Solomon Islands, in the South Pacific, Remain a Monument to World War II and JFK

By Meyer, Norma | Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), August 7, 2017 | Go to article overview

Solomon Islands, in the South Pacific, Remain a Monument to World War II and JFK


Meyer, Norma, Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)


"There was fighting everywhere here," says Barney Paulsen, who showcases his countless war finds in his Peter Joseph WWII Museum in Munda. (Photo by Norma Meyer)

IF YOU GO

Getting there: The most direct way is to fly to Fiji and get a connecting flight to Honiara. World War II history begins when you land at the former Henderson Field, wrested away from Japanese forces by U.S. Marines during vicious fighting.

Plan your trip: Information about WWII tours, cultural experiences, lodging and more at www.visitsolomons.com.sb.

Need to know: Malaria is a risk, so take precautions.

Best (mosquito net-draped) bed: Enchanting tropical-rustic Tavanipupu Island resort is considered the country's top place to stay. Ocean-facing doubles from $150 a night including airstrip boat transfers.

This year, as America celebrates the 100th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's birth, I find myself on an itty-bitty palm-shrouded uninhabited island in the far-far-flung South Pacific, with a huge lump in my throat.

I've heard the larger-than-life story so many times: during World War II, after lieutenant Kennedy's PT-109 boat was infamously sunk by a Japanese destroyer, he swam 3 1/2 miles to safety, a strap clenched in his mouth dragging a badly burned sailor and heroically urging on his remaining crew during the perilous four-hour swim.

Staggering ashore, the future beloved 35th U.S. president was marooned. On this very speck of land.

I've come by motorboat from a weathered dock where villagers -- their teeth brilliant red from chewing (and spitting) betel nuts -- ferry occasional foreigners to what is now called Kennedy Island. When I arrive, surprisingly I'm the only tourist. Sand crabs scoot along the ivory beach next to opal-hued waters; geckos scurry up fragrant yellow frangipanis.

It could be paradise. But here, a weary 26-year-old Kennedy hid from the enemy and set out swimming against strong currents looking for help during a six-day survival odyssey. "If he missed this island, maybe he lose his life," says Joel Nanago, the isle's caretaker. "Sometimes, I see people in tears."

I'm in the off-the-radar fascinating country of the Solomon Islands, a stuck-in-time eco-haven where bare-breasted grass-skirted women show me how to make traditional shell money and Pidgin English-speaking locals ("Halo! Welkam!") paddle hand-carved canoes through coral-spangled aquamarine lagoons. In stark contrast, this idyllic 990-island archipelago is also steeped in bloody World War II history and hauntingly strewn with its wreckage and ghosts. I visit weeks before Monday's (co: Aug 7) 75th anniversary marking the pivotal six-months-long Battle of Guadalcanal, ferociously fought in this former British protectorate: 7,100 Allied and 31,000 Japanese troops died here.

Ceremonies are being held in this remote nation to commemorate both the tide-turning military offensive and JFK's centennial.

"You see the bullet holes are still there. So very sad," says landowner Sylvia Dau, pointing to the metal hulk of an American Douglas Dauntless dive bomber. It rests in a steamy tropical forest surrounded by an astonishing array of decaying U.S. war planes, a Japanese "Betty" bomber, tanks, cannons, and other armaments scattered about.

Dau's late father-in-law towed the abandoned relics from jungles to create this outdoor Vilu War Museum on the largest island, Guadalcanal. To find it, my guide drove 45 minutes from capital Honiara on its lone main road, then turned into the bush on an unmarked muddy lane some miles after passing a "car wash" sign next to locals cleaning vehicles in a stream.

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The sacrifices of 1942-43 permeate Honiara. Bones of soldiers still turn up. Verdant knolls are legendary combat sites, such as Bloody Ridge and The Thin Red Line. My room overlooks the now-calm waters of Iron Bottom Sound, an ocean graveyard for the shelled USS Astoria and 50 other ships that chaotically went down with courageous men. …

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