A visit to Solomon Islands by senior US diplomats included a touching personal moment, as Caroline Kennedy, the new US ambassador to Australia, met with the children of two men who saved the life of her father, John F Kennedy, during the second world war.
Caroline Kennedy was in Honiara to mark the 80th anniversary of the battle of Guadalcanal, a brutal seven-month land, sea and air fight between allied and Japanese forces that marked a turning point in the war.
During the battle, John F Kennedy – who went on to become the US president – narrowly escaped death when a Japanese destroyer ran over his patrol boat PT-109.
Kennedy and his shipwrecked crew made it to a Japanese-controlled island, where they were found by two Solomon Islanders, Eroni Kumana and Biuku Gasa, who were working with the Coastwatchers – allied military operatives – behind enemy lines.
At great personal risk, Kumana and Gasa took a coconut, on which Kennedy had written an account of the crew’s plight, back to the Australia coast watcher they were working with. The patrol boat crew were then able to be rescued.
Caroline Kennedy met John Koloni, the son of Kumana, and Nelma Ane, daughter of Gasa at a ceremony on Sunday in Guadalcanal and presented them with a replica of a coconut husk on which her father had written a distress message. The original is in the Kennedy Museum in Boston.
“I am so grateful you came here today so I could say thank you and one day I would like to bring my children to continue the relationship,” said Kennedy as she presented the gift, according to 1News.
“I’m honoured and proud of my dad, and I’m happy to receive on behalf of him. I wish he was here to receive this medal,” said Koloni, Stuff reported.
Kumana and Gasa have largely been written out of the history of the event. Kennedy invited the men to his inauguration in January 1961, but officials of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate prevented them from going. Two white officials attended instead.
Gasa died in 2005. Kumana died in 2014.
The commemorative events in Solomon Islands were also attended by US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman, who warned Pacific Island countries of a new struggle against violent power-hungry regimes.
Attending a dawn memorial service, Sherman said “some around the world” had forgotten the cost of war, or were ignoring the lessons of the past.
She hit out at “leaders who believe that coercion, pressure, and violence are tools to be used with impunity”, but did not specify any names during her speech at the service.
“We remember how bankrupt, how empty, such views were then, and remain today,” she said of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in the 1930-40s. “Today we are once again engaged in a different kind of struggle – a struggle that will go on for some time to come.”
Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare did not attend the ceremony, though he was slated to appear and was listed on the event program.
Sogavare did meet Sherman later, for what she described as “wide-ranging” talks.
Sherman and Kennedy’s visit comes as Washington is seeking to renew its influence in the South Pacific and suppress growing Chinese influence.
Sogavare signed a controversial security pact with China earlier in the year, sparking huge concern in the US and Australia. The US has sought to increase its presence in the Pacific in the wake of the deal, announcing it would open two new embassies in the region – in Tonga and Kiribati – as well as its announcement in February that it would reopen its embassy in Honiara, which closed nearly three decades ago.