Monument Unveiled In Fiji For RNZAF Flying Boat Veterans
A commemorative monument has been unveiled in Fiji to recognise the service of veterans from the Royal New Zealand Air Force’s (RNZAF) flying boat operations, based at Laucala Bay in Suva, from 1941 to 1967.
RNZAF’s №5 Squadron conducted anti-submarine patrols, maritime reconnaissance and transport and air-sea rescue missions, flying Short Singapore, Consolidated Catalina and Short Sunderland aircraft.
The monument, designed and made in Fiji, was unveiled yesterday by Fiji Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama and New Zealand Defence Minister Ron Mark at the University of the South Pacific, on the land that was formerly home to the RNZAF №5 Squadron.
Laucala Bay veterans, a contingent of RNZAF personnel, including current members of №5 Squadron, the RNZAF band and Maori culture group, travelled to Fiji to attend the commemorations, which are part of the University of the South Pacific’s 50th anniversary celebrations.
During the ceremony Mr Bainimarama paid tribute to the veterans and talked about his own fond memories of the RNZAF at Laucala Bay.
“Today we commemorate the proud record of RNZAF service to our region, which continues today with the aerial surveillance and rescue missions you still fly from the New Zealand mainland,” he said.
“The people of Fiji extend a special welcome to you all. You are among friends who deeply appreciate your personal service to Fiji and especially the strong bonds you helped forge between our nations that endure today.
“Those of us of a certain age still see in our minds eye the mighty Sunderlands that used to lumber over Suva as they came in to land at Laucala Bay. We still remember the roar of the engines and the splash they made as they hit the water landing as gracefully as any bird. For any child like me at the time it was hugely exciting.”
Mr Mark emphasised the strong bond the Laucala Bay station forged between Fiji and New Zealand.
“We have a longstanding military relationship based on shared security interests that date from World War II,” he said. “That friendship is underpinned by the enduring ties between our people, who have worked side by side in distant lands for the cause of international peace and security, and closer to home in our own communities, such as during Exercise Southern Katipo, or following the devastating Tropical Cyclone Winston.
“This memorial stands as a reminder of how deep those ties run in our communities and the need to continue to engage and work together, united by shared values and as neighbours.
“By doing so, we honour the contribution made by our veterans to freedoms we enjoy, and from which our descendants will continue to benefit.”
At its height Laucala Bay station was home to 600 deployed RNZAF personnel and it was also a large employer of Fijians in a variety of roles.
The RNZAF left Laucala Bay in 1967, with the flying boats returning to Hobsonville, Auckland, where they were replaced by P3B Orion fixed-wing land-based aircraft.
The air base land and infrastructure became home to the University of the South Pacific (USP), which opened in 1968. Vice Chancellor and President Professor Rajesh Chandra delivered a speech at the unveiling.
“This commemorative monument to the №5 Squadron of the RNZAF recognises the contribution provided by the New Zealand Government and Fiji over the past 50 years to USP,” Professor Chandra said.
“Not only have we benefited from the legacy of the infrastructure left behind by the RNZAF, but the New Zealand Government has continued to support USP throughout our history.”
LAUCALA BAY BACKGROUND
The University of the South Pacific started at the Laucala campus in February 1968. The campus is on land previously occupied by the №5 Squadron of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, which returned to Auckland in 1967.
In September 1942, №5 Squadron was sent to Laucala Bay, Suva. Initially flying Singapore Flying Boats, then later Catalinas, the Squadron performed anti-submarine patrols and kept watch on suspected enemy ship and aircraft movements during the Second World War.
Even during the war the Catalinas were used for important humanitarian services, including air-sea rescues and transporting essential items to Pacific Islands. After the war the number of military staff declined, but the Catalinas continued to carry out air-sea rescues and maritime reconnaissance.
Throughout its life, the Laucala Bay base was a large employer of Fijians and contributed greatly to the economy of the area. When the Lau group of islands was devastated by a hurricane in 1949, the Squadron flew emergency flights to 11 islands of the group, carrying vital food and medical supplies.
In September 1951, with the signing of the ANZUS pact, New Zealand was assigned principle responsibility for surveillance of the South West Pacific and the Catalinas were replaced with Mk V Sunderland Flying Boats. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s these aircraft performed important intelligence gathering, search and rescue and mede-vac services across the South West Pacific.
Significantly, they were engaged in the search for the Joyita in 1955 and the rescue of survivors from Minerva Reef after the grounding of the Tuaikeaepau in 1962. In 1963 the Sunderlands played a critical air support role for the royal visit to Fiji of Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh.
On withdrawing from the base, the RNZAF left many valuable buildings and other infrastructure, which was used by The University of the South Pacific from 1968.