II: Guerrillas in the Jungle
II: Guerrillas in the Jungle
The first Fijian force to undertake service in the Solomons was a special party of 23 guerrillas, commanded by Captain D. E. Williams, which was drawn from the Southern and Eastern Independent commando units formed as part of 3 Division and retained in Fiji after the division's departure. Williams had Lieutenant D. Chambers as his second-in-command and Sergeants S. I. Heckler, L. V. Jackson, F. E. Williams, R. H. Morrison, and M. V. Kells as section leaders. They reached Guadalcanal via the New Hebrides and disembarked at Lunga Beach on 23 December 1942. The Japanese garrison was then still fighting desperately page 265 along the Matanikau River-Koli Point line, and the American command employed the Fijians to probe the wooded country behind the Japanese garrison. The first patrol, led by Heckler on Christmas Day, was uneventful, but on 28 December a second small patrol led by Sergeant Williams, acting as scouts for 182 US Infantry Regiment, wiped out a Japanese patrol at short range, and without loss or injury, on the left bank of the Lunga River.
This little action was fought out with grenades, rifles, and revolvers on sloping ground round the massive, tangled roots of a banyan tree, and was characteristic of swift individual action and thought which spelled victory in a type of warfare these men were fighting for the first time. As the remnants of the Japanese force fell back before the Americans towards Cape Esperance throughout January and February, patrols from Williams’ small but resolute force moved ahead of the advance, producing vital intelligence and creating havoc among the Japanese, whose morale was born of desperation. Their work was of such value that Major-General Alexander M. Patch, island commander of Guadalcanal, asked for more Fijian troops similarly trained for patrol work in densely wooded country.
The guerrillas wore camouflaged American jungle suits, the green and blotched material of which was difficult to detect among the tangled growth. New Zealand army boots were preferred to the soft rubber-soled jungle boot, and had a longer life. Arms were varied and consisted of Owen guns, rifles, revolvers and hand grenades, and the men all carried sufficient rations to last them for at least five days. Because mobility was of the first importance, these guerrillas carried as little personal gear as possible, consequently they suffered in some places from the unmerciful attention of mosquitoes. Patrols sometimes worked only one hundred yards apart but were unaware of the existence of each other. Malaria, control of which was not strictly administered until later, played havoc with this special party during its brief but intense period of activity, and when the Guadalcanal campaign ended every member of it returned to Fiji with the exception of Captain Williams and Heckler, who transferred to units which followed them into the combat zone. Before departing, however, they trained a group of Solomon Islanders under Major M. Clemens, a member of the civilian administration, who moved forward from island to island with the advancing troops, both American and New Zealand.
The American request for more Fiji guerrilla troops was met by the despatch of two further units—1 Commando Fiji Guerrillas and 1 Battalion, Fiji Brigade Group, both of which landed on Guadalcanal on 19 April. Tripp commanded the guerrilla unit, page 266 which the American command designated South Sea Scouts. It was made up of 39 New Zealand officers and non-commissioned officers selected from the Southern and Eastern Independent Commandos, and 135 Fijians from the same units, organised into a headquarters of 24 all ranks and two companies of 75 all ranks, each commanded by a lieutenant. Each company was broken into three platoons, each of three sections, with a New Zealand sergeant in charge of each platoon and New Zealand corporals as section commanders. Twenty-eight Tongans, commanded by Lieutenant B. Masefield,1 increased the strength of Tripp's unit to 203 before it went into action on New Georgia. Further training was carried out on Guadalcanal to accustom all ranks to the new territory in which they were to fight. During this time two hundred Solomon Islanders were absorbed into the unit, and changes made in its organisation so that each platoon became a patrol, commanded by a New Zealand sergeant with a New Zealand corporal as his second-in-command. A unit patrol under Lieutenant P. M. Harper2 reconnoitred the island of San Cristobal, but apart from obtaining valuable experience in the jungle no Japanese were encountered there.
By the time the Fijian patrols were committed to action on New Georgia, American units of 14 Corps had established a bridgehead at Zanana, on the shores of the Roviana Lagoon, as a preliminary to an overland advance on their objective, the Munda airfield, instead of a more costly frontal attack across the water from Rendova Island, where a strong landing had been made on 30 June. From Zanana began the slow, difficult, and exhausting move forward through particularly dense forest country to the Bariki River, from which the final advance on the airfield, a distance of four miles, was to be made. The only lines of approach were along narrow, boggy native tracks.
In planning his attack on Munda, Griswold gave his force ten days in which to capture the airfield, but it was not finally captured for 35 days, during which three divisions of American troops were committed to action. The Corps commander wished to employ both 1 Commando and 1 Battalion as scouts, but this scheme was abandoned because of Taylor's objection to committing his battalion piecemeal instead of as a whole unit. The scouting work therefore fell to the commandos under Tripp, and the battalion remained in the rear on the island of Florida until the following October.
The first task allotted to Tripp's unit was the clearance of islands in the Roviana Lagoon. This was little more than an exercise. Patrols were then allotted to units of 43 US Division, one with 169 Regiment on the right flank and others with 172 Regiment, both of which worked as combat teams. Fighting was confused and uncertain in the early stages of the costly struggle for Munda airfield as the division moved forward only a few hundred yards a day, clearing out nests of Japanese strongpoints and avoiding ambushes. On one occasion, when an American battalion ran out of food, it was supplied by the commandos, who transported rations and ammunition in native canoes up the Bariki River. Malaria and war nerves, brought on by close fighting under dense overhead cover, rapidly reduced the American strength.
Led by New Zealanders, the commando patrols acquitted themselves fearlessly in their first clashes with the enemy along the Munda and Lambeti trails, which led towards the airfield. Their information enabled American artillery to be used with reasonable precision on any strongpoints encountered along the jungle trails. Masefield, a most able leader, was the first New Zealand casualty among the commandos. He had spent some days with four of his Tongans in enemy territory, reaching the Bairoko Trail and moving along it to the outskirts of the Munda airfield. He was unfortunately killed while patrolling ahead of the Americans, caught in their artillery barrage. Two of the Tongans were wounded by splinters from the shell which killed their leader. On 12 July, while patrolling about 100 yards ahead of an American platoon of 172 Regiment, Tripp and 23 of his men were cut off when the Japanese opened fire on the platoon. They had run against a defended enemy bivouac area, with several page 268 patrols established in the thick undergrowth. In the confused fighting which took place as the Fijian patrols tried to regain regimental headquarters, they were ordered to break into small groups and made their way to the rear under cover of darkness. Most of them eventually regained the main force the following day after personal adventures involving narrow escapes. Tripp, with some Tongans, encountered a patrol strongpoint. In a personal encounter he shot a Japanese, and was himself saved from injury when a cigarette lighter and cartridge clip deflected an enemy bullet, the force of which felled him. Before he regained his feet he accounted for another Japanese whose companions were firing at the fleeing Tongans. He then hid in the undergrowth. Under cover of darkness he made his way back to the American regiment, investigating enemy positions on the way.
Two other New Zealanders, Corporal A. M. J. Millar and Corporal W. F. Ashby,1 escaped by avoiding three enemy machine-gun posts and then got trapped in the line of fire of American artillery, which they eluded by moving only when the noise of the exploding shells drowned the sounds they themselves made. However, they destroyed an enemy machine-gun post on the way back. One of the Tongans who accompanied Tripp was knocked unconscious and woke to find himself stripped naked, with Japanese standing round him. He eluded them and returned to camp dressed in jungle leaves. The commando losses included their Tongan officer, 2 Lieutenant Henry Taliai, who was killed, and Sergeant W. G. Conn,2 a New Zealander, whose body was never found, but the information obtained enabled the American forces to ambush the Japanese and establish, at Laiana, the most important bridgehead for the Munda operation. It was only three miles from the airfield.
Casualties, malaria, and nervous exhaustion so depleted 43 US Division that 37 Division was committed to the battle on 23 July, making its headquarters north of the Laiana beach-head. The attack was then pushed forward, though slowly. Commandos worked ahead to points overlooking the airfield, and enemy concentrations were pinpointed so that artillery fire could be directed on them. Corporal J. H. E. Duffield2 was killed while working with 161 US Regiment, and Collins, who was personally credited with killing nine Japanese and destroying more than one enemy machine-gun post, was also killed when within five yards of a machine-gun post on the Munda Trail he was attempting to put out of action.
At the end of July the third American division, the 25th, was committed in the final struggle for Munda airfield, the outskirts of which were reached by Corporal V. D. Skilling3 and his Fijians on 27 July. Japanese resistance weakened under the increased pressure of this fresh division, and by 2 August the enemy garrison was retreating to the coast at Ondonga, fiercely resisting as it went, in order to cover a general evacuation to Kolombangara.
The American divisional commanders paid generous tribute to the courage and enterprise of the Fijian guerrillas and their New Zealand leaders. Beightler, commander of 37 US Division, in a reference to the work of the non-commissioned officers of the commandos, said that their capacity for traversing the jungle both by day and by night for many miles was not equalled by any American troops. The 43rd Division's commander reported at the conclusion of the operations that ‘During the entire period in which 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 undoubtedly was of great aid in the campaign and played a definite part in the capture of Munda airfield.’
These tributes were both modest and just. The New Zealand officers and non-commissioned officers exercised a steadying influence on the less-experienced American troops, many of them seeing action for the first time. Others had fought through the Guadalcanal campaign and were battle weary. Their losses were heavy from sickness, and malaria took its toll of exhausted men. Information obtained by forward patrols, which were never free from danger, was of immense value in giving the exact site of Japanese bivouac and defence areas, so that artillery fire could be directed on them with precision. As in other campaigns, the only reliable information available was obtained by men creeping through the jungle, since dense cover prevented any accurate observation from the air.
The commando unit returned to Guadalcanal on 12 August for rest and reorganisation, for after six weeks in the forward zone their relatively small force had lost 11 killed and 20 wounded. In the meantime American units continued pressing the Japanese and moved forward to Vella Lavella. On 31 August 50 commandos under Tripp landed on the island to join the 35 Regimental Combat Team, which was already there, and undertake reconnaissance work in the north of the island. Tripp page 271 took one party of 16 men up the east coast to Lambu Lambu; Captain Williams, with a patrol of 20, followed the west coast, and then moved inland along old native tracks to a site in the jungle where coastwatchers, under Josselyn, were hidden with their wireless equipment; Graham, of 3 Division Intelligence, also reconnoitred Japanese tracks on the west coast of the island. These three groups worked through country later cleared of the enemy by 14 Brigade, but they made no actual contact with the Japanese since their task was solely one of investigation, recording the movement and dispersion of the enemy garrison.
These patrols were recalled to Barakoma on 18 September, the day on which 3 Division took over command of Vella Lavella from the American garrison. While waiting here they were visited by Wales, during the course of his tour of Fijian units in the forward zone prior to handing over his command before returning to New Zealand. He was succeeded on 12 September by Brigadier G. Dittmer, DSO, MBE, MC,1 after commanding the Fiji Military Forces for 14 months, during which he moulded them into a highly efficient organisation. Malaria had taken its toll, and many of the commandos were too ill to undertake further patrol work. The whole unit was therefore withdrawn from Vella Lavella on 25 September and returned to Guadalcanal, where it remained until 5 October and then moved to Florida Island. Brigade Headquarters, however, in the interests of morale and health, decided to withdraw the unit from the combat zone and replace it with another group. In November 1 Commando returned to Fiji and was finally disbanded on 27 May 1944.
1 Brig G. Dittmer, CBE, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Maharahara, 4 Jun 1893; Regular soldier; Auckland Regt 1914–19 (OC 1 NZ Entrenching Bn); CO 28 NZ (Maori) Bn, Jan 1940–Feb 1942; commanded 1 Inf Bde Gp (in NZ) Apr 1942–Aug 1943; commanded 1 Div, Aug 1942–Jan 1943; commanded Fiji Military Forces and Fiji Inf Bde Gp, Sep 1943–Nov 1945; Camp Commandant, Papakura Military Camp, 1946; Commandant, Central Military District, 1946–48.