The Secret of the Solomon Islands

The fascinating story of how Kennedy Island got its name

The Secret of the Solomon Islands

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Paddling in paradise.

From my hammock at Fatboys Resort in the Solomon Islands, I watch a rainbow forming over the turquoise waters where one of my friends is engaging in a solitary paddle over the reef. Fatboys’ name was inspired by Charles Dickens’ ‘Joe’ (The Pickwick Papers), the ‘fat boy’ who consumes great quantities of food and constantly falls asleep in any situation at any time of day.

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Rainbow over the water. Photo: Barry Stone

Fatboys Resort on Mbabanga Island

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I just feel I could do the same here…

Fatboys sits on Mbabanga Island, an eight-minute boat ride from Gizo, the provincial capital of the Western Solomons. The location couldn’t be more idyllic.

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Fatboys social hub

‘Where there are coconuts there is life’ – says Stella Lucas of the Solomon Islands Tourism Board – pointing to the ubiquitous coconut palms that practically define all of the Pacific Islands.

These graceful, slender palms provide not only food (coconut water, coconut milk, coconut cream, coconut flesh and coconut young sprouts children pick up from fallen fruits and munch on their way to school). But also a myriad of utensils and toys that can be carved out of their hard shells.

These palms also provide precious building materials such as fronds that are woven for roofs and mats.

Coconuts are life giving and revered for that reason.

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Coconut palms

Of course it is not only coconuts that grow in profusion but also sago palms, pawpaw trees, banana trees, breadfruit trees and a plethora of other fruits and nuts.

Fish and fruit

Fish are aplenty, as there is more water than land between these island nations, and relatively easy to catch.

No wonder Pacific exploration fleets of the 18th-century, headed by Captain Cook, Louis Antoine de Bougainville and others, struggled to keep their crews onboard.

Men jumped ship and disappeared into the bush lured by, not only the beauty of the women, but also the perceived ease of life on the islands.

You only need to reach up to pluck a fruit; crack a coconut for a refreshing drink; spear a fish at low tide or shallow – dive for lobster.

The beachcomber concept was created here.

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Local fruit
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A tropical fruit feast
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Seagrapes

However, like with many other things in life, not all coconuts are created equal.

Below is the true story of a very special coconut that had a role in saving eleven castaway lives but also had an incredibly high impact on world politics.

Kennedy Island

From this very comfortable hammock (and yes, not all hammocks are created equal either) that holds me like a netted fish –well, maybe a dugong in my case, okay?

I can see a small, uninhabited island looking like a floating cupcake, our next destination for a snorkel and a barbecue lunch.

Its name is Kennedy Island and its history one of extraordinary importance to international politics.

It was here in 1943, in the thick of the Pacific War during WWII, that one of hundreds of Japanese ships rammed and cut in half an American patrol torpedo boat (PT-109) in the middle of the night.

The whole crew was tossed into the waters, some badly injured after the collision. Their young skipper encouraged the crew to swim to safety to this little island.

He himself -a former champion swimmer- was able to tow one of the injured sailors to safety by putting the vest strap between his teeth and swimming ashore.

After a couple of days break while sustaining life by eating coconuts, the young skipper decided to swim to another island to seek help, taking with him a buddy.

The Secret of the Solomon Islands

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Kennedy onboard PT-109 Photo: www.jfklibrary.org

When I look across the waters to ‘the other’ island, I shudder to think what an effort it must have been to reach it.

Unfortunately, this island was also uninhabited. When a canoe appeared on the horizon after a few days, the Americans signalled for help.

The Islanders, thinking the men to be Japanese, quickly paddled away as the Japanese used to take pot shots at the Islanders’ canoes, knowing they were scouting for the American forces.

Curiosity brought them back realising the stranded men were friendly.

JFK Coconut Message

At the Islanders’ suggestion, the skipper whose name was John F. Kennedy, carved a message on a coconut shell that read:

“NAURO ISLAND…COMMANDER…NATIVE KNOWS POSITION…HE CAN PILOT…11 ALIVE…NEED SMALL BOAT…KENNEDY”.

Kumana and Gasa, the two Solomon Islanders, took the coconut and at great risk (in waters patrolled by Japanese ships) paddled 55km away where an allied Australian Coastwatcher was stationed.

After several agonising days, eight Islanders arrived back to where Kennedy and Ross were, bringing instructions from the Coastwatcher to go with the Islanders to Wana Wana.

The Solomon Islanders had brought food and even a cook stove to make the survivors comfortable.

That afternoon, JF Kennedy, hidden under ferns in a canoe, was taken to the Coastwatcher base from where he piloted a rescue boat to where the rest of the crew were.

How two Solomon Islanders changed the world

So it was that thanks to Eroni Kumana and his friend Biuku Gasa, Lieutenant JF Kennedy and eleven others survived.

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Eroni Kumana

Kennedy went to become one of the most popular Presidents of the United States.

He never forgot his saviours but due to the intervention of missionaries in Kumana and Gasa’s island, Kumana never made it to the White House where he had been invited to meet with President Kennedy.

The missionaries deemed Kumana’s English skills ‘not up to standards’ and someone else went instead…

President Kennedy had the coconut shell with the carved message encased in wood and plastic and used it as a paperweight on his desk in the Oval Office for the rest of his short and remarkable life.

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The carved coconut message. Photo: www. jfklibrary.org

It is a great irony that the world knows more about the man who assassinated President Kennedy than it knows about the Solomon Islanders who saved him from certain death.

If you care to address the imbalance, share this true story with your circle…

Maria Visconti was a guest of Solomon Airlines and the Solomon Islands Tourism Board

Discover Solomon Islands

Getting there
There are direct flights from Brisbane to Honiara. The domestic flight from Honiara to Gizo takes about one hour.

Staying there
Stay at Fatboys Resort for a relaxing island holiday.

More
For more ideas on things to do on the Solomon Islands see:

Looking for a South Pacific holiday to remember? Flights to the Solomon Islands have made it easier to get to.
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