By Lice Movono at Nadi International Airport
Nadi, Fiji – AFTER PAYING tribute to war hero, Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba, a Fijian soldier who served in the British Army’s elite Special Air Service (SAS), His Royal Highness the Duke of Sussex took time to honour all Fijians in the British army, past and present before he left Fiji for the Friendly Isles, Tonga.
Prince Harry unveiled what is now called the Labalaba monument outside the arrivals concourse of the Nadi International Airport, his former Hollywood actress wife, Duchess Meghan Markle by his side.
Sgt Labalaba died in what became known as the Battle of Mirbat on 19 July 1972 in what is now Yemen after the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arabian Gulf (PFLOAG) attacked the British Army Training Team (BATT) house where he and fellow SAS soldiers were based.
Aged 30 at the time of his death, Sft Labalaba was shot in the jaw but continued to use a 25-pounder gun shooting at 250 members of the enemy forces before he eventually died. It is said the gun he used would normally have been manned by three soldiers.
A captain and two fellow troopers one of which was fellow Fijian Sekonaia Takavesi returned enemy fire but both were also shot. Trooper Takavesi who survived the encounter was honoured alongside Sgt Labalaba by President Jioje Konrote today.
Largely secret until very recently, the story of the native of Vatutu village in Nawaka, Nadi came to light when fellow SAS trooper Roger Cole in his book of the battle “SAS: Operation Storm” wrote that Sergeant Labalaba’s actions gave the SAS critical relief, necessary to hold the battle until the unit received air support.
While the Fijian was brought back to England and buried without much fanfare, Sgt Labalaba’s comrades have since campaigned for the Fijian hero to be awarded the Victoria Cross.
The Victoria Cross, is the most prestigious award of the British honours system, given for gallantry “in the presence of the enemy” to members of the British Army.
Sergeant Labalaba has however, a British Empire Medal, given for meritorious civil or military service.
In 2012, Sergeant Labalaba was honoured by the BBC as one of the 60 New Elizabethans, meaning someone whose actions during Elizabeth II’s reign have had a significant impact on the lives of people in the United Kingdom.
Speaking just before he unveiled the statue honouring Sergeant Lababa, Prince Harry was thankful.
“Thank you to the people of Fiji for the warm welcome we have received during our visit. The duchess and I are leaving with special memories of your beautiful country and look forward to returning in the future,” he said.
The newest royal couple were accorded full traditional welcome to Nadi followed by a farewell ceremony reserved only to the highest chiefs but this time in accordance with traditional itaukei customs.
The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are in Tonga until tomorrow before they travel to their last Pacific stop, New Zealand.