December 8, 2023

Caroline Kennedy, the United States ambassador to Australia, and Wendy Sherman, the US deputy secretary of state, stood together early Sunday on the island of Guadalcanal to mark the 80th anniversary of the World War II battle there that almost lead to death. of their fathers, and this redefined America’s role throughout Asia.

Then and now, there was violence, great power rivalry, and anxiety about the future. Their visit came as China’s military completed 72 hours of exercises around Taiwan, simulating an invasion. And in their remarks at events with officials from Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the Solomon Islands, both officials stressed that the region – and the world – is at another crossroads.

Mrs Kennedy, surrounded by local well-wishers, vowed to “honour those who came before us and work and do our best to leave a legacy for those who follow”.

Mrs. Sherman was sharper. “It’s up to us to decide if we want to continue to have societies where people are free to speak their minds,” he told a group gathered on a leafy ridge above the Solomon Islands capital, Honiara. “If we want to have governments that are transparent and accountable to their people. If we want an international system that is fair and orderly, where everyone plays by the same rules and where disputes are resolved peacefully.”

In many ways, the visit to Guadalcanal was the culmination of a tense week that began with trips to Asia by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose brief time in Taiwan sparked the China’s military exercises. . Across the region, history, diplomacy and crisis are intertwined, as is often the case when great power rivalry increases.

As Hal Brands, professor of world affairs at Johns Hopkins University, wrote recentlythe early years of the Cold War were also defined by “diplomatic skirmishes and war scares,” as Russia and the United States tried to stake out a place in a still-unsettled world order.

Today’s superpowers are different, and the contested locations are too, with new testing grounds like Ukraine and Taiwan. But a few spots on the map — including the Pacific islands — seem destined for recurring roles.

China is working across the region to secure influence, resources and possibly military bases in what security analysts describe as an effort to disrupt the Australian and American presence in the island chains 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 kind. In 2019, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare severed diplomatic relations with Taiwan, the self-governing island that China views as a renegade province. A few months ago, he signed a security deal with Beijing that could allow China’s navy to use some of the same islands where some 7,000 Americans died in World War II.

Mr Sogavare, who met privately with US officials and did not attend Sunday’s ceremonies, insisted there is no Chinese base on the way. Still, the United States announced this year that it would reopen an embassy in Honiara, while adding embassies in Kiribati and Tonga — two other Pacific nations with a large Chinese presence.

And along with an official diplomatic push, which Australia has also stepped up, American ties reaching back to the 1940s are often recalled.

Ms. Kennedy, daughter of John F. Kennedy, and Ms. Sherman, whose father, Mal Sherman, was a Marine, recently discussed their connection to the Solomons and the war.

“We thought how we wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be here, if our fathers hadn’t been rescued,” Ms. Sherman said in an interview before the trip. It was also clear, he added, that these stories offered an opportunity to “activate our partners.”

In a video which featured images of Americans at war, Ms. Kennedy visiting a World War II memorial in Australia and Ms. Sherman touching her father’s uniform, promised that the United States would “recommit to working with allies and our partners”.

In their speeches and in their free moments they talked about family anecdotes and shared experiences — selfless, win, freedom, personal risk, united words were often repeated. With Ms. Sherman calling China’s response to Ms. Pelosi’s trip “irresponsible” during a news conference, it was a visit that was destined to reverberate for months.

“It’s part of the American comeback strategy,” said Clive Moore, emeritus professor of history at the University of Queensland whose research has focused on the Solomon Islands. “It’s clear they talked about what America needs to do to get back on track.”

In such a tense time, however, the personal sometimes overshadows the political. Ms. Sherman choked back emotion during her early morning keynote remarks. She has often said that her father rarely told 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.

He was hardly a famous Kennedy at the time. He ended up in the Pacific after the six-month battle of Guadalcanal had officially ended, with the war changing but still uncertain as the battle with the Japanese continued.

In April 1943, he took command of a patrol torpedo boat, PT-109, which was “lively and battle-scarred,” according to Fredrik Logevall’s biography, “JFK.”

On 1 August, this vessel was one of 15 sent to Blackett Strait, northwest of Guadalcanal, to intercept a Japanese transport convoy. Shortly after 2 a.m., she was rammed by a Japanese destroyer.

Two of Kennedy’s men died instantly. He and 10 others survived, including an engineer, Patrick McMahon, who was badly burned. Kennedy gathered the men on the largest piece of debris until dawn, then decided they should swim for land.

Holding McMahon’s lifeline in his teeth, Kennedy took the lead, leading them to a small island, Olasana. The grueling dive lasted almost five hours.

Kennedy swam alone that night with a lantern in hopes of finding an American vessel to rescue them. After failing – and nearly drowning – he and another crew member set out for a larger island where, some distance away, they spotted what appeared to be two islanders in a canoe.

“They thought they were from Japan,” John Koloni, the son of one of them, Eroni Kumana, said in an interview in Honiara. “Then he raised his hands, waving, ‘Come, come, come, America.’

The men seemed to disappear, but when Kennedy returned to Olasana late that night, the same two were there. They were teenage scouts, working for the Allies: Biuku Gasa and Mr. Kumana. After another attempt to find a friendly vessel failed, Mr. Gasa had an idea. Kennedy carved a message into the bark of a coconut that contained the words: KENNEDY LITTLE BOAT WANTED ALIVE.

The two scouts carried the coconut through enemy waters to an allied base 38 miles away.

En route, they stopped to brief a fellow scout, who told an Australian coastwatcher, an intelligence agent who reported movements of enemy ships and troops. The coast watcher immediately sent seven scouts in a large canoe filled with food, drink and cigarettes.

The next day, August 7, the islanders put Kennedy in the bottom of the canoe, covered him with palm fronds to avoid detection by Japanese planes, and took him to an island controlled by Australian troops. Within hours, the entire crew was safe at a nearby base.

Mrs. Kennedy said that in addition to her father, “Countless American and Allied families have Solomon Islanders to thank for their survival.”

Mr. Kennedy would have agreed. If he were still alive, he might also have a message for his daughter and others in the State Department facing the current moment of uncertainty in Asia. He might even have quoted from his own account of the wisdom that could be gleaned from what happened after his ship was inoculated.

“Before I was kind of cynical about the American as a fighter. I had seen too many abs and layoffs,” he told his parents in a letter. “But with the chips down, everything went out.”

“For an American it must be awfully easy or awfully hard,” he added. “When it’s in the middle, that’s when there’s a problem.”

Matthew Abbott contributed reporting from Honiara, and Jane Perlage from Seoul.

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