10 March 2007

Rev. Sgt. Usaia Sotutu: Fijian missionary, spy, soldier

One of the most intriguing people whose name keeps popping up in accounts of coastwatching in the Solomon Islands during World War II is Usaia Sotutu, a Fijian missionary who volunteered to help the coastwatchers. His name appears (according to the index) in 18 different passages in the book I just finished reading, Coast Watching in WWII: Operations against the Japanese in the Solomon Islands, 1941–43, by A. B. Feuer (Stackpole, 2006).

Nevertheless, I can find no profile of him anywhere on the web—although there is another Usaia Sotutu born on 20 September 1947, a Fijian athlete who participated in the 1972 Olympics and the 1975 South Pacific Games, whom I presume to be among the children of Usaia and Margaret Sotutu. [They were not. See the correction below.—J.] So, in an effort to get a better sense of this remarkable man, I want to compile as much as I can in a blogpost, beginning with several passages from Feuer's book.
[April 1942, p. 33] Friendly Fijian natives, led by Usaia Sotutu, hid the AIF [Australian Imperial Force] men from Japanese search parties. Usaia knew every inch of Buka Island and guided the soldiers to the western end of the [Buka] Passage. For several days, the Fijians kept the Army lads concealed until Usaia was able to find a few canoes. Then, under cover of night, he sneaked the coast watchers and their teleradio across the Passage to Soraken.

[June 1942, p. 40] While waiting for the air drop at Kunua, I again met with Father Herbert and Usaia Sotutu. Usaia was still keen on taking an active part in our cause and brought with him a half-caste lad—Anton Jossten. Like Usaia, Anton was very intelligent and spoke English fluently. They had an unusual proposition for me that had immediate appeal. Usaia had a following of educated natives who had been employed as teachers at the Methodist Mission. Usaia and Anton, with the assistance of this group, wanted to establish an espionage network to furnish intelligence regarding Japanese activity around the Buka Passage. The scheme had intriguing possibilities. The teachers were not known to be in any way connected with our coast watching activities. They could move about, within or near enemy lines, without suspicion. I gave Usaia the go-ahead to proceed with his plans. And, although both he and Anton were willing to work voluntarily, I gave them both to understand that I would try and have them enlisted—or put on the payroll in some other capacity.

[January 1943, p. 120] On the night of January 10, Usaia Sotutu and Corporal Sali secretly sneaked down the mountain into Soraken and set fire to every building and wharf. At dawn, the enemy arrived in force to view the gutted ruins.... I am convinced that our action delayed the Japanese occupation of Soraken.

[March 1943, p. 191] After reaching Namatoa, our detachment was split into three parties, each consisting of eight soldiers and a number of trusted natives. I also met Usaia Sotutu—a fine stamp of a man, six feet tall or over, whose wife Margaret and young children passed me as our boat, from the U.S.S. Gato, headed for the beach. Mrs. Sotutu, and her children, were on their way to safety aboard the submarine. I was among the first 12 Army personnel that arrived on this trip.

[July 1943, p. 201] On its second trip to Bougainville the [U.S.S.] Guardfish evacuated 23 people. In addition to Jack Read, the rescued personnel included Captain Eric Robinson, Usaia Sotutu, Anton Jossten, Sergeant Yauwika, Corporal Sali, Constables Sanei and Ena, and 15 other natives. The site chosen for the rescue of Jack Read and his party was at a point south of the Kiviki River. At 4 a.m. on July 30, Read and his men were transferred to a subchaser, and at 7 p.m., they reached Guadalcanal.
The New Zealand Electronic Text Centre's Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–45: The Pacific, chapter 10, section III, Battalions Move to the Solomons offers a glimpse of the Rev. Sgt. Usaia Sotutu's later exploits.
Almost three years after its formation, 1 Battalion, Fiji Military Forces, sailed for the Solomons on 15 April 1943 in the USS President Hayes. Half the officers and many of the non-commissioned officers were New Zealanders, three of them former instructors lent to Fiji in November 1939. The battalion, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel J. B. K. Taylor, who had served with the New Zealand Division in Egypt and France during the 1914–18 War and later joined the Fiji administration, reached Guadalcanal on 19 April and occupied a camp at Kukumbona. On 8 May, after the American command had complied with Taylor's desire not to break up his unit into small groups for action in New Georgia, the battalion moved to a more agreeable camp site in the island of Florida. It remained there for five months, practising jungle tactics and landing exercises and carrying out such routine tasks as beach patrols and coastwatching....

When the Fiji Battalion landed [in Bougainville], American forces had established road blocks on these trails to prevent any surprise attacks from the main Japanese forces occuping the south and north-east coasts of Bougainville, with their principal concentrations round Buin, Kahili, and Kieta. The most disputed of these tracks was the Numa Numa Trail, which led through the mountains from the gorge of the Laruma River. Air observation by aeroplanes based on the Torokina and Piva airstrips, though valuable, was unreliable in country where ground movement could not be accurately discerned, so that all vital intelligence was obtained from patrols working through the rough country beyond the limits of the perimeter. Because of the desire to obtain as much intelligence information as possible without revealing their own strength, patrols were at first instructed not to fight unless they were forced to do so. Enemy patrols, on similar missions, worked down from the forest-clad hills towards the perimeter, so that these alert opposing groups, creeping through the jungle, continually tried to ambush each other and frequently succeeded....

A strong combined patrol from 129 US Infantry Regiment and 1 Fiji Battalion set out from the perimeter, but was driven back soon after it entered the rough hill country towards Sisivie and Tokua, two native villages which gave their names to the forest tracks leading to the garrison area from the rear. Almost simultaneously the Japanese began their attacks on road blocks established along the tracks covering the Ibu post. [Battalion commander Lt. Col.] Upton decided to evacuate the position and withdraw his force down the Ibu-Sisivie trail, which would bring him to the Laruma River and the Numa Numa Trail and so into the perimeter. Early on the morning of 15 February [1944] he despatched [Capt.] Corner from the outpost with the first section of the garrison, which included 120 native carriers with ammunition and radio equipment, and 100 native women and children from mountain villages who feared enemy reprisals....

Corner found his way blocked by determined Japanese attacks on the road posts and retired along the trail he had just traversed, taking up a defensive position at a ravine which offered the only good natural barrier. He was joined there later in the afternoon with the main force under Upton, who was confronted with a disturbing situation. All escape routes were blocked by the Japanese, who greatly outnumbered him, and no help was available from American or Fiji units from the perimeter. He had little time to decide how to get 400-odd men and 200 natives over a mountain range and down to the perimeter unknown to the Japanese, who were now pressing the battalion patrols blocking the tracks along which Upton's force was extended. A Fijian sergeant, Usaia Sotutu [emphasis added], who had been a missionary on Bougainville for twenty years, saved the day. He remembered an old, disused track near the ravine and led the battalion along it, carefully camouflaging the entrance where it branched off the main trail the force had just used.... On 19 February the force reached the coast intact and with only one man wounded. In those four days, travelling slowly and with the utmost difficulty, the Ibu force climbed 5000 feet through dense forest drenched with rain, and carried arms and equipment, which included Vickers guns, 3-inch mortars, and food for more than 600 people—soldiers and natives.
It's not clear where he ended up after the war (or even whether he survived it), but a Margaret Sotutu turns up in a photo of teachers at Ratu Kandavulevu School in Fiji in 1962, seated next to a Paula Sotutu, who went on to a distinguished career as a diplomat and public servant. The most recent source I could find on the Rev. Sgt. Usaia Sotutu is a speech on 27 August 2005 by Fijian Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase welcoming Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Michael Somare, whose delegation repatriated the remains of Sefanaia Sukanaivalu, a Fijian soldier who had died on Bougainville in 1944.
In the final decades of the 19th century, Fijian missionaries began to help in taking the Light of Christianity to your islands. We remember those soldiers of God today and give thanks for their service. Many settled, married and became part of village life. This missionary tradition continued until after the last War.

We have with us today Mr Paula Sotutu, a well-known and distinguished citizen of Fiji. Paula has a very personal perspective of the Fijian missionary experience in Bougainville. His father, Reverend Usaia Sotutu, was perhaps the most famous of those pioneering preachers. He spread the Word for 27 years in the Teop and Buin-Siwai areas and had many followers.

Paula, his brother and sisters, were born at the Buka Mission Hospital. He accompanied his father during many pastoral visits to his flock. Paula remembers clearly some of his father’s courageous exploits as a wartime coast watcher and guide to government officials and a small contingent of Australian troops.

Later, when Bougainville was retaken, he made his local knowledge available to Fijian troops, who were part of the invasion force. Mrs Sotutu and the children were smuggled to safety in a submarine in 1943. Reverend Sotutu stayed behind. He still had God’s work to do.

The following year Corporal Sefanaia Sukanaivalu, was awarded the Victoria Cross for giving his life at Bougainville to save his fellow soldiers.

For over 60 years, this dear and brave son of Fiji – our greatest war hero - has been buried at Rabaul.
UPDATE: David Sotutu, son of the Olympian Usaia Sotutu, offers a correction.
In your article you mentioned a Usaia Sotutu that was born on September 20, 1947 and participated in the Olympics and South Pacific Games.

He is my father. His parents were not Usaia and Margaret Sotutu. He is only named after Usaia Sotutu. His parents were Tevita Naiteitei and Akisi Buasega. He was born in the village of Tavea in Bua. He now lives in Tacoma, Washington, USA.

1 comment:

shaunaumua said...

The activities of Sgts Usaia Sotutu and Eron Kotosuna both Methodist Missionaries and secretly members of the Australian Intelligence Branch attached BSIP was keep TOP SECRET during the war and as a result the files were locked till recently. Sotutu was awarded a BEM for gallantry. I will post more info once I have completed my research.