Sukanaivalu VC War Hero

The Extraordinary Birth of a War Hero

Sefanaia Sukanaivalu VC
VC Medal

by Samisoni Pareti - 01 November, 2009
Sai's Comments:
  • It brings tears to my eyes every time I read the story of my grandfather and the overwhelming sense of pride at his courageous deed.
  • Tua Suka's mother, Fane Kuva, lived with us till she died, as my mother cared for her in her old age. Her stories about him used to keep me up long into the night as she recounted his young days on Yacata to the day she and her husband, Lote Vulakoro, were honoured in a ceremony at Albert Part in Suva to mark the award of the VC.
  • What is equally humbling is the act of ultimate sacrifice and selflessness displayed by Tua Suka and his comrades in looking after each other and fighting for the honour and glory of their country and people. These were the hallmark of Fijian soldiers at the time and I pray Fiji's current military regime will be able to recapture these lost qualities.
ONE of the greatest ironies of life is found in war cemeteries.
Though most soldiers die a violent death in mainly chaotic and terrifying circumstances, their final resting places are serene and peaceful.
This is so true for the Rabaul War Cemetery in Bita Paka in Papua New Guinea's East New Britain province.
Among the 1,111 men and women who rest there in peace is 4469 Corporal Sefanaia Sukanaivalu, Fiji's most decorated war hero.
When he was killed on June 23, 1944, during an intense and fiery battle with the Japanese forces in the jungle of Mawaraka in neighbouring Bougainville Island now part of PNG, Sukanaivalu became the first and only Fijian recipient of the Commonwealth's highest and most prestigious award for gallantry, the Victoria Cross.
The VC medal was awarded posthumously and received on behalf of their heroic son at a special ceremony in Suva's Albert Park at the conclusion of World War II by Lote Vulakoro and Fane Kuva, parents of Sukanaivalu.
The citation according to World War II Victory Cross records reads:
"On 23 June 1944 Corporal Sukanaivalu managed to distinguish himself heroically at Bougainville, Solomon Islands. In the heat of the battle he managed to drag two wounded allied soldiers back to their own lines. During his attempt to evacuate another allied soldier he was hit in his groin and thigh, and was unable to move the lower part of his body. Several attempts were made to evacuate him, but these attempts only resulted in more casualties. Because his comrades kept on trying to save him, and Corporal Sukanaivalu knew that this would result in even more casualties, he deliberately raised himself with his last strength and was killed by the enemy."
Military records showed Sukanaivalu joined the 3rd battalion of Fiji's Infantry Regiment on April 23rd, 1942 when he was 24.
He was killed 23 months later.
The Anzac's Ode of Remembrance would have been so true of him, and the millions of men and women who have had their lives snuffed out during the two world wars.
For making the ultimate sacrifice, Sukanaivalu is the country's war hero.
To this day, a large and colourful mural of him adorns the main stairway of Suva's city hall.
A main thoroughfare in the country's second city - Lautoka - carries his name and the Republic of the Fiji Military Forces honoured their brave by naming its northern base camp after him.
Beside the RFMF's Queen Elizabeth Barracks at Delainabua is the huge residential suburb of Nabua.
Sukanaivalu Road is its main thoroughfare with Mawaraka a side street.
Growing up in eastern Lau Group not far from Sukanaivalu's home island of Yacata, I remembered sitting wide-eyed as our class one teacher related the corporal's heroic deeds.
It was that very image that flashed through my mind when I came face to face with his tomb at Bita Paka.
When head of the tourism bureau at East New Britain Nelson Paulias offered to take me to Bita Paka War Cemetery whilst on assignment in the province in July 2008, I had no inkling of what I was going to see.
"Some Fijian soldiers are buried there," was all he told me.
From Kokopo town, created after the destructive volcanic eruption that buried half of the province's deep harbour capital Rabaul in 1994, it was a 20 minutes drive to Bita Paka.
Fenced off by a brick wall with flowering trees, tropical shrubs and well manicured lawn, the war cemetery was a picture of serene quietness.
Through the main entrance, sheltered in a platform like structure where the visitor's book lay perched on a lectern, I went on, passing through the wall-like honours list of the brave.
At the centre lay a plaque with the inscription Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.
It is Latin meaning For the Greater Glory of God.
The Supreme Being and peace seem to go together in places like this, complimentary of one another.
Past the plaque, the walls of honour, the Cross of Sacrifice stands tall.
Research taught me that headstones are not used in this war cemetery because of the threats of earthquakes, linked I guess to the Rabaul active volcano.
It is the trademark of all Commonwealth war cemeteries that in disaster-prone regions, stone-faced pedestals are used instead.
To see the tombs of Fijian soldiers, Paulias told me to take a left.
There was a bronze pedestal for 4919 Private Semi Bilo.
He died on 3rd June 1944.
He was 20.
There was another for 1111 Private Manoa Nakara who died on 21st December 1943.
He was 22.
Mere names these were to me.
But knowing that these soldiers were buried so far across the big ocean from their families, I felt so heavy with sadness.
Some of their family members I know had not been as fortunate as I to see the final resting place of their brave.
I saw the pedestal of 811 Keny McPherson who was killed on 26 March 1944 and wondered about his family back in Fiji.
He was only 22 when he died.
I was quite emotional by the time I came to the pedestal of Fiji's war hero.
It looks no different from that of his 33 other fellow soldiers buried here.
Saved for the initials VC emblazoned next to his surname, the tomb could pass for any other. It reads simply:
23RD JUNE 1944 AGE 26
Only 70 characters inscribed on a piece of metal.
Such a small portion of earth for a young man who had a heart of a giant.
The pedestal to his left belonged to 4602 Private Taniela Siko who was killed on March 30th 1944.
He was 24.
To Sukanaivalu's right is the grave belonging to 619 Corporal Jesoni Tale who died aged 22 on March 23rd 1944.
If only the dead could talk, Corporal Suka, as he was affectionately called, could have felt at home at Bita Paka.
The commonality between this and his home island of Yacata would have been the quietness, the peaceful atmosphere.
I have never been to Yacata, although the pictures I have seen of it tell the story of a paradise yet to be discovered.
Soft white sand on turquoise clear waters, young Suka left all that behind when he answered the call to protect his island nation as a colony in the vast British Empire.
In his biography of Sukanaivalu called Cabobula (Ultimate Sacrifice), Fiji army historian the late Tevita Nawadra traced the extraordinary life of this young soldier.
Sefanaia Sukanaivalu was actually named after Ratu Paula Raikaki, who was Tui Yacata, the chief of his island, when his return in 1918 from fighting in France during World War I coincided with Sukanaivalu's birth.
Sukanaivalu means return from war in the Fijian language.
Nawadra collated most information on his book when he interviewed Eroni Vulakoro, Sefanaia's younger brother in 1990.
Suka was actually born on Yacata Island a lutudra, a premature born infant.
His mother gave birth seven months into her pregnancy, and because Suka's skin, his fingers, toes and face had not properly developed, his parents reared him in the next two months in a home-made incubator; a coconut basket stuffed with old tapa pieces to keep the infant warm.
In fact baby Suka was wrapped in a banana leaf because of his sensitive and under-developed skin.
Since his mouth was yet to be developed in full, he was fed with crushed coconut flesh which has been smoked.
The semi-liquid crushed smoked coconut flesh was then left on a small saucer and from it to the tiny opening in infant Suka's mouth, his mother left a thin strip of tapa from which the baby sucks.
Growing up, Suka was known to be a fearless and unusually strong boy.
Eroni was close to him because as he told Nawadra, Suka spoiled him.
Suka was also known as a loner, someone who felt comfortable living by himself on empty stretches of a beach on the island.
He used to do this often and his parents didn't mind, said Eroni, preferring to go spear fishing or hunting for wild yams deep into the jungle.
The skills of catching coconut crabs, the ugavule, with razor sharp claws, young Suka also mastered.
On the island, the young man quickly developed a reputation for being a master fisherman, also a very good rugby player, ferocious boxer, a good voice and someone who loves to sing along with a guitar.
When he was a teenager, Suka was sent to attend school at Niusawa Methodist in the island of Taveuni - lying 80 kilometres to the north of Yacata - before he moved to the main island of Viti Levu in 1935 to learn carpentry at the Methodist Church's technical school in Davuilevu, near Nausori Airport.
He became a carpenter at the gold mine in Vatukoula in western Fiji when he graduated from Davuilevu in 1938.
Sometime later according to Nawadra, Suka learnt that his older brother Aisea and younger brother Eroni have found work at Mount Kasi mine near Savusavu, so Suka left Vatukoula to join his siblings.
World War II broke when he was in Mount Kasi and when the call for enlistment started in 1942, the brothers made a pact that the two older siblings would enlist whilst young Eroni should return to the island to look after their parents.
The more I read about Cabobula, the more I realised how little I knew of Fiji's war hero.
I didn't even know that he was a skilful canoe builder.
Nawadra wrote that from Mount Kasi, Suka had to return to Yacata in order to enlist with men from his home island.
But by the time he finally reached home, Suka had missed the enlisting boat.
Most of his friends had gone to Taveuni to await their journey onto the capital.
Undeterred and determined still to join the war, young Suka logged two huge hardwood vesi (Intisia Bijuga) trees in Yacata, cut them into shape to build a sea-faring drua (catamaran) and set sail on his own 80 kilometres (approximately 43 nautical miles) away for Taveuni where he caught up with the rest of his friends.
Unbeknown to many too is the fact that Suka, though unmarried when he died, actually had a son.
He befriended a young Yacata maiden on one of his visits home when working at the Vatukoula gold mine in Viti Levu before the war.
The boy was named Taniela Mafi although his mother was not named in Nawadra's book.
Another remarkable story of Suka was related by a fellow soldier by the name of Corporal Sailasa Cakau who is from Natila village in Tailevu.
He was in the Second Battalion and saw active service in the Solomon Island campaign.
For his heroic acts in the many skirmishes with the enemy on Guadalcanal, the Americans awarded him the Silver Star.
Corporal Cakau was only able to recall this story when news broke of Suka's VC achievement.
He said that when he returned from the campaign and was on leave at his home in Suva one evening, he had an unexpected visitor.
"There was this handsome young man at the door," Cakau told Captain Nawadra.
When the stranger presented his gift of kava, Cakau could tell straight away that the man was from Cakaudrove province (because of the dialect he was using), and that he was from the island of Yacata.
Cakau said the young man had heard of his achievement in Guadalcanal and he wanted to come personally to congratulate him for winning the Silver Cross.
The young man was full of questions about the war in the Solomon Islands, Cakau remembered.
Unforgettable to this Tailevu war hero was the last question this young lad from Yacata posed; "What would you say would be the greatest act a soldier could do for his legacy?"
Cakau said he was struck by the intensity of the question and he initially was dumbfounded as he really had no clue as to the answer.
"Sukanaivalu, all that is required of you is to stay true to the calling you had answered," was all Cakau could offer as a response.
The fourth interesting bit of information on Suka was offered by another war historian.
It is said that Suka's bullet riddled body was not retrieved for burial until four months later.
His E company were in retreat when Suka was gunned down and his body and that of two other comrades - identified by Nawadra as Corporal Emori Cabenalevu and Private Viliame Nailati - were not buried until Australian soldiers flushed out the Japanese and took control of the Mawaraka region on Bougainville's west coast in October, 1944.
Suka and all those who died in that battle were accorded a full military funeral at the American War Cemetery near Cape Moltke in Bougainville before their bodies were exhumed years later for transfer to Bita Paka in East New Britain.
Eroni - Suka's younger brother and main story teller in Nawadra's book - provided another fascinating gem; As Suka and members of the Third Battalion were leaving Suva for the war in Bougainville, Yacata had two very important visitors.
One was Fiji's highly respected chief and the highest ranking local in the then colonial administration Ratu Sukuna, and the other was Apolosi R. Nawai.
It was actually a warden with a prisoner on tow.
Ratu Sukuna informed his WWI comrade, Ratu Paula, chief of Yacata that the Governor of Fiji has decreed that Nawai be exiled to Yacata.
The prisoner was described by Australian National University historian Dr Brij Lal as "one sceptical commoner ... who led a movement that was eventually regarded as a threat to the government." (Twentieth Century Fiji - People Who Shaped This Nation, page 29, 2001.)
Apolosi R. Nawai's desire was the formation of a solely indigenous owned company and the British rulers were beginning to worry about the growing influence of this charismatic and very popular leader.
"It is the decree of the colony that for his entire exile here on the island, it is forbidden, I will say that again, it is forbidden for Apolosi to speak to a woman, neither it is permissible for a woman to be his keeper," Eroni remembered Ratu Sukuna's words to the islanders that day.
"I would strongly suggest that you appoint one of your young men to look after the prisoner."
As it turned out, Eroni was the young man selected to be Apolosi's house-keeper.
Eroni said he was shivering with fright when he met Apolosi for the first time because of what Ratu Sukuna had said of the man, and also from what others have said about the prisoner.
Eroni told Nawadra that when they met, Apolosi promised that if he loyally and faithfully looked after him, Eroni's family and his island of Yacata would find fame and honour in the whole world!
Eroni never thought of that remark until news broke of Suka's death and the Victoria Cross that was accorded posthumously to him. That promise it seems is death-defying, as the Vulakoro name is still a household name more than six decades later, thanks to Fiji's vude queen, Laisa.
Eroni Vulakoro is her father.
When writing of Sefanaia Sukanaivalu in the book 20th Century Fiji - People Who Shaped This Nation, university political scientist Dr Morgan Tuimaleali'ifano wrote: "The Second World War was a defining moment in the history of the Pacific Islands. It exposed Islanders to the global theatre of war and brought home to them the many disparate worlds of westerners.
"Over 11,000 men passed through the Fiji military forces which peaked in size in August 1943 at 8,513 men. Of these, 6,371 were Fijians, 1,878 were Europeans and 264 were Indians.
"In this bloody episode of human conflict, unprecedented in the Pacific Islands, Corporal Sefanaia Sukanaivalu demonstrated one of the finest qualities of the human spirit by making the ultimate sacrifice in Bougainville."
Dr Tuimaleali'ifano is a direct descendant of one of the most powerful chiefly families in Samoa, which is the adopted home and final resting place of the famous writer Robert Louis Stevenson.
The epitaph on Stevenson's tomb rang true for the author as it could also be true of Sukanaivalu.
"Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill."
Cabobula can be read at the National Archives of Fiji