Lest we forget Laba
Updated: Nov 15, 2021
In two previous posts, I told you of the outstanding World War II service of Fijians in the Pacific campaigns, and the inspiring heroism of Sefanaia Sukanaivalu who was awarded the Victoria Cross (posthumous). To honour all Fijians who served loyally in war this Remembrance Day and especially those who lost their lives, I'll bring you a story with a difference - that of Talaiasi Labalaba, known to his fellow soldiers as Laba.
In World War II, Fiji was part of the British Empire and so automatically at war with Germany and the Axis powers. Volunteers flocked to join the tiny Fiji Military Forces. Serving his chief was the highest honour for a Fijian man and King George VI was the highest chief of all. Fijians' loyalty was total. Fijian soldiers earned such a high reputation that post-war, individual Fijians could apply to join the British armed forces. This was a chance for training, experience and income far beyond what was available at home - a chance that Talaiasi Labalaba grasped with both hands.
Laba grew up in a village not far from Fiji's international airport at Nadi. When he was eighteen, the British army accepted his application, placing him in the Royal Ulster Rifles. Army life suited him and after 12 years' service, he was a sergeant in the Special Air Service (SAS), an elite unit specialising in counter-terrorism, hostage rescue, and often covert direct action. His comrades dubbed him "the gentle giant". SAS secrecy means not much is known of his deployments, but he served in the Aden Emergency and Dhofar rebellion, when Marxist revolutionaries fought to overthrow the Arab monarchies.
Battle of Mirbat
In July 1972, Laba and eight other SAS soldiers of the British Army Training Team (BATT) were in Oman, providing support to the Sultan of Oman and his forces. On the eve of the SAS departure, the rebel Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf attacked their military compound near Fort Mirbat.
Knowing his unit was hopelessly outnumbered, Sgt Labalaba ran hundreds of yards to reach a 25-pounder artillery gun, usually operated by four to six men. He held out for two and a half hours against at least 250 fighters, repelling waves of attacks, even after comrades were killed and he was shot in the jaw. Laba died after he was shot through the neck. The SAS held their position until Omani air and ground forces arrived and dispersed the rebels.
Lest we forget
Labalaba's remaining comrades said that without him, they could not have survived. Laba was awarded a Mentioned in Despatches and the British Empire Medal. He is buried at St Martin's Church in Hereford, England. A statue of Labalaba was erected in 2009 at the SAS headquarters in Herefordshire, and another, at Nadi International Airport in Fiji, was unveiled by Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, in 2018.
Note: Since independence in 1970, Fiji's own standing military forces have become known for sterling service as United Nations peacekeepers in Lebanon, Sinai, Kosovo and other trouble spots.
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