Solomon Islands seek to exploit their wartime heritage

 

SOLOMON ISLANDS: The country badly needs to recover from a coup that plunged it into ethnic conflict in June 2000, writes Nick Squires on Guadalcanal

"Sixty years ago we would have been deep inside Japanese territory. You can imagine the ambush potential." Sweating profusely in the stifling tropical heat, amateur historian John Innes leads the way along a narrow dirt track overgrown with chest-high grass and twisting vines.

The jungle encroaches on every side; a wall of green which hums with the buzz of cicadas and other unseen insects.

This is Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting in the Pacific during the second World War.

From August 1942 until February 1943, tens of thousands of American and Japanese troops engaged in a desperate fight for the island's razor-back ridges, swamps and beaches. Although 7,000 Americans were killed, Japan's losses were far more crippling, with more than 24,000 dead.

Ranked alongside Stalingrad and El Alamein for its importance, the Battle of Guadalcanal was one of the turning points of the war.

"Before Guadalcanal the enemy advanced at his pleasure. After Guadalcanal, he retreated at ours," Admiral "Bull" Halsey of the US Navy once famously said.

Six decades on the near-bankrupt Solomons are emerging from four years of chaos and civil war with the help of an Australian-led intervention force of 2,200 troops and police which began arriving last week at the invitation of the former British protectorate's government.

Desperate for foreign cash, the Solomon Islands is pinning hopes of economic recovery on battlefield tourism, keen to attract Japanese and American tourists to see the mountains and jungles where their fathers and grandfathers once fought.

Guadalcanal, one of the largest islands in the archipelago, is still littered with the detritus of war. Long-abandoned tanks and half-tracks rust away beneath coconut palms and banana trees. An American jeep lies half-submerged on a beach in the middle of the capital, Honiara.

Between Guadalcanal and the nearby island of Savo, so many US and Japanese warships were sunk that the channel is now known as Iron Bottom Sound.

Australian Innes (62), who runs a local computer business, has been painstakingly documenting Guadalcanal's battlefields for 12 years.

Rated as a world expert on the campaign, he is a walking encyclopedia and knows every attack, counterattack and skirmish conducted during the bloody seven-month campaign down to the names of individual soldiers.

At the end of the track he pushes aside ferns and bushes to reveal a 10ft-deep hole. "Here you have a Japanese observation post," Innes said, crouching in the mud at the mouth of the dank cave. "It was occupied by a Japanese soldier for four months and used to keep watch on the Americans at Henderson Field."

Henderson Field airstrip was the key to Guadalcanal and, by extension, to the whole of the South Pacific. Originally built by the Japanese with Korean slave labour, it was seized by the Americans and defended against repeated counterattack, notably along what became known as Bloody Ridge and Coffin Corner.

Had it fallen back into Japanese hands it would have opened the way for the invasion of the rest of the south Pacific and even Australia and New Zealand.

A few miles up the track lies Mount Austen, where the Japanese defended their most important command post with suicidal banzai attacks.

Of 800 defenders, only 20 survived a dogged assault by US marines and Army Raiders.

Rusted water bottles and sardine cans still litter an American line of foxholes, and in the nearby village of Banara the wing of a Japanese bomber lies propped up against a mango tree. Next to it is a pile of unexploded grenades, gas masks, Japanese helmets and mortar shells.

It is the excellent state of preservation of such remains that has led to hopes that battlefield tourism could inject much-needed revenue into the Solomon Islands' ailing economy.

Before the country was plunged into ethnic conflict by a coup in June 2000, it was visited by around 15,000 foreign tourists a year. Last year, with armed militants roaming the streets of Honiara, fewer than 3,000 tourists arrived.

Now, with the restoration of law and order by police and soldiers from Australia, New Zealand and several small Pacific states, locals want to cash in on the Solomons' second World War history.

"There is a lot of potential, but the government doesn't do much to preserve the battle sites," said Ellison Kyere, of the Solomon Islands Visitor Bureau.

"We hope that more people will come now that the country is safe."

Only one company in Honiara offers battlefield tours, although a few taxi-drivers and freelance guides offer to show foreigners the main sites.

"We are gradually getting more inquiries from tourists in Japan and Europe," said Karen Foimua, a travel agent with Guadalcanal Travel Services. "Most of them come to dive on the ship wrecks."

The many battleships, cruisers and transport ships which were bombed or torpedoed during the war have now become coral-encrusted artificial reefs, attracting schools of fish, shark, manta ray and other marine life.

The cannons and heavy guns of the USS Aaron Ward, which was sunk off the island of Tulagi, still point upwards, just as they did when trying to fend off attack by Japanese fighter aircraft.

Divers can swim into the cockpits of sunken B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, while the wreck of a torpedoed Japanese freighter still contains unopened saki bottles, crockery and tanks.

Today up to 50 tourists, locals and expatriates will commemorate the 60th anniversary of a heroic rescue carried out by former US president John F. Kennedy when he was a patrol boat commander in the Solomons during the war.

Kennedy was in command of the patrol boat PT-109 when it was accidentally struck and sliced in two by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri on August 2nd, 1943.

He was credited with saving the lives of his men by swimming for hours to a nearby island to search for help. Finally rescued six days later, he was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal and the Purple Heart.

"Two million American troops passed through Guadalcanal, and each of them has as story to tell," said Innes, who would like to see battlefield tours advertised much more aggressively in the US and Japan. "History is one of the country's greatest assets."