Regarded as the best special forces unit in the world, the Special Air Service (SAS) has been home for some of Fijis most distinguished soldiers. Operating in a shadow world, unable to divulge their whereabouts or mission details, SAS soldiers live a hard life of combat and secrets. Former SAS officer PETE SCHOLEY brings to life the story of genuine
Fijian heroes in his book SAS Heroes ... Remarkable Men, Extraordinary Heroes and gives an insight into the heroic deeds of one
particular Fijian whose superhuman efforts have made him a legend among legends. In a four-part series, Scholey tells of his friend and unsung hero who has inspired generations of SAS soldiers. This is part one of Sgt Talaiasi Labalabas story.
THE lights and sounds from the open area in the Arab township dominated the night, the air filled with the smell of exotic cooking from the various food stall and music ringing out as the street performers competed for the attention of the crowds.
The buzz of a thousand conversations and the calls of the vendors echoed off the walls of the surrounding buildings, where wooden shacks rubbed shoulders with more substantial, mud-walled, whitewashed structures.
All of the buildings in the shanty town were bathed in evening shadows, gently disguising their precarious construction and dilapidated condition that was so obvious in the harsh light of the blazing sun during the day.
In fact, the whole character of the Sheik Othman district of the port of Aden was transformed with the setting of the sun.
The heavy aroma of the spices in the cooking pots hung in the still air as here, among the maze of buildings, scarcely a breath of the sea breeze penetrated from the coast.
The smell of the food at least helped to disguise the daytime stench from the open sewers that ran down the middle of the streets and the piles of garbage that lay festering on the street corners.
The hours of darkness also brought some respite from the scorching heat of the Arabian sun, although the night carried with it dangers of its own.
The pool of light from the town square weakened as it stretched towards the side streets, leaving long and sinister shadows that crept into the darkness.
A few yards away, on the edge of the shadows, two men sat in a parked saloon car, one of a number of ordinary cars scattered around the area.
The men watched the crowd milling around, the stark whiteness of the Arab robes appearing almost ghostly in the oasis of light.
The two men were dressed in a similar fashion to the people they were so closely observing, although their homeland was a very different place, many thousands of miles away on the other side of the world.
Suddenly two white-robed men turned away from the crowd.
They glanced at the car and took a couple of urgent steps towards it, immediately attracting the attention of the cars occupants.
As the Arabs advanced each reached for something inside his robe and the men in the car caught the unmistakable dull glint of gun metal.
In an instant the men in the car threw open the doors-before their feet touched the ground their Browning 9mm pistols were levelled at the Arab gunmen.
The pistols barked and, as though a blanket of silence had been thrown over the square, the voices and the music quickly faded.
All eyes turned in the direction from which the brief shots had come and there on the ground, in a spreading pool of blood, lay the two Arabs.
The other two men scanned the crowd suspiciously, their weapons still at the ready.
In a few moments, their back-up would be with them, the area would be teeming with uniformed soldiers and the two men Troopers Talaiasi Labalaba and Sekonaia Takavesi would report back to SAS HQ at Ballycastle House in the Khormaksar district debriefing.
Two more terrorist gunmen had been eliminated, but neither the conflict in Aden nor the highly dangerous game played by Laba and Tak were yet over.
I have included Laba and Tak together in this book because that is how I so often think of them, despite the fact that they have not shared each others company for quarter of a century.
I count them both as good friends, going back with Tak as far as my first days with the Regiment.
We struck up a friendship when we were on the same selection course together in 1963.
Tak, whose parents regiment was the Kings Own Boarders Regiment, gave me some useful orienteering tips that helped me through the course.
Laba had an equally friendly, generous nature.
In the early 1970s, we were in Singapore together, spending a few days recharging our batteries during a break from a survival course in Malaya.
When I ran out of money, Laba offered to lend me a few dollars, which I promised to pay back as soon as I could get my hands on some cash.
Never was debt so difficult to repay. No matter how often or how hard I tried to insist on paying him, Laba would never accept the money.
As far as he was concerned, he had helped me out when I needed it and that was what friendship was all about.
In Aden, Laba and Tak, together with other Fijians such as Jim Vakatali, posed as Arabs to mix with the locals.
Although the big men from Fiji towered above the average Arab, their skin colour allowed them to blend in more easily than most Brits.
All could speak a little Arabic, but Jim was an expert and would often translate what he heard of the others.
When we talked together in Fijian, far from blowing their cover, many locals simply assumed that they were part of a ship crew from a distant part of Africa.
Working undercover, however, it is never entirely straightforward and in Aden, telling friend from foe was a frustratingly complicated business.
It was in the townships that Laba and Tak proved their mettle. The two Fijians had all the right attributes for working undercover.
They were cool-headed, easygoing professionals from a land that has a long tradition of providing first-class soldiers to the British Army.
Fiji was a British colony for a century before becoming independent in 1970 and Fijians are welcomed into the British armed forces in exactly the same way that the army recruits Gurkhas from Nepal.
The men from the South Pacific islands do not have their identity within the British Army in the same way that the Gurkhas Regiment does.
Instead, they are scattered throughout the service, which is why Tak served with the King's Own Boarders and Laba came to the SAS from the Royal Irish Rangers.
Today, there are about 2000 Fijians serving in the British Army, making them second only to the Gurkhas as the armys largest foreign contingent.
Unlike the Gurkhas, however, who are normally small, lean and wiry, the archetypal Fijian tends to be big and powerful.
Being large and carrying some bulk can be a disadvantage to some in the SAS, but over the years Fijians like Laba and Tak have proved more than capable of handling anything that the SAS can throw them.
Their first contact with the modern SAS came during the reformed Regiments initial operations in Malaya.
Elements of Fijis own 1st Fijian Infantry Regiment took part in Operations Hive, an attempt to flush terrorists out of the jungle.
The Fijians proved, as they had against the Japanese in World War II, that they were experts in jungle warfare.
In Aden, Laba and Tak were about to master a completely different martial art in the backstreets of the ports.
The art of deception