Feature

The Fiji Infantry Regiment Operations In World War II

The extraordinary courage of Corporal Sukanaivalu was recognised by the Commonwealth’s highest military honour, the Victoria Cross.
23 Jun 2020 15:46
The Fiji Infantry Regiment Operations In World War II
Members of the 3rd Battalion, Fiji Infantry Regiment at Bougainville. INSET: Corporal Sefanaia Sukanaivalu . Photo: RFMF Archives

On June 23, 1944, 76 years ago today, Corporal Sefanaia Sukanaivalu VC, 3rd Battalion, Fiji Infantry Regiment knowingly sacrificed his life on a Bougainville battlefield to safeguard the lives of his men.

The extraordinary courage of Corporal Sukanaivalu was recognised by the Commonwealth’s highest military honour, the Victoria Cross.

It is, therefore, today, June 23, that CPL Sukanaivalu’s comrades of the Fiji Infantry Regiment both commemorate his sacrifice and celebrate the achievements of Fiji’s armed forces in the decades since. Today is Infantry Day.

From Zimbabwe to the Golan Heights, the Sinai, Timor-Leste, Bougainville, Solomon Islands and Iraq, Fiji has served around the world. The Fiji Infantry Regiment’s first operations, however, were much closer to home, serving in the Pacific theatre of World War II.

Originally focussed on the defence of the Colony under New Zealand command, the Republic of Fiji Military Forces shifted to support the island-hopping American forces as the war progressed. Fijians served in Guadalcanal, Florida Island [Nggela], New Georgia, and Vella Lavella. Focus then turned to Bougainville.

The following is a short recount of the Fiji Infantry Regiment’s operational service in Bougainville, during which Corporal Sukanaivalu was awarded the Victoria Cross.
How it all began

In early November 1943, the United States Marine Corps conducted amphibious landings at Cape Torokina in Empress Augusta Bay. Succeeding in establishing a beachhead, US forces quickly built airfields and expanded their control.

Before the end of the year, the command had changed over to the United States’ Army American Division XIV Corps, under Major General Oscar Griswold. It was here that Fiji’s units served under the XIV Corps.

The 1st Battalion arrived in Bougainville in December 1943 and commenced patrols in the thick jungle on Christmas Day. Scouting to seek out enemy locations were crucial as aerial surveillance was inadequate. There were frequent skirmishes with the enemy, resulting in losses on both sides.

The 1st Battalion was selected to establish a forward post in the former missionary station in Ibu, some 55-kilometres northeast of the safety of Cape Torokina.

The path to Ibu was considered tortuous: mountainous, broken by ravines, valleys, and highlands which altered between sweltering heat, torrential rain, and icy gusts. The journey took five days.

However, the information from Fiji’s patrols provided on enemy locations and movements was invaluable. Major General Griswold held the 1st Battalion in place for several months.

Supplies were airdropped and to ensure the wounded and sick could be evacuated, a small airstrip was rapidly developed. The airstrip was named Kameli, in honour of Private Kameli Rokotuiloma who was the first Fijian killed in action during the Ibu mission.

Patrols, skirmishes, and intelligence gathering continued. They regularly raided Japanese camps, their jungle warfare skills building a reputation amongst Allied forces.

In February, intelligence was listing gathering Japanese forces, surrounding the Ibu outpost.

Attacks commenced on February 14, and the men of the 1st Battalion commenced an organised retreat, harassing the larger advancing forces.

On February 15, concerned they were surrounded, the Fijians were commanded to withdraw. They disappeared into the jungle in small groupings. Following the natural features and tracking local pathways, 400 Fijians made it safely to the western coast four days later with only one wounded.

The increased Japanese presence was the start of a counterattack against the Allied beachhead on March 8, 1944.

The 1st Battalion returned to patrols around the besieged Cape Torokina, and over the following months moved into the nearby foothills to relieve American forces. They established another forward base, and held the area for several weeks, conducting daily patrols.

As Japanese forces conducted a last desperate assault in late March 1944, Fiji’s 3rd Battalion was called to Bougainville.

The 3rd Battalion’s initial task was cleaning out the remaining Japanese forces surrounding Torokina. They conducted multiday raids into jungle terrain, ambushing remaining Japanese forces.

This task complete, they were directed to the south, to remove resistance near the Jaba River. Near the southern Torokina perimeter, the Japanese could use the Jaba River area to harass Allied troops. Instead of scout patrols, this would be an amphibious landing.

The 3rd Battalion conducted two missions in the Mawaraka area – the first occurred over the period of five days and saw the A, B, C, D, and E Companies establish a beachhead via landing craft, and conduct sweeping patrols over eight kilometres, crisscrossing swamps, rivers, and beaches.

They met little Japanese resistance. However, the mission resulted in the destruction of Japanese defensive installations and a number of weapons and ammunition were blown up.

The 3rd Battalion returned to Torokina, and the two Fijian forces spent several weeks training and recuperating.

Gallant display

On June 21, the 3rd Battalion returned to Mawaraka, conducting a second amphibious landing with the objective of destroying the Japanese headquarters at Mosigetta, nearly 10 kilometres inland, as well as supporting locals, who were resisting Japanese forces in minor attacks.

Since the last action, Japan had reinforced its position, and two battalions and artillery now controlled the region.

The 3rd Battalion landed with difficulty; mapping and surveillance was imperfect. The forces landed south of their original mission, and the new terrain was difficult.

After a long night, they met further resistance in the morning of  June 23, repeatedly coming under fire. C, D, and E Companies moved south. D Company moved along the beach, but in an open stretch of land, faced heavy fire and the tough, swampy ground beyond the beach caused difficulty. A Company sought to support them but faced the same difficult terrain.

E Company made some headway along the swamp, before it was again attacked by machine gun fire and mortars. The resulting firefight lasted three hours. It was here that Corporal Sakanaivalu’s gallantry was recorded.

His Victoria Cross citation reads:

On 23rd June 1944, at Mawaraka, Bougainville, in the Solomon Islands, Corporal Sefanaia Sukanaivalu crawled forward to rescue some men who had been wounded when their platoon was ambushed and some of the leading elements had become casualties.

After two wounded men had been successfully recovered this N.C.O., who was in command of the rear section, volunteered to go on farther alone to try and rescue another one, in spite of machine gun and mortar fire, but on the way back he himself was seriously wounded in the groin and thighs and fell to the ground, unable to move any farther.

Several attempts were then made to rescue Corporal Sukanaivalu but without success owing to heavy fire being encountered on each occasion and further casualties caused.

This gallant N.C.O. then called to his men not to try to get to him as he was in a very exposed position, but they replied that they would never leave him to fall alive into the hands of the enemy.

Realising that his men would not withdraw as long as they could see that he was still alive and knowing that they were themselves all in danger of being killed or captured as long as they remained where they were, Corporal Sukanaivalu, well aware of the consequences, raised himself up in front of the Japanese machine gun and was riddled with bullets.

This brave Fiji soldier, after rescuing two wounded men with the greatest heroism and being gravely wounded himself, deliberately sacrificed his own life because he knew that it was the only way in which the remainder of his platoon could be induced to retire from a situation in which they must have been annihilated had they not withdrawn.
Acknowledging the terrain precluded establishing a beachhead, Fijian forces withdrew. They did not return to Mawaraka. It was the last active service of Fijian forces in World War II.

In late 1944, as American forces pursued Japan northwards through the Pacific, Australia assumed command of Allied operations in Bougainville. The Fiji Infantry Regiment was reverted to the United States Army XIV Corps’ reserve and their combat service ended.

The 1st Battalion returned to Suva on 4th August, and 3rd Battalion on 6th September.

The 3rd Battalion was safely home before their fallen comrade’s body was recovered. After much difficulty, Australian forces drove the Japanese back from Mawaraka in October. Fiji’s First Docks Company, a labour force originally supporting US troops by unloading and reloading ships and maintaining camp infrastructure in Empress Augusta Bay, remained in Bougainville to assist the Australians.

In early 1945, the Australian War Graves Commission sought the First Docks Company aid in recovering Corporal Sukanaivalu’s remains. Seven members of the First Docks Company accompanied the Australians on their successful mission.

On the morning of  February 15, 1945, Corporal Sukanaivalu was afforded a Field Officer’s funeral at the Camp Moeltke Australian War Cemetery.

The service was conducted in Fijian by Chaplain Samuela Nabainivalu, with the guard of honour drawn from the First Docks Company. Australian buglers sounded the Last Post.

Acknowledging the camaraderie of the Allied forces and respect for Corporal Sukanaivalu, the funeral pallbearers were Fijian, New Zealanders, and American personnel. He is now buried at the Rabaul (BitaPaka) War Cemetery in Papua New Guinea.

For their service, both 1st and 3rd Battalions received XIV US Army Commendations for meritorious service in combat and in support of combat operations.

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