an extent that they became a little undisciplined. The nearest American camp to Aola Bay was ten miles away.
A month's supply of rations was shipped along the coast, and the unit transferred to its new base camp at Aola Bay on 8th March. Major Clemens maintained a headquarters at Teneru to keep in touch with the American Command and operations were directed from here. One patrol of Solomon Islanders was attached to an American unit to guide the Americans in their jungle training. The Americans had had no real bush training before attacking the Japanese on Guadalcanal, and they realised their own limitations. Although the American infantry machine-gun fire literally mowed down the enemy in the open patches, the Japanese had had the advantage in the thicker parts of the jungle. The American success had been mainly due to the navy, air-force, and artil-page 84lery. The Americans were now intensifying their training in bush-craft.
Solomon Islanders were also sent out to patrol the opposite coast of Guadalcanal, just in case the enemy tried to land fresh forces. Members of the Special Party were held in readiness to carry out the advanced reconnaissance of New Georgia, the next objective of the Americans. However, the experience gained oil Guadalcanal, decided the American Commander to hold off this operation until enough equipment arrived to ensure absolute sea and air superiority over the enemy.
Members of the Special Party were now feeling the effects of malaria; each successive bout becoming worse. Lieutenant Chambers, two sergeants and four Fijians were evacuated to Fiji suffering severely with this fever.
The patrols of the Special Party settled down to routine trips along the coast without anything exciting happening. One day, however, Sid Heckler's patrol found a native who had been attacked by a crocodile. The native had been fishing and trod on the crocodile in shallow water. The crocodile's teeth had ripped the native down the leg from thigh to ankle. Sid sprinkled the wound with sulphanilamide, and stopped the flow of blood as best he could with his field-dressing. They were twelve miles from Aola Bay, so a native canoe was borrowed, and the injured man transported along the coast to the unit's little hospital at base camp. Sid and a Solomon Islander paddled the canoe furiously for two hours as the tide was against them—Sid's arms ached for days afterwards. On reaching Aola, Staff-sergeant Uraia sewed up the leg and the patient was walking about again a couple of weeks later.