Obituary: Old Fijian Warrior Fades Away

In August 1953, at the age of 18 years, Mesu answered the call of the Fijian colonial government for young men to enlist in the Army so as to go and fight the communist terrorists in Malaya.
14 Feb 2019 09:40
Obituary: Old Fijian Warrior Fades Away
The late major Mesulame Varea Solomone.

Old soldiers never die, they just fade away is a familiar line taken from a popular song sung by British soldiers dur­ing World War 1. It is a line that aptly describes an old Fijian sol­dier who passed away on January 21, 2019.

Mesulama Varea Solomone, known simply as ‘Mesu’ was born on September 5, 1935, in the village of Elsio in the Malha’a district of Rotuma. It was the district that Raho, the founding ancestor of Ro­tuma, settled in thousands of years ago.

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In August 1953, at the age of 18 years, Mesu answered the call of the Fijian colonial government for young men to enlist in the Army so as to go and fight the communist terrorists in Malaya.

The Communists in Malaya

The terrorists in Malaya were drawn mainly from sections of the ethnic Chinese population in Ma­laya. Although they controlled the economy and business they were never really integrated into the na­tional life of Malaya.

In 1929, they formed the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) which aimed to overthrow the British co­lonial administration and replace it with communist rule. The MCP formed a military arm which they called the Malayan Races Libera­tion Army (MRLA).

At its peak, the MRLA was esti­mated to be about 8000 strong. They set up training camps in the jungles of Malaya and engaged in murder, extortion and sabotage against the civilian population.

The level of disorder in Malaya became so bad that on June 18, 1948, the British enacted emergency pow­ers calling on the military to assist in restoring law and order.

Communist terrorists in Malaya.

Communist terrorists in Malaya.

Britain drew on military forces from throughout the British Em­pire to defeat the communist in­surgency in Malaya. Fiji provided a battalion, 1FIR (1st Battalion, Fiji Infantry Regiment) of approxi­mately 800 men to engage in opera­tions against the terrorists.

‘Hunt and Kill’

The battalion commenced opera­tions in Malaya in June 1952. It was led initially by Lieutenant Colonel Ron Tinker, a New Zealand Special Forces Officer. Tinker was a no-nonsense hard task master who de­manded very high standards from his men.

He defined the Fiji Battalion’s mis­sion in Malaya in very simplistic terms that the Fijian soldier under­stood; “Hunt and Kill”.

It became the battalion’s motto in Malaya and described the way they operated there.

The Fijian battalion mounted small patrols deep into the Malayan jungle where they flushed out the terrorists and exterminated them like termites. A number of female terrorists were also eliminated by the Fijians in their campaign.

Mesu was part of reinforcements who were posted for active service with 1FIR in Malaya on May 1, 1954. He was initially posted to ‘D’ Com­pany which was made up of men from Lau, Lomaiviti, Kadavu and Rotuma.

Mesu was later posted to ‘A’ Com­pany, which comprised men from the tribally-connected provinces of Tailevu, Naitasiri and Rewa. It was with ‘A’ Company that he served un­til the battalion returned to Fiji in June 1956.

When it was time to return home after two years fighting, the story goes that the men from ‘A’ Company set about convincing the young and unmarried Mesulama that upon his return to Fiji they will find him a strong and sturdy wife from Tai­levu.

She would be able to chop down a large tree for firewood in the morn­ing and in the afternoon of the same day, clear the side of a moun­tain and plant a hectare of taro.

And before the sun rose the next day, disappear into the jungle with her nets to catch freshwater prawns for his dinner, which she would lov­ingly cook in coconut milk infused with coriander and lemon zest, topped with finely chopped red chil­lies to excite the palate.

In addition to all these menial chores, she would happily bear him fifteen sons for the village rugby team! She was everything a man could wish for in a wife, they said.

Mesu returned with the Fiji Bat­talion that disembarked in Suva on June 18, 1956 and transferred to the regular force of the Fiji Military Forces.

He specialised as a weapons in­structor following training with the New Zealand Army. It was in this instructional role that many young Fijian recruits who are now leaders in government and in their respec­tive communities came in contact with Mesulama.

Unlike other Army instructors who were very direct with an ‘in-your-face’ style, Mesu was the op­posite. He was polite, respectful and encouraging; almost padre-like in his dealings with his men. His style resonated with many and left a last­ing impression with them. He was a good role model


Middle East Peacekeeping Service

Mesu served with the Fijian Bat­talion in Lebanon from 28 April 1979 to 1 August 1980 where he held the position of Senior Weapons In­structor.

It was an intensely active and de­manding time for the Fiji battalion. There were frequent skirmishes with local armed elements, often with deadly results.

In late August 1979, Fijian soldiers at a checkpoint in Al Bazuriah shot dead the local leader of the Com­munist Party in south Lebanon.

Fijian positions at Al Bazuriah where the killing occurred soon came under attack.

Armoured vehicles from the Sen­egalese battalion were deployed in support of the Fijians there who were under the command of Major Epeli Ganilau. Near Qana, another Fijian position commanded by Sec­ond Lieutenant Penioni Jikoiono came under attack from about 80 to 100 armed elements.

Private Seruidakuwaqa from Sa­vusavu was shot in the thigh by an attacker who managed to breach the Fijian defences. Another Fijian soldier turned and shot the attack­er dead.

As the attack on Jikoiono’s posi­tion intensified, Fijibatt machine guns from the Fijian Battalion HQ position in Qana commenced sup­porting fire to Jikoiono’s position.

The General Purpose Machine Guns (GPMGs) were mounted in a sustained fire (SF) role.

The Fijian machine gunners used tracer rounds, which ignited in its trajectory so as to allow fire to be adjusted.

The Fijian battalion commander at Qana exercised tight control over the situation. He read every move of the battle unfolding below him and personally directed and adjust­ed the fire of the machine guns so as to lay down a curtain of fire in front of Jikoiono’s position to deter the attackers.

Mesu manned one of the machine guns that was closest to the attack­ers. He could hear them shouting to each other. Unfortunately, several of the attackers ran into this defen­sive curtain of fire and were either killed or wounded.

Complicating the situation, Dutch (Netherlands) armoured vehicles sent to reinforce Jikoiono also came under fire from the attackers.

The Dutch Lieutenant command­ing the armoured vehicles was shot though the spine and slumped for­ward on the turret of his vehicle. Dutch soldiers disembarked and took cover behind their vehicles. They were pinned down by the at­tackers who were swarming to­wards them with guns blazing.

To save the Dutch, Fijibatt ma­chine guns were ordered to switch their fire to cover the Dutch. Sev­eral armed elements attacking the Dutch were cut down by the cover­ing fire from Fijian machine guns.

The attackers then withdrew. The Fijian action that day saved the Dutch from further casualties.

In his book (Mission with UNIFIL: An African Soldier’s Reflections) the UNIFIL Force Commander, Ma­jor General Emmanuel Erskine of Ghana, devotes a whole chapter to this battle fought by the Fiji Bat­talion. He argues that the Fijian actions ‘… illustrate the practical interpretation and application of the use of force in self defence by UNIFIL’.

UNIFIL Force Commander, Major-General Emmanuel Erskine (left) greets Fijibatt soldiers in 1979. Saluting at right is Private Inia Mavai who is now the Reverend Inia Mavai of the Nasea Methodist Circuit, Labasa.

UNIFIL Force Commander, Major-General Emmanuel Erskine (left) greets Fijibatt soldiers in 1979. Saluting at right is Private Inia Mavai who is now the Reverend Inia Mavai of the Nasea Methodist Circuit, Labasa.

The sad sequel to all these events occurred four days later on August 24, 1979 when armed elements am­bushed a Fijian motorised patrol killing three Fijian soldiers and wounding four others.

One of those wounded in the am­bush was Driver Apirato, also from Rotuma. With three Fijian soldiers dead and another four wounded, it was indeed a very sad day for Fiji.

Sadly, the Dutch officer who tried to help the Fijians later died of his wounds.

Mesu again deployed for peace­keeping service with the MFO in the Egyptian Sinai from May 1984 to May 1985. He was commissioned to the rank of Captain in October 1988 and in 1989 was promoted to the rank of Major to command RFMF units based in Nausori.

He retired in August 1992 after al­most 40 years of service. In recogni­tion of his loyal service Mesu was awarded the insignia of the Mem­ber of the British Empire (Military Division), MBE (Mil).

Mesulama passed away on Janu­ary 21, 2019 and his remains were cremated. He is survived by his wife Varea Tivao and three chil­dren. It was a life well lived.

In passing, Mesulama joins the long list of the descendants of the warrior-chief Raho who have served Fiji well in times of peace and war.

Lieutenant Colonel Isireli Dugu, who had undertaken recruit train­ing under Mesulama in the late 1960’s and served with him in Leba­non and Fiji, summed up Mesula­ma in this way

“The late Major Mesulama was a professional soldier who was dedi­cated, honest and committed to his calling. He served with honour and dignity and set an outstanding ex­ample to his juniors”.

18799 Major Mesulama Varea Solo­mone, MBE (Mil), 1935-2019. Thank you for your service, sir. May you rest in peace.

Source: RSESA Walu Bay


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