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

Chapter VII — Commandos Attached to American Forces

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Chapter VII
Commandos Attached to American Forces

On 18th July, 1942, the American Forces took over the defence of Fiji, and the Third New Zealand Division returned to the Dominion. But the American Commander asked for the retention of several New Zealand units, among which. were the commandos, until the United States troops became familiar with the Fiji territory. It was a bitter disappointment to the commandos, for, apart from their longing to see New Zealand once again, they wanted to go wherever their comrades in the Third Division would go after their stay in New Zealand. No one at this time could foresee the, Third Division's going to New Caledonia; otherwise garrison duty in Fiji might have appeared the lesser of the two evils. The greatest loss to the commando units, however, was the support of senior officers of Third Divisional Headquarters and Eighth Brigade Headquarters. These officers, who had been enthusiastic about the commandos from the beginning, had been in a position to make strong claims on equipment for the commando units as soon as the equipment became available in New Zealand.

Later the Americans were so impressed by the work of the commando units that they caused them to remain in Fiji indefinitely. The commandos became part of the Fiji Brigade Group which included the local Fiji Military Force under the command of Brigadier J. G. C Wales, M.C. Because they were using British weapons, New Zealand was still responsible for the maintenance of equipment, but the commandos came under the operational control of 37 United States Division.

Six Americans were attached to the Southern Commando to learn the art of jungle warfare. These men were selected page 59from the most physically fit NCOs the Americans had, and they trained with the commandos for six weeks. After the first group returned to their units the American commanders commented on the transformation of the men, and they continued to send fresh groups out to train with the commandos every six weeks.

One of the Americans who worked with the commandos was Lieutenant Johnny Cox. Johnny had an outstanding personality and an infectious Southern drawl. He became very popular through his wit and skill in handling weapons, and the New Zealanders were disappointed when he had to return to his unit. Johnny was one of the best pistol shots in his Division. One day the commando sergeant-major thought he would try Johnny out and he tossed his hat in the air, saying: "Have a shot at that!" From twenty yards Johnny put two holes in the hat before it hit the ground—much to the consternation of the sergeant-major. The New Zealanders in the commandos were all first class shots but they were not up to this standard. It was always regretted that as Lieutenant Ben Masefield, New Zealand's best, was in Tonga at this time, a match could not be arranged between these two crack shots.

Three of the Americans attached to the Southern Commando went to hospital through trying to keep pace with the New Zealanders before they had had sufficient training. It took a lot of hard training to cover the Lombau track in one day without having to lay up for a week as a result. The Lombau track was considered the acid test of the commandos, as it was not really a track at all; having fallen into disuse by the natives it had become overgrown. It ran for twenty miles from Namosi to the main road, and was only an alternative to the Navua River route to the coast. It included five steep climbs of a thousand to two thousand feet; there were no villages on its path; and once on the southern side of Mt. Voma from Namosi there was no turning back—for nobody felt like climbing this steep mountain, twice in one day. An American captain was ambitious to do the trip after reaching. Namosi via the Navua River. He exhausted himself half way on the first day of the trip, and the commandos got him out to the main road the following day only by administering stimulants.

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The New Zealanders were living mainly on bully-beef and biscuits, and while it was a very sustaining diet, they had a craving for some variety. They frequently exchanged tins of apricot jam for American tins of fruit salad, and a tin of New Zealand honey would procure almost anything the Americans had. One can eat large quantities of fruit in the tropics, and fresh fruit is not always as readily obtainable as might be supposed: mainly because of the poor distributing and marketing system in Fiji.

The Fijians were issued with khaki shirts and shorts during their third training period, and they were so pleased with them that they wore them day and night, only taking them off for washing. They were, however, still without rifles.

Because they could not obtain suitable equipment for commando work through their own brigade headquarters, the New Zealanders bought some at their own expense. Things such as mountaineering ruck-sacks, sheath-knifes, compasses and watches, were practically indispensible. The best type of clothing was found to be a light cover-all made in one piece. Long trousers were frequently worn to protect the legs from scratches in the undergrowth: the slightest scratch turned septic in this country. Clothing wore out rapidly with excessive perspiration and scrambling over rocky mountains, and a man was permanently employed at Headquarters repairing boots. The commandos bought battle dresses made of drill and dyed them green for camouflage; Brigade Headquarters would not allow the issue clothing to be dyed. Some of the NCOs had their own pistols and 22 repeating rifles which were light and suitable for the short ranges of jungle warfare. The service rifle, though an excellent weapon, was rather too long and heavy and it caught in the jungle vines.

At this time the Japanese advance was still progressing and several of the enemy's reconnaissance planes flew over Fiji; enemy submarines were also sighted and the troops in Fiji had many "alerts." Some false alarms were due to the imagination of over zealous coast-watchers. The commandos had look-outs all along the coast, and the Americans put in a direct telephone line from Commando Headquarters at Navua to American Headquarters at Suva. Prior to this time the unit was on a party line and no important information could page 61be given over the telephone because of possible fifth-columnists listening in: there were several Indians of doubtful character and sympathy living in the neighbourhood. The Fijians did the coast watching under the supervision of the New Zealanders, and demonstrated their amazing power of vision. Many times they proved that they could see objects miles away with their naked eyes, while the New Zealanders could discern them only with the use of binoculars.

The commandos surveyed all the bridges on the road and calculated the amount of explosives required for their demolition in the case of an enemy invasion.

Arrangements were made to evacuate the civil population of the township of Navua into the hills. The commandos at Navua made a battle headquarters back in the mountains in a very inaccessible spot which was reached by following up a maze of winding streams. At odd intervals emergency rations, ammunition, and the like, were carried to the hideout by those who knew its whereabouts; they waded up the streams to avoid leaving tracks that could be followed. The platoons also established many hide-outs, and the Fijians were sworn to secrecy—which they rigidly observed. At each of these battle headquarters vegetables and fruit were planted.

By August the New Zealanders knew the run of the country so well that they could cover any stretch of trackless jungle without getting lost. With the increased knowledge of bush-craft, inter-communication became rapid. Reconnaissance patrols had covered all existing tracks, main ridges, and water-courses in the southern area. A large-scale map was drawn at Headquarters and topographical features were plotted correctly as the patrols brought in the information. Existing maps were inaccurate and incomplete concerning the details of the interior, and the American forces kept their maps up to date by taking tracings periodically from the commando map.

A great deal of trouble was experienced with breakdowns in motor transport which brought supplies from Suva. The road around the Island had been completed a few years before the War, and it had not been built for heavy traffic. American convoys travelling across the island every day soon tore the road up, and the journey from Navua to Suva was page 62like riding a bucking horse bare-back. The commandos therefore made their visits to Suva as rare as possible. The unit was issued with a motor-cycle, which proved useful to those who could handle it.