U.S. Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman stood together at dawn on Guadalcanal on Sunday to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the nearly fatal World War II battle there. father, which redefines America’s role in Asia.
Then and now, there was violence, great power competition and nervousness about the future. Their visit came as the Chinese military completed a 72-hour simulated invasion exercise around Taiwan. At events with officials from Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the Solomon Islands, both officials emphasized that the region – and the world – is at another crossroads.
Surrounded by local well-wishers, Ms Kennedy pledged “to pay tribute to those who came before us and to do her best to leave a legacy for future generations.”
Ms. Sherman was more pointed. “Whether we want to continue to have a society where people can speak freely is up to us,” she told a crowd gathered on a tree-lined ridge above Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. Be transparent and accountable to the people. If we want a fair and orderly international system where everyone plays by the same rules and resolves disputes peacefully.”
In many ways, the Guadalcanal trip has capped a tense week that began with a trip to Asia by U.S. Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who The brief stop sparked China’s military exercises. Across the region, history, diplomacy and crises are intertwined, as often happens when great power competition surges.
As Hal Brands, professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins University, put it, recently writtenthe early days of the Cold War were also defined as “diplomatic conflict and war scare,” when Russia and the United States fought for position in a still unstable world order.
Today’s superpowers are different, and the battlegrounds are different, with new testing grounds such as Ukraine and Taiwan. But some locations on the map — including the Pacific Islands — seem destined to repeat roles.
China has been working to secure influence, resources and possible military bases in the region, which security analysts say is aimed at disrupting the Australian and US presence in the island chain that played a key role in World War II.
In the Solomon Islands, one of the poorest of the Pacific island nations, the government has been particularly accommodating. In 2019, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan, an autonomous island deemed a renegade province by China. A few months ago, he signed a security deal with Beijing that allows the Chinese navy to use some of the islands that killed some 7,000 Americans in World War II.
Read more about Asia-US relations
Sogavare, who met privately with U.S. officials and did not attend Sunday’s ceremony, insisted that no Chinese bases were on the way. Still, the United States announced this year that it would reopen its embassies in Honiara, while adding embassies in Kiribati and Tonga — two other Pacific nations with large Chinese populations.
With Australia also stepping up its formal diplomatic push, there are frequent reminders of US ties dating back to the 1940s.
Ms. Kennedy, the daughter of John F. Kennedy, and Ms. Sherman’s father, Mar Sherman, a Marine, recently discussed their ties to the Solomon Islands and the war.
“We thought, if our father hadn’t been rescued, she wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t be here,” Ms Sherman said in an interview before the trip. She added that it was clear that the stories provided an opportunity to “motivate our partners.”
exist a video Featuring photos of Americans fighting, Ms Kennedy visiting Australia’s WWII memorial and Ms Sherman touching her father’s uniform, they pledged that the US would “recommit to working with our allies and partners”.
During their presentations and free moments, they spoke of family anecdotes and shared experiences— selfless, victory, free, personal risk, United is often repeated. At a news conference, Ms. Sherman called China’s response to Ms. Pelosi’s trip, which was meant to resonate for months, “irresponsible.”
“It’s part of an American comeback strategy,” said Clive Moore, emeritus professor of history at the University of Queensland, whose research focuses on the Solomon Islands. “Obviously, they talked about what the U.S. needs to do to get back on track.”
However, in such stressful times, the individual sometimes overshadows the politics. At dawn, Ms Sherman held back her emotions as she made her main comments. She often said her father rarely told basic war stories: Two days after Pearl Harbor, he dropped out of college and was wounded in the Battle of Guadalcanal.
The story of Ms. Kennedy’s father is better known.
He wasn’t quite the famous Kennedy at the time. After the official conclusion of the six-month battle of Guadalcanal, he ended up in the Pacific, and the war was changing, but he was still unsure as the fighting against the Japanese continued.
In April 1943 he took command of a torpedo patrol boat PT-109, which according to Fredrik Logevall’s biography “JFK” was “dirty and battle-hardened”.
The ship was one of 15 sent to intercept a Japanese convoy on August 1 in the Blackett Strait, northwest of Guadalcanal. It was hit by a Japanese destroyer just after 2am.
Two of Kennedy’s men died on the spot. He and 10 others survived, including a badly burned engineer, Patrick McMahon. Kennedy gathered the men on the largest piece of wreckage until dawn, then decided they had to swim to land.
Kennedy took the lead, biting the straps of McMahon’s life jacket, and led them to a small island called Orasana. The strenuous swim took nearly five hours.
That night, Kennedy swam out alone with the lantern, hoping to find an American ship to rescue them. After that defeat – he nearly drowned – he and another crew member set off for a larger island, where in the distance they spotted what appeared to be two islanders in a canoe.
“They thought he was from Japan,” John Koloni, the son of one of them, Eroni Kumana, said in an interview in Honiara. “Then he raised his hands and waved, ‘Come on, come on, come on, America.'”
The men seemed to disappear, but when Kennedy returned to Orasana late that night, the same two were there. They are teenage scouts working for the Allies: Biuku Gasa and Mr. Kumana. After another failed attempt to find a friendly ship, Mr. Garza had an idea. Kennedy scribbled a message on the coconut husk that read: It takes a boat Kennedy to live.
Two scouts carry coconuts through enemy waters to an Allied base 38 miles away.
On the way, they stopped to inform a reconnaissance companion, who told an Australian coast watcher, an intelligence officer reporting on enemy ships and troop movements. The coast watcher immediately dispatched seven scouts in a large canoe full of food, drink and cigarettes.
The next day, August 7, the islanders put Kennedy at the bottom of a canoe, covered him with palm fronds to avoid detection by Japanese planes, and rowed him to an island controlled by Australian troops. The entire crew was safely back at a nearby base a few hours later.
In addition to her father, Ms. Kennedy said, “Countless American and Allied families are grateful for the survival of Solomon Islanders.”
Mr. Kennedy would agree. If he is still alive, he may also have a message for his daughter and others at the State Department facing today’s uncertain times in Asia. Maybe he’ll even draw any wisdom from his own narrative citing what happened after his ship was hit.
“Before this, I was a bit cynical about the American as a combative person. I had seen too many abdominal pains and layoffs,” he told his parents in a letter. “But as the chips went down, that all went away.”
“It has to be very easy or very hard for Americans,” he added. “When it’s in the middle, there’s trouble.”
Matthew Abbott Reporting from Honiara, and Jane Perez from Seoul.