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

Chapter XVII — Conclusion

page 148

Chapter XVII

Thirty-Five members of First Commando Fiji Guerrillas received awards for gallantry, and several received American as well as British medals (see appendix I). Major Tripp was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and the American Silver Star.

The American senior officers with whom the unit worked in the Solomons, sent back many reports to the Fiji Brigade Group Headquarters, and the following are excerpts from some of them:—

Headquarters 43 U.S. Division stated that: "During the period July 2-9, the Fiji Scouts did invaluable service in scouting the area from the beach-head at Zanana to and beyond the Barike River, sending back information of enemy dispositions and strength in the area, and possible routes for advance of our troops and supplies, which information was of the utmost importance at this time …. On July 10th Captain Scherrer, following our request, submitted a report on the enemy situation and terrain near Laiana beach. Obtaining this information had required considerable patrolling of a dangerous nature behind enemy lines and at night. Using the information thus obtained, our forces advanced to Laiana Beach, and established the most important beach-head of the campaign…..During the entire period in which the South.

Pacific Scouts were attached to this division, they patrolled constantly to our front and flanks, and carried out special small patrols at our request. The work of these scouts unquestionably was of great aid in the campaign, and played a definite part in the capture of Munda Airfield."

Major-General R. S. Beightler, Commander of 37 U.S. Division, also praised the unit most highly, and in particular page break
— Photo by courtesy Natinnal Film Unit.A Fijjian strikes a realistic pose for the camera man.

— Photo by courtesy Natinnal Film Unit.
A Fijjian strikes a realistic pose for the camera man.

The Fijians relax between patrols. A sketch by Russell Clark, an official war artist.

The Fijians relax between patrols. A sketch by Russell Clark, an official war artist.

page break
—Photo by courtesy National Film Unit.New Zealand and Fijian commandos camouflaged against a background of Vella Lavella jungle.

—Photo by courtesy National Film Unit.
New Zealand and Fijian commandos camouflaged against a background of Vella Lavella jungle.

page 149he stated: "Subsequent to and throughout his attachment to the 37th Division, during a period of about fifteen days, Major Tripp performed services marked by extraordinary fidelity and conspicuous efficiency. He planned the disposition and activities of his small force and conducted their activities to the maximum advantage. He directed and personally engaged in distant reconnaissance into enemy territory under hazardous conditions …. These services, coupled with Major Tripp's good judgment, knowledge of the area, and knowledge of the enemy proclivities, were a substantial contribution to the security of the command throughout a difficult operation to the successful conclusion of its mission."

Major-General O. W. Griswald, Commander of XIV Corps, wrote a letter to the Governor of Fiji, in which he stated that the services of the commandos were so valuable, and in some instances heroic, as to warrant a special report on their activities. He stated: "The First Commando Fiji Guerrillas furnished distant reconnaissance patrols, which worked well into the enemy territory often at great hazard, and furnished battle guides, in some instances, who actually led front line units in combat and assaults on enemy positions. Major Tripp, himself, engaged in much patrolling in addition to planning, supervising and, conducting the activities of the entire detachment in a most capable fashion …. In addition to Major Tripp, a number of officers, non-commissioned officers, and men, performed outstanding services characterised by devotion to duty and gallantry."

Every American division with which the commandos worked was very generous with equipment, and the American officers were most co-operative. American senior officers, including generals, were never too conscious of their ranks to ask for information, or advice, from any commando. On the other hand, the commandos received from all Americans unstinted support, without which the unit could have achieved nothing.

Many of the commandos who performed outstanding work have not received particular mention, partly because information is lacking, and partly because their work was not of a spectacular nature. Some carried out their reconnaissance work behind the Japanese lines so skilfully that they page 150had no occasion to fire a shot. Except on fighting patrols, it was generally when a mistake was made that a patrol had to make a spectacular fight to safety. Much valuable information was obtained by Sergeant A. E. Kennard, and Sergeant N. B. MacKenzie. The latter, who was granted a high American award, Legion of Merit, for his work while attached to 169 U.S. Regiment, stated after the New Georgia operation that he had scarcely fired a shot until he left the fighting area to return to the beach-head.

The commandos themselves consider their intelligence work to be their greatest contribution to the campaigns in the Solomons, but it is obvious that the mobile, independent, company of guerrillas is an answer to the tenacious Japanese jungle fighter. As the spear-head of jungle-trained infantry, guerrilla units are of inestimable value and their capabilities could be exploited much further. The First Commando never reached the stage of perfection it could have become with even more training and a better balanced composition. With chemicals and explosives, and more New Zealanders to handle them, the First Commando could have sabotaged much of the enemy's supplies. Because it must be small for mobility's sake, a commando unit cannot have a large base staff, nor can it afford the luxury of provosts to deal with recalcitrants; therefore only men capable of self-discipline should be selected for guerrillas. Paradoxical as it may seem, it takes a man with sound knowledge of regular army organisation to run an irregular force successfully. But the commander must possess, and he must be allowed to use, greater discretionary power than those used by commanders of ordinary units of a similar size. A commando in the Pacific needs to be flexible enough to attach and detach natives as it goes along.

In comparing the qualities of the men who contributed to the success of First Commando, generalizations can be made in spite of the exceptions already noted. The New Zealanders and Tongans, who were highly selected men, derived egotistical satisfaction from comparison with the ordinary infantry, and it was this pride in their own ability, that drove them on in their dangerous missions. The Fijians did not possess pride to the same extent, and although many of them fought outstandingly, it would be more accurate to describe page 151them as extraordinary scouts than as extraordinary fighting soldiers. The Fijians, with their exceptional hearing and eyesight, must be amongst the greatest bushmen in the world, even though the New Zealanders had to show them the way in strange country. The New Zealanders had one advantage over the Fijians in their education, which enabled them to use artificial aids to navigation. The New Zealanders were natural bushmen too, and they found that jungle warfare had something in common with deer stalking. In spite of the Fijians' powerful physique, the New Zealanders were more determined in travelling long distances. The Fijians had perfect shooting and stalking ability, but their sensitive emotions and superstitions often prevented them from using this ability to the best advantage: there were a few occasions too when New Zealanders failed to show the patience and sympathetic understanding necessary to securing their best response. If a Fijian could control his nerves long enough to prove to himself how much superior he was to the Japanese soldier, he could accomplish anything required of the jungle soldier. The Tongans fought outstandingly, having a temperament similar to the Maori; but the Tongans' bush-craft was not equal to that of either the Fijians' or the New Zealanders'. There is no thick bush in Tonga, and though they adapted themselves quickly, the Tongans lacked the real jungle sense that comes with long experience. The Solomon Islanders rendered valuable services away from the fighting, and a few were excellent in battle, but it would take many years to train the average of them as soldiers.

Some of the limitations of the Fijians in the First Commando could have been overcome with further training: in actual fact they had had the equivalent of seven months continuous training before they went into action, and some who acquitted themselves well had had even less. The First Commando is not to be confused with the First Battalion, Fiji Infantry Regiment, which was also led by New Zealanders and operated in the Solomons too. This battalion had had over three years regular training before it went into action on Bougainville early in 1944, and it proved that the Fijians, with training, could carry out an orthodox infantry role as success-page 152fully as they had carried out their scouting role with First Commando.

Two important qualities in the fighting man are fear and pride. The commandos had to have fear to keep themselves alert to the dangers around them; without fear they could not have kept awake for days or weeks on end. They required well developed pride to overcome their fear and drive them to action when situations arose in which they could contribute their efforts; it was self-respecting pride that induced them to advance with their comrades in the face of certain danger. The traditional army method is to overcome the soldier's fear by discipline: the soldier is trained so thoroughly in the habit of obeying orders, that his first impulse, even under fire, is to respond to his leader's command. This method works in practice, but relying as it does on ingrained habit, it has its limitations where a great deal of initiative is required of each man. It is one thing to hold a position against attack when there is the material and moral support of a thousand men about you, and quite another to venture into the unknown in a small group lightly armed. Aggressive patrolling of enemy position must be carried out by men voluntarily, otherwise the patrol will not seek out the dangerous places where information is most likely to be obtained.

Orders could not be shouted out in the jungle because noise of any kind was usually the only clue the enemy had of a patrol's presence, and leadership had to be carried on more by example than by command. To be led by example alone, without the assistance of the usual reaction to a verbal command, meant that the men had to have unusually strong faith in the ability and integrity of their leaders. The Fijians' faith in their NCOs was built up during long and close association when the leader had to prove his honesty and determination to carry out anything he stated, no matter how trivial. The New Zealanders had to possess the characteristics common to all leaders in battle, such for instance as ability, confidence, and courage, but one particularly important trait in the eyes of the Fijians was sincerity. The Fijians may be too inarticulate to express themselves on the subject, but they are acutely sensitive to any subtle discriminations by Europeans against their race. If the Fijians once discovered a flaw in page 153the steadfastness of a leader's character, or detected the slightest partiality in his judgement, faith was lost forever. But when faith was gained, through a sincere regard for the welfare of the Fijians, and the New Zealanders maintained their own confidence in battle, the leader had almost hypnotic power over his men.