The Solomon Islanders who saved JFK
- 6 August 2014
- From the section Magazine
One of two Solomon Islanders who saved the life of John F Kennedy during the war in the Pacific died on Saturday at the age of 93. Eroni Kumana never forgot the man who would become US president and regarded him as his "honorary chief".
"Words can't really describe what a remarkable man he was," says local historian and dive school owner Danny Kennedy, an American now living in the Solomon Islands - and no relation to JFK.
"Every time we saw him, he was just the most animated, energetic little guy - bouncing around with all this energy, even at 93 years old. But I still don't think he ever realised what a brave guy he was."
Kumana's grandson, Rellysdom Malakana, says: "He did not feel like he was someone special. But people from overseas, people from America, they are the ones who told my grandfather that he was a special man - that he was the hero who rescued John F Kennedy."
In the early hours of 2 August 1943 several US Navy "patrol torpedo" boats were positioned off the coast of the Solomon Islands - then known as the British Solomon Islands Protectorate - not far from Papua New Guinea. Their mission was to intercept a convoy of Japanese ships that were regularly transporting soldiers further south to join the fight against US forces in the Pacific.
In command of one of them, PT-109, was Lt John F Kennedy - a 26-year-old from Massachusetts who had joined the navy two years earlier.
As the Japanese ships came into view - the US boats fired their torpedoes, but none hit their target. The American boats that ran out of ammunition were sent back to base, but PT-109 was one of those that stayed behind.
Archive reports from the JFK Library in Boston describe the night as having an "inky blackness" - there was no moonlight, making the task of spotting the enemy ships all the more difficult.
At 02:30 a Japanese destroyer, travelling at high speed, rammed into Kennedy's boat, ripping a hole in its side. Kennedy and most of his men were thrown into the water by the force of the impact - two were killed in the collision and one was badly burned.
The survivors spent a few hours on or around the wreck of the wooden boat, then swam three-and-a-half miles to the nearest island. Accounts from the time say Kennedy towed one of his injured crewmates along, swimming with the strap of his lifejacket between his teeth.
For two days the men stayed on this small unoccupied island, living off coconuts - but the prospect of a rescue was looking increasingly remote and food was running out.
Hoping to improve their chances of rescue and in the search of fresh water, Kennedy took his crew back into the ocean, undertaking a gruelling swim to a larger island further south. It was this decision that most likely saved the men's lives and led to their eventual rescue.
On 5 August, Kennedy and his colleague George Ross left the other men on this new island and set out again in search of food and water. As they made their way along the beach on another nearby island, they spotted two men in a canoe - it was Kumana and his friend Biuku Gasa.
At first, the two Solomon Islanders were frightened of Kennedy and Ross, says Kumana's grandson, Malakana.
"They saw these people and they thought they were Japanese - so they paddled away in their canoe. Fortunately they came across the rest of Kennedy's crew mates at the other island, who told them they were from America."
In an interview in 2002 with the National Geographic, Kumana himself recalled the moment he met the survivors: "Some of them cried and some of them came and shook our hands. When Kennedy saw us… he ran and embraced us."
Kumana and Gasa worked with the Coastwatchers, a network of agents based across the Pacific islands during WWII, tasked with keeping an eye on the enemy and reporting back to Allied forces.
Kennedy knew he somehow needed to get a message back to base if a rescue was to be organised, so he wrote a message on a coconut:
NAURO ISL COMMANDER
NATIVE KNOWS POSIT
HE CAN PILOT
11 ALIVE NEED SMALL BOAT
Kumana and Gasa, took the coconut, got into their small, dugout canoe and at great risk to themselves took to the sea. Their destination was another island, 35 miles (55km) away, where an allied Australian Coastwatcher was stationed - but to get there they had to paddle through waters patrolled by Japanese ships.
The Japanese were notorious for using the locals as "target practice" says Danny Kennedy - and if they had been caught with such a message it could have been a death sentence. But Kumana and Gasa passed on the message successfully and a rescue mission was launched for the injured, exhausted and hungry US sailors, who many assumed were already dead.
The events of that week in August 1943 were to have a profound impact on the life of Kennedy - he was a hailed a hero for his efforts in saving the lives of his crew and was awarded a Navy and Marine Corps Medal and a Purple Heart. His actions in the war are seen as central to his success in the 1960 presidential election.
"It was a crucial moment in his life," says Tom Putnam, director of the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. "But he was always somewhat self-deprecating about being called a hero. People used to ask him how he became a war hero, and he would reply: 'It was involuntary. They sank my boat.'"
Despite Kennedy's rise through the ranks of American political life, he didn't forget about Kumana and Gasa.
Kumana's grandson Malakana says the two men were invited to Kennedy's inauguration, but were "not allowed" to go. "My grandfather told me it was because they didn't speak English, they were told to stay away and another person replaced them," he says.
Danny Kennedy understands it was a British colonial officer in the Solomon Islands at the time who decided the men didn't speak English well enough and another Solomon Islands scout was sent to Washington DC in their place.
Although the three men were never to meet again, there are records of letters exchanged between Kennedy and Gasa in Kennedy's first year as president - they were translated by a Methodist minister from New Zealand.
In Kumana's interview in 2002, he spoke of the moment he heard that Kennedy had been assassinated, "My sadness was great," he said. "I would never meet him [again]."
But Kumana and Gasa did meet one member of the Kennedy family again. Max Kennedy, son of Robert Kennedy and nephew of President Kennedy travelled to the Solomon Islands in 2002.
"It's a custom in the Solomon Islands to cry openly," says Danny Kennedy. "When Kumana and Gasa saw Max, both of them broke out in tears and there was a big hugging session for quite some time. It was quite an emotional event. They dug out canoes, they paddled together and I think they really enjoyed their time with Max."
Gasa passed away in 2005.
In 2008, Kumana wanted to pay his respects to Kennedy. He asked that a prized piece of bakia or "shell money", a traditional form of currency made of giant clam shells, be sent to the US as a tribute.
"It had been passed down from generation to generation in Kumana's family and it was always given to the chief," says Putnam. "Kumana said since President Kennedy was his chief, he wanted it to be placed on his grave." At a private ceremony in Arlington cemetery, members of the Kennedy family carried out his wish.
Kumana and Gasa may have never made it to the US to see Kennedy again, but the memory of those two men lives on there - in the engraved coconut husk and shell money tribute that are both now on display at the John F Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
In the Solomon Islands, Kennedy is also remembered - the small island where he and his men initially swam to is now called Kennedy island and a shrine, created by Kumana, now stands as a memorial to the president he once rescued.
Rellysdom Malakana spoke to World Update on the BBC World Service