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

Chapter IV — Early Training Periods

page 35

Chapter IV
Early Training Periods

To assemble the Fijians for their week's training each month, orders had to be carried by "bush telegraph" to the surrounding villages. The Fijians still use the wooden drum system, of communication to call people to church on Sundays. The drums are called "lalis" and are made by hollowing out the trunks of Tavola (Terminalia sp.) trees.

The first week's training provided many troubles for the sergeants. The Fijians have very little organising ability, and when thirty of them congregated in one village for a week the strain on that community's food resources created bad feeling. The villagers blamed the army for this state of affairs, and shrewdly hoped that the NCOs would pacify their deputations with an issue of bully-beef. The sergeants were not easily duped by these naive people, and they organised a system for the Fijians to carry out during the following training period. It took several months to educate the Fijians into running their own rationing system. When they assembled each month they certainly brought their week's supply of food; but they would have a big "mangiti" (feast) with it and then complain of being short of food by midweek.

The chief item on the first week's syllabus was close order drill, and the Fijian soldiers learned the English words of command as they went through the actions. They did not learn the literal meanings of the words like "eyes right," or "attention;" but by the end of the week they knew what to do when they heard the commands uttered—especially when the sergeant's tone of voice left little room for doubt.

The only flat piece of ground on which to drill the men was the village green, where every man, woman, and dog page 36turned out to watch and giggle at the soldiers marching. This did not make things any easier for the NC'Os, and the natives' childishness exasperated them at times. The first day's work was taken up in teaching the Fijians to form three straight lines, something they had never done before, and it was generally necessary to hold one man still while someone else placed the next man in position.

The Fijians were disappointed that their uniforms were not available for the first training period, and that they had to use bamboo sticks instead of rifles in their arms drill. The NCOs lent their rifles to the Fijians who took turns in cleaning and oiling them and thus learning the parts. By the time half a dozen of them had worked on a rifle it would pass the inspection of the most fastidious R.S.M. The Fijians wanted to play at soldiering, and they resented having to build themselves bures to live in during the training week. Nevertheless, they were quick to learn anything that captured their interest: for instance, they could lob a grenade accurately to a distance of forty or fifty yards (the average New Zealander throws accurately thirty odd yards). There was certainly no need to teach them stalking or bush-craft; in fact the New Zealanders learned a lot about bush-craft by watching the Fijians.

Although the New Zealanders had been in Fiji for many months before the commando units were formed, they had little knowledge of the native people. The infantry battalions were mostly confined to the Suva Peninsula, and the troops were rarely permitted to travel outside the defence area unless on duty. It was also a standing order that New Zealand soldiers must not fraternise with the Fijians in Suva. The commando NCOs, therefore, set out to train the Fijians with little or no knowledge of the native temperament.

The New Zealanders had to use orthodox training methods at first; then, as they learned the Fijian language and the Fijian point of view, they altered their methods of instruction to suit the conditions. The OC studied the history of the Fijians, and learned that the Fijians, in their warlike days, excelled in the art of ambush: he also learned that the Fijians were not so brave and bold when they got out of their natural environment, the jungle. Therefore the New Zealanders, real-page 37ising the Fijians' limitations, concentrated on developing their natural ability, with the object of using them mainly as scouts. A small amount of parade-ground drill was necessary to make the Fijians realise that they were working together as a team.

It was difficult to prevent the Fijians talking after "lights-out." The maramas (women) would endeavour to have clandestine meetings with the visitors to the village— to them the Fijians were soldiers already and greatly to be admired. The Fijians wanted to hold taralalas (dances) every night and drink kava too. The native taralalas are held in bures where the guests squat round the walls Until the music starts up; then the maramas approach the men of their choice, hiss and point at them, or touch them on the knee with an embarrassing giggle. The men get up, put their arms around the girls' waists, and the couples stamp barefooted round the centre of the hut to the rhythm of the music. The music is supplied by half a dozen natives singing, or rather chanting, while someone taps the rhythm on a piece of bamboo. In singing, the Fijians have a good sense of harmony, though they have little range in the higher registers. To increase their range they strain their voices and have not the smooth tone of the Polynesians. The Fijians have little variety in their dances and music, yet the monotonous process continues for hours and hours. The natives can become almost hypnotised by the incessant rhythm, and taralalas have been known to carry on for several days. There are frequent short breaks in the dancing for kava drinking. The New Zealanders enjoyed these dances at first, but when the novelty had worn off they tried to introduce a variety of dancing steps. When the New Zealanders were invited to the taralalas the maramas would not dance with their Fijian boy friends until all the white men were dancing: this was not always a natural preference—it was just part of the Fijian code of etiquette.

During the first training week the medical orderlies spent much time in educating the Fijians in the care of their health. They were taught to report to the medical orderly every morning if they were too sick to go on parade. However, like European soldiers, the Fijians soon learned to make this army system into a "racket" for avoiding unpleasant duties: page 38they became sore-conscious in no time. The natives' desire for sympathy, over the most superficial injury, then had to be curbed by the application of liberal coatings of strong iodine. The medical orderlies provided much entertainment when they matched their cunning with a sick parade of malingering natives.

Another "racket" of the Fijians was to play on "native custom." If they did not feel like gathering material to build their bure, they would use some obscure native custom to argue against it. But the New Zealanders soon discovered ways of testing their religious principles.

Their desires had to be restrained slowly until the Fijians realised that they were not in the army for fun, and eventually no native custom was allowed to interfere with the training. One or two NCOs made the mistake of weaning the natives from their easy-going, playful habits too abruptly, with the result that a whole village would rise up and send a deputation to the commanding officer at Navua. The OC would explain to these people, through an interpreter, that they were committing a breach of army regulations by coming directly to Headquarters and without justifiable complaints. The Fijian interpreter, however, having regard for the feelings of his blood brothers, would always translate the OC's admonitions euphemistically, so it took the Fijians a long time to understand correct army procedure and discipline—but when they did they became masters of the subtleties of "lip service."

The New Zealanders became the mentors of the Fijians who expected the white men to solve even their personal difficulties. One Fijian appealed to the army to defend him against the terrible clutches of matrimony. This Fijian had made himself comparatively wealthy by organising a garden of his own, marketing his produce at profitable periods, and running a punt service for Fijians who otherwise relied on bamboo rafts. He was the most eligible bachelor at Namua-mua and he wanted to stay that way. But he flirted with a marama from another village at a taralala one night, and the next day she established herself in his bure and refused to move until he married her. He wanted Dan Sturmer to evict the girl, but Dan maintained that he had no jurisdiction in an alleged breach, of promise suit. All the villagers were page 39greatly upset about the affair and they wanted the OC to adjudicate. The Fijian in question was an outstanding man and one of the leading figures in the platoon, consequently this social problem upset the training. After several days the Fijians were convinced that the army could not interfere and the matter was finally settled by the convenient native custom of "soro," in which copious draughts of kava can. exculpate the worst misdemeanours. The Fijian remained single, but he had to stay in another village for several weeks until the scandal blew over.

In spite of the Fijians' emotional tendencies, it was obvious from the start that some use could be made of their knowledge of the jungle, their acute hearing, and their amazing eyesight. A few of them demonstrated their potentialities when they assisted the New Zealand NCOs in a brigade manoeuvre held at this time. The manoeuvre took the form of a mock invasion, one battalion landing at Naitonitoni, near Navua. This battalion was to work towards Suva where it would be repulsed by another battalion. The commandos were given a small harassing role, which they carried out so effectively, that the invading battalion was unable to get within range of the Suva defences before the manoeuvre was cancelled. During the night that the invading battalion spent at Navua, three NCOs from Commando Headquarters crossed the river and crept through the guards into the battalion's camp; it was a dirty wet night and the commandos had blacked their faces with shoe polish. Taking advantage of the noise of the storm, the New Zealanders disabled vehicles by slowly letting down tyres and dismantling distributers, while the drivers were actually sleeping in the trucks. The commandos then crept out of the camp, swam the river, and returned to Headquarters.

The battalion was not aware of anything untoward until it tried to move off next morning. It then set out on foot, but it had to keep to the road because of the impossibility of keeping formation as a battalion and making reasonable headway in the bush. This made it an open prey for the commandos, the thickness of the vegetation skirting the road made it easy for the commandos to conceal themselves a few yards from a marching column. The battalion had not pro-page 40gressed far when the Mau Platoon disorganised it with roadblocks and dummy hand grenades: one Fijian forced a motorcyclist to dismount with a well aimed lump of mud. In addition to the harassment by the commandos, the battalion had to contend with flooded rivers and the manoeuvre was finally called off. Afterwards the Brigadier was pleased to point out the effectiveness of even a small force of commandos who knew their area well enough to move at night.

The New Zealanders were very enthusiastic about the possibilities of the commando units. Each sergeant made an "appreciation" of his platoon area, and no one was prepared to accept that the reefs or the mangrove swamps were completely effective natural barriers to a determined invading force. They tested out the swamps by travelling through them themselves, and found that although it was a disagreeable business, it was possible to get through any swamp by using the breathing roots of the mangroves as stepping stones. The NCOs read anything on Japanese tactics that they could obtain: reports on the endurance of the Japanese in Malaya stated that the enemy had waded through the waist-deep mud of the rice fields, and he had marched thirty miles in a day over rough country. The New Zealand commandos found that, with determination, they to could do these things—and more. Knife throwing was practised very keenly, and on one occasion an NCO accidently received half an inch of cold steel in his ribs. Nevertheless, it was proved that the successful use of the knive was not limited to orientals.

The OC formulated a flexible system for the commandos to work to in the case of an invasion. This system was based on the fact that the whole coast line was vulnerable to a greater or lesser degree at different points, and plans were laid so that no matter where the enemy landed the commandos would be harassing him within a few hours. As knowledge of the area increased in the succeeding months, the inter-communication of the platoons was reduced from a few days to a few hours.