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The Coconut

What do a former United States President, the Solomon Islands and a coconut have in common? Kate Webster heads to a small island off the town of Gizo to find out.

The capital of the Western Province in the Solomon Islands, Gizo is known for its picture-postcard villages, remote beaches, war history, fascinating culture and superb scuba-diving. It is also where an unlikely figure made his mark on the history of the Solomon Islands – John F. Kennedy.  

Before becoming the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy was a Lieutenant in the United States Navy. World War II was in full swing in Europe, and the attack on Pearl Harbor had taken place in 1941. Lt. Kennedy found himself in the waters of the Pacific during WWII battles against the Japanese army.

As night fell on 1 August 1943, Lt. Kennedy and his crew patrolled the waters in the Solomon Islands, when the much larger Japanese Destroyer Amagiri crashed into their boat, patrol torpedo boat PT-109. Upon impact, the much smaller US boat was split in half, killing two of the crew and leaving Lt. Kennedy and other sailors injured. With the ship sinking, there was no choice for Lt. Kennedy but to swim with 10 of his crewmates to a nearby island.

For days, the surviving men tended to their injuries and looked for help, while still trying to evade the Japanese that they knew were closing in. Lt. Kennedy and his shipmates realised they were close to a larger island and in search of more food and water, braved the ocean again by swimming to this island. Just as hope felt dim for the survivors, help came in the form of two Solomon Islander scouts in a canoe. At first, these two local men, Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana, thought the soldiers were Japanese and paddled away, afraid for their lives. 

The men later returned in their canoe and Biuku Gasa showed Lt. Kennedy how to carve a message into a coconut. That message read “NAURO ISL…COMMANDER…NATIVE KNOWS POS’IT…HE CAN PILOT…11 ALIVE…NEED SMALL BOAT…KENNEDY”. Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana then risked their lives to deliver that coconut to a US Navy base in the vicinity.

The message was received on 8 August and just a week after Lt. Kennedy and his crewmen were shipwrecked, they were rescued. When John F. Kennedy became President of the United States, he used that same coconut as a paperweight in the Oval Office at the White House.

John F Kennedy never forgot the bravery and selflessness of the Solomon Island people, even inviting his two rescuers to his inauguration as President of the United States. In turn, the Solomon Islands named one of its islands after the US President. 

Kennedy Island, also known by its local name Kasolo Island or Plum Pudding Island, remains an uninhabited island in the Solomon Islands. Unlike the barren hellscape for the crew of the PT-109 who feared being discovered by the Japanese, the island today is a paradise that is surrounded by coral reefs stretching beneath clear blue waters that lap at white-sandy beaches.

Situated 15 minutes by boat from Gizo, a walk around the island reveals remnants of Kennedy’s dramatic WWII bravery. The survival story of JFK and his crew can be read on the information board. Also located on the island is a shrine built for Lt. Kennedy by one of the Solomon Islanders who aided in his rescue, Eroni Kumana.

Today, the island is a well-loved local tourist attraction, popular with wreck-diving enthusiasts, as well as history buffs interested in WWII. Visitors to the Solomon Islands can follow in the footsteps of history, retrace Kennedy’s voyage in the Solomons, take in the local culture, and see WWII relics first-hand. 

The story of JFK and the coconut was first picked up by the writer John Hersey, who told it to the readers of The New Yorker in 1944. It followed John F. Kennedy into politics and provided a strong foundation for his appeal as a leader.

This story was published in Solomon Airlines Inflight Magazine – Fly Solomons (Issue 83).

Flip through the magazine HERE.