Pacific Commandos: New Zealanders and Fijians in Action. A history of Southern Independent Commando and First Commando Fiji Guerrillas
Chapter III — Setting up Commando Headquarters and — Outposts
Setting up Commando Headquarters and
Volunteers from the infantry battalions provided the New Zealand officers and non-commissioned officers for commando units. On the dry and less thickly wooded side of Viti Levu the Western Commando covered its territory on horseback: this company was mainly composed of New Zea-landers with a few Fijian guide-interpreters attached. The Eastern and Southern commandos, however, worked entirely on foot, and these two units were mainly composed of Fijians who were trained by the New Zealanders in the remote villages. The mounted unit selected men of short or light build and with rough riding experience; while the Eastern and Southern units selected the strongest built New Zealanders they could find, consequently most of these were big men. Character was a very important consideration too; the commandos were to uphold the white man's prestige whilst living with the natives, and they had to carry out the work without direct supervision. Many of the NCOs had been farmers in civil life, and because of their individualism, they had a strong desire to use their initiative, to break away from the usual army routine, and to seek the freer life of the commandos in spite of the concomitant hardships of isolation. Several men who were chosen for these units had had training with a special company in Australia a year previously. The commando training of these men had included hard living combined with advanced instruction in the use of explosives, field wireless sets and other technical devices. When the special companies returned to New Zealand the idea of commando units was shelved and the men were transferred to various page 25other formations. It was a fortunate coincidence that a. few of these men were in infantry battalions in Fiji just when their special knowledge was required. The Southern Commando secured three of these men and their instructional services proved most valuable.
There exists in the minds of experienced military men, two strongly opposed views on the desirability of commando formations. The enthusiastic officers point out the advantages of selecting the most capable soldiers, giving them a great amount of independence, grouping them in such a way as to develop the maximum initiative within each man, and thereby creating a small mobile and formidable company which can strike the enemy where he least expects. The opposing contention is that the gain in efficiency of a small section of a force, say five per cent., does not compensate for the loss of spirit and feeling of inferiority engendered in the other ninety-five per cent of the troops when their efforts are unfairly compared. Added to this objection to commando units is the relative independence that they develop, and the fear that they may get beyond the disciplinary control of the headquarters of the whole force. Each of these opposite opinions could be justified under differing circumstances, and the latter view may have been a factor in the decision made in New Zealand in 1941, to disband the special companies when they returned after a very successful period of advanced and costly training in Australia. In Fiji, however, circumstances were such that commando or guerrilla units were not only an obvious solution, but also the only solution, to the problem of covering large areas with the few men available.
This history covers the commandos who served under Major C. W. H. Tripp, during 1942 and 1943, first in the Southern Commando and then in First Commando Fiji Guerrillas. The members of Eastern Commando who later joined the southern unit to form First Commando, carried out similar activities to those which will be described in the first half of this book.
In April, 1942, Charles Tripp, then a lieutenant, was given command of Southern Independent Commando which was page 26at first known as Eighth Brigade Commando. Charles and his second in command, David Williams, accompanied senior officers, who went out to the villages on the southern coast and, with the assistance of the District Officer, Mr R. H. Lester, and the native chiefs, recruited two hundred Fijians. The natives were to train on a territorial basis of one week in each month, for which they were to be paid one pound. They were also to receive two khaki shirts and two pairs of khaki shorts.
The recruiting had to be carried out with the utmost diplomacy and regard for native custom. Over many bowls of kava, the officers were presented with "tambua" (a whale's tooth which is a token of esteem). Some of the Fijians were loath to leave their easy life on a "dalo" patch for even one week at a time, and it was sometimes due to the moral suasion of the mbuli that sufficient numbers were recruited to form platoons: in this regard the Roko Tui, Serua, Ratu Kiniwili-ame Vitukawalu, gave outstanding assistance. The recruits were medically examined by Government Native Medical Practitioners. Only three per cent, failed to pass, and the physique of some of the "kai tholos' (hillmen) back in the mountains was amazing.
Nine villages were selected as training centres and arrangements were made for a sergeant, corporal and medical orderly to live in a bure at each of these centres. A wooden house at Navua was rented from the Fiji Pastoral Company and used as Commando Headquarters.
After the recruiting drive, Charles Tripp returned to Suva and assembled his administrative staff, which consisted of the second in command, a sergeant-major, quartermaster, and clerk. This Headquarter's staff worked day and night for the next two weeks organising the details for operating and supplying the unit, which was to 'be spread over eighty miles of rugged jungle country. The compilation of records was made difficult by the fact that the the Fijians signed their attestation forms with one name; their medical examination forms with another; and some even made a third change on the form giving their personal particulars. Most of the natives had learned to write their names at a mission school, page 27but they had never had occasion to concern themselves with documents before. Although there is a birth registration system developing in Fiji, the natives also call themselves by any additional name to which they take a fancy. Most names are of biblical origin, such as Josefa, Aisaia and Isiraeli, and some are jaw-breakers, such as Venasio Tokatokavan.ua and Makario Thakaunatambua. Very few Fijians knew their own age exactly, and some guesses must have been ten years clear of the mark.
The quartermaster had a tremendous task in indenting for the equipment and rations that a commando unit was likely to need: the supplies had to be cut down to absolute essentials because of the transportation difficulties. The unit had only one truck so it was decided that a month's supply of rations would be dumped at headquarters Navua and there divided into ten portions. One portion remained at Headquarters and was eventually distributed to each of the platoon headquarters.
Paul Holmes was the quartermaster, and it was greatly due to his "bludging" efforts that the commandos eventually got the equipment they required. When Paul indented for the material to make beds, Ordance staff scoffed at the idea, and said that commandos should be tough enough to sleep on the ground. All of which sounded very humorous, but it was not common sense: the commandos were to spend much of their time sleeping out in the rain when away from their headquarters, and it was neither healthy nor pleasant over a long period. The OC always maintained that the best men in the jungle were not those who could rough it so much, as those who could use their brains to make their living conditions comfortable under the worst conditions. It was the duty of each man to look after his health and try to keep himself fit for his arduous task.
While the administrative details were being attended to, the OC interviewed and selected the New Zealanders for the unit. A provisional establishment provided for thirty-four members of the 2 N.Z.E.F.—two officers, one warrant-officer, one staff-sergeant, ten sergeants, ten corporals and ten privates (medical orderlies); the latter were volunteers from the page 28Seventh Field Ambulance. The Fijians were limited only by the number available—in the Southern sector about two hundred. At this time there were no pamphlets available on the formation of commando units, so it was a case of "learn by mistakes."
The NCOs had a refresher course in mapping, compass work, and explosives before leaving Suva. Each sergeant received five pounds as an imprest account which he could use for hiring punts or native guides. He could also use a limited amount of this money to buy from the natives fresh fruit and vegetables to supplement the austere ration of bully-beef and biscuits.
In May the New Zealanders transferred to Southern Commando Headquarters at Navua. Before going out to their respective platoon headquarters, the NCOs assisted in sorting out the rations and equipment which were now piled high in the house as the only dry place to store them. It took several days to weigh out each platoon's share of small commodities such as salt, pepper, flour, sugar, candles and medical supplies. A bottle of methylated spirits broke on top of the raisins in transit, so for the first month the commandos' scone-making efforts were not as palatable as they might have been. There were not enough axes, hammers, and saws to go round, and the platoons borrowed these in turn to make tables, chairs, and beds out of the packing cases that had contained the supplies. All these little difficulties were cheerfully overcome, and the New Zealanders enjoyed the novelty of their new and slightly adventurous life.
The sergeant, corporal, and medical orderly, had to be carefully grouped temperamentally, for they were to live like one family whilst in the villages. Several months' later they were given the opportunity to change to other platoons if they could not agree, but not one man wanted to shift.
The coastal platoons were established within a week at Kalokolevu, Mau, Ndeumba, Ngaloa, Serua, and Komave. These platoon headquarters were fairly accessible from the road. The Nuku, Namuamua, and Namosi platoons, which were set up later, were one day's travelling distance inland from the road.
Commando Headquarters was on the banks of the Navua page 29River and thirty miles from Suva. The headquarters staff comprised the officer commanding the unit, his second-in-command, a sergeant-major, quartermaster-sergeant, clerk, store-man, two Fijian interpreters, and a Fijian cook.
Charles Tripp, the officer commanding the unit, was a tall, raw-boned man in his late thirties, of the pioneering type. He was affectionately known as the "Boss" because of his dominating personality and steadfast character. A successful farmer in civil life, he used practical, common-sense ideas in the development of the commandos. He had a theory that if he placed absolute confidence in the men under his command, the men would do their utmost to live up to the reputation that he gave them. Few failed to respond to his leadership, and later chapters will prove the efficacy of his methods.
All administrative documents at headquarters were kept in a mobile state so that they could be shifted to a battle headquarters in the hills if the Japanese landed. The quartermaster and clerk each had a portable office consisting of a light packing case, which had compartments built in so that maps and records fitted in compactly. The lid swung down to form a writing desk and could be locked up at night: thus, records were in a permanent state of packing and could be carried off at a moment's notice. These cases proved invaluable later in the Solomons where they were often set up on a few logs in the jungle. Even though administration was decentralised as much as possible, and the "paper war" kept to a minimum, it was found impossible to run even such a small and irregular force without considerable records being kept. The quartermaster ran a canteen which supplied the unit with tobacco, shaving gear, and other necessities, and on occasions beer. The beer was not sent out to the villages, and the only time the NCOs could indulge was when they visited headquarters once a month.
The unit was fortunate in obtaining Bale and Jope the two Fijian interpreters. These two men had had almost two years military experience in the First Battalion of the Fiji Defence Force in Suva, and their perfect diplomacy contributed a great deal towards cementing friendly relationships between the New Zealanders and the Fijians in the early page 30stages, when the New Zealanders could not speak the language.
The nearest platoon to Headquarters was Ndeumba, which was also on the Navua Delta about two miles nearer the coast. But for all its proximity to Headquarters, this platoon was very isolated because the two miles were mostly knee-deep in mud. It was always suspected that the sergeant deliberately chose this inaccessible site for his platoon headquarters to escape supervision—but he overlooked the long legs of the "Boss." At first Ndeumba Platoon was run by Sergeant Gerry Grace who had been doing administrative work of a sedentary nature just prior to joining the commandos. He nearly killed himself trying to get as fit as the other NCOs, and he finished up in hospital after some self-inflicted manoeuvres in a mangrove swamp.
Eight miles to the east of Headquarters was Mau Platoon with Sergeant Norman MacKenzie in charge, and further east still was Kalokolevu with Sergeant Ken Dane in command. Kalokolevu Platoon was the nearest to Suva, being only twelve miles from this small centre of civilisation. ken was cautious in giving the Fijians any latitude, until he got to know them, and the villagers began to discipline their children by saying; "Look, see Sergeant!" and the children howled "blue-murder;" but after a few weeks acquaintanceship they were not in the least seared.
Ten miles to the west of Commando Headquarters, Ngaloa Platoon was established on a palm-fringed beach. The platoon headquarters had a comfortable, large wooden building which had previously housed a Chinese bakery. Sergeant Ralph Griffen, a European born in Fiji and attached to the unit for several months, ran this platoon with Jim Bright who later took it over. Ralph could speak the Fijian language, and he and Jim were always full oi' original ideas for training. Ralph had a little launch which he used for practising amphibious operations.
Serua Platoon was about ten miles farther west, and it was probably the most pleasant spot in the unit's area. Serua is a little island a quarter of a mile off the mainland—sufficient distance to escape the jungle mosquitoes. It is about two page 31hundred yards long and set in a lagoon. There is a fifty foot hill at each end of the island and the village is on the flat in between. On the top of one of the hills a large wooden house had been built for the late Roko Tui, Ratu Aseri Latianara, who died about 1938; his successor granted the commandos the use of this dwelling for platoon headquarters. Roy Taylor was sergeant at Serua, and he was called "Pop" because he was the oldest man in the unit—his age was a military secret. He had served in Prance during the "curtain-raiser" to World War II, yet he was, like the Boss, a very fit man for his age.
Komave was the most remote of the coastal platoons, being sixty miles from Suva and thirty miles from Commando Headquarters. The road was so sinuous and steep that it took the OC a day to drive to Komave, inspect the platoon, and return to Navua. Sergeant Sid Heckler became a veritable ruler at Komave where he had a Fijian chief cooking for him. Sid was a powerfully built man, and he could handle a rifle with one hand almost as easily as the average man handles a pistol. He was always matching his strength against the elements, and after roaming over Viti Levu he borrowed anything that would float to get across the sea to explore other islands in the Fiji Group.
When the Namuamua and Namosi platoons were established in June, a punt, which had belonged to a former Japanese resident, was bought, from the Custodian of Alien Properties at Suva, to transport equipment and stores up the Navua River. The Fijians have attained great skill in poling punts over the rapids, as the river gives the quickest access to the interior of the island from the southern coast. For the first few months Sergeant Dan Sturmer was in charge of Namuamua Platoon. Dan had some great ideas for reforming the Fijians and improving the sanitary conditions of the village, and he got his platoon in their spare time to clear a piece of ground for a football field. The Fijians could not adjust themeslves to all of Dan's ideas at once, so many of his projects were not put into operation, and Dan was transferred to another unit before he saw the fruits of his labours. Russ Drummond took over from Dan and he pushed the football field to completion months later. The field was called page 32Sturmer Park in memory of Dan, and Keith Hood, the medical orderly, taught the Fijians to play rugby. The Fijians got the greatest thrill of their lives out of the sport, and they came from miles around to watch any games that Keith organised.
Dan Sturmer was noted for his resolute character. He had been a keen tramper in his college days, and he used his mountaineering knowledge to practical advantage. Shortly before the commando units formed, Dan was out with a reconnaissance party which got lost on the Wainikova, a tributary of the Navua River. It was impossible to follow the treacherous stream in this steep jungle country—the officer, Lieutenant Blyth, tried and was drowned. The party daily grew weak from hunger and the exhaustion of climbing through the matted jungle: they reached the summit of each ridge only to find a further succession of ridges confronting them. Dan was the fittest in the party and he set out on his own to find the way out. After many hours hard going he struck the Navua River a mile below Namuamua Village. Here he met natives to whom he explained the whole situation—no easy task considering the language difficulty — and the Fijians formed a search party headed by Iowane Naqamu. In the next few days the Fijian search parties, organised by the Roko Tui Serua, located the reconnaissance party and Lieutenant Blyth's body.
In having the courage of his convictions and breaking away from the lost party, Dan broke one of the cardinal laws of the army, but at the subsequent inquiry he was completely absolved, and it is to his credit that the rest of the party was saved.
Namosi is another day's journey, over a mud track, from Namuamua, and the village is wedged in between two mountains. One of these mountains, Mount Voma, rises at a precipitous angle above the village to a height of 3,000 feet. The Fijians carried supplies on their backs from Namuamua to Namosi, and showed amazing strength in carrying heavy boxes of ammunition through twelve miles of mud, often knee deep, Sergeant Frank Williams (no relation to David) was platoon commander at Namosi. Because of his placid nature page 33Frank was less likely to go crazy in this always-raining isolated spot.
The majority of native "kai tholos" (hillmen) rarely visit the coast. Marketing of produce is carried out by the same Fijians each week; by men who bring fruit and vegetables down the rivers to the coast and take back salt, tobacco, and the like, on their return. The Fijians in the remote villages were therefore awed by the presence of the white men. Tui Namosi, the paramount chief of the Namosi province, who was educated in New Zealand, gave the three New Zealanders at his village an excellent welcome. He lent his dead father's huge bure to the commandos for a platoon headquarters. But this palatial hut had its disadvantages, for, being a dead chief's dwelling, it was sacred to the Fijians who entered on their knees, stayed only as long as strictly necessary, then made a hasty retreat. It was unfortunate that the ample floor space could not be used for instructional purposes in wet weather.
After setting up camp in these eight villages, each of the sergeants had to find a Fijian who could speak English, to act as intrepreter until the New Zealanders learned the language. Another Fijian was employed as cook; thus making a permanent platoon headquarters of five at each training centre. The Fijians' knowledge of cooking was generally limited to dalo and tapioca, but they rapidly acquired a taste for bully-beef which they called "bulumakau," and their experiments with a tin-opener eventually brought results. One morning the cook at Namosi, Kasiano, slept in. To speed up the breakfast he put a tin of bully-beef straight into the fire to heat it in a few minutes. The tin exploded and blew a pot and kettle off the fire, and it has not yet been decided whether it blew Kasiano out of the hut or whether he dived through the door of his own volition. Most of the Fijian interpreters had been school teachers, and their intelligence was above average, although their "little learning" proved dangerous at times when they wanted to emulate the white man and run the platoon according to their own desires.
A French missionary Rev. F. Quinard, S.M., who had taught the Fijians for forty years at Namosi, was of great assistance in helping the NOOs stationed there to understand page 34the native mind. This was an exceptionally ironical situation for the commandos were about to revive in the Fijians the warlike spirit which missionaries had spent decades to eradicate—no wonder the Fijians were a little confused at times! To get co-operation from the natives it was necessary to be very friendly, scrupulously fair, and prove by demonstration the necessity for discipline. The Fijians do not understand sarcasm coming from a white man, and though they dearly love to joke, the jokes must be obvious, or they misunderstand and become offended.