Pacific Commandos: New Zealanders and Fijians in Action. A history of Southern Independent Commando and First Commando Fiji Guerrillas
Chapter XVI — Vella Lavella
After the fall of Munda the Americans decided to bypass Kolornbangara, with its estimated ten thousand Japanese garrison, and occupy Vella Lavella farther north. The Americans landed on the southern end of the Island without land opposition on 15th August, and they established a defensive perimeter large enough to protect construction battalions that were making an airfield at Barakoma. The Americans captured several unequipped Japanese who were shipwreck survivors from naval battles in these waters, but a few hundred enemy troops fled to the north, and the Americans did not bother to chase these at first; but later, air-raids became serious at Barakoma and they decided to establish a radar station on the northern tip of Vella Lavella. The radar would give longer warning of enemy planes approaching from Bougainville.
On 25th August Major Tripp received orders to prepare fifty commandos to go to Vella Lavella. Two patrols were made up of the fittest men available; the sick and wounded were now drifting back from the hospitals, but the majority of the men in the unit were still weak from the affects of malaria.
The Vella Lavella patrols were re-equipped and they embarked from Guadalcanal on 29th August. The party comprised ten New Zealanders and forty Fijians. In addition, Lieutenant D. G. Graham and three sergeants from Third N.Z. Division were attached to the party for experience.
Arriving at Barakoma on 31st August, the commando party spent the day obtaining information from the local inhabitants. The unit was attached to 35 U.S. Regiment under page 142 page 143the command of Colonel Brown, and the tasks allotted were as follows:—
Major Tripp and a patrol of sixteen were to work in conjunction with the first battalion of 35 Regiment up the east coast to Lambu Lambu Cove area.
Captain Williams and a patrol of twenty were to go up the west coast to give protection to the coast-watcher at Topolando as well as reconnoitre the enemy positions on the northern tip of the Island.
Lieutenant Graham and a patrol of nine were to go as far as the Oula River on the west coast, then turn inland to watch the Japanese track across the centre of the Island.
On 2nd September the patrols left the Island Command Post at Barakoma, and Major Tripp's patrol reached its reconnaissance area that day. After splitting up, the commandos worked with small groups of Americans. One patrol shot two Japanese at Baka Baka Mission on 3rd September, and on the following day twelve more enemy were killed by a company of Americans. A map was found, on a dead Japanese officer, showing the defensive positions of the enemy at Horaniu, and Major Tripp sent the map with other captured documents back to the Island Command Post. The Americans decided to send up another battalion and artillery to attack the enemy in force: in the meantime the commandos were out on patrol every day to see if the enemy changed his position. During these days the commandos carried out some delicate missions. The Americans and the commandos camped close enough to the enemy to be able to hear the parachutes opening when Japanese planes flew over every night to drop supplies to their troops.
The American artillery arrived; a heavy barrage was laid down, and on 14th September the infantry attacked again, only to find that the artillery had done all their work for them. The American interpretation of the Japanese map had proved exceedingly accurate; the artillery scored direct hits on most of the defence posts. The enemy had fled leaving many of his dead behind him: also equipment including ten 1943 model 20-millimetre guns in perfect condition; two 90-millimetre mortars; some 75-millimetre mountain guns, and large stores of ammunition, medical supplies, and rations.page 144
These Japanese positions had been prepared for about two thousand men, and it was apparent that the enemy had decided to make a stronghold on the Island at the same time as the Americans, who fortunately, had got in first. The finding of the map and the subsequent accurate gunfire of the American artillery changed the enemy's plans, and he was now headed across the Island to the north-west. Prom the captured Japanese stores the commandos made use of "canned heat," vitamin pills, and medical supplies. The unit lived for several days on Japanese rations, which were equal to their own and in some respects, superior—some of the enemy's tinned salmon was of outstanding quality. Amongst the medical supplies were thousands of atabrin tablets, brewer's yeast tablets, and cod-liver oil capsules.
Major Tripp's patrols, on the eastern coast, encountered no more Japanese in the next few days and they returned to Barakoma on 20th September.
On 5th September Captain Williams reached Topolando after a strenuous journey by land and sea. The distance by the route taken was fifty miles, and the bush was so thick with undergrowth, that the patrol had to cut its way. Though only a small island, Vella Lavella rises to a peak of three thousand feet a few miles inland, and it is exceptionally steep country with few native tracks.
Captain Williams met Lieutenant Josselyn, who had been watching the coast during the Japanese occupation. Lieutenant Josselyn gave Captain Williams the latest information on the enemy in his area and the commando patrols started scouting immediately. Because there was a lot of enemy activity on Umomo Island, a little dot close to the coast, Captain Williams and two Fijians went to investigate. The patrol was bare-footed and crept to within a few feet of the Japanese: it located, on 7th September, ten Japanese on Umomo, and twenty-two at the mouth of the Timbala River. The patrol then joined up with thirteen more commandos at Etupeka.
The following day Lieutenant Graham's patrol arrived, having lost the Japanese cross-country trail. The commando force now of about twenty-five men carried out a further reconnaissance of the Timbala River with a view to attacking the enemy from the south-west. However, stray Japanese page 145kept trickling into the area over night, until there were a hundred armed enemy. Captain "Williams decided to return to the Island Command Post to get reinforcements before attacking, and arrangements were made for tracks to be cut to within twenty yards of the enemy so that a company would have easy access.
On 11th September Captain Williams and Lieutenant Josselyn went from Etupeka to the Island Command Post in under fifteen hours, but in spite of their rush they did not obtain reinforcements because the 14 N.Z. Brigade had been given the task of eliminating the enemy on the northern coast, and the Americans were awaiting this New Zealand unit's arrival.
Captain 'Williams returned to his men who were still watching the growing enemy forces in the north. On 16th September the patrols located two hundred and thirteen Japanese headed for Warimbari Bay. Lieutenant Graham's patrol counted eighty-six as they passed within a few feet of his hiding place. Some of the enemy were passing close to Topolando, and it was feared that they would find Lieutenant Josselyn's radio transmitter. The large wireless set was shifted to a safer hiding place, but Captain Williams continued to operate a small set at Topolando, and he kept the Americans informed of the enemy activity: when a barge load of Japanese left the Island a plane would leave Barakoma and sink it before it got many miles. This method of getting results without much risk was the best technique the commandos had devised and they thoroughly enjoyed it. They were high up and could see many miles out to sea as well as the foreshore of the Island.
Captain Williams was out one day at Pakoi Bay with three natives, when he suddenly ran into a dozen Japanese, an amazing thing happened — the Japanese got the bigger fright and ran for their lives. Evidently the size of this New Zealander had them worried, or they were poorly armed.
On 18th September Lieutenant Graham was recalled to Barakoma where 14 N.Z. Brigade had landed. Lieutenant Graham was able to supply his unit with accurate locations of the five hundred Japanese now trying to evacuate their position on the northern coast. The 14 Brigade took charge of page 146operations on the Island and cleared it of Japanese a fortnight later.
The commandos did not take part in this attack because there was now too much sickness in the unit. The patrols returned to Guadalcanal on 26th September.
In the meantime the rest of the unit on Guadalcanal had been trying to locate some Japanese who, it was suspected, came out of their jungle hide-outs at night and cut the telephone wires between the radar and the anti-aircraft guns. The Japanese planes were still getting through to Guadalcanal, and on 21st September, a stick of bombs straddled the commando camp at Teneru. Seven of the commandos were seriously wounded, and two of the enemy planes shot down lauded in amongst the unit's tents. Wreckage was strewn everywhere and much of the unit's equipment was damaged.
The strength of First Commando Fiji Guerrillas was now one hundred and sixty men, and on 13th September, twenty-three reinforcements arrived from Fiji. Five of the sergeants gained commissions in the field and several corporals were promoted to sergeants. Captain Ratu J. Dovi, a Fijian doctor, who had trained at Otago University, visited the camp to investigate the declining health of the commandos, and eight of the Fijians were sent back to Fiji medically unfit. Many of the malaria cases had to be sent to hospital because the bouts were too severe to treat in camp.
On 5th October the unit was ordered to Florida Island, thirty miles north of Guadalcanal. A camp was set up at Baramoli and the unit patrolled the Island regularly. General Fuller, U.S. Army, was Island Commander at this time, but Florida, apart from the harbour at Tulagi, had lost its importance and there were only a few other troops stationed there.
The British Military Mission, headed by Major-General J. S. Lethbridge, visited the Solomons and spent three days on Guadalcanal during which time Major Tripp was requested to give an account of the experiences of the unit.
About the middle of October half of the unit went down with malaria, and at this period Brigadier G. Dittmer, O.B.E., D.S.O., M.C., who had taken over command of Fiji Brigade Group, arrived from Fiji. After inspecting the unit the Brig-page 147adier decided that the commandos would have to be withdrawn from the malarial zone. Lieutenant-General A. A. Vandegrift, Commanding General of the United States Marine Corps in the Pacific, wanted to use at least one platoon of commandos in his forthcoming attack on Bougainville, but Brigadier Dittmer refused to allow First Commando to go into action again because of the sickness in the unit. The Brigadier requested that the First Commando should be replaced by the Second Commando which was being trained in Fiji, and the American command agreed to this proposal.
In anticipation of the arrival of the relief, the camp was improved with extra recreational facilities. The commandos soon became bored with garrison life at Baramoli, and in the absence of air-raids, the New Zealanders organised themselves into discussion groups at night. Lectures were given by each man on his work or hobby in civil life, and the pastime was introduced with a talk on astronomy by Major Tripp. The troubles of the post war world were also thrashed out, but the conclusions were not significant.
At the end of November stores were packed in readiness to depart. The Second Commando arrived on 24th November, and First Commando embarked on 30th November, disembarking at Suva on 11th December.
The New Zealanders, who had not had any leave for two years, returned to New Zealand for twenty-eight days' furlough, and the Fijians were granted a similar period of leave in Fiji.
When all the members of the unit returned from leave, they were given a medical examination, as a result of which three-quarters of them were found to be unfit for further active service. The First Commando Fiji Guerrillas was therefore disbanded on 27th May, 1944.