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Modest yet proud world wars contribution

Ernest Heatley
Sunday, November 15, 2015

When World War II broke out in 1939, all that Fiji had to defend itself was a territorial battalion of volunteers who undertook military training in their spare time. Colonel J Workman, besides being Commissioner of Police, was also the Commander of the Fiji Defence Force (FDF) as it was then known.

After Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939 the Fiji colonial government ordered a mobilisation of all military resources in the area of the Kings Wharf in Suva. Except for a few old military rifles, the exercise showed Fiji was not militarily prepared to defend itself.

In December 1939 two 4.7-inch artillery guns were obtained from New Zealand. These two guns were mounted at Muanikau Hill in Suva (now known as Battery Hill just above the former parliamentary complex at Veiuto). The guns were manned by the Suva Battery which was formed in November 1939. The role of the Suva Battery was to provide coastal defence, especially protecting the Nukulau and Namuka passages into Suva.

In September 1940, Fiji was selected as a training base for the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force. They set up camps at Namaka in Nadi and at Samabula Three miles (Nai Katolu) in Suva (in the area where the Saint Agnes School at Mead Rd now stands and also where the South Pacific Commission office is near DAV College).

New Zealand Army personnel also were attached to the FDF to help in training and other duties as the local defence force expanded.

In March 1941 another two six-inch guns were obtained and these were set up in the Momi Bay area to cover the Ratu Navula passage into Nadi and Lautoka.

The defence of Suva was assigned to the 1st Battalion, Fiji Infantry Regiment, and the Home Guard. The area assigned to the 1st Battalion to defend extended from the Carnegie Library in Suva, around the waterfront along Nasese right up to the Vatuwaqa River and then in a straight line back to the library.

The coastline was five miles long and had a maximum "depth" of two miles. Within this area the 1st Battalion constructed machine gun posts, trenches and barbed wire obstacles right from the low tide mark to the shore.

The Home Guard was given the job of guarding a number of important fuel dumps and other vital installations in Suva.

In October 1941 the Suva Battery was reorganised to form the 1st Fiji Heavy Regiment of the Fiji Artillery with A Battery at Muanikau (Battery Hill), B Battery at Bilo Point in Suva and C Battery at Momi. Later, another battery of three six-inch guns were added to the strength of the Fiji Artillery and this battery was set up at Nasonini in Suva.

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941 followed by the rapid advance of the Japanese Army down through South-east Asia, the situation in the Pacific became a matter of very grave concern.

Because of its strategic position in the south west Pacific, Fiji became an important staging post and training ground for both the New Zealand and the US armies.

In May 1942 the 37th Division of the US Army set up base in Fiji.

Fijian soldiers were required to help train the US soldiers in jungle warfare. The Americans were impressed with the jungle skills of the Fijian soldiers. This led to a party of 30 Fiji commandos being sent to the Solomon Islands to conduct guerrilla operations against the Japanese. They arrived at Guadalcanal on December 23, 1942 and two days later, on Christmas Day, went out on their first patrol to engage the Japanese.

The first contact the Fiji Commando Unit made against the enemy took place on December 28, 1942 when a small patrol of four Fiji commandos intercepted and killed a four-man Japanese sabotage team that was on its way to destroy Henderson Airfield on the island of Guadalcanal.

In April 1943 the 1st Commando, Fiji Guerrillas, and the 1st Battalion, Fiji Infantry Regiment, left Suva on the troopship USS President Hayes for the battlefields of Guadalcanal. They arrived on April 29, 1942 and set up camp at Kokobuna.

New Georgia

The 1st Commandos, Fiji Guerrillas went into action on the island of New Georgia in July 1943. During this operation the Fijian soldiers suffered their first casualty of the war. Lieutenant B Masefield was killed in action when his patrol came under enemy artillery fire. Two other members of that patrol were wounded in the same artillery fire.

During the New Georgia campaign, the Fiji Commandos lost 11 men killed in action (KIA) and 20 wounded (WIA).

In November 1943 the 1st Commandos were replaced by the 2nd Commandos, Fiji Guerrillas.

Bougainville

The 1st Battalion, Fiji Infantry Regiment (1FIR) was deployed to the island of Bougainville in December 1943 after the US Marines had established a base camp at Empress Augusta Bay. The 1FIR role was as a scouting battalion, moving outside the defence perimeter into the jungle and engage enemy forces.

One week after arriving on Bougainville, 1FIR made its first contact with the enemy.

Because of its excellent record against the enemy it was decided to send the 3rd Battalion (3FIR) to join 1FIR on Bougainville. Their record of service is now indelibly etched into the history of the war in the south west Pacific.

The record of 3FIR speaks for itself with the awarding of the Victoria Cross to Corporal Sefanaia Sukanaivalu who was killed in action in Mawaraka on June 3, 1944.

After distinguishing itself in battle all Fijian troops were ordered home in August 1944. By this stage the Allied forces had pushed the Japanese out of the Solomons and Papua New Guinea and the Japanese were in retreat.

Although the 4th Battalion (4FIR) was being readied for service in Burma, the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945 meant the war was over.

Lessons for Fiji

Those men from Fiji who served during World War II lived up to their proud traditions set by their predecessors who served with distinction in France and Italy during World War I (1914-1918).

To mark 100 years of the start of World War I (1914-1918), The Fiji Times has published several articles in the course of the past several months that highlighted the service of those from Fiji who answered the call to serve king and country. With that in mind, this article has focussed on the modest but proud contribution Fiji has made to the Allied war effort in World War II (1939-1945).

For the many iTaukei soldiers who served and gave their lives in World War II, they proved their worth as a warrior race and by their deeds in battle, left a proud tradition for future generations of men and women who came to serve in Malaya, Lebanon, Sinai and other areas of conflict throughout the world.

Commenting from Brisbane, Australia where he now lives, retired Fiji Army officer Lieutenant Colonel Jim Sanday, who commanded Fijian battalions in Lebanon and Sinai said: "Fiji's experience during WW II provides an invaluable lesson for those currently crafting a national security strategy for Fiji.

"That experience demonstrates that Fiji must rely on other larger powers in the region to augment its own defence and security capabilities. Fiji cannot do it alone as it does not have the resources to do so. Even Australia with its much larger resource and military base, cannot be totally self-reliant in providing for its own defence and security."

Mr Sanday went on: "The idea of regional co-operation in defence and security should be a key plank in Fiji's new national security strategy. It stems from a pragmatic assessment of Fiji's own situation. Simply put, Fiji must find its own security in partnership with others.

"This is especially relevant in the inter-connected world we now live in where 'non-military' threats to national security, such as the threats posed by climate change, unregulated population flows, the growth of trans-national crime, natural disasters and its effects on critical infrastructure and so on, are the more pressing national security issues confronting Fiji and other Pacific Island states at this time."








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