I touched a redolent site of history, the moment our three and half hour Solomon Airlines flight from Brisbane kissed the tarmac of Honiara International Airport. My Solomon Islands holiday began with blue skies, fresh air and smiling happy faces in Honiara, the international gateway and capital city of the Solomon Islands.
Solomon Islands WWII History
Is wasn’t the same scene 75 years ago. In fact, you wouldn’t have considered going on a Solomon Islands holiday back then. The blue sky was stained with black smoke from the ceaseless bombing and the firing from antiaircraft guns.
Surely there were no smiling faces around. In 1942 during the peak of WWII, the Solomon Islands was a fiery combat zone between the Japanese troops and the Allies, fighting to gain control of this very airfield.
After striking Pearl Harbour in 1941, the Japanese set out to gain control of the South Pacific. In early 1942, they invaded the island of Guadalcanal in Solomon Islands and made it an important stronghold, due to its strategic position between Australia and America.
They quickly built this airfield, mobilised troops and established artillery positions in the nearby hills.
To stop the spreading of enemy power in the Pacific, American forces landed on Guadalcanal few months later, seized the airfield and started a bloody land, air and sea battle to prevent the Japanese recapturing it.
The battle lasted for over six months with the Japanese withdrawing in early 1943. Both sides lost several battleships, cruisers, destroyers, torpedos, bombers, fighters, tanks, artillery and over 37000 lives.
Australia lost HC Canberra, the largest Australian warship ever lost in battle.
This blazing clash, chronicled in WWII history as ‘Battle of Guadalcanal’ was the first decisive victory of the Allies against Japan, marking the reversal of their expansion.
According to many war analysts, the inspiration from this triumph led the Allies to finally win the war in two years’ time.
Many classic movies, documentaries and television dramas were later made to let the future generation know and appreciate the heroic efforts of the Allied forces in Guadalcanal. Thin Red Line, Battle of Guadalcanal, Guadalcanal Diary and Pacific are a few that movies that motivate history buffs like me to visit Solomon Islands to trace the paths of these memorable events.
The Solomon Islands
A British protectorate until 1978, Solomon Islands today is an independent nation comprising of a cluster of 992 islands.
Around 30% of the islands are inhabited by a population of around 600000. Most of the people are of Melanesian origin, although there are some of Polynesian and Micronesian roots as well. Their combined culture and tradition is the backbone of the nation’s social structure.
Like their neighbours Vanuatu, Samoa and Fiji, the Solomon Islands is a paradise-like destination with an ‘island-time’ vibe. There’s a laidback lifestyle, a pristine and unspoilt natural environment. Think coral reef-rimmed lagoons, sandy coastline, tropical jungles with waterfalls and volcanoes.
However, there exists a major difference. Solomon Island still lives without much of 21st-century facilities. This may not be good news for some travellers but if you’re looking for an unspoilt back-to-nature island paradise, you can’t go wrong.
Solomon Islands Diving
Being an archipelago, underwater activities abound. Solomon Islands diving is renowned worldwide. Some of the world’s best sites for scuba diving and snorkelling are located here.
Aside from aquatic activities, you can go bushwalking, rainforest cruising, waterfall bathing or visiting local villages and communities to experience life that is unaffected by the rest of the world.
Underwater adventurers will see a mesmerising galaxy of coral reef and multi-coloured marine life. But there’s also something else that’s extra special, which perhaps can’t be found to this extent anywhere else in the world.
It’s the WWII relics which comprise of battleships, bombers, fighters and many other dumps from the wartime. The seabed near Honiara is strewn with so much wreckage from the Battle of Guadalcanal that it’s nicknamed ‘Iron Bottom Sound’.
Unfortunately, I am not a diver but after hearing stories from some visiting divers, I wish I was. I can easily visualise the extent of the war and damage.
When exploring the islands around Gizo and Munda in the west, where the battlefront moved after the fall of Guadalcanal, I met a group of Australian marine photographers.
They showed me some spectacular underwater snaps of wrecked ships and aircraft at Tulaghi, near Honiara and Toa Maru, and Hellcat near Gizo. I was simply amazed.
75th Anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal
The underwater and aboveground WWII remnants are a major lure for the Solomon Islands. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the famous battle.
Several battle sites around Honiara and Guadalcanal Island are virtually untouched with war relics such as rusting jeeps, guns, tanks, amphibious vehicles and barges buried in the jungle.
At Vilu, 25km west of Honiara, there is an open-air War Museum packed with a variety of warfare aircraft.
History comes to life for me when I visit some of the battle sites like the Bloody Ridge, near the Honiara airport, or nearby Red Beach where the American marines first landed and Alligator Creek where several died of malaria.
With my imagination firing, I hear gunshots and cries of the wounded. I feel sorry for all those soldiers who lost their lives. I gain some solace when visiting the US and Japanese War Memorials in Honiara and find locals and visitors showing respect for the lives lost in one of the major combats of WWII in the region.
A fascinating place I visit is the Peter Joseph WWII Museum in Munda. The museum is a treasure trove of militaria picked up from many local battlefields. It’s owned by Barney Paulsen, a local who named this gallery after Peter Joseph, an American serviceman, after finding his dog-tag in the bush.
Barney’s decades of collecting includes almost everything from empty ‘sake’ bottles and water canteens, bullets, grenades, bayonets, helmets, knuckledusters, rifles and machine gun barrels.
Solomon Islands Holiday on Kennedy Island
WWII history catches my imagination again on Kennedy Island, which brings tales of a 26-year-old American lieutenant, John F Kennedy. Yes, that’s the Kennedy who later became the 35th President of USA.
It was right here where Kennedy swam with his 11 crew members after his patrolling boat PT 109 was sunk by the Japanese destroyer ‘Amagiri’ on 02 August 1943. But as there was no fresh water, they had to head to other isolated islands.
Two islanders, Eroni Kumana and Biuku Gasa, who were working as scouts for the allied forces, spotted them. These two risked their lives to take Kennedy’s message (which was written on a coconut) to an allied Australian Coastwatcher station. From there, a mission was launched to rescue the injured, exhausted and hungry US sailors.
For his courage and leadership, Kennedy was later awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, but most importantly laid the foundation for his appeal as a leader which made him the nation’s President, 17 years later.
Kennedy didn’t forget Eroni and Biuku. After becoming President, he invited both of them to Washington DC but it’s said a British colonial officer prevented them from going because they spoke little English.
Surely Eroni and Biuku were disappointed, but that never stopped them to take pride in proclaiming they saved the life of the President.
It’s true that the Solomon Islands is still finding its way into the tourism circuit. However after spending few days there, I have no hesitation to stamp this destination with my approval. A Solomon Islands holiday will appeal to travellers who are keen on nature and aquatic adventures. It has friendly people and an intriguing history. So, step back in time and lap up the charm of the Solomon Islands.
Discover Solomon Islands
Flights to Solomon Islands
Solomon Airlines and Virgin Airlines fly from Brisbane to Honiara.
Solomon Islands Accommodation
There are some nice hotels of international standard in Honiara. At the top of the list are Coral Sea Resort and Heritage Park Hotel. Accommodation options on other islands can be fairly basic but comfortable. Agnes Gateway Hotel in Munda and Fatboys Hotel on Mbabanga Island near Gizo are two of the better ones.
Solomon Islands food
Expect plenty of taro, sweet potato, slippery cabbage coconut, papaya, banana and seafood, particularly crayfish. Rice is a newer addition to the menu, introduced by the Chinese settlers
Travel tip for your Solomon Islands Holiday
There are plenty of mosquitoes around, so don’t leave home without some strong insect repellent and consult doctor for anti-malaria medication.
For more about the Solomon Islands go to this website.