b. 01/01/1918 Yacata, Fiji. d. 23/06/1944 Mawaraka, Solomon Islands
Sefanaia Sukanaivalu (1918-1944) was born on 1st January 1918 in Yacata, Fiji, and was 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. Sefanaia was born two months prematurely, and because his 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.
Despite his tough start, he grew stronger, and he became fearless. He was seen as a bit of a loner, and often preferred to go hunting or spear fishing alone. 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.
“Suka” as he was known, then found out his older brother Aisea and younger brother Eroni had found work at Mount Kasi mine near Savusavu, so he left Vatukoula to join them. 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.
Suka actually missed the boat to be able to enlist, but undaunted, he 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. Sukanaivalu joined the 3rd battalion of Fiji's Infantry Regiment on April 23rd, 1942 when he was 24.
On June 23rd, 1944 at Mawaraka, Bougainville, in the Solomon Islands, Cpl. Sefanaia Sukanaivalu crawled forward to rescue some men wounded when their platoon was ambushed. After recovering two men this N.C.O. volunteered to go alone through heavy fire to try and rescue another - but on the way back was seriously wounded and fell to the ground unable to move further. Several unsuccessful attempts were made to rescue him; and realising that his men would not withdraw while he was still alive Cpl. Sukanaivalu 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 knowing that in no other way could his men be induced to retire from a situation in which they must have been annihilated.
His body was not recovered for burial until four months later, 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 Bitapaka War Cemetery, Rabaul, Papua New Guinea. He was then gazetted on 2nd November 1944 as the only Fijian recipient of the Victoria Cross. His medals are not publicly held.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: NOT PUBLICLY HELD.
BURIAL PLACE: BITAPAKA WAR CEMETERY, RABAUL, PAPUA NEW GUINEA.
Sefanaia Sukanaivalu's grave in the Bitapaka War Cemetery, Rabaul
(picture courtesy of Steve Lee).
Cemetery Plan courtesy of Kevin Brazier
PLOT V, ROW B, GRAVE 13