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Pacific Commandos: New Zealanders and Fijians in Action. A history of Southern Independent Commando and First Commando Fiji Guerrillas

Chapter XI — First Commando Fiji Guerrillas

page 85

Chapter XI
First Commando Fiji Guerrillas

Back in Fiji morale soared with the departure of the sample force. The New Zealanders now had something to look forward to, as they had developed much confidence in their bushcraft, and they felt sure that the Special Party would impress the American commanders sufficiently to get the rest of the commandos in action.

Christmas was celebrated in high spirits assisted materially by the generosity of some of the farming population who provided chickens, pork, and even cream. The Navua Hotel assisted with liquid refreshments, and when the Brigadier visited the unit on Christmas Day, he agreed that the commandos could certainly enjoy themselves when they got the chance.

A six-page souvenir edition of the Guerrilla Gazette was printed in Suva, and all activity was suspended while everyone read it as soon as the papers arrived from the printing works.

In January, the Governor of Fiji received a cable asking for more commandos, and Captain Tripp received orders to form the First Commando Fiji Guerrillas, selecting his men from the Eastern Commando and the Southern Commando, and the unit was to be prepared to move to the Solomons at very short notice.

Captain Tripp laid down the following as the minimum standard of fitness for the NCOs of the new unit. They had to be able to travel for eight hours over rough country similar to the Lombau track, and be fit to fight at the end of it; they had to score over twenty out of twenty-five every time with a rifle on the twenty-five yard range; swim thirty yards in clothes and boots, with haversack and rifle; and they had to be proficient at unarmed defence and bush-craft. The swim-page 86
Portion of the front page of the "Guerrilla Gazette" which was printed at Christmas, 1942.

Portion of the front page of the "Guerrilla Gazette" which was printed at Christmas, 1942.

page 87ming
requirement was the most difficult to perform, but the New Zealanders struggled through even if they had to use two dried coconuts as water-wings: this amount of assistance was permitted because dried coconuts were to be found near most streams in the tropics.

The strength of the First Commando Fiji Guerrillas was to be thirty-nine New Zealand officers and NCOs, and one hundred and thirty-five Fijians. The total unit of one hundred and seventy-four men was grouped as follows: Headquarters, one officer and twenty-two other ranks; two companies each of seventy-five men with a lieutenant in charge. Each company had three platoons with a sergeant in charge, and each platoon had three sections, each section had six men with a New Zealand corporal in charge. Commando Headquarters comprised the Officer Commanding, sergeant-major, quai'termaster, intelligence sergeant and corporal, who also looked after administration including pay, records and signals; storeman; and medical orderly. Amongst the Fijians, who were mostly runners, there was a sergeant interpreter. Each company had a sergeant-major and quartermaster to give them semi-independent administration.

The Fijians were required to sign new attestation forms volunteering to serve anywhere in the Pacific, and from the sources available at the time, the unit obtained only sufficient natives to fill the establishment. This prevented any selection being made, and the poorer type of Fijian soldier had to be included. Although the destination of the commandos was kept secret, the Fijians were under no illusions as to what was going on, and the news that they were going to fight the Japanese spread rapidly by "bush telegraph." Between the excitement of preparation there was a great deal of weeping and wailing in the villages. It was this surge of emotion that inspired many of them to volunteer.

As this was the first time a large body of commandos had been brought together for permanent training, a suitable camp site had to be found well away from any native village. A rubber plantation at Wainandoi was considered suitable for the following reasons: the American forces had had a camp an hour's travelling time from the Suva Wharf; it was right page 88on the main road yet it backed off into rugged country which was ideal for training. Nevertheless, the site proved to be unhealthy, because of poor drainage and its nearness to swamps on the coastal side: this drawback was tolerated because the unit expected to embark at any moment.

The task of mobilising the Fijians from so many remote villages in the heart of Viti Levu, was very difficult at such short notice, but everyone was settled in at Wainandoi within a week, and the medical examinations, inoculation, and equipping, commenced. "When the Fijians came together for the first time, they naturally celebrated by drinking great quantities of kava, but this pleasure had to be denied them temporarily as it was affecting their medical tests.

There was an exceptional run of fine weather for the first week, but the rest of the unit's stay at Wainandoi was noted for the heavy rainfall. The period up to the end of January was taken up with administrative organisation, equipping, medical examinations, drying and repairing tents, and squeezing in range practice when possible.

As the unit would be fighting with the Americans, the Fiji Brigade Group Headquarters decided to withdraw all Lee Enfield · 303 rifles in case ammunition got mixed in action. The Fiji Defence Force supplied the unit with some old Springfield ·30 rifles which were on hand. This exchange, though justified, was very unfortunate, because the Spring-fields could not stand up to the severe conditions so well as the British Lee Enfield. Thompson sub-machine guns were also issued, and the Fijians soon became adept in their use.

Scarcely a man received a drill battle-dress that would fit him. Two tailors were employed in the camp to make alterations. A barber was also called in to cut back the Fijians' bushy hair to allow room for the steel helmet.

Sick parades were large because of boils, septic sores and sore feet due to wearing boots for the first time; and several cases of dengue fever occurred.

February provided some really strenuous training under wet conditions. The aim of the OC at this time was to simulate actual combat conditions, concentrating on absolute essentials, in an endeavour to make the unit an effective fighting force in the shortest possible time. There had been sev-page 89eral false alarms of departure. As soon as a patrol moved outside of the camp area, it had to assume that it was in enemy territory and practise concealment accordingly. In addition to much range shooting, bayonet drill, unarmed combat, and section stalks, manoeuvres were practised day and night, company against company, platoon against platoon, and section against section. Patrols showed marked ingenuity in preparing ambushes and setting up semi-concealed targets for field firing.

Captain Tripp held frequent conferences with the New Zealand NCOs, and everyone contributed ideas for training and organisation. In this way the unit developed into the flexible and versatile fighting force it later became when it met the Japanese in the Solomon Islands.

The Fijians became first class shots, but they had much trouble with the old rifles. Bayonets fell off because of worn catches, rear sights had to be constantly adjusted, and many bolts were too stiff to allow reloading at the shoulder. However, the bores of these rifles were still good, and they were accurate on the range.

On 24th February, Lieutenant B. Masefield, celebrated New Zealand rifle shot, arrived from Tonga with twenty-eight Tongan natives who were attached to First Commando Fiji Guerrillas. These soldiers were carefully selected from the whole of the Tonga Defence Force, and they were exceedingly proud of representing their country. They were equal to the Fijians in physique, and having had three years' training, their precision on the parade ground was unsurpassed. But they had a lot to learn from the Fijians in bush-craft. The two races, though former enemies in the nineteenth century, worked well together because of the diplomacy of the Fijians. (The Tongans are Polynesian; the Fijians Poly-Melanesians.)

The Tongans enjoyed their first swim in fresh running water at Wainandoi — there are no high hills or rivers in Tonga. Although they did not like the muggy climate, the Tongans soon adapted themselves to crossing flooded rivers and climbing mountains through thick bush.

With the cessation of hostilities on Guadalcanal, the urgency of the unit's departure was lessened, and the respite granted allowed more scope for advanced training. This in-page 90cluded compass marching, sniping, unarmed defence, swimming in complete battle order and map reading. New bayonets were obtained for the rifies, and the assault course was improved to include every type of action possible. The New Zealanders would vie with one another in cutting the time of the course down to a minimum and still shoot the bull's eye at the end of it. This rugged sport, which was even carried on on Sundays because there was nothing else to do, gave the medical orderlies plenty of work patching up torn flesh.

It was found necessary to have long route marches on the road as well as in the bush, to toughen the feet. By March the men were so fit that a five-day test was held for the movement of the entire unit. The men covered over a hundred miles of rough, trackless jungle, carrying all their rations, arms, and equipment on their backs. This was a sound indication of the physical fitness and capabilities of the unit as a whole; Captain Tripp now knew that his men could carry out patrols on foot, covering any range that was likely to be required in the Solomons.

During March, American and New Zealand war correspondents visited the camp, and they were shown some of the routine training. What the commandos themselves took for granted, amazed the correspondents, and impressive accounts of the training course were printed in New Zealand and American newspapers. One reporter stated: "When the Fiji Commandos raid at night, death wears velvet gloves." This so tickled the Commandos' sense of humour that whenever something went wrong they would laugh and say they had forgotten to wear their velvet gloves. The American correspondent wrote: "Typical of the Fijian Commandos is Private Isaia Wairosa, aged twenty-two, whom we followed through the jungle on an anti-sniper patrol. Following a jungle trail which he had never been over before, Isaia was to locate cardboard rectangles secreted in the underbush and in trees along the trail, at places most likely to conceal snipers. It was Isia's job to find the one by three foot targets and put bullets into them as soon as he saw them. Of eight targets Isaia spotted them all and put bullets square in the centre of seven. The delegation of press following close on his heels failed to locate a single target until after Isaia had fired at it, and three page 91of them had to be pointed out to us even after the Fijian had fired." After seeing the men on the assault course and a short manoeuvre, the same correspondent summed up his impressions: "United Nations military leaders have at their disposal hundreds of fighting men, who, through heredity and training, are better qualified to drive the Nipponese from their South Pacific jungle defences, than any troops in the field."

Captain Tripp received reports on conditions in the Solomons from David Williams. In one of his letters David stressed the importance of having everything painted green for camouflage, particularly tents, because of the extensive bombing raids on Guadalcanal. The khaki drill battle dress issued by the Fiji Defence Force to the Fijians was too much like the Japanese uniform, and the commandos would be shot at by allied units if they wore them. Captain Williams sent a lot of valuable advice, but the unit could not obtain all the equipment suggested. The only tents available were old and mildewed and were of the white Indian pattern. These had to be dried out and painted green with ordinary house paint. Green dye was unprocurable although the commandos had been trying for a year now to obtain some. Mosquito nets were stained brown with the bark of the mangroves. The New Zealanders had provided themselves with camouflage clothing months earlier, but the Fijians had to leave Fiji with only their khaki drill uniforms.

There was still much sickness in the unit, but morale was high with the expectation of embarkation, and the strain of hard training was relieved by a weekly concert at which every platoon contributed an item. The singing of the Tongans was the outstanding feature of these concerts, and they showed the Fijians how the favourite Fijian song, "Isa Lei" should be sung. The Tongans contended that the song had been stolen from Tonga in the first place.

One of the Fijians, Tombia, wanted to get married before the unit left Fiji, so he applied for leave at the last minute. At first Captain Tripp refused because Tombia was a good man and he did not want to risk leaving him behind; besides Tombia was sick and running a temperature three degrees above normal. But Tombia pleaded so insistently page 92that the was eventually given forty-eight hours to get the deed done. His bride lived at Namosi, over thirty miles by track from Wainandoi. Tombia left at dawn on one day, and returned to camp in the evening of the second day after a wedding, a honeymoon, and a round trip of sixty rugged miles, thus showing what a Fijian can do when he is effectively inspired.

Several New Zealanders were due for leave in New Zealand, but in spite of their longing' to see civilisation again, they all refused to take leave until they had had "a lick at the Japanese." Some of the men were in hospital prior to embarkation, and these had to be replaced; a bitter blow to those who had been in the commandos from their inception.

At the beginning of April the long awaited movement order was received, and the unit stores were finally packed. For weeks the cases had been prepared, but a lot of the gear had to be kept out in a vain attempt to get it dry. The quartermaster devised a special labelling system identifying the contents of boxes by reference to a coded list: he visualised the covetousness of other units and also the possibility of certain articles being required en route. It would have been fatal to have labelled a box "whisky" for instance. The unit was allowed to take two trucks, and these were loaded on the President Hayes, on 12th April.

On 13th April the commandos marched through Suva with the First Battalion of the Fiji Military Force. This battalion, commanded by Lt.-Col. J. B. K. Taylor, also sailed for the Solomons in the same ship. After embarkation the troopship remained in Suva harbour for two days awaiting the rest of the convoy, and during this time the men practised disembarking down the rope ladders, over the side of the vessel, into landing barges. (See appendix III).