About the Author: Tom Weinz is the dedicated Foreign Service Liaison Officer (FSLO) aboard the USNS Richard E. Byrd for Pacific Partnership 2009 (PP09).
The USNS Richard E. Byrd crew and PP09 personnel, after several days of relaxation in New Caledonia, are now approaching Honiara, Solomon Islands. New Caledonia is a fascinating, little-known extremity of the French Republic, and most of us took the time to explore areas around Noumea, the capital city. These islands were part of the ancient super continent known as Gondwana, and contain some of the oldest ecosystems in existence; their isolation gives them special significance as the world attempts to better understand the effects of global warming. Though still part of France, New Caledonia continues to experience tension between those who support the status quo and proponents of independence. Jean-Marie Tjibaou led the local independence movement until his assassination in 1989; his efforts culminated in the Noumea Accord of 1998, which granted New Caledonia more local autonomy and guaranteed a referendum on independence from France sometime after 2014. That agreement has not kept a vocal and sometimes violent minority from frequent strikes and protests demanding immediate independence.
New Caledonia served as the Pacific headquarters for the U.S. Army and Navy early in World War II, and a small American memorial still stands in downtown Noumea. PP09 will arrive in Solomon Islands in time to participate in ceremonies during Guadalcanal Day, August 7, which commemorates what many believe to have been the turning point of World War II in the Pacific. On August 7, 1942, the Guadalcanal Campaign began. From then until February of 1943, battles raged which claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Japanese and Allied combatants. More than thirty U.S. Navy and fifteen Japanese ships, along with countless airplanes, lie in the waters off Honiara known, for this reason, as Iron Bottom Sound.
American ties to this country of Solomon Islands are well-founded in history, but how much do most of us know about this land of half a million people? That Guadalcanal is the name of SI’s largest island? That Solomon Islanders named Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana located and helped rescue a young Navy lieutenant named John Kennedy after his PT boat was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer? That Honiara’s international airport is Henderson Field, named after a U.S. Marine aviator killed in the battle of Midway? PP09 is building upon these connections by returning to assist people who are the descendents of islanders who helped and supported and died with Americans in World War II.