For quarter of a century the Royal New Zealand Air Force made some major contributions to the Fiji. Based at strategic locations in Fiji, the RNZAF built the airfields in Nadi and Nausori and later the establishment of the seaplane station in Laucala Bay, Suva. In addition several of their personnel worked at the Fiji Met office, and were deployed in aircrafts to fly around (often ending up flying right through) hurricanes. They also provided medivac services for emergency cases in remote areas, and were key in providing disaster relief after natural disasters. This important era of the RNZAF operations in Fiji is the very reason why author and oral historian Bee Dawson visited the National Archives of Fiji to carry out research.
With a total of sixteen books to her name, the former psychologist
with the RNZAF took up writing as she loved to tell stories. Having written five other books on the RNZAF, Ms Dawson said she “was just waiting for the opportunity to write about Laucala Bay seaplane base”.
“I had met several people whilst interviewing them for my other books who had served at Laucala Bay and I had a lot of materials on it.”
“I think this book is very important as it covers an era when New Zealand and Fiji were working together very closely. At the beginning of World War Two, New Zealand was responsible for the defense of Fiji until the Americans took over that role in 1942. New Zealand construction teams built the first airfields at Nausori and Nadi, and later established the seaplane station at Laucala Bay. During the war New Zealand aeroplanes carried out many patrols around Fiji and escorted ships that were in Fijian waters.
The Fiji Times issue of December 13th 1948 highlighted “the Royal New Zealand Air Forces Catalinas experimenting with “drops” in preparation for providing emergency supplies to isolated communities in Lau”.
After the war the Catalina flying boats (later Sunderland flying boats) continued to support the Fijian people. They worked closely with meteorological services – whenever a hurricane was building up somewhere in the area an aircraft would be sent to fly around, or into, the developing hurricane to take pressure and wind velocity readings which were sent back to the weather people in Fiji. After hurricanes the RNZAF had a vital role flying relief missions to islands that had sustained damage. They took water, food and building supplies, but sometimes the most crucial thing was the medical support. This included medical evacuation of injured people.
“Medical relief flights around the Pacific were a major part of the RNZAF’s work – and the seaplane station at Laucala Bay was central to these missions.
Search and rescue was also important – flights were often sent out to look for missing boats. One of the most famous rescues was when a boatload of Tongan boxers was rescued from Minerva Reef in 1962. “
She also spoke about the role RNZAF played in the construction of the Nadi and Nausori airfields.“In 1941, the Americans were getting interested in the strategic significance of Fiji, even though they were not in the war yet they realised they wanted a safer southern route.
Later that year the Americans contracted New Zealand to upgrade the Nadi airfield. Within a week about 400 people from New Zealand arrived to begin the airfields upgrade. In the end there were over 1200 Europeans and thousands of local labour.
The construction of the Nadi airfield was according to Ms Dawson highlighted in the “History of the Pacific War” as one of the great achievements of the Pacific War. “It was a massive operation and very quickly done.
“The New Zealanders laid the foundations and then we did the major upgrade for the Americans. They were around for a little while but in 1942 the Americans took over the defence of Fiji and from then on the New Zealand troops and any other troops were under the American command.
The RNZAF station at Laucala Bay was also a significant employer of local Fijian labour. Many local people worked in the hangars, on the marine section boats, in the bars and as house girls.. The officers were encouraged to hire local help as it would assist them during their stay. “They were given allowances to pay and it made life easier and of course the employment it offered.”
At the National Archives, Ms Dawson was able to gather information and identify images for her book.
“There were a number of very comprehensive files that I looked through. These were mostly to do with the closing of the station in the mid 1960s. I also found many photographs – and some of these are absolutely ideal for my book. I have photo-copies and will order them once the manuscript is written. I have got many valuable local insights and some very good photographs. I have also got excellent information from files at the National Archives.”
She commended the National Archives for their friendly and keen-to-help attitude.
Her book likely to be titled ‘RNZAF Station Laucala Bay’ will be published as part of the RNZAF’s 80th birthday celebrations in 2017.