Caroline Kennedy, the US ambassador to Australia, and Wendy Sherman, the US deputy secretary of state, stood together at dawn on Sunday on Guadalcanal to honor the 80th anniversary of the near-fatal battle World War II there. their forefathers, and that redefined America’s role throughout Asia.
Then and now, there is violence, great power competition and anxiety about the future. Their visit comes as the Chinese military is expected to wrap up 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 emphasized that the region – and the world – are at a different crossroads.
Ms. Kennedy, surrounded by local wise men, promised to “honor those who came before us and worked and did their best to leave a legacy for those who followed”.
Mrs. Sherman was clearer. “We decided if we wanted to continue to have societies where people are free to speak their mind,” she told a group gathered on a ridge above the archipelago’s capital. Solomon, Honiara. “If we want governments that are transparent and accountable to their people. If we want a fair and orderly international system, where everyone plays by the same rules and where disputes are resolved peacefully.”
In many ways, the visit to Guadalcanal was the start of an intense week that began with trips to Asia by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, who had a brief stint in Taiwan. . China’s military exercises. Throughout the region, history, diplomacy and a crisis are intertwined, as they often do when competition between great powers increases.
As Hal Brands, professor of global affairs at Johns Hopkins University, wrote recentlyThe early years of the Cold War were also defined by “diplomatic friction and the threat of war,” as Russia and the United States vied for their place in a still-unsettled world order.
Today’s superpowers are different, and so are the sites of dispute, with new proofs like Ukraine and Taiwan. But some spots on the map – including islands in the Pacific – seem destined for repeat roles.
China has been working across the region to secure influence, resources and possibly military bases in what security analysts describe as an attempt to thwart the Australian and US presence in the region. island chains played a pivotal 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 cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the self-governing island that China considers a renegade province. A few months ago, he signed a confidentiality agreement with Beijing possibly allowing the Chinese navy to use some of the same islands, where some 7,000 Americans died in World War II.
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Sogavare, who met US officials privately and did not attend Sunday’s ceremonies, insisted there were no Chinese bases en route. This year, however, the United States announced it would reopen its embassy in Honiara, while adding embassies in Kiribati and Tonga – two other Pacific nations with a large Chinese presence.
And along with the formal diplomatic push, which Australia also stepped up, there were frequent reminders of America’s relationship stretching back to the 1940s.
Ms. Kennedy, the daughter of John F. Kennedy and Ms. Sherman, whose father Mal Sherman is a Marine, recently discussed their connection to the Solomons and the war.
“We were thinking about how she wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be here, if our father hadn’t been saved,” Sherman said in a pre-trip interview. She added it’s also clear that those stories provide an opportunity to “energize our partners.”
In One video which featured images of Americans fighting, Mrs. Kennedy visiting a World War II memorial in Australia, and Mrs. Sherman touching her father’s uniform, promising that the United States would be “committed to working with our allies.” our allies and partners”.
In speeches and spare moments, they talk about family anecdotes and share experiences – altruistic, win, freedom, personal risk, unified are words that are often repeated. With Ms. Sherman calling China’s response to Ms. Pelosi’s trip “irresponsible” during a news conference, it was a visit with significance that resonated for months.
“It’s part of the American comeback strategy,” said Clive Moore, an emeritus history professor at the University of Queensland, whose research has focused on the Solomon Islands. “Obviously they talked about what the US needs to do to get back on track.”
However, in such stressful times, the personal sometimes overshadows politics. Mrs. Sherman choked on emotion during her keynote address at dawn. She often said that her father rarely told war stories beyond the basics: He dropped out of school 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 had arrived in the Pacific after the six-month battle at Guadalcanal had officially ended, the war had turned but remained uncertain as the fighting continued with the Japanese.
In April 1943, he commanded a patrol torpedo boat, the PT-109, “dirty and battle-scarred,” according to Fredrik Logevall’s biography, “JFK.”
On 1 August that boat was one of 15 sent to Blackett Strait, northwest of Guadalcanal, to intercept a Japanese convoy. Just 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 suffered severe burns. Kennedy gathered the men together on the largest pile of rubble until dawn, then decided they had to swim inland.
Holding McMahon’s lifejacket in his teeth, Kennedy took the lead, guiding them to a small island, Olasana. The grueling swim lasted nearly five hours.
Kennedy swam out alone that night with a lantern in the hope of finding an American boat to rescue them. Then failed – and he nearly drowned – he and another crew member set off for a larger island, where some distance away they spotted what appeared to be two people. people on the island in a canoe.
“They thought he was from Japan,” said John Koloni, the son of one of them, Eroni Kumana, said in an interview in Honiara. “Then he raised his hands, waved, ‘Come, come, come, America.'”
The men seemed to disappear, but when Kennedy returned to Olasana that night, the two were there. They are teenage scouts, working for the Allies: Biuku Gasa and Mr. Kumana. After another unsuccessful attempt to find a friendly boat, Mr. Gasa had an idea. Kennedy scrawled on the shell of a coconut the words: ALIVE NEED KENNEDY SMALL BOAT.
Two scouts carried the coconut across enemy waters to an Allied base 38 miles away.
En route, they stopped to alert a scout, who spoke to an Australian coast guard, an intelligence task force who reported movements of enemy ships and troops. The Coast Guard promptly dispatched seven scouts in a large canoe loaded with food, drink and cigarettes.
The next day, August 7, the islanders took Kennedy to the bottom of the canoe, covered him with palm leaves to avoid detection by Japanese planes, and lured him to an island controlled by the Australian military. Within hours, the entire crew was safely at a nearby base.
Ms. Kennedy said that in addition to her father, “Countless American and Allied families have Solomon Islands to thank for their survival.”
Mr. Kennedy would agree. If he is still alive, he may well have a message for his daughter and others in the State Department who are facing uncertain times in Asia today. Perhaps he will even quote from his own account what wisdom can be drawn from what happened after his boat was rammed.
“Before that, I was somewhat skeptical of the American as a fighter. I’ve seen too many colic and childbirth,” he told his parents in a letter. “But with the chip count decreasing, all of that will go away.”
“For an American, it has to be either easy or terribly difficult,” he added. “When it’s in the middle, then there’s trouble.”
Matthew Abbott contribution reports from Honiara, and Jane Perlez from Seoul.