JFK's Island Rescuers Honored at Emotional Reunion

Ted Chamberlain
for National Geographic News
November 20, 2002

Without the heroic efforts of two local South Pacific scouts, Lt. John F. Kennedy likely would never have made it to the end of World War II, much less the U.S. Presidency. Last spring, during an expedition to find the wreck of Kennedy's boat PT-109, the Kennedy family and the now elderly scouts were reunited. The emotional meeting cast new light on the islanders' historic role and the impact their brief meeting with Kennedy had on their lives.

Photo Gallery: The Islanders Who Saved JFK
Interactive Time Line: The PT-109 Disaster
Map: The PT-109 Wreck Area

Last May 26 an elderly Solomon Islander named Eroni Kumana (see photo) sat beneath a leaf roof in the tiny, unpaved Solomons town of Gizo when a tall American approached. He introduced himself as Max Kennedy, nephew of John F. Kennedy. At the sound of the Kennedy name, Kumana put his face to Kennedy's chest and collapsed in sobs that seemed to have been decades in the making.

Max Kennedy, 37, had come to witness explorer Robert Ballard and National Geographic's search for the wreck of John F. Kennedy's World War II patrol torpedo (PT) boat 109 and to thank Kumana and his fellow scout Biuku Gasa (see photo) for rescuing his uncle. (See news story on the discovery of the wreck.)

Cradling Kumana, Kennedy asked him how old he is. "Eighty," Kumana said. "Or 90."

It had been some 60 years since he and Gasa had joined the Allies as canoe-borne scouts. "I was young, but I wasn't scared," Kumana says. "We hated the Japanese."

Allies Behind Enemy Lines

Asked in 1959 how he had become a war hero, John F. Kennedy quipped, "It was easy—they sank my boat." What wasn't easy was keeping himself and his crew alive after PT-109 went down. For that he had help, as did many other Allied servicemen, from the Solomon Islands resistance.

In 1943 the Japanese controlled nearly the entire western Pacific, and they wanted the rest. The Solomons were the key stepping-stones to Australia and New Zealand. Japan occupied the islands with a brutality that stunned many locals into the secret service run by coastwatchers, mostly Australian expatriates who operated behind enemy lines, radioing warnings of approaching Japanese forces to Allied bases.

Islanders served as scouts, warning the coastwatchers when Japanese were near, saving countless stranded Allied fighters, and lugging the coastwatchers' massive radio systems. And they did it all, says Max Kennedy (see photo), while "risking horrible death and torture at the hands of the enemy."

"Not one single member of the Solomon Islands resistance ever turned in an American soldier," he adds.

Continued on Next Page >>


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