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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.

"I think they saved my life," says Dick Keresey, a World War II PT-boat skipper who served with Kennedy, of a group of scouts. "We were going to look at a place and all of a sudden [the scouts] stopped. They had smelled the Japanese." (Hear Keresey on his experience with Solomons scouts.)

Likewise, Kennedy and the PT-109 crew owed their lives to scouts, explorer Ballard (see photo) says. "There was no way they could have survived without the natives. They were injured and getting worse. They were on this itty-bitty island, and they couldn't move, [because] the Japanese owned that area."

Saving Kennedy

In the first, ink-black hours of August 2, 1943, a Japanese destroyer (see photo) rammed the much smaller PT-109 (see size comparison) and kept going. For the wooden PT boat, with its relatively large and unprotected fuel tanks, the result was predictable.

"We heard the explosion. ... There were big flames that rose from that boat," scout Gasa says in The Search for Kennedy's PT-109, airing on EXPLORER on MSNBC TV on Sunday, November 24, at 8 p.m. ET (see TV-program details).

Two crewmen died in the collision. Despite an injured back, 26-year-old skipper Kennedy (see photo) led his remaining ten comrades on a weeklong survival struggle. (See time line.) Swimming—and towing injured men—over vast distances, the survivors found precious little food or water on a series of tiny deserted islands. Back at the PT base, their colleagues had given them up for dead.

Hidden on a hillside, Australian coastwatcher A. R. Evans had seen the 109's explosion. The next morning he saw wreckage floating south. He dispatched Kumana and Gasa to look for survivors.

The scouts' initial forays yielded nothing. But four days after the collision, they were exploring a Japanese ship wrecked on a reef near the island of Naru (see photo). "When we came out," Kumana said in an oral history later translated into English, "there were two men—Japanese, we thought—so we ran to the canoe and paddled to Olasana [Island]," where, unbeknownst to the scouts, the rest of the survivors were hiding.

The two men the scouts had seen were Kennedy and fellow officer Barney Ross, who ran from the scouts, thinking they were Japanese.

When Kumana and Gasa reached neighboring Olasana, they discovered the rest of the crew, which the scouts learned was American. The survivors were wracked with thirst and hunger and were terrified of being discovered by the Japanese. One sailor had severe burns from the explosion. "Some of them cried, and some of them came and shook our hands," Kumana said.

Kennedy returned to Olasana that night in a dugout he had found on Naru. "When Kennedy saw us," Gasa said in his own oral history, "he put the water [he had found on Naru] down and ran and embraced us."

The next day, as Kumana and Gasa prepared to canoe 38 miles (61 kilometers) to the PT base to alert authorities of the crew's survival, Kennedy searched in vain for paper on which to write his SOS. "I told Eroni to climb a coconut tree," Gasa said. "I said to Kennedy ... 'You can write a message inside this husk of coconut.' ... He looked at me and said, 'Jesus Christ, Biuku, how did you think of this?' He came over and took my head with both hands, twisting it slowly and studying it."

On the coconut, Kennedy etched a message—"NAURO ISL/NATIVE KNOWS POSIT/HE CAN PILOT/11 ALIVE/NEED SMALL BOAT/KENNEDY"—and the two scouts began their overnight canoe trip. Gasa remembers thinking, "If I am caught, I'll scratch out my message and wait for my death."

The next day, after receiving the scout's news of the survivors, coastwatcher Evans sent a different party of scouts in a war canoe to ferry Kennedy, hidden under palm fronds, to Evans's hideout. That night, a squadron of PT boats, with Kennedy, Kumana, and Gasa aboard, motored to Olasana to retrieve the ten remaining crew members.

After the War

"After the rescue Kennedy said he would meet us again," Kumana says in The Search for Kennedy's PT-109. "When he became President, he invited us to visit him. But when we got to the airport, we were met by a clerk, who said we couldn't go—Biuku and I spoke no English. My feelings went for bad."

When he heard of the President's assassination, Kumana says, "My sadness was great. I would never meet him [again]. His promise would never come out."

Reunion

The arrival last spring of Max Kennedy, son of Robert F. Kennedy, seemed to provide comfort and even catharsis for both Kumana and Gasa, now proud great-grandfathers. As they spoke with Max in Gasa's isolated island village, the old scouts were overcome again and again—by the memory of Kennedy, by the thought that their efforts have not been forgotten, and by the joy of being reunited for the first time since the war. The men now live some seven hours apart by canoe.

"I'm really happy to see him," Gasa said of Kumana. "I really cried."

Kumana, wearing dog tags given to him by U.S. marines in World War II, said, "Biuku, during the war, he was a comrade, and it will always be like that, so meeting him again reminds us of good times."

Remembering those good times, Kumana and Gasa fell easily into old habits, kidding each other and singing their old scout song, a rough rendition of the wartime hit "Whatcha Know Joe?" (Hear the scouts sing.)

Both Kumana and Gasa live much as their ancestors did, without electricity, in leaf-roof huts, with dugouts as their main form of transportation. During the men's reunion last spring, Max Kennedy, representing his family, together with the National Geographic Society, presented Kumana and Gasa each with a new house and motorboat.

"I'm happy," an emotional Gasa said after Max announced the gifts. Asked what type of house he'd like, Gasa replied, "I'll leave that to the carpenters."

The scouts' happiness was nearly matched by Max's. "The most amazing thing on the trip for me—and something I'll be grateful for the rest of my life—was meeting Biuku and Eroni."

Gasa had a gift of his own for Max. The rescuer had his nephew and grandson hand-carve a dugout (see Gasa in his dugout) like the one he and Kumana paddled during the war, "so people will hear about the late President Kennedy and remember the story of what happened here. ... I make it for the memorial of J.F. Kennedy. ..."

Kumana has his own tributes to the late President. In addition to naming his son John F. Kennedy, Kumana erected a stone monolith, around six feet (two meters) tall, on a hilltop near his home.

Emblazoned with a portrait photograph of the President and withered magazine clippings, the memorial is Kumana's way of keeping "Chief" Kennedy alive.

"The chiefship of Kennedy will remain here, even after I die—strong as ever, as hard as this rock," Kumana says. "I always am thinking of Kennedy."

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