III: Battalions Move to the Solomons
III: Battalions Move to the Solomons
Almost three years after its formation, 1 Battalion, Fiji Military Forces, sailed for the Solomons on 15 April 1943 in the USS President Hayes. Half the officers and many of the non-commissioned officers were New Zealanders, three of them former instructors lent to Fiji in November 1939. The battalion, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel J. B. K. Taylor, who had served with the New Zealand Division in Egypt and France during the 1914–18 War and later joined the Fiji administration, reached Guadalcanal on 19 April and occupied a camp at Kukumbona. On 8 May, after the American command had complied with Taylor's desire not to break up his unit into small groups for action in New Georgia, the battalion moved to a more agreeable camp site in the island of Florida. It remained there for five months, practising jungle tactics and landing exercises and carrying out such routine tasks as beach patrols and coastwatching.
Raid by 30 NZ Infantry Battallion on Nissan Island
A mortar crew bombing Japanese barges concealed on the shore
Wounded of 30 NZ Batallion waiting to be taken off Nissan Island
14 and 18 RNZAF Fighter Squadrons land on the Fighter strip at Nissan a few weeks later
On 8 October 1943, following the return of 1 Commando from the forward combat zone, 1 Battalion embarked on its first task, patrol work on the island of Kolombangara, to which the remnants of the Japanese garrisons from New Georgia and the surrounding islands had withdrawn on the first stages of their retirement to Bougainville. American units of 14 Corps had already crossed to the island and occupied Vila airfield on the southern coast, which they found deserted, but some uncertainty existed regarding the more mountainous north. On 11 October the battalion disembarked and occupied a bivouac area round the airfield, combing the coast and the jungle, only to find that the Japanese evacuation had taken place a week previously.
Units of 3 Division had by this time completed their task of consolidating Vella Lavella, only seven miles away from Kolombangara across the Vella Gulf. After a brief period of garrison work, 1 Battalion moved forward to Empress Augusta Bay, Bougainville, disembarking there from landing craft on 21 December. Taylor and his adjutant, Captain M. M. N. Corner, flew up the previous day from Munda for consultation with the American command, and on the evening of 20 December the battalion commander was injured during an enemy bombing raid on the American perimeter. He was succeeded by his second-in-command, Major G. T. Upton, whose arrival in Fiji in 1940 had been delayed a month when the Niagara in which he was travelling was sunk by an enemy mine outside Auckland Harbour on 19 June. He was promoted Lieutenant-Colonel, and commanded the battalion throughout the whole of its combat life.
The battalion now found itself a part of 14 US Corps, which had taken over the perimeter at Empress Augusta Bay from 1 Marine Amphibious Corps on 15 December, after the Marines had extended and consolidated the area.page 274
The conquest of the whole of the large island of Bougainville was never considered in the overall Pacific strategy by Halsey and his staff, nor by MacArthur. However, a hold on the island was essential for the construction of airfields to cover further forward moves and to bring enemy air and naval bases in the New Britain-New Ireland and Caroline Islands regions within range of Allied aircraft. Empress Augusta Bay was selected for this next by-passing movement, and because it also provided an anchorage for a minor naval base. The Japanese command was deceived and mystified by activity promoted by American strategy which preceded the landing at Empress Augusta Bay. In addition to the landing by New Zealand elements in the Treasury Group and the diversionary raid by American troops on Choiseul, patrols were put ashore from submarines in the Buin and Shortland areas during October to confuse the issue. During October, also, aircraft under Brigadier-General Field Harris, commander of air forces in the Northern Solomons, averaged four attacks a day on Japanese concentrations and installations at Kahili, Kara, Ballale, Buka and Kieta. Altogether they flew 3259 sorties, for which aircraft of the Royal New Zealand Air Force squadrons stationed in New Georgia frequently acted as close cover.
All this activity had the desired effect. The Japanese commander moved men, artillery, and heavy equipment from the mainland of Bougainville to the Shortland Islands and to the south of Bougainville itself in anticipation of landings there. A naval task force under Rear-Admiral Frederick C. Sherman, built round the two carriers Saratoga and Princeton, held off any surface interference during the actual Empress Augusta Bay landing, which took place on twelve miles of beaches, some of them so unsuitable that 86 valuable landing craft were stranded during the operation. Marines landed on 1 November and established themselves in a perimeter after bitter fighting in country almost as aggressive as the enemy. Behind the beaches wild tangles of jungle covered broken and swampy ground cut by rivers, much of which became lagoons as the rising tide blocked the silted outlets and inundated large tracts of the foreshore. In areas devoid of trees, coarse native grasses and reeds higher than the men themselves created a barrier as formidable as the jungle.
The original beach-heads were extended throughout November and December until, by March, the perimeter ran roughly four miles along the coast and three miles inland, but it was overlooked by a series of low foothills shelving down from high mountain ranges which form the backbone of Bougainville. Patrols worked beyond the perimeter and gradually pushed out until the extreme page 275 boundaries were the Laruma River on the north and the Torokina River on the south, both of which issued from gorges in the Crown Prince Range. Strongposts in the foothills were held by American troops, and a 75-yards-wide strip of country had been cleared round the perimeter and partly protected with belts of barbed wire and land mines and covered with mortars and machine guns. Beyond the perimeter rose the 6560-foot crown of Mount Bagana, a steaming volcano which could occasionally be seen through the layers of storm clouds which swathed it.
Inside this giant bite of country, American engineers and naval construction battalions, working with the speed and precision which made them essential to any Pacific advance, constructed three airfields and a network of roads linking camps, dumps, and troop concentrations, as well as draining as much of the swamp lands as they could. It was a gigantic undertaking, second only to that on Guadalcanal. From the perimeter former native tracks radiated along the foreshore and into the mountains, following up river valleys to the opposite coast.
When the Fiji Battalion landed, American forces had established road blocks on these trails to prevent any surprise attacks from the main Japanese forces occuping the south and north-east coasts of Bougainville, with their principal concentrations round Buin, Kahili, and Kieta. The most disputed of these tracks was the Numa Numa Trail, which led through the mountains from the gorge of the Laruma River. Air observation by aeroplanes based on the Torokina and Piva airstrips, though valuable, was unreliable in country where ground movement could not be accurately discerned, so that all vital intelligence was obtained from patrols working through the rough country beyond the limits of the perimeter. Because of the desire to obtain as much intelligence information as possible without revealing their own strength, patrols were at first instructed not to fight unless they were forced to do so. Enemy patrols, on similar missions, worked down from the forest-clad hills towards the perimeter, so that these alert opposing groups, creeping through the jungle, continually tried to ambush each other and frequently succeeded. Lieutenant M. F. Fantham1 lost his life in one such ambush in February, after surviving earlier action.
Active patrolling by small groups from 1 Fiji Battalion began on Christmas Day in country as dense as any in the Solomons. First blood went to 2 Lieutenant N. N. MacDonald, whose patrol accounted for seven Japanese. Late in December loyal natives reported concentrations of Japanese along the north-east coast at Numa Numa and Tenekau, 40 miles across the island opposite Empress Augusta Bay, and in order to confirm these reports the battalion embarked on its most important undertaking, a reconnaissance in strength of the enemy area.
Ibu, 30 miles inside enemy territory, was immediately developed as a strongpoint. Road blocks were established along the approaches and patrols fanned out along the jungle trails, some of them reaching the north-east coast and returning with information of vital importance to the Corps commander, who was thus able to harass the enemy by directing air attacks on his concentrations and bivouac areas. The Japanese, aware of the activities of the patrols based on Ibu, frequently tried to ambush them. Lieutenant G. A. Thompson and Lieutenant Fantham, leaders of one strong patrol, fell into such a trap but fought their way out, Thompson spending the night under a fallen tree and escaping in the early morning by wriggling to a river bank, where he was helped by friendly natives.
Because of its value in supplying information, Griswold decided to retain the Ibu outpost for longer than at first anticipated, but the problem of evacuating the sick and wounded, which would have taken several precarious days over mountain trails, had first to be overcome. Upton and officers of Corps Headquarters visited the outpost early in January and decided that the problem could be overcome by carving a small airfield out of the forest. This was soon accomplished, using a few axes dropped from the air and the garrison's entrenching tools and bayonets to clear an area of ground 200 yards long by 50 yards wide. Every available man worked throughout the daylight hours, and on the third day a small reconnaissance plane landed and took off again without mishap. A regular but hazardous service began the following day from this tiny strip, so dwarfed by the forest around it that it page 278 looked like a pencil from the air. Machines landed up the hill and took off down the slope. It was named the Kameli airstrip in honour of the first Fijian killed on the Ibu expedition and was an example of the ingenuity, enterprise, and spirit of the battalion.
Fortified by this means of communication, the work of the patrols went on through January, penetrating into the heart of enemy territory. The action of one such patrol, audaciously led by 2 Lieutenant B. I. Dent,1 who was killed in a subsequent action, ultimately found its way into American army textbooks as a model of jungle patrol work and determined leadership. It took place near the native village of Pipipaia, far beyond the outpost, when Dent's platoon was fired on by Japanese snipers in trees. These were disposed of, only to find that the patrol was close beside an enemy bivouac area. After fifteen minutes of brisk action, during which two machine guns were silenced and an unspecified number of Japanese shot down, Dent's sergeant suggested a temporary cease-fire. This ruse worked. When the Japanese emerged from cover in the belief that the Fijians were retiring, the waiting patrol mowed them down, concentrating on an old tin shed, in and out of which they ran confusedly. Dent and his men killed 47 Japanese without loss to themselves before they retired.
Intelligence reports at the end of January continued to indicate the massing of enemy strength in and around Ibu, despite the work of the patrols. Reinforcements under Captain J. W. Gosling were therefore despatched from the perimeter on 3 February to strengthen the garrison to ten officers and 411 other ranks. Then, on 8 February, Upton flew out to take over command, but by that time the Ibu garrison was almost surrounded by enemy moving in from both Buka and Buin. Such was his concern at the gathering enemy strength, for 600 of them were reported in high country at Vivei, well behind his small force, that Upton feared all escape routes back to the perimeter via the Laruma River would be cut off. On 14 February, in accordance with a prior arrangement, he requested 14 Corps headquarters to establish a road block to keep the escape route open.
Meanwhile Corner found his way blocked by determined Japanese attacks on the road posts and retired along the trail he had just traversed, taking up a defensive position at a ravine which offered the only good natural barrier. He was joined there later in the afternoon with the main force under Upton, who was confronted with a disturbing situation. All escape routes were blocked by the Japanese, who greatly outnumbered him, and no help was available from American or Fiji units from the perimeter. He had little time to decide how to get 400-odd men and 200 natives over a mountain range and down to the perimeter unknown to the Japanese, who were now pressing the battalion patrols blocking the tracks along which Upton's force was extended. A Fijian sergeant, Usaia Sotutu, who had been a missionary on Bougainville for twenty years, saved the day. He remembered an old, disused track near the ravine and led the battalion along it, carefully camouflaging the entrance where it branched off the main trail the force had just used. The men began to move late on the night of 15 February, but the inky darkness in the dim recesses of the jungle and the pouring rain forced a halt until daybreak.
Gosling and his party were guided in that night by Corner, in such darkness that each man was instructed to hold the equipment of the man in front of him. A check of all ranks revealed that 25 were still missing, including a section under Sergeant B. D. Pickering which had manned a road block while the main party escaped. They rejoined Upton next day, after fighting their way through the jungle, as did all other small groups from the battalion. On 19 February the force reached the coast intact and with only one man wounded. In those four days, travelling slowly and with the utmost difficulty, the Ibu force climbed 5000 feet through dense forest drenched with rain, and carried arms and equipment, which included Vickers guns, 3-inch mortars, and food for more than 600 people—soldiers and natives. ‘The success of the page 280 battalion at the Ibu outpost was one of the finest examples of troop leading that has ever come to my attention’, Griswold generously recorded in his report from Corps Headquarters.
The massing of these enemy troops in the neighbourhood of Ibu was a prelude to an attempt to drive the American forces off the island in a co-ordinated attack from both land and sea. Intercepted signals gave Corps Headquarters ample warning to prepare for this attack, which began on 9 March with an assault on the perimeter in what became known as the ‘Easter action’. All possibility of air and naval support from the sea, however, had been dissipated by the capture and occupation of Green Islands by 3 New Zealand Division on 15 February, a forward move which had immobilised Rabaul. Some dents were made in the perimeter defences, but American artillery, both field and anti-aircraft, boxed in the gaps in the wire through which the Japanese were attacking, and counter-attacks restored the line. At night battery searchlights and the headlights of tanks were directed on to low-lying clouds, which deflected the beams into ravines and valleys below so that any Japanese who moved there were revealed as targets. By 17 March 700 Japanese dead were counted before they were buried by bulldozers. During this action 1 Battalion remained in reserve behind 132 US Infantry Regiment of the Americal Division, one of the three American divisions holding the perimeter, but during lulls in the intermittent fighting, which continued for some time afterwards, battalion patrols searched areas outside the perimeter for snipers and infiltration groups.
On 23 March the Japanese attacked again, but with decreasing violence, and once more the American line was restored by vigorous counter-attacks. Immediately action died away, 1 Battalion began active patrolling outside the perimeter, usually moving with about 200 men from two companies extended on a 500-yard front, combing the jungle, brushing aside any small opposing groups, or indicating enemy positions for attention by artillery or aircraft. It was the kind of fighting requiring initiative and dash, for which the battalion was noted. On 25 March, during a battalion sweep in front of the sector held by 129 US Regiment which developed into an all-day engagement, Dent was killed and the unit lost one of its most promising young officers. The Japanese did not go easily. They stubbornly contested the pressure of battalion patrols along the Numa Numa Trail as they were forced back to the mountains.
Daily encounters developed into sullen actions, which often required the support of artillery and mortars before nests of page 281 Japanese could be driven from the protection of splaying tree roots in which their defence posts were concealed. This work continued until 1 April, when patrols declared the area clear between the Numa Numa and Logging Trails, which ran into the valley of the Laruma River, on the left of the perimeter. Unburied dead and deserted stores and equipment indicated a retreat under cover of darkness. During one of its last patrols in this area, a Fijian soldier reported missing and killed three days previously was found still alive in a deserted Japanese dugout. He was Private Esivoresi Kete, a virile member of A Company, whose remarkable powers of endurance kept him alive. During an attack on an enemy strongpost he was shot through the head, the bullet entering behind the right ear and coming out below the left eye. When the Japanese found him they took his clothing and his rations, bayoneted him twice in the chest and once through an arm and believed him dead. The area in which he lay was thrice shelled by American artillery after the patrol to which he belonged retired. But he still lived, and in a period of semi-consciousness he crawled into the dugout in which he was found. Kete completely recovered and returned to his home on the island of Kandavu.
When the Japanese attacked the perimeter in March, RNZAF aircraft had moved from New Georgia and were stationed at Torokina with American formations. Because enemy artillery was able to reach the airstrips and endanger them, aircraft were flown each night for safety to Green Islands, where the strip was already operating, to Stirling Island in the Treasury Group, and to Ondonga in the New Georgia Group, returning to Torokina each morning to begin daily operations and aid the ground troops. All available New Zealand airmen were organised into three companies to assist with the defence of the airfields in the reserve area, and the commanders, Pilot Officer F. J. J. Angus, Flying Officer J. M. Molloy, and Pilot Officer E. D. B. Bignall, with a reserve company under Flight Lieutenant R. B. Watson, were allotted to positions covering the junction of the Piva Road and Marine Drive, two main roads leading to the Torokina strip.
1 Lt-Col F. W. Voelcker, CBE, DSO, MC, Bronze Star (US); Samoa; born London, 9 Oct 1896; King's Shropshire Light Infantry, 1914–28; CO Reserve Bn, Fiji, May 1941–Jan 1942; 34 Bn, Jan–Jun 1942; 3 Bn, Fiji Infantry Regt, Dec 1942–Sep 1945; Administrator of Western Samoa, 1946, and High Commissioner, 1947–49.
When the force withdrew, 1 Battalion remained in the area until 6 April, after which 3 Battalion returned, took over, and combed the Java Creek-Laruma River area. Among the graves discovered in this area was that of Major-General Saito, who had been killed in the previous week's fighting and probably inspired the resistance. Battalion patrols moved in the wake of dive-bombing and artillery fire, with instructions to count the enemy dead, pick up any survivors and obtain all the intelligence information possible, but only one wounded Japanese was found. When this search was complete, 3 Battalion moved to its next assignment, the left-flank protection of an American force attacking Japanese detachments entrenched on a ridge overlooking the Saua River, on the southern rim of the perimeter, in country where bitter fighting had taken place soon after the original landing.
The East-West Trail, leading south from the Piva River and crossing the Torokina and Saua Rivers, cut through this area, well inland past Hill 600 and Hellzapoppin Ridge, two familiar and disputed features. Here the battalion spent a week, its patrols clashing almost daily with small enemy forces, during one of which Lieutenant O. W. Stratford2 was killed. Enemy attempts to ambush the Fijian patrols and isolate them by cutting the battalion supply line were constantly avoided.
Meanwhile 14 Corps commander decided to push the Japanese farther back from the perimeter as they were still able to reach the airfields with field guns sited on high country, and on 29 May 1 Battalion moved back into the jungle to relieve American units holding posts in the foothills along the Laruma River. There, for sixteen days, working from a base established in the Doyabie River valley, strong patrols again combed country as rough as any encountered outside the perimeter. Almost daily they encountered enemy posts established to prevent any Allied movement through the mountains along the Numa Numa Trail, which had been widened to enable native carrying parties to maintain the Japanese during their attack on the perimeter during the Easter action.
While 1 Battalion was engaged on its final task on Bougainville, 3 Battalion moved south on 31 May with instructions to eliminate enemy gun positions near the mouth of the Jaba River on the southern extremity of the perimeter. The force, supported by American artillery and engineers, moved south across Empress Augusta Bay in two LCTs protected by gunboats, and from a beach-head established without opposition at dawn, pushed patrols out along the Jaba Trail. The country here was difficult, and progress was hampered by tidal swamps and inland marshes cutting through the coastal strip. In places dense jungle gave way to more open tree-covered country of tall reeds and native grasses. On the fifth day the battalion reached the Maririci River, established a perimeter, and repulsed an enemy attack. Two days later, moving slowly, it reached the Mawaraka Trail along the coast which led inland to the Japanese headquarters at Mosigetta, a native village surrounded by plantations, from which well-protected trails radiated to mountain and coast.
During those seven days the battalion gathered up a considerable quantity of equipment, including two 75-millimetre guns, two 47-millimetre and two 37-millimetre, and destroyed quantities of stores and equipment. As the main force of the battalion moved along the coast and inland, other patrols moved up and down the coast, increasing their mobility by using small landing craft to establish beach-heads, and investigated any signs of enemy activity in the locality. When a gunboat arrived off the coast to support the ground force Japanese gunners opened fire on it, thus revealing the site of their 6-inch gun to the spotting aircraft which was operating with 3 Battalion. Dive-bombers from the perimeter attacked the gun site. After further brushes with the enemy the battalion was recalled to the perimeter on 6 June, where it continued training in readiness for other tasks to be undertaken after the departure of 1 Battalion.
On 21 June the battalion was again despatched to the Mawaraka area, with the dual task of destroying the Japanese headquarters at Mosigetta and aiding Solomon Island natives who had obtained arms and ammunition and were engaged in a limited resistance movement in country at the headwaters of the Jaba River. As on the former occasion, Voelcker's battalion was strengthened by the addition of American artillery, engineer and chemical mortar page 285 units, and accompanied by a tank liaison officer, as it was anticipated that if the attack progressed satisfactorily tanks could be usefully employed. Once more the force moved south along the coast in landing craft to the mouth of the Jaba River. There was some confusion in getting the force ashore under cover of a smoke screen, as the wind changed, blowing the smoke back on the landing craft. E Company went in at the wrong point and had to be taken off again, but fortunately there was no opposition. After establishing a bridgehead, patrols moved out to secure with road blocks the Jaba Trail, which ran inland to the foothills. Late that same afternoon 100 natives who had escaped from the Japanese were brought in, giving the battalion information on enemy dispositions, but in view of later events this seems to have been inaccurate and of little use.
Maps of the region, although supplemented with air photographs, were incomplete and often led to confusion in the identification of rivers and tidal lagoons along the coast, most of which closely resembled each other. Early on the morning of 22 June three companies of the battalion moved farther south, with the intention of landing at Tavera River, three miles beyond the Jaba, leaving one company to protect the supporting artillery at the original beach-head. Once again there was confusion and the force landed instead at the Maririci, still farther to the south in enemy territory and within reach of Mawaraka. Here another perimeter was established for further operations. Behind the beach tidal lagoons and swamps of the river deltas made the country almost impassable, but a trail led along the coast, following the sandhills and a narrow belt of reasonably firm foreshore. The Japanese ranged on the beach-head, but fortunately any shells burst in the tops of the surrounding trees. At daybreak on the morning of 23 June, D Company continued to move south along the beach to Mawaraka Point, a small feature jutting out towards an off-shore reef and covering a village of that name which was occupied by Japanese. Good progress was made until the company began to cross an open stretch of country, which unhappily was covered by Japanese emplacements on the point. A supporting barrage for the advance was given by American artillery units on the coast and gunboats in the bay, and the company was able to establish another perimeter in preparation for a further advance. C Company, in continuing the advance to the point, ran into trouble where a section of beach was backed by tidal swamps and lagoons of the Hupai River delta. A Company attempted to go to its aid but was also pinned down.
Meanwhile E Company, which had moved about 300 yards inland in an attempt to join the Mawaraka Road, reached within page 286 100 yards of its objective when it also was pinned down by enemy machine-gun and mortar fire. For three hours the company held to its swampy ground, while other companies of the battalion lent support until it could be withdrawn. This was done with difficulty and individual sacrifice which won the only Victoria Cross in the Pacific. When the company's leading scouts were hit, other men were wounded in abortive attempts to rescue them. Two of the wounded were rescued by Corporal Sefanaia Sukanaivalu, who in going back a third time was himself seriously wounded in making that perilous journey. Attempts at rescue only resulted in further casualties, and the Fijian NCO called to his men to leave him where he was. This they refused to do, calling out in their native tongue that they would never permit him to fall alive to the enemy. The Fijian corporal realised that such loyalty to him would result in further death and injury to his own men. He lay exposed to enemy fire, so that any movement drew a hail of bullets whipping through the rough grasses about him. In full view of the enemy and his own people he deliberately raised himself and was shot down. The following October, when Australian troops took over the perimeter at Empress Augusta Bay from 14 American Corps, they found his body and buried him with full military honours, with Fijian, New Zealand, Australian, and American servicemen in attendance.
Late in the afternoon of 23 June, Voelcker asked for and received permission to withdraw his force and return to the perimeter. Under cover of darkness that night the companies transferred to landing craft waiting off the beaches, to which some of the units made their way after losing direction and wandering for hours in the swamp. In this, the last active operation of the Fijian forces in the Solomons, 3 Battalion lost four men killed and fifteen wounded, but did not succeed in reaching the Japanese headquarters.
Dittmer, who retained his brigade headquarters in Fiji, flew to Bougainville to inspect the battalions before their departure. Griswold, the Corps commander, inspected the troops at a farewell ceremonial parade on 11 July, after which the units completed their final packing. On 26 July 1 Battalion sailed in USS Altnitah, calling at Guadalcanal to embark men and stores of the disbanded forward base. The ship reached Suva on 4 August and returned to Bougainville to embark 3 Battalion, which left Empress Augusta Bay on 23 August and reached Suva on 6 September. The Fiji Docks Company remained under American command, with Major A. W. Lewis as port operations officer, and assisted with the departure of the American forces and the page 287 arrival of the Australians who relieved them. This company remained in the perimeter with the Australian command and departed from Torokina on 26 February 1945. With its arrival at Suva on 23 March the return of all Fiji units from the Solomons was completed.
Intensive training of the Fijian brigade continued in the Colony in anticipation of another move overseas to the Burma front, as the services of the force had been offered for that theatre, but it was never employed there. When the last of the American forces left Fiji in 1945, Dittmer moved his headquarters back to Borron's House and occupied the same quarters and offices as the first New Zealand force, remaining there until the end of hostilities. On 23 August 1945 a victory parade on Albert Park, scene of so many parades in the early days of the war, marked the end of the war service of the Fiji Military Forces. Demobilisation began from 1 September, but New Zealand officers and non-commissioned officers remained until the final records were completed. Brigade Headquarters ceased to function on 27 October, by which time there were still about 150 New Zealanders remaining with the force. Dittmer handed over to Magrane on 21 November 1945, and the intimate partnership of three years between New Zealand and Fijian soldiers ended.