President John F. Kennedy kept a coconut husk on his desk in the Oval Office, next to the gold medal commemorating his inauguration.

The husk, which had been preserved and mounted, had a message carved into it: “NAURO ISL… COMMANDER… NATIVE KNOWS POS’IT… HE CAN PILOT… 11 ALIVE… NEED SMALL BOAT… KENNEDY.”

Two Solomon Islands scouts — Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana — found and sheltered Kennedy and his crew after a Japanese warship rammed their boat in 1942. They carried the coconut shell through enemy lines to Allied forces who rescued the Americans.

The story of Kennedy is the most well known interaction between the Indigenous population and the servicemen who fought throughout the Solomon Islands during World War II. But the former U.S. president is just one of more than 500 servicemen who owe their lives to Solomon Islanders after being rescued behind enemy lines.

kennedy island gizo solomons uxo10
It takes 4 minutes to walk around Kennedy Island, named after President John F. Kennedy, who washed up on its shores after his boat was destroyed in 1943 by the Japanese. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

“The Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal saved the South Pacific,” U.S. Admiral of the Fleet William F. Halsey famously declared.

But in the 80 years since war arrived in the Solomon Islands, little of the Indigenous population’s perspective on WWII has been recorded. The number killed in the battles was never tallied. And historical accounts have largely ignored their involvement.

Now, a children’s book, published in August, is aiming to fill the gap. Co-written by American author Alan Elliott and Solomon Islands historian Anna Annie Kwai, “Rescuing JFK: How Solomon Islanders Rescued John F. Kennedy and the Crew of the PT-109,” tells the story from an Indigenous perspective.

Kwai says framing it around rescuers Kumana, Gasa and others who helped save JFK and his crew, will help young Solomon Islanders learn about their own history, a subject she had to wait until she was at a university to learn.

Kwai says in school she was taught about the 1956 Suez Crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, but nothing about her own country’s history.

“Not a lot has changed since I was in high school,” Kwai says. “There’s no Solomon Islands history, as if there’s no Solomon Islands history at all.”

An elderly Solomon Islands Scout Eroni Kumana is pictured wearing a bucket hat.
Eroni Kumana, pictured here in 2007, died in Western Province at age 96, in 2014. Courtesy: U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons

Indigenous contributions and perspectives on the war have been a footnote across historical accounts of WWII, in film and literature. Solomon Islanders were either ignored or portrayed as a simple, unsophisticated people unworthy of rank or consideration.

Certain characters have been canonized for their heroism, such as JFK’s rescuers and Sir Jacob Vouza, a Coastwatcher scout who was awarded the Silver Star and Legion of Merit by the U.S. for refusing to leak intelligence to the Japanese while he was being tortured, almost dying in the process.

Lt. John F. Kennedy’s PT-109 was destroyed almost exactly 12 months after the U.S. landed on the shores of the Solomon Islands. U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons

They were not simply blindly loyal servants to the Allied forces occupying their country, according to Kwai, who also authored “Solomon Islanders in World War II: An Indigenous Perspective.” Their reasons for siding with the U.S. and its Allies were far more complex.

Curiosity, wages, propaganda, adventure and fear all contributed. Some sought revenge for loved ones killed in the battles. Others believed that siding with the Allies was “better to be with the devil you know than the devil you don’t,” Kwai says.

In the end, the Allies had something the Japanese did not: intelligence and Indigenous knowledge, behind enemy lines.

Solomon Islanders, including scouts, fed an incredible amount of information to the U.S. from across the entire Solomon Island archipelago, which stretches some 900 miles over nearly 1,000 islands.

Kwai has found more reports this year that she is parsing for information on Solomon Islander scouts, who were known for their excellent reporting of findings.

She said there are very detailed reports about the number of soldiers on Tulagi and on Guadalcanal, for instance, and the placement of guns and weapons, what kinds of vehicles they were driving, and where their fuel depot was.

“They even go down to what kind of shirt or what kind of clothing the Japanese were wearing,” she said.

Replicas were made of the coconut that sat on his desk during his presidency, and were handed out at ceremonies commemorating the 80th anniversary of the U.S. landing on Guadalcanal earlier this year. Thomas Heaton/Civil Beat/2022

Solomon Islanders were risking their lives. While more inconspicuous than their white counterparts, if they were found with documents or anything pertaining to the war, they could be killed or, as happened to one Solomon Islander, held as a prisoner of war in Australia for allegedly helping the Japanese.

Historical accounts note 20 Solomon Islander scouts died during the war, and 27 Coastwatchers – the white men who led the scouts – were killed.

Beyond providing information on the Japanese, the scouts saved the lives of Allied soldiers by providing medical aid, feeding them and carting them from village to village until they reached safety.

Some Solomon Islander scouts fought too, using weapons taken from the bodies of Japanese soldiers.  Oral histories conducted in the late 1980s revealed the true guerrilla effort, as more than 100 Japanese servicemen were killed in surprise attacks.

Coastwatcher Maj. Martin Clemens, of Scotland, and his troop of Solomon Islander scouts were lauded for their efforts on Guadalcanal. U.S. Marine Corps via Wikimedia Commons

University of Hawaii professor emeritus Geoffrey White conducted some of those interviews, which were eventually collated in a book, “The Big Death.” Finding former scouts to interview at the time was not especially easy, as they had aged and some had developed feelings of resentment and bitterness toward those they served, White says.

A monument to the Solomon Islanders in the heart of Honiara, the nation’s capital on Guadalcanal, displays a white base with four bronze figures on top. Three Indigenous men surround a central, Caucasian figure, gesturing across Iron Bottom Sound.

“Even the sort of Indigenous Solomon Islander attempt to honor Solomon Islanders, you end up again with the European figure as the one that somehow is in the lead, and that is the way military histories get told,” White says. “But I think that the more time goes on, the more I think Solomon Islanders have an opportunity to look at it from a different perspective.”

The Solomon Islands Scouts and Coastwatchers monument, built in 2011, sits in the heart of Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

The monument was erected by the Solomon Islands Scouts and Coastwatchers Trust in 2011, ahead of the 70th anniversary of the U.S. landing on Guadalcanal. It was part of an initiative led by Sir Bruce Saunders, an Australian who has been a longtime resident of the South Pacific nation.

There had been barely any recognition of Solomon Islanders until then, aside from a statue of scout Jacob Vouza, wearing a loin cloth instead of his typical U.S. Marines uniform.

“This had a big impact, and that’s why I think I got my knighthood,” Saunders says. “That was a story that needed to be told.”

Read Civil Beat’s special report on unexploded ordnance in the Solomon Islands.

 

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