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

Chapter XV — Reinforcements

page 130

Chapter XV

Thecommandos had now reached a serious state of exhaustion, and most of them were withdrawn to the little island of Bethleham in the Roviana Lagoon where they had enough security to sleep. Later, on 15th July, this party moved to Rendova Island. Captain Tripp, one sergeant and four Fijians remained at Laiana, and Sergeant MacKenzie's patrol remained operating with 169 U.S. Regiment.

Now that the Americans had established themselves at Laiana, only three miles from Munda, it looked as though the fight for the airfield had reached the final stage. But a strong force of Japanese reinforcements travelled across the hills from Bairoko and cut the American supply line between the fighting troops west of the Bariki and the original beach-head at Zanana. The area between the Zanana beach-head, which contained the headquarters of 43 Division, and the Laiana beach-head developed into a no-man's land but the commandos negotiated it frequently. At one stage a battalion of 172 Regiment was cut off from the main body of troops, and, becoming short of rations, it had to ransack the packs which the evacuated sick and wounded had left behind; the air force also dropped rations by parachute. After the Laiana beachhead was firmly established, the Americans blasted the coral inside the Roviana Lagoon and brought their Higgin's boats along the mainland coast from Zanana. The advance was partly held up because of this tortuous supply route.

In the meantime on Guadalcanal, Captain Williams prepared reinforcements from the rest of the First Commando there. The reinforcements included fourteen New Zealanders, eleven Tongans, forty Fijians, and twenty-three Solomon Islanders who arrived at Rendova Island on 16th July.Cap-page 131tain Williams went across to Laiana to meet Captain Tripp, and the two officers returned to Rendova to regroup the unit. Because of the heavy enemy air-raids on Rendova and the lack of facilities there, the American aid station evacuated all casualties out of the war zone, and wounded commandos had been evacuated with Americans to any available hospitals in the South Pacific area. After leaving the aid station on Rendova by warship, or barge, commandos found themselves in hospitals in the following islands: Russell, Florida, Guadalcanal, New Hebrides, New Caledonia, and even back in Fiji. It was two months before the OC knew the definite location of some of his men, and then it was only because they wrote him personal letters. The Fijians of course were helpless in this respect unless they happened to be evacuated with a New Zealander. One of the Tongans, Inukika' agana, was returning to New Georgia from Guadalcanal on an LST when the ship was torpedoed. After a few hours in the water the Tongan was picked up by a Higgin's boat and returned to Guadalcanal. There were many ways in which men could be cut off from the unit with no New Zealander to look after them. When Captain Williams's reinforcement party was en route for New Georgia, two of the Fijians became ill with malaria and they had to be taken off the ship at the Russell Islands.

On 17th July, Captain Tripp and Captain Williams had a conference with XIV Corps Headquarters, now on Rendova Island, and it was decided that Captain Williams should take seventy commandos across to the New Georgia mainland while Captain Tripp was collecting the rest of his men.

Captain Williams's party arrived at Zanana late in the afternoon, and received orders to proceed immediately to Headquarters 43 Division as a large force of Japanese was approaching the area. The commandos manned the perimeter with the help of headquarters personnel including clerks, drivers, medical orderlies, and the like, who had not fired rifles since their basic training days. A very rapid refresher coursel in small arms took place as they settled down for a grim fight. The Command Post was attacked soon after dark. Screaming and yelling the Japanese rushed from the jungle in all directions. The commandos' Owen guns mowed the enemy down before any could penetrate the perimeter. The page 132Fijians could see in the dark better than anyone else, and they not only stood up to the onslaught amazingly, but their shooting was deadly accurate. Tafa, a Tongan, shot a Japanese officer whose body was not recovered by the enemy, and on the officer were found documents giving the full strength of the Japanese force and details of their mission. Tafa and others were covering the Munda Trail down which many of the enemy charged, and when the Japanese had been forced to retire, there was a pall of smoke from the long burst of machine-gun fire. The Japanese officer was unable to see Tafa's fox-hole, and he approached with his sword in one hand and a grenade in the other; he was about six feet from the fox-hole when he received the burst from Tafa's Owen gun.

The Japanese kept on attacking most of the night and dragging away their dead and wounded, but they were finally beaten back by accurate shell-fire from Rendova Island. In the morning thirty-four Japanese dead were found: these had been too close to the perimeter for the enemy to retrieve. The American casualties were light and the commandos were hardly scratched.

On 18th July Captain Williams made his headquarters with 43 Division's Command Post; one patrol was retained for local protection. Another patrol led a company of 148 Regiment to ascertain the line of the Japanese retreat. One of the Tongans was wounded when this patrol met the enemy beyond the Bariki River but after a slight skirmish the party disengaged and returned to Zanana that night.

The same day Lieutenant Harper, Sergeant Collins and thirteen Fijians successfully negotiated the enemy positions to relieve Sergeant MacKenzie's patrol at 169 Regimental Command Post which was now near the Munda trail a thousand yards west of the Bariki. In fighting his way out the next day, Sergeant MacKenzie had one member of his patrol killed; this was Isimeli, a Fijian.

Another commando patrol began a long range reconnaissance of the enemy positions north of 169 Regimental Command Post. American units were being cut off by the infiltration of enemy reinforcements, and the position was so desperate when Captain Tripp returned to the mainland on page 13319th July, that he had to make up as many patrols as he could for attachment to American units. This meant cutting-down the size of each patrol to about four natives and one New Zealander. There were plenty of natives available but not sufficient New Zealanders to lead them: and there were no Fijians who could work on their own. The Fijians could have gone out into enemy territory and returned easily without a European, but as they could not locate the positions of the enemy on a map afterwards, their reconnaissance would have been useless. The New Zealanders had sound military knowledge and experience by this time and they knew what to look for. The American commanders committed hundreds of troops to action on the basis of the New Zealanders' reports; the commandos therefore had a grave responsibility. Captain Tripp's numerous small patrols were all over the enemy's territory day and night, and they kept the Americans supplied with vital information. Because of the lack of New Zealanders they were unable to harass the Japanese, and their job was mainly one of observation; nevertheless they cut every Japanese telephone wire they came across. When the patrols spent nights in American bivouacs they helped to man the perimeter defences against the continued Japanese night attacks. During these few nights the commandos accounted for several enemy without loss to themselves.

The 43 U.S. Division had suffered severe casualties by this time and 37 U.S. Division came in to assist it. On 23rd July the commandos were attached to 37 Division. The First Commando had been associated with this American division in Fiji, and renewal of friendships under the present conditions were often dramatic. It was an advantage too knowing the commanding officers. In the jungle it was suicidal to wear badges of rank, for the Japanese snipers were always after the leaders. New Zealand sergeants often told American colonels what to "bloody well do," not realising to whom they were speaking—then there were times when they only pretended that they did not know. The American senior officers were always approachable and co-operative, and they frequently asked the New Zealanders for suggestions regarding the plan of action. The New Zealanders did in fact know much of what the Japanese were doing and all that the Ameri-page 134cans were trying to do. It was therefore useful for a New Zealander to be present whenever possible, at conferences of the American commanders: one general held up his conference for over an hour waiting for a New Zealand sergeant to report.

The 37 Division made its headquarters forward of Laiana beach-head as it was now realised that it was hopeless trying to conduct the rapidly changing jungle strategy without the commander right on the scene of action.

Captain Tripp received news of his promotion: he had been a major for over a month without knowing it. He now made his headquarters with the Divisional Command Post and patrols were attached to various American regiments. These patrols paved the way for the American advance on the veritable fortress of coral built up by the Japanese around the airfield. The enemy pill-boxes had layers of logs and coral over them, and a direct hit from a mortar bomb had little effect on the occupants. The infantry had to roll grenades down the tunnels at the rear of these pill-boxes, because the frontal apertures were only large enough for the muzzle of a machine-gun. One commando patrol, which was leading a unit of 161 Regiment, completely knocked out a pill-box with a grenade perfectly lobbed by Iowani Naqamu. This same patrol guided an American mortar and rifle platoon into an excellent position from which the Americans routed a strong force of Japanese.

The following day Vic Skilling and Iowani led an American company through intermittent fire to the rear of Japanese positions which were on a ridge overlooking Munda Airfield. On this patrol Iowani sprained his ankle, and it was still swollen the following day when Vic had to go out on what promised to be another dangerous and delicate patrol through Japanese positions. Major Tripp advised Iowani not to go on this patrol, but Iowani said that if Corporal Skilling was going he wanted to go with him. Major Tripp allowed Iowani to go, thinking that the ankle could not be as bad as it appeared. The patrol went out and succeeded in penetrating the enemy defences far enough to be the first ground troops to set eyes on the airfield that had been the cause of so much fighting. When Iowani's ankle was examined by an page 135American doctor later, it was found to be seriously sprained, and it must have been extremely painful during the patrol.

The Americans had regained the initiative, and with the use of flame-throwers and tanks, victory was in sight. The heavy bombardment of the Munda area had levelled the jungle, and where the American infantry struck open patches, the Japanese were definitely outclassed by fire-power. The enemy still fought bitterly, however, and the commandos' charmed life wavered.

Corporal "Major" Duffield was working with 161 Regiment at another sector of the front, and on 26th July he was pointing out the enemy positions to an American officer when a Japanese sniper shot him.

On 27th July Sergeant Bill Collins was killed whilst trying to take a machine-gun nest at the ration dump of 148 Regiment back on the Munda Trail. Bill had been slightly wounded twice, several days previously, but he insisted on staying in the fight: seven of his Fijians were sent back to Rendova for a rest and Bill went out after Japanese snipers on his own. The Americans credited him with having destroyed nine of the enemy personally, and with having forced several enemy machine-gunners to retire. The commander of 148 Regiment, Colonel S. A. Baxter, reported: "Of all the officers and men that had served with me in combat, Sergeant Collins was outstanding for his zealous desire to close with the enemy …. His devotion to duty was an inspiration to his American comrades who were under fire for the first time." Sergeant Collins had also been of "Material assistance in the successful evacuation of our wounded," reported the Colonel. Bill had volunteered to assist a platoon of American engineers who were fighting off Japanese while they operated a bull-dozer which was making a road near a ration and ammunition dump. The dump was being heavily attacked by the enemy who was short of food, and it was decided that the engineers would have to withdraw to allow a mortar barrage to be laid down. After taking a number of risks to collect wounded men, Bill was about to depart with the engineers, when he was caught in a burst of Japanese machine-gun fire.

Sid Heckler was also attached to 148 Regiment, and he and some Tongans were leading a section of Americans over page 136by the Bairoko trail on 27th July, when they came across five Japanese telephone wires. Sid called on some of the American automatic weapons to assist in preparing an ambush and he then cut the wires. They had to wait only half an hour for the enemy repair party. Six Japanese, headed by a sergeant-major, came up the track jabbering like a bunch of school children. The ambush came to life and not one of the Japanese moved more than six feet. The Japanese officer had a list of casualty returns which were valuable information, and his sword was later presented by the Tongans to their Queen in Tonga. The telephone lines were repaired by the Americans, and a Japanese of the language section was escorted to the spot to listen in to enemy conversations. Incidently, these Japanese of the American language section took tremendous risks; they were likely to be shot by the Allied forces, when in the forward area, and if they had been captured by their own race their fate would have been too dreadful to contemplate.

On 28th July thirty-four of the Fijians who had been resting on Rendova Island were evacuated to Guadalcanal. It was impossible to relieve their nervous strain on Rendova because of the frequent air-raids. What little air power the Japanese possessed was concentrated on the American bases at Rendova, and twelve raids a day were not uncommon.

The commandos still had a dozen small patrols operating on New Georgia, and as the Japanese were losing their grip on the airfield, Major Tripp extended the patrols farther north towards.Bairoko. At the beginning of August the Japanese were retreating to Bairoko, but they continued to fight fierce delaying actions to prevent all the American units from linking up. Several battalions were still cut off by strips of no-man's land, and when wounded had to be evacuated they had to have a strongly armed escort. The commandos carried out a lot of this escort work and killed many Japanese who tried to ambush them.

On 29th July Sergeant Ensor and four Fijians were fighting with 169 U.S. Regiment, when Selesetino rescued an American soldier from a shell hole twenty yards from a Japanese machine-gun.

The Americans brought in another division to help speed page 137the enemy on his way, and on 3rd August the commandos transferred to the command of 25 U.S. Division.

The same day Lieutenant Paul Harper, who had been attached to several American units, was killed while attempting to relieve a beleaguered American detachment on the Bairoko trail. The detachment was in desperate need of water, rations, and ammunition, and Paul volunteered to lead a supply party to the detachment. On the way the party was ambushed by Japanese, but Paul led his patrol against the enemy, killing them and capturing their machine-gun. The party continued, carrying the enemy weapon. As they reached the detachment they were mistaken for a Japanese force, and the detachment opened fire. Paul Harper and one of the Americans was unfortunately killed before the party could yell out its identity.

During his attachment to 148 Regiment, Paul Harper had carried out a variety of duties in addition to patrolling. For several days he assisted an American battalion commander in operating his unit because many American officers had become casualties. His death was as much a blow to the Americans as it was to the New Zealanders.

On 4th August Brian Ensor was also killed when he took part in an attack with an American company. Brian had carried out the reconnaissance for this attack the previous day, and although he was due to leave the fighting area for a rest, he wanted to watch the attack to see the results of his work.

The next day, 5th August, Munda Airfield was captured and large scale organised resistance ceased. It was estimated that over three thousand Japanese had been killed and several thousand wounded during the operation.

Several thousand Japanese escaped to Bairoko, but many of these drowned when their evacuating crafts were sunk by the American Navy and Air Force. The small unit of commandos, which represented less than one per cent, of the Allied force participating, must have accounted for over six per cent, of the enemy dead in the course of its intelligence work. Eleven commandos were killed during the campaign. The American losses were not as great as the Japanese because of artillery, air, and naval support, but their casualties would have been more serious had it not been for their splendid med-page 138ical service and evacuating system for wounded. Sixty-five per cent, of the Allied wounded were hit in the extremities; legs could not always be kept behind.cover. There was a high percentage of wounded to killed, because the small point twenty-five Japanese bullet had to hit a vital spot to kill.

War correspondents criticised the campaign severely, and Osmar "White reported that: "However satisfactory the result of the Munda affair may be, it is an inescapable fact that the Japanese defenders, though relentlessly smashed by hundreds of planes, and constantly bombarded by the greatest concentration of artillery ever used in the Pacific, cut off from really effective reinforcement and supply and outnumbered, caused a six weeks' fight for eight miles of jungle."

Some correspondents held up the commandos as an example of what the infantry battalions should be trained to be for subsequent campaigns.

Before they became adapted to the jungle conditions, the American infantry approached Munda like a gigantic but timid snail approaching an ant hill. The commando patrols were the sensitive feelers that shot out from the snail and advised when the way was clear. The commando unit was too small to be accurately described as the spear-head of the Allied force although it was very close to being so. It is not possible to manoeuvre large infantry forces in the jungle, and the enemy is likewise forced to fight in small groups. Mind conditioning is a vital factor in the transition from training to the real thing, and it is obvious that if infantry battalions have to adopt guerrilla tactics to some degree, they should be trained for it before and not during battles.

After the battle for Munda, the commanding general of the 37 United States Division issued to his forces a training memorandum in which he stated:—"The peak of efficiency comes from repeatedly negotiating slippery and rugged jungle trails and carrying heavy loads … to get along in the jungle is to operate under combat conditionings in the jungle, and do it often enough so that it comes with relative ease. There is no question that this can be done, the best illustrations being the non-commissioned officers with the South Pacific Scouts who are white men from New Zealand, and whose capacity for traversing the jungle both by night page 139and by day for many miles, is not equalled by any of our own troops."

Although the jungle around Munda was thick enough to reduce visibility to a few hundred yards, the commandos had experienced. much thicker bush during their training in Fiji. The battle for Munda was confined to an area of a few square miles, and none of this country was as steep as the mountains of Guadalcanal or Fiji. The commandos, therefore, had trained themselves for more arduous patrols than they were called upon to carry out in action, and their physical capacity was never extended. However, the nervous tension throughout long hours of scouting behind the enemy lines sapped vitality, and it was only because the travelling was done with "relative ease," that vitality was sustained as long as it was.

Though the Americans fought heroically, it must have been difficult for some of them to understand what they were fighting for in a wild, apparently useless, jungle-covered island ten thousand miles from their own homes; slogging their hearts out in fever-ridden swamps, and living like animals for weeks at a time. The conditions during the battle were severe for the men. There was heavy rain throughout and temperatures reached ninety-five degrees. Strangely enough mosquitoes were not exceptionally numerous, but there were plenty of other insects. Several thousand men were. evacuated with combat fatigue alone, and dysentery was common. The "0" ration became unpalatable, and the men ate sufficient only to stave off hunger. The diet became unbalanced too, because the soldier's consumed the biscuits and threw away the meat, for which they lost all desire after a few days of action. The American units carried their cooking stoves as close as they could to the fighting troops, but many went several weeks without any hot food; an occasional hot meal or drink stimulated the appetite even for "C" rations and could be the means of keeping up the strength of the troops and increasing their efficiency in action. The Allied units were not issued with "canned heat" such as the Japanese had for cooking their rice. The commandos managed to get a hot cup of tea now and again from Solomone, the OC 's batman. Solomone was an outstanding Fijian character, and throughout the battle he had been an asset, not only as a page 140scout, but as a morale builder. He had always been a clever clown in training days, and he had an excellent command of the English language. He amused the New Zealanders as well as the Fijians; but most important of all, he had an uncanny knack of being able to produce a cup of tea under appalling conditions. Just how much these cups of tea indirectly contributed to the endurance of the commandos can never be accurately assessed, but there is no doubt about their being of considerable value.

The strength of First Commando on New Georgia dwindled to eleven New Zealanders, twenty-eight Fijians, and six Tongans. These men followed up the retreating enemy with 25 U.S. Division, and patrols kept the Japanese under close observation at Zieata in the north, and Piru Plantation to the west; the plantation was patrolled by Solomon Islanders under Len Barrow. The Japanese barges could be seen leaving various points in the hope of escaping up the Kulu Gulf, but they were intercepted by the American Navy. For a week the patrols reported the evacuation of the enemy, and as little resistance was encountered, the unit was withdrawn from the Island. It returned to Guadalcanal on 12th August to reorganise.

In the meantime on Guadalcanal the rest of the unit had shifted the base camp from Aola Bay back to Teneru, because there were not enough New Zealanders left to look after the Fijians who returned during the operations. The commandos were very restless after their bout of action in New Georgia, and the best safety valve for their emotions was found to be sport, particularly football. The unit gave several concerts for the American forces camped nearby, and these helped to restore a normal attitude towards routine camp life.

During August the Third New Zealand Division arrived at Guadalcanal from New Caledonia, and Major-General Barrowclough, with many of his officers, visited the commando camp. The New Zealanders of First Commando visited many friends in the Division and happy reunions took place. It was now over a year since the commandos had been separted from Third Division, and they gave a concert for their former comrades.