Honouring Veterans – Fiji in the Second World War: ‘We saw and we cried, yet we had to endure it’

In 2023, we will honour the enduring contributions of the worldwide community of military veterans in war, and in the service of peace. The historically unprecedented number worldwide of military veterans of twentieth-century conflicts makes them not only significant in the shaping of modern history but also a unique lens through which we can better understand the evolving relationship between war and society. 

A vital Pacific base

When the Second World War began in Europe in September 1939, the colony of Fiji in the South Pacific mobilised all of its available military forces. Fiji’s geographical location meant that it was a vital base along the principal sea and air supply routes between Australia, New Zealand and the United States of America. Defensive positions and outposts were established to protect Fiji’s main harbours and airfields, and males between the ages of 18 and 36 were called up for territorial military training. By July 1940 the Fiji Defence Force consisted of two infantry battalions, a Home Guard, an artillery battery and a training camp and headquarters. A New Zealand contingent arrived in October 1940, and within six months had been reinforced to Brigade strength.

Fiji Commandos

The surprise Japanese attack against American military bases on Hawaii, and the rapid expansion of Japanese forces southwards towards Australia prompted intense activity in Fiji to meet the threat of invasion. Prior to the arrival of additional New Zealand and American forces, the defence of the Western, Eastern and Southern sectors on the main island of Viti Levu was bolstered by the formation of independent ‘commando’ companies. The three Fiji commando companies were intended to act as guerilla forces should Japanese forces landed in Fiji, akin to the auxiliary units formed in 1940 to harass and disrupt a German Occupation of Great Britain.

Rigorous and innovative training

The commando units were commanded and trained by volunteer officers and non-commissioned officers from the New Zealand Brigades garrisoned on Fiji. Lieutenant Charles Tripp recruited 200 Fijians to the Southern Independent Commando and embarked on a rigorous and innovative military and bushcraft training programme. In July 1942, the defence of Fiji was assumed by United States troops, but the commandos were retained to assist with the familiarisation of American troops with the Fijian jungle.

The Special Party

The immediate military threat to Fiji ended with the succession of United States Navy victories in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June 1942, and the successful landing of United States Marine Corps troops on the island of Guadalcanal in August. The highly effective jungle training of the Fijian commandos prompted Sir Philip Mitchell, the Governor of Fiji, to encourage American commanders to take a sample force of commando to the Solomon Islands. The advance or ‘Special Party’ of thirty commandos landed on Guadalcanal on 23 December 1942, and undertook aggressive jungle patrols on behalf of American army units to locate Japanese forces near the Lunga River.

‘Death Wears Velvet Gloves’

The reconnaissance work of the Special Party proved invaluable, as the Fiji guerillas (known to the United States forces as the South Pacific Scouts) eliminated Japanese patrols at close range. Two further Commandos were dispatched from Fiji in 1943, augmented with volunteers from Tonga and the Solomon Islands. A war correspondent who had observed a training course in Fiji was so impressed with the ability of the Fijian volunteers to operate in the jungle that he stated that ‘When the Fiji Commandos raid at night, death wears velvet gloves.’ The First Commando assisted US Army operations on the islands of New Georgia and Vella Lavella, to the north-west of Guadalcanal. The Second Commando relieved the First Commando in November 1943, and assisted US Marine Corps operations on the island of Bougainville, part of the Allied assault on the principal Japanese base at Rabaul on New Britain.

Outstanding Services

The Fiji Commandos were joined on Bougainville by two Fijian Infantry Battalions where they assisted in the defence of the US base at Torokina when it was subjected to a sustained three-week assault by Japanese troops in March 1944. Further operations against Japanese forces on Bougainville continued until the end of July, and the last of the Fijian troops returned home in August. Corporal Sefanaia Sukanaivalu of the Third Battalion, Fiji Military Forces, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions at Makara, Bougainville, on 23 June 1944 when he rescued two wounded men after a Japanese ambush and then, having been gravely wounded, deliberately sacrificed his own life so that the remainder of his platoon would not risk their own lives in trying to save him and instead withdraw to safety. The First and Third Battalions were commended by Major-General O. W. Griswold of the XIV US Army Corps for their ‘Outstanding Services’ and their ‘combat spirit, discipline, soldierly bearing and sportsmanship’.

Reliving the war made me feel like dying

Fiji’s last surviving veteran of the Second World War was Private Jale Bainisika, who joined the Fiji Military Forces in 1942 and served on Bougainville with the Third Battalion. In 2009 he recalled his first night at Torokina when the Fijians shot at Japanese aircraft, ‘trying our best to make them crash into the sea to avoid crashing on land and killing our soldiers.’ He continued to suffer from nightmares after his return from Bougainville, when ‘Reliving the war made me feel like dying’ as he recalled the deaths of his two closest comrades. Bainisika was also haunted by the effects of the war on the peoples of the Solomon Islands: ‘We saw and we cried, yet we had to endure it. It is a very good thing that what happened in the Solomon Islands did not happen in Fiji.’

Private Bainisika died in February 2020, and was laid to rest at Tailevu Province on Veti Levu, Fiji.  When reflecting on his war service, he observed that ‘The world today is so peaceful and I am glad the generation today didn’t witness the tragedies of war.”

Author’s Profile:

Dr Aaron Fox is a New Zealand-based military and security intelligence historian. He trained as an historian at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, before directing medallic policy for the New Zealand Defence Force. He later worked as a senior local government manager, and as a specialist advisor to the renowned Weta/Te Papa exhibition ‘Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War’. His current projects include a biography of the notable New Zealand soldier and politician, Brigadier James Hargest.