Farewell Address for their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Dutchess of Sussex and the Unveiling of the Statue of Talaiasi Labalaba.
October 25, 2018 Nadi Airport, Suva.
Your Royal Highnesses, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex,
Former President His Excellency Ratu Epeli Nailatikau,
The Honourable Prime Minister,
The Honourable Leader of the Opposition,
Na Momo Levu Na Tui Nawaka,
Na Momo Levu Na Tui Nadi,
Other Chiefs and People of the Vanua Vakaturaga O Nadi,
The Commander of the Republic of Fiji Military Forces,
Your Excellencies, members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Ni sa bula vinaka and a very good morning to you all.
Today we farewell their Royal Highnesses at the end of their visit to Fiji and ask Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex to unveil a statue - at our gateway to the world - to commemorate one of our greatest military heroes.
Sergeant Talaiasi Labalaba was born not far from here in the village of Vatutu, Nawaka, Nadi in 1942.
It was a time when the fledgling Nadi Airport was an important staging post for the allies in the battle against the Japanese in World War Two. And it is extremely fitting that this statue of Sergeant Labalaba is positioned here. Because it not only immortalises his own extraordinary sacrifice in a distant land three decades later in 1972, but more importantly; It also reminds us of the many Fijians who have set out from our island home on military service over the years, never to return. And who had given their lives in the defence of our common values.
Sergeant Labalaba may have been born in Nadi but he belongs to all of Fiji and to Britain – a hero in both countries through his distinguished service in the British Army.
In 1961, this powerfully-built and humble giant joined the many thousands of Fijians recruited by the British over the years because of their fighting prowess, their discipline, loyalty and passion to serve God, Queen and Country.
It is a tradition that continues to this day with about 1,250 Fijian troops still serving within the ranks of various Regiments of the British Army and our own Republic of the Fiji Military Forces.
Sergeant Labalaba was exceptional – a 30-year-old Fijian member of the British special forces – the Special Air Service, SAS – who died in the most heroic circumstances during the Battle of Mirbat in the Gulf State of Oman. We have a particularly strong account of what happened that day – July 19 1972 – from the troops whose lives Sergeant Labalaba saved and the man who tried to save his life – a fellow Fijian solider who is with us today, Trooper Sekonaia Takavesi.
The mission – codenamed Operation Jaguar – was part of the British effort to help protect the Sultan of Oman from communist insurgents. Some 250 rebels stormed the small town of Mirbat on the Arabian Sea and had the British forces pinned down inside the local fort, which they were about to overrun. With no cover and under heavy fire, Sergeant Labalaba sprinted across 800 metres of exposed ground to reach a 25-pounder field gun, which normally requires three/four men to operate effectively.
As his fellow troops watched in astonishment, he turned the huge weapon around and opened fire at point blank range on the rebels, decimating their ranks and successfully keeping them away from the main British and local forces defensive lines. Even after a bullet struck his face, and being critically wounded, he kept on firing. And as he struggled to operate the gun alone, his fellow Fijian, then Trooper Takavesi, came to the assistance of his injured comrade. The two men fought on. But shortly afterwards – as Labalaba crawled across a small space to reach a 60mm infantry mortar/support weapon – Sergeant Labalaba was shot dead.
While his life was cut short that day by the shores of the Arabian Sea, he lives on in the memories of those who witnessed his extraordinary courage and as an inspiration to us all. Sergeant Labalaba is already a legend in the British Army.
He was awarded a posthumous Mention in Dispatches and was named among 100 “New Elizabethans” in a list of Exceptional British subjects in commemorating Her Majesty the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. And in 2009, Prince Harry’s brother, Prince William, unveiled a statue in his memory at the SAS headquarters in Hereford.
Today, in his beloved homeland, we also honour Sergeant Labalaba with the unveiling of this statue by Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex. We honour his family and his village of Vatutu, Nawaka, for their gift to the world. We honour the man who was by his side and did everything he could to save him, another proud and heroic son of Fiji, Sekonaia Takavesi. And we honour the memories of all Fijians who have served in our armed forces over the decades – in war and in peacetime – and especially those like Sergeant Labalaba who made the ultimate sacrifice.
It is their service to our nations and the world that has ensured the prosperity and freedom we all enjoy today. And ceremonies like this one remind us of our solemn duty never to forget them – At the going down of the sun and at the end of each day – “We will continue to remember them”.
Shortly, I will have the honour to invite His Royal Highness to unveil the statue.
But first, it is my honour as President and Chancellor of the Order of Fiji to bestow the President’s War Cross to Sergeant Labalaba’s family. This is the first time that this bravery medal is awarded since Fiji established its College of Honour in 1995. The same award is also being bestowed on Sergeant Labalaba’s brave comrade in the field that day – then Trooper Takavesi. In recent years he was instrumental and spearheaded the campaign to establish this memorial and I want to thank him on the nation’s behalf.
Your Royal Highness, the statue that will you shortly unveil will immortalise Sergeant Labalaba at Fiji’s global gateway. May he continue to be an inspiration for the Fijian and British peoples and may his example of courage and sacrifice reverberate around the world.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is also my pleasant task on behalf of the nation to formally farewell their Royal Highnesses after their hugely successful visit to Fiji.
Prince Harry and Meghan, Duke & Duchess of Sussex, you go with the love and best wishes of every Fijian, and especially as you begin your own family with the arrival of your baby in the New Year.
Thank you for coming to Fiji and gracing our shores with your much welcomed short visit.
And may Almighty God be with you now and in the years ahead.
Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.