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The secret life of a SAS hero

Nanise Loanakadavu
Monday, April 22, 2013

IT was 1957 and Ilisoni Ligairi had defied the odds as a young boy growing up in a village secluded from the world by the untouched vegetation of Vanua Levu.

The first big step outside — from the shades of Nabalebale Village nestled at the foot of a hill across which now climbs the Savusavu-Labasa Highway — to one of the country's first co-educational schools overlooking the Rewa River — Lelean Memorial School became his window to the world.

Life at Lelean, just as it had been at primary school on Vanua Levu, was tough. It was a school named after Australian missionary Reverend Charles Oswald Lelean but established by New Zealander missionary teacher William Ewart Donnelly, general secretary of the Students Christian Movement in the early 1930s and 1940, who moved with his students from Toorak, Suva, to Davuilevu when his peers fled Fiji at the end of World War Two during the Japanese threat in the Pacific.

An island boy on the mainland, Ligairi's quest and adventure and answers grew.

He would run away from school to dive for scrap metal at the Walu Bay passage for his school fees. After completing Form Five, he joined the Republic of Fiji Military Forces (FRMF) for three years.

He was then the youngest player in the senior grade within the force.

Two years later, while he was still in the army, he was told that he would go to New Zealand for a peacekeeping mission for two years.

That plan failed when a team from the British Army came to Fiji in 1961.

The British had turned to their colonies to help fight its wars and it was the first recruit of Fijians in the British Army.

Ligairi had no second thoughts.

His mother, to whom he was dearly attached, had just died.

Her death was a surprise and the British Army offered solace.

He worked hard and became one of the first Fijians enlisted in the British Army.

Another island boy, Kuata Vamarasi Marafono, came from Navuso agriculture school where his father had taken him to from Pepjei in Rotuma, to join the foreign soldiers fighting under the Union Jack.

They were joined by Sekoniaia Takavesi, Tom Morrell, Talaiasi Labalaba and Jim Vakatali, men who would become a part of their lives. Men with whom bonds became stronger than blood.

Ligairi's father Losevati Ligairi, a retired pastor with the Methodist Church in Fiji and Rotuma, joined other parents when the first recruits were farewelled at the Queen Elizabeth Barracks.

Recalling that day, Ligairi tried to contain his emotions.

The sight of his father wearing a white coat and standing at the back of the line, proudly smiling while tears streamed down his face, is a memory that would live with him for the rest of his life.

Other parents cried because they did not want their sons to go.

While they were aware of the war in Borneo that the new recruits would be deployed to at the end of their training in Britain, some of them had agreed to let them join the British Army.

But for most of the 212 recruits, they did not seek parental approval.

Among those who ran away from school and home to apply was Marafono.

It was also a sad moment for Fiji. These men were among the cream of the school system, educated young men on whom a lot had been invested on as Fiji developed and moved towards independence.

When they arrived in Britain, Mr Ligairi was part of the King's Shropshire Light Infantry, serving as a corporal until 1963.

Three years later, he applied to join the elite group of men in the Special Air Services (SAS).

About 1000 British Army soldiers applied to go through the course of two years.

When he completed all the courses, he was among 90 who were selected.

There were different stages of selection. Only 11 survived after the final test and Ligairi was one of them.

Known as Hoss by the rest of the SAS, who, according to Ligairi are the only ones who can explain its meaning, the Nabalebale son proved to be the ideal soldier for this elite force.

The final training was to prepare them to go on operations at any moment.

His adventures and travels began. They stretch from one side of the world to another but can't be discussed because once with the SAS, he signed a non-disclosure agreement.

Twenty years of his life with the SAS will remain a secret that he has vowed to take to the grave with him.

What is known is that he served as an SAS commando in Borneo, Aden, Arabia, South Africa, Oman, Northern Ireland and the Falklands.

When the SAS started its counter-terrorism campaign in Britain in 1972, the world watched in awe as this secret unit took centre stage.

It was the year where planes were hi jacked during the Munich Olympics in Germany when Arab gunmen took Israeli athletes hostages.

All the hostages were murdered. Five kidnappers were killed, three captured and released.

Ligairi vividly remembers how he would take terrorists down one by one in one of his operations.

Terrorists were a new world threat. Unlike the enemy they could see, the terrorists were faceless until the last minute, if they were lucky to survive the unexpected bombings or hail of bullets.

They came in any form, at the shop, in the bus, on the road and as young as 10 years old.

Operations, Ligairi recalled, were difficult and a matter of life and death.

His motto from Lelean — Seek wisdom and spiritual understanding — kept him going.

He learnt all he needed to survive and kept God close to him in all his battles.

Ligairi was widely respected in the SAS for his fearlessness. As the world threats changed, so too their training. His confidence and responsibilities grew.

As an SAS officer, he recommended weapons of choice for the different countries he went to during operations.

They were trained to "know no fear and feel no pain".

Never was this more evident than on May 5, 1980, when his best friends and fellow Fijians in B Squad — Takavesi and Morell — appeared on worldwide television.

Clad in black masks, they were among the three commandos who clambered across the elegant cream stucco-fronted balcony of the Iranian Embassy in Kensington, blowing out the windows with explosives and stormed the building and freed the terrorist-held hostages inside.

These dramatic scenes inspired the movie Who Dares Wins.

In the SAS, he said, they do not compete against each other. Everyone has a can-do attitude.

Having hardened his heart to fight undercover in places such as Northern Ireland during the IRA's heyday and the Falklands when Britain went to war with Argentina following a dispute on the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands and South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands, Ligairi's crusade intensified.

It was a best part of this soldier's life. He and his colleagues performed exceptionally.

Stories of their heroism surfaced from sources other than them.

These men were recognised in secret. They could not parade with medals they were honoured with from those missions. These could only be worn during funerals.

Over the years, like most in the close-knit 22 SAS, he put its needs before his own.

These elite fighters were trained to think in one corridor, unless they were told to go left or right.

He had an open mind and ready to accept his fate.

Ligairi recalled the moments when he narrowly escaped death twice in one year.

He had been on operations in the desert, jungles, sea and other parts of the world and death always stared him in the face.

One time in the 1970s he was in an operation in Northern Ireland when a terrorist's bullet almost killed him.

He was in a helicopter watching a terrorist through his binoculars.

From the hovering steel bird, he saw the man turn and fire two bullets which hit the tip of his binoculars and ricocheted to the roof of the aircraft.

"That was a miracle," he said.

* Next week: Tools of the trade


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