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.

26 Comments

Filed under Fiji, Pacific, Papua New Guinea, war

26 responses to “Rev. Sgt. Usaia Sotutu: Fijian missionary, spy, soldier

  1. Pita Tuisawau

    Greetings!
    Many thanks for this article. The Rev Sotutu was my Grandfather. The family including Rev Sotutu all survived the war. Rev Sotutu returned to Fiji after some years and served the Methodist Church in Fiji a number more years before he finally retired from active service. He passed away in 1979 and was burried on his home island of Tavea.
    Thanks again for the article. If you need anymore information just email me.

  2. Pita Tuisawau

    Correction to the above. He passed away in 1983. Sorry. Margaret Sotutu (originally from Greymouth on NZs South Island West Coast) in that photo of teachers in Ratu Kadavulevu is the wife of Paula Sotutu (Son of Usaia Sotutu).

  3. Vinaka vakalevu, Pita!

  4. Akisi Vuwai(Buasega)

    Fascinating to read about the family history.Thanks for posting this articles.
    Vinaka vakalevu sara to you Dave for the correct information..
    God bless you all..

  5. Dr Viliame Sotutu

    Bula Joel,
    Thanks for all that family history. I am another one of Rev Sotutu’s grandchildren. While he was an amazing man, it must be said that his wife was similarly a truly great woman. My father (Paula Sotutu – Diplomat, Public Servant, School Teacher) was their second son. My mother (also Margaret Sotutu – of the RKS photo, is a New Zealander). With Rev Sotutu’s missions legacy it may come as no surprise to learn that I am currently working in a Missions Hospital in the United Arab Emirates (Paediatrician). God bless.
    Viliame Sotutu

    • Mrs. Joan Menzies nee Cropp

      No one has mentioned Usiaia sotutu eldest son, Eronie Sotutu. I remember Eronie but not Paula.Eronie was with Usiaia when they were in the jungle on Buka during the war and I believe he was given a cication for bravery.
      I am rev. Alan Cropp’s eldest daughter. Usiaia and my father were missionaries on Buka at the same time. I live in Sydney and would love to hear from the Sotutu Family.
      Mrs Joan Menzies.

      • Mrs. Joan Menzies nee Cropp

        On reading further I realise that Paula is Eronie as I always knew him. Usaia Sotutu was a wonderful man. My brother Peter went to fiji and asked about Usaia’s wife Margaret (as we knew her) and he would have liked to see her, but she was living in a remote village and it was too far for hime to go.
        Joan Menzies (nee Cropp)

      • Pita Tuisawau

        Yes Joan!

        Uncle Paul we were told was always known as Eroni when he was younger. We were told that he got left behind on one of the Solomon islands with some of the first Fiji Commandos because he had accompanied some of them to their camp despite his mother’s warning not to. The rest of the family escaped by submarine to Noumea and Uncle Paul actually returned with the first Commandos by ship to Suva at the end of their operations. I was just reading about your own family in the Solomons with Grandad in one of John Garret’s books on Missionary activity in Oceania. Uncle Paul (Eroni) and Aunty Margaret currently now live in New Zealand with their son Dr Viliame Sotutu. Thanks for the memories and take care.

  6. My name is Jenny Davis. I really keen to know that to because my daddy’s Grand-father is from Fiji and he is doing his Missionary work in Bougainville. When he doing his missionary work there suddenly he gave a baby son to a lady from Bougainville and born is my daddy’s father, so he is my Grand-father who is a great cook, he used to cook for the American Soldiers in WW2 in Guadalcanal in 1945 and a great singer and my grand father is the first Solomon Islander to know how to ring a Ukalele.

    They naming my Grand-father after his father Reverend Ratu viliame so we still confused which Ratu Viliame, Please chat back I really keen to and used my email above

  7. JOSUA TUISAWAU

    Reverend Usaia Sotutu had 2 sons Mr Paula Sotutu and Inia Nasoya and 3 daughters Dorothy Tagi, Elizabeth Vakawaletabua and Susana Tuisawau.
    All 5 children are still alive with their own sets of children and grandchildren.
    I am the son of Susana and I can recount so many stories of Granpa Usaia’s exploits in the Solomon Islands during the war and especially of God’s protection and wonderous blessings . The name Col Upton is a familiar one.
    Thank you for the article Sir.
    Please do not hesitate to contact for any pictures and additional information.
    May God Bless You and the family and fellow readers.
    Vinaka
    Josh

  8. Grace Sotutu

    Wow, I am the great-granddaughter of the Reverend Usaia Sotutu (Paula is my grandfather, Viliame is my father) and it is amazing for me to read about the legacy left behind by my ancestors. What an honour!

  9. Usaia Sotutu

    Greetings to u all…this is usaia sotutu….my grand father is the Rev Usaia Sotutu….vinaka Dave….vinaka Buasega and Pita…not 4getting Grace…..well its an honor when u r named by a hero !!!……God Bless to u all

  10. Saula Naisarani

    Bula to you all.Just an addition to what transpired me to write a few words about this gallant man Rev Usaia Sotutu.I know his legacy will live on to the next generation and the next.I first knew about this man when one of his daughter was my teacher at Labasa(Mrs Tagi),who often talk about how they had to be carried through the jungle to safety.I know of the story about the ‘one hundredth trail’where he led to safety members of the 1st Fiji Battalion of which my grandfather was one of them.My grandad survived and lived to tell the tale about this’gun totting reverend’of which he was always indebted to.
    Rest in peace Rev Sotutu.

    S.Naisarani
    Monchengladbach
    Germany

    • Usaia Sotutu Tagi

      Mrs Tagi is my mother and is the third in the family. She still alive and lives in the island village of Tavea in Bua.

      • Saula Naisarani

        Bula vinaka.
        Yes Mrs Tagi was a teacher with class and distinction.Always pleasant.She taught my younger sister in school though..I’ve met more of the Sotutu siblings and they always seem carry with them that modest and pleasant behaviour with them which clearly depicts the legacy of this great man of God. God clearly allowed everything to happen to this man just to show what a great God we serve.

  11. Pita Tuisawau

    Vinaka vakalevu Saula!

    Thanks for the memories. You take care.

  12. I am also a grandson of usaia sotutu,i also hail from tavea island in bua.i am related to this grate man of god through my grandmother bu buasega (levu) from the naiteitei family in the mataqali of vuniqori.i would like to thank you all for the great message about this strong man of god.may the peace and the grace of the lord be with us all.

  13. My uncle was 2nd Lt Bruce Dent (KIA) Fiji Commandos. There is a photo that says “my grandad is the partly obscured gentleman behind the commanding officer” was that your grandad? Thanks

    • Pita Tuisawau

      Hi Paul!
      Sorry to hear about your Uncle. My Mum had once said that the man in that picture with your Uncle was her father Usaia Sotutu. I am not certain though because I know that my Grandfather was on the taller side and that gentleman is a bit short. But then again photos can distort how a person looks depending on the angle. Take care.

  14. Ann Luxton

    I have been scanning my parents’ photos from their time in the Solomon Islands but could find no information on Rev Uzziah Sotutu and his wife Margaret, and I have had no luck leaving messages on “Sotutu” Facebook inboxes. Fortunately my last attempt prompted Google to ask if I meant “Usaia”. I have no stories of them to share, but I am happy to share the photos with Sotutu family members if they would like them. They sounds like an amazing couple. My parents were Clarry and Mavis Luxton and they were in the Solomons for some 10 years from 1939.

    • Pita Tuisawau

      Hi Ann!
      My mother Susana Sotutu was the youngest of the children. Thanks for the offer to share the scanned photos. I am sure, the family would be very grateful if you shared some of those photos with us. Thanks again for the offer and kind words. You can send me a message on Facebook. Many thanks again and God bless.
      Pita

      • Ann Luxton

        Hi Pita, hopefully I have just sent an appropriate photo to you on Facebook, if not, another Pita has it. The other baby is Peter – similar influences at play in the naming of the children! Regards, Ann

  15. Josaia Tulomana

    Hello,I am currently a Language teacher here in Fiji…I teach the book that Makereta Sotutu wrote titled Na Liga Loloma in my Vernacular classes which relates the account of the Sotutu family while carrying out missionary works in the Solomon Islands. I ‘ve tried searching for more information on Rev. Sotutu but it proved futile. This great book however has it all and I could relate it to the events and information that is given by some earlier post. It started way before the war when the Sotutu children were not born and how they grew up among the natives, and then the war started. It also mentioned them ending up in one New Caledonian Prison.

    • Pita Tuisawau

      Vinaka valevu Master. I didnt realise that the book is still in use in Fiji schools today.Like my Tavale Viliame Sotutu has mentioned further up in this comments section, even though the Rev Sotutu received a lot of fame during the war, Makereta Sotutu (or Geni as all of her grandchildren knew her) was an equally inspiring woman. All the best in your teaching endeavours.

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