HEROES OF MINERVA REEF

Part II

It was also in September that two others died. September was and still is - a month that brings me unhappy memories. Sione Lousi and Sione Sikimeti were the next two to leave us. After a funeral ceremony in honour of the two men, Talo took their bodies (which were tied to a floater) to the end of the reef and let go. This was perhaps the lowest period of our ordeal. Mean while, Fetaiaki Pulu, Vaiangina, Sateki Fifita and Viliami Fa were all sick. They were all confined to their sleeping places. Things were getting harder and harder and were taking their toll on us.

A few rainy periods in September enabled us to collect a small amount of rain water for drinking. The "drinking-water" was becoming scarce ,only a small amount of water was given for each one. The water from steaming was barely enough for all of us. Another problem with steaming was the use of firewood (timber) which was now becoming a problem. Athough the fire had to be kept alive, the management of the firewood had to be maintained for our supply was slowly running out.

One incident I can remember very well was when the Captain punished me for being late to my job(putting the putty on the boat). I was told to go fishing alone. Despite the dangers of fishing alone, I accepted the punishment and went fishing by myself. I remember praying to God, asking for strength in order to do the job that I was ordered to do. In my prayer, I also asked God that if I was punished for the right reason, then take my life away (after all death was now a major part of daily life). On the other hand , if the punishment was unjust , then please spare my life for the hope of returning home alive.

Interestingly, after my prayer I felt so strong and felt so good inside. I then set out fishing. To my own amazement I caught so many fish. There were over a hundred fish caught. I could not carry the "catch", therefore I had to wait for the tide to come in (high tide) so that I could drag the lot back to the wreck.

When I arrived at the wreck, I gave them the fish to be cooked while I had a sleep for I was so exhausted. Before I slept, I was lying there being upset for being punished but I knew that I had to forget it. It was not worth confronting the Captain which might stir up more trouble. The punishment was a turning point for me. As mentioned earlier, the crew for the rescue mission was to be the Captain , myself and Ve'etutu. I changed my mind and decided that I did not want to go. Unharmony on a rescue mission would be recipe for disaster. Ve'etutu also stayed. It was then decided that Tevita Uaisele and Tevita Fifita's son would be our replacements.

A week later, Viliami Fa and I went fishing. About a mile away from the wreck, I started to suffer from severe cramps in both legs. This was a tragedy as far as I was concerned. I could remember telling Viliami Fa to go back to the wreck and leave me there to die. I suppose the will to live had slowly gone for we have now been on the reef for months. I really felt that my legs were giving up on me and I could not use them at all. Viliami Fa refused to leave me there, a decision that I will always treasure for if it was not for Viliami, I would not be here to tell this story. He told me to hang on to the string(a string was always used to hold the fish together). I hung on to the string while Viliami dragged me along with the fish that we caught.

As we headed toward the wreck, a shark appeared as we had anticipated. The shark was attracted to the fish we had. I thought this was going to be the end of us. The shark swam straight at us. Our first line of defense was to stop the shark from attacking us by feeding it with our fish. We were hoping that by giving it the fish ,it might be satisfied and leave us alone.

To our horror, the shark finished all the fish we had in our possession and still hang around. We knew that it was only a matter of time before it would attack us. The shark hung around before heading towards us again. Viliami Fa told me to push my spear into the sand and hang on to it. He was getting ready to spear the shark with his own spear. As the shark came closer and closer, Viliami courageously threw out his spear - hitting the shark right on the head. The shark, suffering from shock and the impact of the spear retreated quickly. In doing so the spear fell off. A few seconds later, the shark came back. This time it came straight at Viliami Fa. As it came closer, I pulled out my spear and quickly threw it at the shark,thus miraculously striking the shark through the eyes from one the other. We were both relieved and this was probably the luckiest shot I have ever scored in my whole life.

We both held on to each end of the the spear while Viliami finished off the shark weith his spear that he had just retrieved from where the shark left. Viliami Fa then used his shirt to signal to the crews back at the wrec to come for help. At first they thought that one or both of us were injured. Talo and one other came to our aid ans they reached us they realized what had happened. They helped drag me while Viliami took care of the shark. Up to now I owe my life to Viliami Fa.

When we arrived back at the wreck, they opened the shark's stomach to recover the that it had swallowed. The shark was chopped up to pieces for our meal for that day and the next few days. While this was happening, I was having a lie - down because of severe cramps to my legs as due to coldness and perhaps muscle fatigue.

I was unable to do any work for one and half weeks and was lying down most of that time. When I recovered, we went diving at the spot where the Tuaikaepau struck the reef. We were diving without goggles and Soakai Pulu found one of the cane knives (helepelu) we had in the boat. We took this knife back to the Japanese wreck and it was used to cut off the mast of the Japanese boat. This mast was used an outrigger for the Malolelei(the small boat we built for the rescue mission). At the mean time S.O.S messages were written. One of those that I can vividly remember was "S.O.S Tuaikaepau Minerva Reef". The messages were written on pieces of timber and two 44 gallon drums. These were dumped into the sea in hope that someone might find one and raise the alarm. To no avail, none of these messages were picked up before our rescue. Several reasons for this can be theorised, such as the current drift and the location of the reef itself. Also at the time not many ships travel near Minerva except for fishing boats.

I have not got enough words to describe the useful and remarkable work done by each of the following men: Ve'etutu Pahulu, Talo Fifita, Tevita Uaisele, Sipe Fine, Sione Lousi, Fatai Efiafe, Teiapa'a Bloomfield, Vaiangine, Soakai Pulu, Fetaiaki Pulu, Viliami Fa, Finau Laione, Sione Sikimeti, Sateki Fifita, Saia Peni and above all, the Captain Tevita Fifta, Each of us had done or played a major role in our effort to overcome death apart from the seven that could not make it to the end.

The boat was now completed it was called the "Maloelelei"; it had a mast , a sail and a jib. The boat was now ready and Tevita and his two companions were ready to go. In Tevita's possession was a sextant or a quadrant as well a part of a map found in the wreck. Everything was now ready for Tevita, Uaisele and Sateki. Before they left, Tevita delivered an memorable and a very emotional speech. In his speech he emphasized the importance of staying together and remaining cool ,composed and patient. No doubt he feared the possibility of not making it to Fiji. Eventually, he said that if nothing happened within 14 days, they would then be assumed dead. This would therefore mean the remaining party must conduct other rescue missions.

After Tevita's speech they left and as they sailed away, we all wished them "Good Luck", for we knew our lives dependes on the success of this mission. This mission was our only hope. In my mind I trusted God and believed that he would guide Tevita to land safely in Fiji.

We all watched Tevita's boat until it disappeared into the horizon. Things were very quiet and day 1 went past as well as days 2,3,4,5 and so forth. Our morale was still high until day 11 when Fetaiaki Pulu died. We were devasted at this loss especially when we had high hopes that Tevita would make it to Fiji. Our high spirits were down again ( for the umpteenth time).

We later found out that on the same evening (day 11), Tevita Fifita and Tevita Uaisele landed on the island of Kandavu in the Fiji group. Unfortunately their boat (the Malolelei) sank on the reef surrounding the island and Tevita Fifita's son drowned. So close and yet so far for this young man, the land was only a few meters away ( 500 meters at most). Tevita's probably lost the will to live. Considering what this young personhad to endure for so long, one must symphasise with what might have gone through his mind just before he drowned. It was a Sunday evening that Tevita Fifita and Tevita Uaisele made it to Kandavu. They reached the township and raised the alarm. A telegram was sent to Suva (the Capital of Fiji) and one to the Kingdom of Tonga. Both governments of Fiji and Tonga were informed of the tragedy and the urgent need to rescue the remaining crew on Minerva Reef.

It was a Monday evening, day 12 and I was using the "still' to collect some water for Viliami Fa and Finau Laione. These two were so sick they could not walk and hardly talk, I was looking after them and I hated to think of them dying. After feeding the two, I made my way up to the deck. As I was half way up, Ve'etutu yelled out - "It's an aeroplane". For a second or two, I thought it was too good to be true. I rushed to the deck as quick as I could. Together with most of the crew on deck, we all looked at the plane in the sky. We all stared and stared at this moving object without saying a word. Some seemed to be just staring at the sky with a look of disbelief.

Also at this time we were not sure whether the plane was coming for us or it was just on its way to some other destination. It was not uncommon to see planes flying directly above the reef but at very high altitude. This one was different , it was coming at very low altitude and a bearing that was different from any previous encounter. A few minutes later, to our surprise,the plane's spotlight shone straight at us. Momentarily, the tears of joy kept running down from our eyes. For me personally, the joy got the bette of me, I could not stop crying. We knew right at that moment that the three (Tevita Fifita, his son and Tevita Uaisele) had landed.

It was 11:00 p.m at night when the plane dropped a box of food for us using a parachute before returnig back to Fiji. The parachute landed on a sandy spot just beside the Japanese wreck. Tyres found in the wreck were lit up and used as torches. We checked out the parachute and found a box of food. The box was brought to the wreck before opening it. Inside were canned food, drink bottles and a note. The note was a reminder that the plane would be back the next day to take us to Fiji.

For a change, we had the happiest time of our long ordeal. It was rather surprising (perhaps bizarre) to find out that the food was already divided up to 10 people. There were 11 of us when Tevita and his companions left. However by the time the plane came, there were only 10 of us left. Fetaiaki had passed away the previous night.

Before the food was distributed, Ve'etutu said a prayer thus thanking God for leading Tevita and his crew safely to Fiji. In the midst of all these, Finau Laione and Viliami were too sick they could hardly walk. To our surprise , they yelled out - "Remember us guys,we must be included too". Ve'etutu jokingly replied, "stay there and be quiet or you two will miss out". Ve'etutu also told them they he would personally come down to their cabin with both of their shares of food. However while Ve'etutu was busy distributing the food, both men(Viliami and Finau) had crawled their up to where we were. It was amazing to see the effect of the success of the rescue mission on both men. Just before the plane came these same two people could neither talk nor moved freely. Some phenomen have just revived these two men. Both men asked for drinks. They were given soft drinks and milk followed by some food to eat. Understandably both men declared straight having their drinks and food they were now feeling much. Their will to live has just been rejuvenated. Without hanging around , both men made their way back to their cabin for a good night sleep.

It was late in the morning (about 2:00 a.m) that we finally managed to finish eating before heading to sleep. Everyone else went to sleep except for Ve'etutu and myself. We were just sitting up talking to each other. Perhaps we were too excited with all the events of the evening that we could not go to sleep. The atmosphere has dramatically changed. We were now rescued eventhough we were still on the reef which had become our home for more than three months. We were all full of joy, personally I felt like staying up all night talking.

Later in the morning I was still worried about Viliami Fa and Finau Laione. I could not bear the thought of loosing any more of our men at that point of time, especially knowing that we would be in Fiji within less than half a day. I was so anxious that I told Ve'etutu to excuse me while I went to check the two (Viliami and Finau). This was just a precaution measure on my behalf to ensure that nothing wrong had happened to them. I went down to their cabin, put my ear right on the tip of each one's nose listening for breathing just to make sure that they were both fine. Both men were still alive and well. I went back up and reported to Ve'etutu that both were fine.

About 11:00 a.m the next day, a plane arrived to take us to Fiji. It was the same plane that brought food the previous night. The plane landed a fair way from the wreck. A lifeboat brought the pilot, a doctor and an engineer. A Tongan doctor by the name of Tupou Vaipulu accompanied them. He was brought along not only to check us medically but also for translation puroses . Most of us knew very little English. They thought they we were in poor mental state due to our sufferings and our unbalanced diet. However, they were amazed to find that we were in very good condition mentally and no one had gone insane. After our inspection, we were assited to the plane and on our way to Fiji. On board were 10 happy survivors. The body of Fetaiaki was also taken to Fiji for proper burial.

We left Minerva Reef a roughly 3:00 p.m. I had mixed feelings at this point, I was glad to go but I had to spare a thought about the men that have passed away. I also had a bit of grief about parting the Japanese wreck which had become our home. Personally , I think the Japanese wreck was the most important factor in our survival. It supplied us with shelter , firewood, and the timber and puttu used in building the Malolelei. We finally the reef on day number 101 on our calendar since we struck the reef. We would never forget the endless time of living on the reef. We have forgotten the other sound and beaty of land. We have come to only only the sound of waves, strong wind and the occassional squeaky noises the ship made. We were living in a world so different from everyone else. The thundering sound of the waves breaking on this monsterous reef was enough to kill the faint-hearted ones. Of all these, Minerva's abundance of seafood did give us some consolation. There were enough food to keep us alive but unfortunately, man has to consume a balanced diet to maintain good health. Water was also a major problem and although everyone had to have a ration - occassional stealing of water was very common.

On arrival in Fiji, we were all taken to a hospital called "Ratu Sikuna Hospital". It was only then that we learnt the full story of the rescue mission. Talo Fifita (the son of Tevita Fifita) did not make it to shore, he drowned only a few metres from shore. One would anticipate the grief Tevita Fifita would have had over his son especially when he lead the mission and safety was nearly at hand. The forces of nature remind us of our weaknesses and our own limitations, we cannot fully take control of our own destiny.

At the hospital, we were well-looked after by the members of the hospital staff. We spent 7 days in Fiji before returning to Tonga. We flew to Tonga on the same plane that took us to Fiji. As we arrived back in Tonga, we had a memorable warm welcoming ceremony organized by the government. This was also a very moving experience for all of us. To the Tongans, we were heroes but to us, we were ordinary people who managed to survive a tragic ordeal.

There were school students lining up on both sides of the road from Faua wharf to the Queen's palace. Children and adults cheered us all the way to the palace. We were overwhelmed by this magnificent reception. The Tongan people wanted to show their respect for our heroic efforts to survive such a terrible ordeal. We went into the palace to meet the Queen of Tonga (Queen Salote Tupou III). It was a privileged and a very rare one indeed to meet the Queen. It is a very rare occasion for ordinary people (commoners an known in the kingdom) to meet Her Royal Highness or any member of the Monarchy.

After meeting the Queen, we were taken to Vaiola Hospital where we spent six weeks ensuring full recovery. After this period we were sent to our own families. I went back to Ha'apai to meet my family. Everyone in my village of Fakakakai prepared a big ceremony for me. Everyone was so glad to see me again.

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