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

Chapter XII — Guadalcanal

page 93

Chapter XII

The convoy left Suva on 15th April, and the troops began taking half an atabrine tablet each day to build up resistance to malaria. The voyage was calm and uneventful for the New Zealanders, the time being taken up with the usual boat-drills and sunbathing. However, it was a real event for the Fijians who took a delight in watching all the machinery, and they were overjoyed when they saw moving pictures for the first time, even though they could not understand the sophisticated dialogue. Guadalcanal was reached on 19th April, and the ship hove to off Kokombona Beach. The commandos were detailed to unload the cargo from the holds, and the First Battalion had the responsibility of placing it in dumps on the beach. As there were no wharves at Guadalcanal, the whole operation had to be carried out with Higgin's boats which ran up onto the coral sand. The unloading was performed in the record time of four hours, much to the relief of the captain of the vessel, who was keen to pull out before the Japanese bombers paid their nightly visit.

The captain wrote a special letter to the commander of Fiji Brigade Group, praising the unit. Referring to the Fijians, Commander F. W. Benson stated: "These troops proved to be the finest that we have had the pleasure of carrying at any time since we have been in the South Pacific area. Their excellent spirit was an inspiration to all hands. Their standard of cleanliness, both as to person and living spaces, was the highest that we have encountered. The attitude of the officers and their manner of dealing with the men, set an example that was freely discussed by the American Officers, both Army and Navy, and the results obtained spoke most fluently of the excellent manner in which they dealt with their page 94men. Their keen interest in the individual trooper bore fruit in the spirit engendered in each man. During the unloading at our destination, troops and officers alike made a game of it, and set a record for unloading that will probably stand for a good long time. Prior to this unloading we thought we had made a record, but your forces boosted the tonnage per hour unloaded by almost thirty per cent., thereby giving us something which we will be shooting at for a long time."

Until unloading was complete, no member of First Commando was allowed ashore. Because there was no one to take particular care of the unit's equipment at the dump, a New Zealander smuggled himself ashore in one of the trucks that was being hoisted out of the hold into a barge. He arrived at the beach to find the commando stores mixed tip with all the other units; but it was late in the afternoon by this time, and the stores could not be sorted out until next day. The rest of the commandos landed at five o'clock and marched.

Two miles to Mamara where they bivouacked on an old battle field under coconut trees. A horrible stench pervaded the air, and there were several booby-traps and skeletons lying about. These had to be cleaned up before dark, and slit trenches dug in case of air-raids.

During the night two Japanese, in search of food, visited a ration dump near the unit's bivouac. One of the enemy was caught by some Solomon Islanders at Mamara village. The following morning this starving, naked Japanese was bound to a wheel-barrow and taken triumphantly to the American's prison camp by a dozen elated Solomon Islanders.

This incident gave the commandos a tremendous desire to penetrate the surrounding bush immediately, in search of stray Japanese; but there was too much work to be done in locating stores and improving the sanitary arrangements of the bivouac, to allow a patrol away until the following day.

The commandos had been landed fifty miles west of the Special Party at Aola Bay. Major Clemens met Captain Tripp, and arrangements were made for the unit to move on Good Friday, 23rd April. The movement was made on foot along the coast, but the heavy equipment was transported by schooner. During these stages valuable equipment was stolen by other units, but the quartering staff soon got wise to Guad-page 95alcanal "ethics," and subsequent acquisitions provided the commandos with most of the amenities available in this Godforsaken archipelago.

Apart from the defect of poor communication, the base camp at Aola Bay was ideal. The house, which had been used by the District Officer in peace time, provided accommodation for the officers, and there were plenty of native huts for the NCOs, Orderly Room, stores, and the like. The Fijians and Tongans lived in tents, and they were exceptionally pleased with their new quarters. There was a spacious lawn for parades; a good beach for physical training and swimming, and even a barbed-wire enclosure for recalcitrants. A half-mile road of coral was made to a spring which provided excellent drinking water for the camp. An old hand pump was found and repaired, then mounted on a ten-foot stand over the spring. A truck, carrying a big iron tank, backed into this elaborate structure, and the tank was filled through a bamboo tube. At first it was intended that the pumping should be performed as a minor punishment in place of C.B., but the Fijians derived such fun out of the job that the punishment aspect dissolved. The mosquitoes were not nearly as numerous at Aola, and with the improved living conditions, health improved considerably: septic sores that had been persistent in Fiji completely disappeared.

The special party joined the First Commando Fiji Guerrillas, and Captain Williams became second-in-command to Captain Tripp. The unit was attached to Major Clemens' command, and the total force administered from Aola Bay comprised the following:—forty-four New Zealanders, four Englishmen, one hundred and fifty-six Fijians, twenty-eight Tongans, and two hundred Solomon Islanders; making a total of four hundred and thirty men from which to make up patrols. Each of these groups received a different rate of pay, and there were three different ration scales which had to be worked out by the quartermaster.

Orderly Room enquiries had to be held in four different languages; English, Fijian, Tongan, and Pidgin English, and it was most difficult to maintain a serious expression when a Solomon Islander tried to explain something in Pidgin English. Pidgin English has a definite idiom, and the New Zea-page 96landers found it more difficult to understand than either the Tongans or Fijians. What confused the New Zealanders at first was the English words arranged in native syntax. If asked the negative question: "Didn't you see him?" the native will reply "yes" when in English idom he would mean "no." Anything impressive is prefixed with "big fella," such as "Big fella house," or "Him big fella big fella, too much" meaning very large man. To go any distance "I go go go," with "gos" added indefinitely according to the length of the journey.

The Solomon Islanders are likely to express themselves in some weird combinations of words, and the following have been heard. A picture of an elephant described as, "Big fella bullamakau, 'im got tail along front and tail along ass b'long 'im." A cross-cut saw: "Take 'im 'e come pus' 'im 'e go all the same big brother ackis (axe)." They used to call an aeroplane "Schooner belong Jesus Christ," but they have since learned that a P38 is a "Lightning," and if they saw a "Flying Fortress" they could probably tell you it was a B17.

There was one occasion when the lingo did not sound so funny. Some Solomon Islanders were with a patrol of the Special Party during the fighting, and just at a critical period behind the enemy lines one blurted out; "Masta me fright, belly b'long me cold, me no savvy not'ing." The language of the New Zealander in charge of patrol cannot be recorded.

The "Dukwasi" unit had built up an armoury of nearly every kind of small arms, and the civil administration gave First Commando full use of any equipment it wanted. On the recommendation of the Special Party members, the Thompson sub-machine guns were changed for Australian made Owen guns, which had proved much superior for bush fighting. Sid Heckler had had a tommy-gun jamb at the worst possible moment—and only because of a small piece of grit in the mechanism. The Owen gun was as simple as a toy, and it could stand plenty of the mud which was unavoidable. Besides this, it was lighter and more accurate; its ·38 calibre was more than sufficient for jungle distances.

The commandos worked in close co-operation with the civil administration, whose members were mainly Englishmen sent out to the Solomon Islands by the British Colonial Office page 97in London. At the camp at Teneru the New Zealanders and Englishmen shared the same mess for several months, and this mess was the best on Guadalcanal at the time, attracting visitors from all over the Island. The quartermaster of First Commando, Paul Holmes, had to spend much of his time at Teneru Camp, because all food supplies were landed on Lunga Beach nearby, and he had to be on the spot to get the unit's share of the few good things that arrived with each shipment. Paul was particularly energetic, and, as the Americans said: "Always on the ball!" Major Clemens, who had an exceptionally persuasive personality, was also a great friend of senior American officers, and he managed to acquire additional luxuries for the mess. The Americans did not like mutton, and it was through their generosity that the commandos sometimes enjoyed a leg all the way from New Zealand and possibly from the farm of a member of the unit.

The New Zealanders soon made friends with their fellow countrymen serving in the Air Force and Navy in the Solomons. Several of the commandos were entertained aboard the New Zealand corvettes. The R.N.Z.A.F. allowed the commandos to use their postal service, and they enjoyed an air-mail letter service better than they had experienced in Fiji: some letters were recived from New Zealand three days after posting. The commandos tried to make up for this co-operation by entertaining the members of the other services in the mess at Teneru.

The intelligence section of First Commando was very busy at this time mapping out prospective operations, arranging wireless communication between Aola and Teneru, and sorting out the "bodies" of Solomon natives who seemed to be no-ones "pigeon." Prior to the arrival of First Commando, the Dukwasi unit had been made responsible for patrolling half the coastal strip of Guadalcanal. A New Zealander was sent out by schooner to locate these isolated patrols of natives. The New Zealander reported back a week later that the Solomon Islanders were doing no patrolling and their rifles were in a rusted state, not having been cleaned. The natives had received no supplies for weeks from the civil administration, and they had settled down with other natives in the villages on the southern coast of the Island, ignoring their page 98military responsibilities. Since First Commando could not spare any New Zealanders to supervise these Dukwasi patrols, this farcical state of affairs concluded with the discharge of the natives concerned and the United States Army Air Force covering the beaches every day by aeroplane.

The First Commando was kept busy with patrols systematically combing the Island for stray Japanese. Some of the enemy gave themselves up but others preferred to die slowly of starvation in the bush. When patrols returned to base camp for resting and the drying out of clothes, the commandos spent much time on the rifle range. Most members found that they lost about a stone in weight after a week's reconnaissance in the mountains: but they soon regained condition at base where rations were plentiful even if monotonous. The rations were now wholly supplied by the American Army, and they were a great improvement on the bully-beef and biscuits of Fiji.

Most of the work of the commandos was done by independent patrols of about fifteen men. Local natives were constantly reporting enemy activities back in the mountains, but when the commandos went to investigate, they found that the natives were either lying to create an impression and thereby gain some food supplies, or the Japanese had been seen six months before. The commandos did see one or two Japanese in the jungle, but these managed to escape—seeking a lone Japanese in this undergrowth was like trying to capture one particular grass-grub in an acre of corn.

Guadalcanal is a smaller island than Viti Levu, yet it is twice the height with mountains reaching 10,000 feet. The sides of the mountains are exceptionally steep, and as the Solomon Islands are in the earthquake belt, there are frequent landslides. Where the landslides occur there is no bush, but long grass grows on these steep patches. Guadalcanal is on the thermal equator, and while it is subject to heavy rainfall the same as Fiji, it does not experience hurricanes. Large trees, such as mahogany, are able to survive, and the undergrowth is somewhat easier to penetrate than that of Fiji.

In June a determined effort was made to comb out the north-western end of Guadalcanal, and seven patrols worked over the mountains in this area for a week; but the only re-page 99suit was a bundle of documents left behind by the enemy months earlier. This area of Guadalcanal was now like a bone-yard at a slaughter works. The wild pigs had rooted up the buried Japanese, and the natives had also been active in looking for gold teeth. Great piles of coconut shells everywhere indicated the diet of the enemy prior to his defeat on the Island. The commandos gained a great amount of knowledge about the Japanese soldier by going over the old battle fields. They became familiar with every type of enemy equipment—there was still plenty of it lying about—and they found out the type of country the Japanese invariably chose for a bivouac. The enemy had not penetrated more than two miles inland, and he showed a predilection for low-lying areas siich as valleys and swamps. The smell of some of these mosquito breeding localities nearly made the commandos sick. It was no wonder that the Japanese suffered heavily with malaria and other diseases.

After eombing Guadalcanal the commandos were given the job of combing other islands in the southern Solomons. There were indications that enemy spies and coast-watchers were stationed on San Cristobal, fifty miles south-east of Guadalcanal. A task force of four vessels of the American Navy and six commando patrols went to these islands to investigate; but after three weeks' patrolling with negative results the commandos returned to Guadalcanal.

At this time there was a re-organisation of the Dukwasi and First Commando units. It was found that the Dukwasi unit had to be substantially reduced: because of its loose structure it could not operate successfully on its own. In contrast to the Dukwasi the First Commando was a very highly organised and much more effective unit. It took fifteen tons of rations each month to feed the commandos, and the quartering staff had no easy task in distributing supplies to points where the patrols could reach them every few days: patrols usually carried four days' rations on their backs. The Dukwasi was reduced to two patrols made up of the best Solomon Islanders available, under Lieutenants Crass and Barrow, and these patrols were attached to Captain Tripp's command. Major Clemens had to return to his duties in the civil administration, and he was preparing to take up the position page 100of District Officer on New Georgia as soon as that Island was recaptured. The new arrangement for First Commando was not a radical change, but instead of platoons the whole unit was divided into independent patrols each of fifteen men. Each patrol had a New Zealand sergeant and corporal and thirteen Fijians, and there was a lieutenant in charge of three patrols. The Tongans worked most of the time with their own NCOs, and under their Tongan officer, Lieutenant H. Taliai.

The Americans did not care for the name of the unit, and thought it better to change it to "South Pacific Scouts," so that American unit commanders would not be confused about the nature of the Commando's work. The American connotation of the word "scouts" is similar to the English connotation of the word "commando," though both terms have various popular meanings. The name South Pacific Scouts appeared on all operation orders issued by the Americans, but the unit retained its official title of First Commando Fiji Guerrillas in its own records.

All the members of the Special Party were suffering severely with the effects of many bouts of malaria, and the Fiji Brigade Group decided to withdraw these men from the malarial zone. It was many weeks, however, before transportation could be arranged.

In June, the Governor of Fiji and the Commander of the Fiji Brigade Group, flew up to Guadalcanal to visit the unit; also Lieutenant-Colonel Ratu J. L. V. Sukuna, C.B.E., the leading chief of Fiji. Ratu Sukuna, (now Sir La La), a member of the Fiji Executive and Legislative Councils, is very well known in New Zealand. He attended Wanganui Collegiate School from 1903 to 1906, then went to Oxford University, where he gained a degree in Law. During the last war he served first with the French Foreign Legion, and later with the Fiji Labour Corps, and he was decorated with the Medaille Militaire. His outstanding knowledge of the aspirations of both the Europeans and his own race, makes him a leading figure in guiding the destiny of the Fijians. Ratu Sukuna brought with him a large quantity of yanggona root, because the proper yanggona is not grown in page 101the Solomons. He spent several days at Aola, and there was a great deal of kava drinking which boosted the Fijians' morale.

The Fijians felt the need of recreational facilities at night as much as the New Zealanders. When at base camp the men would lie naked under mosquito nets just sweating and thinking until they got to sleep in the cool, early hours of the morning. When out on patrol sleep was no problem; one could curl up at the base of a tree, and in spite of being wet, go to sleep from sheer exhaustion.

For a few weeks shortly after their arrival on Guadalcanal, the Fijians had shown signs of home sickness. They had never migrated far from their villages before, and when the novelty of being overseas had worn off they became restless and did childish things. A few threatened to burn down the guard-house, and others took some hens from the local natives: this was unusual for a Fijian who is normally a very honest man. These fits of restlessness were not serious, and they soon recovered from them. The Fijians also found it difficult to adjust themselves to a completely tinned diet; they longed for a good meal of dalo.

A schooner visited Aola once a week, and the administrative staff spent a lot of time on the move between base camp and Teneru. Administration had to be duplicated to supply and operate patrols in so many different places at once.

A short lull in patrols during June provided time for a Court of Enquiry and Board of Survey concerning the equipment lost or worn out. Fiji Brigade Group was still working on a system of "peace accounting," and every emergency ration and field dressing had to be accounted for individually. It took several days' hard work on the part of officers and NCOs to accumulate the information necessary for the Board to write off a few shillings' worth of equipment.

Crocodile hunting became a pastime of the commandos when at base camp, and one crocodile was killed at the mouth of the Aola River after numerous attempts on its life. Captain Tripp had put a pistol shot into one without effect, and traps had been set several times; but it finally took the concerted effort of a whole patrol to shoot one dead. Most of the commandos were on Guadalcanal several months before page 102they set eyes on a crocodile. This fact accounted for their apparent bravery when crossing rivers: one look at these ugly reptiles is enough to make anyone croc-conscious. Solomon natives use canoes to cross streams; or wade out to the sand bar at the mouths of rivers, to avoid crocodiles. But the commandos did not always have time to deviate, so they plunged into the muddy water and swam like hell with a prayer on their lips.

On 16th June, the commandos witnessed part of the greatest air battle ever fought over Guadalcanal, and one commando patrol, which was on reconnaissance in the mountains at the back of Henderson Field, had a grandstand view. It was a fine afternoon, and the Japanese force, estimated at sixty bombers and sixty fighters, came in to raid Henderson Field from several directions. A hundred American planes went up to intercept the enemy, but while they were engaged over the northern coast of the Island, another Japanese wave swept in from the south and did some damage to the airfield; it also scored hits on two ships standing off the beach at Lunga. However, it was a field day for the American pilots, and Zeros could be seen floating down by the dozen; from a distance the speed was deceptively slow as they fell from twenty thousand feet. Japanese planes that escaped after running out of ammunition were caught farther north by an American task force which was returning to Guadalcanal. This task force had not located a target during the day, so it still had ammunition which it used to great advantage on the enemy. The Americans subsequently claimed that they had shot down one hundred and seven Japanese planes for a loss of only six of their own, and judging by the portion of the battle that took place over Guadalcanal, the commandos were not as sceptical about the disproportionate figures as they might have been.

During June a unique sports meeting was held at Aola. There were, besides the various European nationalities, three native races competing. It was probably the first time the Tongans, Fijians and Solomon Islanders had been brought together in a large group for such an occasion, and competition was exceedingly keen. The natives wanted to enter in every raee even though there were no prizes offered: one Fijian page 103broke his collar bone in a keen contest. Uraia, the doctor, won the high jump at five-foot-six without one practice jump as preliminary training. The tug-of-war went to the Tongans, who narrowly defeated the little Solomon Islanders in this, the most exciting event of the day. The tournament was rounded off with a coconut-tree climbing contest, and Kelemeti, a Fijian won this event easily. He literally ran up the tree, knocked the nut off, and slid down the sixty foot trunk almost as fast as the nut fell—only at the cost of attending the R.A.P. for a week afterwards. A concert was held the same night, but the men were so exhausted, that they were glad to cut it short and go to bed.

The Guerrilla Gazette had not been published for several months because of pressure of work, but it was again produced on Guadalcanal with the assistance of the duplicating machine at XIV U.S. Corps H.Q. The intelligence section also produced a daily news sheet of world events taken from the radio. This news sheet was sometimes translated into Fijian: the Tongans could read English fairly well, and it was not considered worthwhile to translate the news into the Solomon Island language, because these natives were too primitive to grasp the facts of a world war.

The Americans had many operations mapped out for the commandos, but they could not always give the date of commencement until the last minute. It was known that the Americans were about to make another advance in the Solomons, but it was late in June when Captain Tripp was officially advised to prepare half of his unit for an attack on New Georgia in the centre of the Solomons Group.