Pacific Commandos: New Zealanders and Fijians in Action. A history of Southern Independent Commando and First Commando Fiji Guerrillas
Chapter VIII — Slight Progress
At the beginning of October there was a re-organisation of the three commando units on Viti Levu. The Western Independent Commando became a dismounted unit and eventually moved to the northern part of the Island, where it began training Fijians in the same manner as Eastern and Southern commandos. The New Zealanders were evenly distributed until each of the commando units had fifty-six members of the N.Z.E.F. Two officers, four sergeants, and seventeen privates transferred from the Western Independent Commando to the Southern Independent Commando; bringing the strength of the southern unit to four officers, one warrant officer, one staff sergeant, twelve sergeants, twelve corporals, twenty-six privates, and about two hundred Fijians. The Na-muamua platoon was divided into two and a training centre established at Nuku a few miles farther up the Navua River. Lieutenant R. E. Adair, who had just joined the unit, made his headquarters at Namuamua, and from here he supervised the training of Nuku, Namuamua, and Namosi platoons. Lieutenant P. M. Harper made his headquarters at Serua where this large platoon was also divided into two. The OC of the commando was promoted to the rank of captain.
The additional New Zealand personnel improved instruct tional conditions considerably as more time could be devoted to backward squads. The former mounted troops found the reconnaissance work on foot difficult at first, and they resented being separated from their companions; but they eventually adapted themselves to the new working conditions which were forced upon them by the changing war situation.
The inland platoon headquarters now had double the ration strength, and four Fijians were permanently employed page 64in running a boat service up the Navua River, between Commando Headquarters and Namuamua. So much time was taken up with the transportation of supplies to the remote areas that new methods were constantly tried. An out-board motor was fitted onto the unit's punt, but this proved useless in the rapids. The Western Commando had not sold all its horses, and six of them were allotted to the Southern Commando, but these were of only limited use as the tracks were too steep and rough in most places. Wireless receiving sets were obtained for some of the isolated platoons, and a one-way communication system was attempted; but reception was poor in this country and the idea had to be abandoned.
Large quantities of cement were made available to the commandos, enabling living conditions to be improved by the concreting of sanitary systems, cook-house floors, and paths to avoid the mud that always existed around dwellings. Cement was even carried to Namosi where a concrete floor was the only means of keeping the stores dry; though it was still necessary to keep a flre going inside the hut to prevent mildew. Accommodation at Commando Headquarters was increased by three wooden huts which would each hold ten men. Navua was the mecca of the commandos, and it was facetiously called "Headquarters Hotel." The platoons would arrive wet, tired, and hungry at the end of several days' travelling, and would make large inroads into the Headquarters Staff's rations. The messing arrangements were complicated by the frequent arrivals of unexpected visitors, and a succession of Indian and Fijian cooks had proved incapable of coping with an influx. When the quartermaster gave Atu, a Fijian cook, more than one job to do at a time, Atu would run round in small circles with his hand on his forehead repeating: "Too much the think, too much the think." However, after much agitation, Brigade Headquarters allowed the unit to have an extra New Zealander on its strength to take charge of the cooking.
Platoon sergeants visited Commando Headquarters every month for a conference and to exchange ideas on training. The medical orderlies also visited Navua frequently to attend refresher courses conducted by Captain D. Malcolm, the Brigade doctor. Doctor Malcolm was one of the most popular page 65visitors to the unit. He was not a very big man, but he was solid gold, and there was probably no doctor in the N.Z.E.F. who was more conscientious. He went to infinite pains to educate the medical orderlies, so that they would be capable of rendering aid in the most serious accidents that might occur miles away from ordinary habitation. Some of the medical orderlies became experts in their work, and the Fiji-ans, apart from the soldiers, began to rely more on the army "vuniwais" than on their own native medical practitioners. Bob Buchan, the medical orderly at Namosi, once got very worried when it was suggested that he should act as mid-wife to a marama. As the blessed event drew near, Bob went on a long reconnaissance trip to save embarrassment.
Doctor Malcolm insisted on inspecting all the platoon headquarters, and he showed amazing stamina on Ms many visits to the interior. On one occasion when rivers were exceptionally high in flood, the doctor had an exciting journey to Namosi on horseback. The party of six had several narrow escapes from drowning: one man had his horse swept from under him and lost it in the rapids, miraculously scrambling ashore himself; another man was nearly throttled with the sling of his rifle when his horse floundered up to its belly in mud. However, the gallant doctor stuck to his mount throughout. It was the experience of this trip that determined the commandos not to use horses again on the Namosi track unless the weather was exceptionally dry.
On 14th November the unit received one hundred Springfield rifles; ten were allotted to each platoon immediately. This equipment was a milestone in the training of the Fijians as range practice could now be carried out in an efficient manner and marksmanship increased at a surprising rate. In the initial stages of training the Fijians had the chance of firing only five rounds each training week, and they could not get beyond the stage of being frightened of the weapon: whilst aiming at the target some would sweat for five minutes before they could be induced to squeeze the trigger, with the result that their shots went wild. The natives' nervous tension worried the NCOs, and some of the New Zealanders would have lost faith in the Fijians' ability to become soldiers had they not shown remarkable abilities in other directions.page 66
The New Zealanders could now make themselves understood in the Fijian language which was not difficult to learn. The Fijians increased their knowledge of English too, and relationships could not have been better. Training was becoming more advanced and the Fijians were especially clever at stalking. Night raids were conducted against American forces camped along the main road. The Americans were often told the time of a raid to within a few hours, yet the commandos could creep past their extra guards and place dummy time-bombs anywhere they pleased; getting out again without being observed—once a Fijian left a chalk cross on the water-bottle worn by the sergeant of the guard. For one raid the platoon commander at Mau blackened his face with shoe polish; some of the Fijians, not realising their existing natural camouflage, did likewise.
The sergeant at Ngaloa practised amphibious operations with his little launch. The launch held only half a dozen men, so he towed the rest of his platoon in canoes strung out behind him. In this way he made night raids on Serua Platoon, ten miles along the coast. Although the method appeared crude, the enthusiasm created and the experience gained, was valuable, and the OC encountered the other coastal platoons to use their initiative in a similar way. To get fuel for this little launch, the Ngaloa Platoon swopped bottles of beer with American truck drivers, who, in return, filled the empty bottles with petrol.
An American, Mike Podrosky, was attached to the Ko-mave Platoon for a while, and he and Sid Heckler planned an ambush for the American scout car which patrolled the road regularly. The platoon placed obstacles on the road and lay in wait. What happened could not be exactly described by either party afterwards, but the car pulled up and the Americans dived for cover thinking they had encountered Japanese. They contended afterwards that the Komave Platoon was lucky it was not shot up as the ambush had been a terrific surprise. Captain Tripp apologised, on behalf of Mike and Sid, to the American commander next day, thinking that perhaps the commandos had gone too far; but the American commander was overjoyed and stated that it was the best training his men could have to keep them alert.page 67
The commandos worked in close co-operation with the United States forces, and they guided several American battalions on cross-country marches. During these marches the commandos automatically made observations of such things as broken undergrowth and footprints, which indicated the course taken, and size of some other party in the jungle. Deductions made by the New Zealanders and Fijians amazed the Americans, yet they were elementary to the commandos and merely the result of practice. High ranking American officers recognised the value of the commandos' specialised knowledge and they frequently called on Captain Tripp for advice on jungle conditions. They were also interested in the method of training adopted by the commandos; this method was to foster the desire within the individual, to explore and enjoy life in the jungle.
Sporting equipment was obtained, and the Fijians were taught boxing, for which they showed great aptitude. Inter-platoon bouts were arranged and these produced some outstanding talent. Next to Rugby football, boxing became the Fijians' favourite sport.
At this time the commandos visited a fire-walking display by some Indians in Suva, but they were not impressed by anything supernatural—it was obvious that the hot coals had something to do with the performers' agility and facial expression.