When some Fijians think of New Zealand, they think of big white flying boats soaring overhead – a common sight between 1941 and 1967 when the RNZAF had a base in Laucala Bay. Sam Sachdeva was in Suva for the unveiling of a sculpture to commemorate New Zealand’s flying boat veterans.
Ratu Josefa Mataitini was in Year 7 when the New Zealanders left Laucala Bay.
Unsurprisingly, the Fijian veteran doesn’t remember much from their time in his country.
What does stick in his mind, however, is the drone of the Sunderland flying boats overhead.
“Every morning we used to hear the aeroplane, it woke us up every morning.”
The memory of that sound, and Mataitini’s own experiences of the hardships military personnel endure, were what brought him to the Returned Soldiers and Ex-Servicemen Association (RSESA) Club in Suva to share a cold drink and warm conversation with New Zealand’s Laucala Bay veterans.
“It’s great, what they did: without their service in Fiji, we couldn’t be at this stage.”
A Fijian legacy
The group of Kiwi veterans flew to Fiji with Defence Minister Ron Mark for the unveiling of a sculpture in their honour – fittingly, constructed with the help of parts from one of the Sunderlands.
After the outbreak of hostilities with Japan during World War II, the RNZAF’s No. 5 Squadron started flying maritime surveillance and anti-submarine patrols out of Fiji.
Following the end of the war, the squadron continued to carry out maritime patrols from Laucala Bay, as well as transport and air-sea rescue missions.
Peter Foster, who flew with 5 Squadron in Laucala Bay for three years, said it was the Government’s way to provide all the services needed in the region, whether military or social.
“We were a transport unit, we were a medical unit, we were a search and rescue unit, we were required to go to all sorts of funny places that we’d never been to before.”
There was also what Foster called “flying airplanes into strange places”, as illustrated by his tale of a rescue mission.
“I went once to do a mercy flight for a guy who, a barracuda had chopped the whole back of his bloody ankle off, and we flew and did an open-sea landing and pulled him on, and that was a bloody nightmare of a take-off, I can remember.
“Bouncing off these huge bloody swells, and a doctor downstairs trying to attend to this guy – he was probably worried like buggery for his life.”
Foster came to Laucala Bay as a newly married 20-year-old – “My son was born here in 1962, he thinks he’s a Fijian” – and said the deployment was “fabulous” not only for the plethora of flying hours, but the social and sporting activities on offer.
A teenage dream
John Fitch’s Laucala Bay experience was somewhat different.
Fitch, 66, came to Fiji as a 14-year-old ATC cadet when the flight sergeant arranged a trip for his squadron.
“I’d been working enough and I had enough money and I went cool, I’d like to go there.”
Fitch’s father served in the 3rd Division in World War II, with the Suva prison as his barracks, and his son decided a Laucala Bay visit was a chance to see what the Air Force was all about.
“A couple of years later, I went, I need to do something, and I joined the RNZAF and became an air electronics operator which is like a signaller in the Sunderlands.”
After “quite a few years” on 5 Squadron in Orions, Fitch said he still remained involved in his retirement, albeit in a civilian support role.
“Now I look at it there and they’re so incredibly young and I can relate to when I was there. I was flying with old men – they must have been at least 30.”
5 Squadron was “universally known” in the Pacific, he said – even if they did have stronger memories of the predecessor to the aircraft he flew in.
“They’d come up and go, ‘The big white flying boat’, and I’d say no, the big grey four-engined aeroplane with the funny tail – and that was the Orion.”
Blenheim veteran Mary Barnes, who worked in accounts at Laucala Bay from 1958 to 1959, said the memories of her Fijian days had barely faded.
“I can remember vividly what it was like being here. Marvellous, absolutely marvellous – it took a while to get used to the heat though, not so much the heat but the humidity...
“The Fijians accepted us with open arms and we accepted them exactly the same – we’ve still got friends, well I have anyway, who stay in touch.”
Barnes said the veterans were treated like long-lost friends when they arrived in Suva. What did it mean for her to be back?
“I’ve got two words on that: very emotional,” she said, tears forming in her eyes. “Next question?”
RSESA president Ratu Peni Volavola only joined the Fijian military in 1970, but said he still had strong memories of the RNZAF’s time at Laucala Bay.
“It used to be one of our favourite places to go, being near the sea and to watch those big Catalinas and Sunderlands coming in and out, it was always exciting.
“My father who studied in New Zealand, when he came back he came back on one of those Sunderlands. We went to Laucala Bay and we were so excited...not so much about his coming home, but because we saw him landing.”
The RNZAF’s role was “so critical, so hugely important”, Volavola said, given Fiji’s status as a maritime country and the need to look after its seas.
“We were really grateful, we are still grateful, we will always be grateful for the services they did then – and the ongoing services they still provide to us.”
Those ongoing services take the form of maritime surveillance and search and rescue operations in the Pacific.
But the RNZAF also left a physical legacy behind, as University of the South Pacific vice-chancellor Rajesh Chandra noted.
A legacy of learning
Chandra’s institution, marking its 50th anniversary, is located on the former base of 5 Squadron, and New Zealand left behind a number of buildings that would later be used as lecture theatres, meeting spaces and staff accommodation.
“For 25 years the New Zealand government invested in the infrastructure that would later become the backbone of the facilities to be used by USP.”
50 years on from its creation, the university has 14 campuses across 12 countries, spread over 33 million square kilometres of the Pacific.
The unveiling of the flying boat sculpture on Friday at the university campus was not perfect.
Thousands had been expected to attend, but booming claps of thunder and torrential rain forced the veterans and dignitaries into a cramped lecture theatre where they could watch the unveiling via a live stream.
But there was no hiding the gravity of the occasion, with Fijian Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama revealing his own childhood memories of “the mighty Sunderlands”.
“We still remember the roar of the engines and the splash they made as they hit the water, landing as gracefully as any bird.”
When the New Zealanders departed, Bainimarama said, they left behind “a sudden stillness”, having provided a sense of security and stability to Fiji.
Now, the university sculpture will provide a constant reminder of the motion and noise that many Fijians still recall fondly.