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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Solomon Islands II: The Legend of the Guadalcanal Campaigns

Sunday 20 June 2010 Honiara

The day started with rain and clouds. It could have been a great day for sightseeing yesterday but I would have no choice but to get a little wet today.  

The six-month Guadalcanal Campaigns of 1942-3 was one of the turning points of WWII.  Prior to this, the Japanese have won success after success, sweeping across British, Dutch and American territories in Southeast Asia.  They also landed in what is today PNG and threatened to capture Port Moresby before hopping over to Australia.  Further east in the Central Pacific, they have captured Nauru and the islands off New Guinea, and in May 1942, captured without resistance Tulagi, then capital of British Solomon Islands.  They landed in Guadalcanal, largest island of the Solomons where they began building an airfield so that they could bomb Australia.  American marines then came on shore to attack Japanese forces. 

This was the start of the Guadalcanal Campaigns which involved several major naval and air battles in which over 60 warships from both Japan and USA were sank in the sea just north of Guadalcanal (which gave the body of water the name Iron Bottom Sound; and a six month attritional land warfare between Japanese and American forces in the deep jungles of Guadalcanal in which dozens of thousands soldiers died, not only from battle but also from malaria and other tropical diseases. Some Solomon Islanders aided the Allied Forces and many were killed in the war as well.  As a result of the ferocity of the fighting as well as the numerous battle victories, reversals and counter-attacks amidst hostile natural environment, have made Guadalcanal a well known name among historians and military enthusiasts.

John from Travel Solomons picked me up at 9am.  With a bodyguard, Fred, we drove westwards along the coast.  This was a relatively less inhabited part of Guadalcanal.  It was long after leaving Honiara抯 suburbs that we stopped seeing any villages or settlements.  In fact, many of the bridges in this region have collapsed due to lack of maintenance.  We have to drive across shallow riverbeds on at least three occasions.  As it was raining, we were quite worried about either being swept away by flash floods, or getting stuck on the other side if river levels rose further.

Guadalanal, with 100,000 inhabitants, is about 5,000 sq km. This means Singapore is almost 360 times more densely populated than Guadalcanal.  This accounts for the seemingly empty land we see in much of the island west of Honiara. We drove 25km to Vilu which has an Open Air War Museum.  In the compound were eroded memorials set up by veterans from the USA, Japan, Australia and NZ.  There were also remnants of war planes, artillery and various ordnance equipment.  It was not very pleasant walking around in the rain.  I made the mistake of not wearing long pants and suffered a few mosquitoes bites in this malaria prevalent country.  My camera also got a little wet from the rain.  A few km from here to the east, was a beach with a Japanese troop carrier stranded in the shallow waters, still battling the strong currents and waves beating it hard for the past over six decades.

We drove eastwards towards Honiara and dropped briefly at a war memorial devoted to a Solomons local war hero who was eventually knighted.  We also visited the US War Memorial built on a high point overlooking Honiara City.  Here flew the flags of USA (unfortunately 
partially unhinged in an undignifed manner) and Solomon Islands.  There were also huge blocks with detailed writeup of the Guadalcanal Campaign.  

We drove east of Honiara, past the airport (which began as the Japanese constructed air field to be used to bomb Australia), to Tetere beach where just behind the black sandy beaches where the American forces landed, there was a field with over 30 damaged armoured carriers - they say there are 99 altogether in the area, including many in the fields surrounding the village head's house.  Naked children played hide and seek around these amphibian vehicles. Imagine this was once the site of inferno and indescribable mayhem.  

US Marines had landed here and quickly established beachheads which captured the airfield, but soon found themselves surrounded and attacked by Japanese forces. The bitter attacks and counter-attacks, and advances and reversals dragged on for 6 months.  The veterans of both sides were proclaimed heroes by their respective nations. Eventually, with the defeat of the final naval battles of Coral Sea and massive reinforcements of US troops, Japanese forces withdrew from Guadalcanal.  This, together with the defeat of Japanese on the Kokoda Trail near Port Moresby, marked the end of the Japanese push towards Australia.

Today, the east of Guadalcanal is palm oil kingdom.  Miles and miles of endless palm oil plantations.  Roads here are good, naturally, to support to this controversial industry.  John was not sure who owns these plantations but I wonder if there are Malaysian interests as well.  Malaysians had been involved in Solomons?now discredited timber industry and some controversial deals linked to corrupt local politicians.  The pungent smell of rotting palm fruits abandoned in the fields filled the air as we drove past.

We stopped by another local war museum, with yet another group of poorly maintained exhibits and uncaptioned military ordinance. Funding makes a difference but you need tourism volume to support all that.  SI simply do not get enough tourists in a year, at least not now.

We returned to Henderson Airport area where we visited a memorial garden for the US Marines war dead, then off to a high ground called Bloody Ridge, where Japanese forces fought bitterly to capture the high ground overlooking the airport.  If the Japanese had succeeded, reinforcement of US forces would have come to an end and Guadalcanal would have been lost.  

Many died in the defence of Bloody Ridge. John spoke about an elderly US veteran who came here, spoke movingly and shed a few tears in memory of his comrades who died to defend this tiny high ground.  Today, a small, half broken white pyramidal memorial stood here. From here, one not only sees the airport, but also the winding river which once witnessed ambushes and attempted flanking of Japanese special forces.  The whole area was scene to half a year抯 hand to hand conflict.

We could not stay long here, for Bloody Ridge is not policed properly and the place has been the scene of a few armed robberies by rascals, i.e., bandits using the local jargon (as in PNG).  We left the area and headed for Honiara, stopping by Chinatown along the way.  We drove through this dusty area with two storey shophouses, largely rebuilt from the riots and lootings 4 years ago.  There were no buildings of architectural note, and there were hardly any Chinese signs that indicated the Chineseness typical of Chinatown everywhere.  In fact, few shops were open as this was Sunday.  Chinatowns elsewhere would have been opened 7 days a week, the whole year round except for the first few days of Chinese New Year.  Perhaps, the local Chinese have assimilated, but if so, even they have to bear the consequences of unfair politically motivated chaos.

Tonight, I will set off for Honiara Airport again.  I will be taking Our Airline to Nauru at 1:45am.  More about Nauru later!

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