Caroline Kennedy, the US ambassador to Australia, and Wendy Sherman, the US deputy secretary of state, stood together at dawn Sunday on the island of Guadalcanal to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the nearly fatal World War II battle there. From their parents, this redefined America’s role throughout Asia.
Then and now, there was violence, rivalry between the great powers, and tense anxiety about the future. Their visit came as the Chinese military completed 72 hours of exercises around Taiwan to simulate an invasion. In their observations of events with officials from Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the Solomon Islands, both officials emphasized that the region – and the world – finds itself at another crossroads.
Surrounded by local well-wishers, Mrs. Kennedy promised to “honor those who have gone before us and to work and do our best to leave a legacy for those who follow us.”
Mrs. Sherman was even sharper. “It is up to us to decide whether we want to continue to have societies where people are free to express their opinions,” she told a group huddled on a leafy ledge above the Solomon Islands’ capital, Honiara. If we want to have governments that are transparent and accountable to their people. If we want a fair and orderly international order, where everyone plays by the same rules and where conflicts are resolved peacefully.”
In many ways, the Canal visit marked the end of a tense week that began with trips to Asia by Secretary of State Anthony J. . Across the region, history, diplomacy, and crisis are intertwined, as often happens when great-power competition intensifies.
As Hal Brands, professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins University, recently wroteHowever, the early years of the Cold War were also defined by “diplomatic collisions and war fears,” when Russia and the United States vied for a place in a still unstable world order.
Today’s great powers are different, and the contested locations are also different, with new grounds of proof such as Ukraine and Taiwan. But some locations on the map – including the Pacific Islands – seem destined to repeat roles.
China is working across the region to secure influence, resources and possibly military bases in what security analysts describe as an attempt to disrupt the Australian and US presence in the island chains that played a pivotal role in World War II.
In the Solomon Islands, one of the poorest Pacific Island nations, the government has been particularly accommodating. In 2019, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavari cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the autonomous island that China considers a breakaway province. A few months ago, he signed a security agreement with Beijing that could allow the Chinese navy to use some of the same islands where about 7,000 Americans were killed in World War II.
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Mr. Sugavari, who met privately with US officials and did not attend Sunday’s celebrations, insisted that no Chinese base was en route. However, this year the US announced that it would reopen its embassy in Honiara, with the addition of embassies in Kiribati and Tonga – two other Pacific nations with a large Chinese presence.
Alongside the official diplomatic thrust, also intensified by Australia, came a frequent reminder of American relations going all the way back to the 1940s.
Mrs. Kennedy, daughter of John F. Kennedy, and Mrs. Sherman, whose father, Mal Sherman, was a Marine, recently discussed their relationship with Solomon and the war.
“We thought how she wouldn’t be here, and I wouldn’t be here, if our parents weren’t rescued,” Ms Sherman said in an interview before the trip. It was also clear, she added, that those stories provided an opportunity to “revitalize our partners”.
in video That included pictures of Americans fighting, Ms. Kennedy visiting the World War II memorial in Australia, and Ms. Sherman touching her father’s uniform, promising that the United States would “recommit to working with our allies and partners.”
In their speeches and free moments, they shared family stories and shared experiences – change meAnd the win overAnd the FreedomAnd the personal riskAnd the United The words were repeated often. With Ms Sherman calling China’s response to Pelosi’s trip “irresponsible” during a news conference, it was a visit that was supposed to reverberate for months.
“It’s part of the American return strategy,” said Clive Moore, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Queensland whose research has focused on the Solomon Islands. “Obviously they talked about what America needs to do to get back on the right track.”
But in such a difficult time, the personal sometimes overwhelms the politician. Mrs. Sherman stifled her excitement during her major comments at dawn. She has always said that her father rarely tells war stories beyond the basics: He dropped out of college two days after Pearl Harbor and was wounded while serving in the Guadalcanal Campaign.
The story of Mrs. Kennedy’s father is better known.
Kennedy was not popular at the time. He ended up in the Pacific after the six-month Battle of Guadalcanal officially ended, with the war turning but still uncertain as fighting with the Japanese continued.
In April 1943, he took command of a patrol boat, PT-109, which was “grim and battle-ravaged,” according to Frederic Logeval’s biographer, “JFK.”
On August 1, this boat was one of 15 boats sent to the Placket Strait, northwest of Guadalcanal, to intercept a Japanese transport convoy. After two o’clock in the morning, it was struck by a Japanese destroyer.
Two of Kennedy’s men died instantly. He and ten others survived, including engineer Patrick McMahon, who was badly burned. Kennedy gathered the men together on the largest piece of wreckage until dawn, then decided they had to swim for land.
Kennedy had McMahon’s lifejacket strap in his teeth and, taking the lead, led them to a small island, Olasana. The arduous swim took nearly five hours.
Kennedy swam alone that night with a lantern, hoping to find an American boat to save them. After that fails—and he nearly drowns—he and another member of the crew set off to a larger island where, some distance away, they discover what appear to be two islanders in a canoe.
“They thought he was from Japan,” John Colony, the son of one of them, Ironi Kumana, said in an interview in Honiara. Then he raised his hands, waving, ‘Come, come, come, America.’ ‘
The men seemed to be gone, but when Kennedy returned to Olsana late that night, the two of them were there. They were teenage scouts, working for the allies: Bioko Gasa and Mr. Cumana. After another attempt to find a friendly boat fails, Mr. Gasa has an idea. Kennedy wrote a message on a coconut shell that included the words: Alive Needs Kennedy’s Small Boat.
Scouts took the coconuts through enemy waters to an Allied base 38 miles away.
On the way, they stopped to report to a fellow Scout, who told the Australian Coast Watch, an intelligence officer who reported the movements of enemy ships and forces. The Coast Guard immediately dispatched seven scouts in a large canoe filled with food, drink and cigarettes.
The next day, August 7, the islanders put Kennedy on the bottom of the canoe, covered it with palm fronds to avoid detection by Japanese aircraft, and paddled it to an island controlled by Australian forces. Within hours, the entire crew was safely at a nearby base.
Ms. Kennedy said that in addition to her father, “there are countless Americans and Allied families whom the Solomon Islanders thank for staying.”
Mr. Kennedy would have agreed. If he’s still alive, he may also have a message for his daughter and others at the State Department who are facing today’s moment of uncertainty in Asia. Perhaps he would quote from his account what wisdom can be drawn from what happened after his boat crash.
“Before that I was somewhat cynical of the American as a fighting man. I’ve seen a lot of abdominal pain and lay-offs,” he told his parents in a letter. “But with the potato chips, it all went away.”
“For an American, it has to be either very easy or very difficult,” he added. “When you’re in the middle, there’s a problem.”
Matthew Abbott Contributed to reporting from Honiara, and Jane Perlez from Seoul.