GUADALCANAL, Solomon Islands – If last week’s shouting match between the world’s two most terrifyingly irrational bullies hadn’t clogged the airwaves, stunning hapless listeners with the dark shadow of nuclear war, news of the 75th anniversary of the battle of Guadalcanal, which raged from August 1942 until January 1943, might have made it into the headlines.
The week-long celebration in the Solomon Islands, held from August 2-9, was attended by visitors from around the globe, including veterans, their families, Solomon Islanders, yours truly and military representatives from the WW II Allies -- the U.S., Australia, and Great Britain -- who joined forced to defeat Japan.
But for the first time, the special focus of this anniversary was the pivotal role that ordinary Solomon Islanders – fishermen and farmers -- played in the fight to defeat Japan. Known as Scouts and Coastwatchers, these dedicated citizens, suddenly finding themselves in the middle of the battle for a foothold in the drive north to Japan, became the eyes and ears of the Allies. Risking their lives, families and homes, they provided crucial information about Japanese troop and ship movements.
As a result, the battle of Guadalcanal, which the Tokyo War Office intended to be a quick, decisive victory designed to convince the United States to abandon the war and sue for peace, became instead a six-month-long nightmare of attrition. Landing on Guadalcanal in August 1942, the U.S. marines quickly captured the partially-built airfield, then fought their way inland through suffocating thick, wet, insect-ridden jungle, winning and losing a series of bloody battles, but gradually pushing the Japanese soldiers into hiding. Eventually stranded without ammunition and food but refusing to surrender, 31,000 Japanese died of wounds and starvation; in January 1943, the War Office finally rescued the survivors.
Memories of the those years lent a solemn note to the celebration. But the emergence of the Solomon Islands as a modern, independent nation – a pristine South Pacific paradise and dive site – created a festive atmosphere. On August 2, The Honorable Deputy Prime Minister Manasseh Maelanga and Honorable Minister of Culture & Tourism, Bartholomew Parapolo, along with Josefa Tuamoto, the CEO of the Solomon Islands Visitors Bureau, presided over the opening ceremonies, assisted by Defense Attaché Commander Dan Balsinger, on hand to represent the United States.
After a welcome address to guests and veterans, Deputy Prime Minister Maelanga and Commander Balsinger unveiled a portrait of John F. Kennedy, commander of the patrol boat PT 109 sunk by a Japanese ship in 1943. Kennedy, decorated for leading 11 of his crew to a deserted island (unseen by the Japanese), were located there and rescued by the Coastwatchers.
On August 3, 2017, we attended an all-day event on nearby Lubaria Island for the unveiling of the John F. Kennedy Monument, and a dedication led by Minister of Culture & Tourism Parapolo. Afterwards we toured the Base, explored the new John F. Kennedy Museum, and after a lunch of authentic Melanesian cuisine, took in the local culture: a bamboo band, dancers, displays of wood carvings and a visit to an American destroyer, in the harbor for the event.
A special ceremony on Bloody Ridge announced the creation of the Bloody Ridge National Park and Preserve, dedicated both to the soldiers who died there, and to peace and freedom. Additional events, scheduled over the remainder of the week, included church services of remembrance, lectures, military band concerts and parades and museum exhibits.
As the week ended, many overseas visitors headed out to explore the Solomon Islands, now best known for its pristine coral reefs, secluded beaches and lagoons, secluded over-water resorts and some of the world’s most unusual dive locations, to sunken ships and airplanes.
A scattered archipelago of some 990-odd richly forested mountainous islands and low-lying coral atolls, the Solomon Islands offers a fresh destination for international travelers hardy enough to get off the beaten track and look for a new and very different experience. Located just three hours away from Australia’s east coast, they’re easily reached from Fiji’s International Airport, and a variety of other international connections.
For veterans and their families, and for WW II historians, tours of battle sites are included in trips led by Valor Tours, a company founded several decades ago by WWII pilot Bob Reynolds. Reynolds has since retired but the adventures continue under the leadership of Bob’s daughter, Vicky Reynolds-Middagh. Look for itineraries and dates at www.valortours.com.
To view several battlefield sites online, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nGoiSFjOBR4. Films and additional material created in support of the 75th anniversary are available on the internet. For these, visit https://www.facebook.com/solohistory/ For additional information about travel to the Solomon Islands, visit www.visitsolomons.com.sb or email requests to email@example.com or call 677-22442.