Opinion

Four Navies Of Fiji

Continued from Saturday, August 1, 2015. 1975 During the following years which led independence  in 1970 Fiji had no naval force, but the members of the Fiji Naval Association never
08 Aug 2015 14:22
Four Navies Of Fiji

Continued from Saturday, August 1, 2015.

1975

During the following years which led independence  in 1970 Fiji had no naval force, but the members of the Fiji Naval Association never lost hope that some day the newly independent country would have a Navy. Royal Navy survey ships Cook, Dampier and Hydra spent periods in Fiji and HMNZ ships called regularly so Commonwealth naval liaison continued. There were three matters that hastened the formation of a naval force, firstly the Prime Minister, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara  was in favour, secondly the United Nation Law of the Sea Convention had indicated that 200 nautical mile Exclusive Zone   would be acquired by each country with a sea boundary, and last of all the Minister for Defence, U.K announced that all ships “East of Suez” would be withdrawn and hence forward would be based in home waters. If Fiji wanted her future EEZ patrolled she would have to do it herself.

Early in 1975 HMS HYDRA left Fiji for the last time breaking an association that had been in effect since 1835. The need for a Navy was publicly acknowledged. Into the picture now came the Ambassador of America, Armistead Selden who had previously held the post of Assistant Secretary for Defence and had many connections with senior officers of the United States Navy.  He advised Government of the availability of two ships shortly to be decommissioned.

The ships were USS PHOEBE and USS PEACOCK and were still in full commission at Long Beach, just out of Los Angeles.  As Naval Liaison Officer, Fiji, I was sent to inspect the ships and report on their suitability for operating in Fiji as patrol boats.

The ships were equivalent to the TON class of British minesweepers but had been re-designed by Sparkman & Stevens, noted yacht designers.

They were comfortable, well-ventilated and of wooden construction which made them ideally suited for tropical service.  They had both served in Vietnam and had undergone a long refit in Japan before returning home.

“It looked to me as though all my Christmases had arrived together. I had only to write a glowing report and Fiji would have the nucleus of Navy. But it wasn’t to be that simple.”

The ships belonged to the 5th Minesweeping Squadron commander, COMINERON 5, who took me to one side and uttered a word of warning.

“Don’t accept those ships,” he said.

“They have Packard engines and only 170 were ever built. Spared are scarce and we have a hard time keeping them operational in America. It would be impossible in the South Pacific.”

My euphoria vanished as he went on.

“All the mine force ships have recently had an inspection, the three ships that came out at the top are in Seattle and will be available next month. They have engines that are commercially available all over the world. I will be no trouble keeping them in spares.”

So I returned to Fiji and wrote my report – the hardest words I have ever written – stating that the ships were not suitable owing to the unavoidability of spares but pointing out that other ships with Detroit diesel engines would soon be available in Seattle. In effect I had said “No” to the very generous offer and talked about ships that were not on offer. My report was looked on as a great gaffe and a diplomatic blunder. However, Fiji was finally offered a choice of the ships based in Seattle and another journey there revealed the truth of the assertion of COMINERON 5.

The ships were indeed in superb condition with the ships companies aboard. All were enthusiastic about seeing the ships continue service in another navy rather than being laid up and they all sang the praises of their individual ships. Eventually we chose the two ships that had scored the highest marks in the recent inspection with the third highest also in our recommendations. The Government approved the acquisition of two and we chose USS VIREO and USS WARBLER. Back in Fiji we started recruiting and were overwhelmed by the response. Eventually we selected enough for two ships’ companies of 31 each plus another ten men. New Zealand sent the training ship HMNZS INVERELL to make the induction training more realistic.

Several old members of the two previous Navies acknowledged that they were now too old and sent their sons along. One who was recreuited at that first intake is now the Captain commanding the Fiji Navy.

None of the considerable asserts of the FRNVR Division ramined. The material and the SDML on loan from New Zealand had been returned when the division was wound up in 1959. The Headquarters, built by the Army Engineers at Drauniboto  Bay had been given to the Co-operative Department and could not be returned to the Navy. Parade training commenced at Queen Elizabeth Barracks and classrooms were used for communications and technical training.  As had ben the case as often in the past, New Zealand came to the assistance of the fledging Navy by making training ship HMNZS  INVERELL available for training in Fiji waters. A passing out parade was held in September and reviewed by Commander RFMF.

In October 1975, an advance party went to Seattle where they were joined a week later by the remainder of the two ship companies. The two ships USS VIREO and USS WARBLER had been towed across Puget Sound from Bremerton Navy Yard and berthed at Pier 90 which was then in use by the US Navy. Before being laid up all tanks had been drained and cleaned. The fuelling berth was the other side of Puget Sound and there were no fuelling facilities at Pier 90. Eventually it was agreed to allow one tanker on to Pier 90 and with fuel in the tanks both ships were sailed to the fuelling berth. It was no easy job making a ship operational after she had been mothballed, especially a strange ship in a foreign port. Eventually engines, both main and auxiliary were started and the ships commenced to have a “lived in” atmosphere. A series of work up exercises were held in Puget Sound in foggy and rainy weather that is a feature of Washigton State at that time of the year. Most of the ships’ companies had never been in cold weather and were not used to such basic precautions as closing doors to prevent heat escaping from the mess decks.

When the Minister for Home Affairs visited Washington D.C to effect the transfer of the ships from USA to Fiji, he was persuaded to part with $42,000 for the services of a training team. The team arrived aboard a few days later and were obviously made up of sailors who were “available.”  Only two or three were of any value and we ended up keeping only two engine room petty officers – the rest were sent ashore at Long Beach. The ships sailed from the call on waters of Puget Sound and ran into the worst weather the NorthPacific had to offer. 95 per cent of those on board were seasick and useless including most of the training team.

Calls were made at San Francisco, Long Beach and San Diego for various exercises, including fuelling at sea from USS BOLSTER, a salvage ship which would be in convoy to Suva. One call was to be made en route at Pearl Harbour where we had arranged for training in search and rescue from the US Coastguard, acknowledged to be the world’s expert in this field. The training was intense and fruitful including a day spent at sea with a Coastguard plane cooperating in a search. It says much for the young ratings that they could absorb all the effects of several big cities and still master all the skills required.
At Pearl Harbour the services of the two USN engine room petty officers was terminated.

From Pearl Harbour we began the last leg of the delivery voyage. Fiji had a poor history of obtaining ships from overseas, most requiring long refits to fit them for service and a great deal of expenditure. Our aim right from the start was to arrive in Suva and immediately show the capability of these ships. On the last day before arrival, KULA the new name for VIREO, developed engine problems which she had to slow down in order to fix. The other ship KIRO, pressed on and arrived right on time to a tumultuous welcome headed by the Prime Minister. The ceremony of cere was performed and two days later, at a function on Queen’s Wharf, attended by the Prime Minister, the ships were officially commissioned.

Within two weeks the two ships proceeded to sea with the Cabinet embarked and demonstrated a series of naval drills including gun firing, replenishment at sea, fire fighting, damage control and towing. Shortly afterwards we received permission to acquire the third ship which we had identified in Seattle. This time the ship’s company arrived in June and found that Seattle was a completely different place in summer. The US Navy had given up its ownership of Pier 90 which had reverted to the care of the Ports Authority and was only available to us on payment of high wharfage costs. Permission was obtained to berth at the US Naval Reserve facility in Lake Union. This meant negotiating the Chitterndem Lock each time we went to seas which was excellent practice in ship handling.

The highlight of the summer season in Seattle is July 4th when powerboat racing is held on Lake Washington. After being guests there her ship paid a visit to the Royal Canadian Navy at Esquimault. On completion of that very pleasant interlude, the new ship ex USS ABANAKI and sailed direct to Pearl Harbour for another week of search and rescue training. The weather on this occasion was so calm that a day as gained and the ship anchored at Welegilala for a clean up before sailing for Suva. On this occasion the ship was met by the Governor-General and the cere was again performed.

The three ships now entered a phase of EEZ patrolling and further training. Midshipmen were accepted for training in HMNZS TAMAKI and ratings were also sent for training courses in New Zealand. A Staff Officer for the Navy was supplied by the RAN and Australia also offered training.

A successful helicopter medivac of an injured seaman from a tug at lea led to enquiries being made about the feasibility of landing a helicopter on the ex-minesweepers. Ian Simpson, owner of Pacific Crown Helicopter Company, and the pilot who had carried out the difficult medivac, was asked for advice and a flight deck was designed to his specifications. Ian learned to fly with the Royal Navy as a National serviceman and sne that time flew helicopters in many countries before settling in Fiji. In HMFS KULA all the minesweeping equipment, including the winch, was moved and a mess deck built in its place. The top of the mess was equipped as a landing platform with adjustable railings. Although the idea raised eyebrows and objections, the finished product was such a success that Australia paid the expenses for operating the ship and for the charter of a helicopter for the rapid survey of baseline points so that the Fiji EEZ could be correctly charted. This was carried out as an aid project. The smallest ship to operate helicopters in Commonwealth navies was frigate and it was not economically feasible to contemplate using such a ship. With the Fiji EEZ correctly and economically charted the aid project was extended to survey points in Tonga, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. The officers and ships company benefited greatly from the experience gained in these operations.

Two ships represented Fiji at the Tuvalu Independence celebrations in 1982 when the Commander, Fiji Navy was pilot to HMNZ OTAGO and USS BENJAMIN STODDART. Two years later he was again pilot in HMS BRITTANIA.

The minesweepers were over twenty years of age when first acquired and gave good service for over ten years. By that time the refits required more funding than was available and the ships were phased out. First KULA and then KIKAU and in 1995 KIRO. Two ex-rig replenishment boats were acquired from America in 1987 and four DABUR class fast patrol boats from Israel in 1991. The first Pacific patrol boat from Australia in 1994 and the second in July 1995. The minesweepers as a squadron acted as Royal Escort in Fiji waters to HMS BRITTANIA when The Queen visited Fiji in 1977. HMFS KIRO performed that duty in 1982 when Her Majesty visited Tuvalu for the first time.

On patrols the Navy have regularly visited Conway Reef (now named CEVAMAIRA) (Southeast) and been responsible for the planting and growth of the small sandy island there. Commander Brown retired in April 1987 after suffering a stroke and the Navy is now commanded by Captain Frank Bainimarama, who joined as an ordinary seaman in 1975.

On July 25, 1995 the Chief of Naval Staff in Australia commissioned the Suva Naval Base in Walu Bay. It is now named RFNS STANLEY BROWN.  Australia has built the 2-storey administrative block and for the first time since inception in 1975, the Navy has proper administrative offices including the Operation Room. This has allowed the holding of regional exercises featuring the Pacific patrol boats of other island countries of the South Pacific.

RFNF VITI has become a training base commanded by an officer of the RNZN on secondment. The biggest influence on training has been the regular attendance midshipmen and sub-lieutenants at training establishments in England. In addition after the attendance at several Staff Colleges in Malaysia, Pakistan and New Zealand, naval officers are now attending regularly at the RAN Naval Staff College and two officers have already completed the Joint Services Staff College. The implementation of the recommendations of the Defence Review Committee should further benefit the Naval Squadron.

 

– This is the end of the Fiji Sun’s series on ‘The Four Navies of Fiji’ as written by the first Fiji Navy Commander, Captain Stanley Brown

Feedback:  jyotip@fijisun.com.fj

 

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