Over the course of our time in the South Pacific, we essentially followed, in reverse, the Japanese advance through the region. It was hard to believe that some of the beautiful, picturesque sites that we sailed (well, motored) through were once major battle grounds. Like, for example, Gizo in the Solomon Islands, below.
The first major encounter with the war we had was in Luganville, Vanuatu. Luganville is entirely quonset huts leftover from the war. Its major tourist attraction is the wreck of the SS Calvin Coolidge, a ship that was used for transport by the Americans during WWII. Upon entering the harbour, it struck a (friendly) mine. The captain, knowing that he couldn’t save the ship, decided to run it ashore so as to save as much as possible. En route, he it another mine and the boat sunk. It is a long ship with the bow in only a few feet of water and the stern a long ways down. It is quite divable and you can even go inside to check out some of the cargo of airplanes, jeeps, and weapons down there.
From Luganville, it kept getting more and more frequent that we ran into these types of sites. Next stop was Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. If Honiara doesn’t ring a bell as a major battle in WWII, the name of the island it is on will: Guadalcanal. The Allies and the Japanese fought a major battle for the island, one considered a turning point in the War in the Pacific. At stake: the South Pacific. Guadalcanal was along the major supply route for the Japanese. If the passageway could be cut off, the Japanese advance through the South Pacific could be slowed if not halted. The channel between Guadalcanal and its neighbouring island is often called Iron-bottom Sound in reference to the number of boats that were sunk in it during the war.
Now: Honiara is dirty, there are strange red patches all over the sidewalk from the betel nut that nearly everyone chews, its not the safest place I’ve ever been, especially for white women (I was fine, Dad), and there are lots of rats. In fact, Houdini Sylvester, our [un]beloved rat joined us on board in Honiara.
From Honiara we continued north and west towards Papua New Guinea. But first, there was a trip through Diamond Narrows (still in the Solomons) where we snorkeled a sunken supply ship (I swam up through the funnel, it was weird) to Gizo. Just outside of Gizo is a small island that a very famous person swam to with the crew of his boat (PT-109) after being shipwrecked by a Japanese ship in the middle of the night. There they survived for several days before getting word via the network of locals on the Allied side to American troops that they were alive. This person’s identity is actually a Trivial Pursuit question, at least in the edition we had on board:
“During WWII, which former American President got malaria and suffered a herniated disk after being shipwrecked in the South Pacific?” Answer will follow…
This is the island:
Gizo is still home to a lot of quonset huts as well as a decent fresh produce market, some very friendly people at the biggest grocery store, and a rocking night club, the PT-109. If you haven’t guessed it by now, the boat PT-109 was captained by non other than JFK. He swam from the middle of the channel to the island dragging a crew-mate in a lifejacket with his teeth while the rest of his crew kicked their way over on a small part of the wreck. I guess there wasn’t room for all of them.
From the Solomons, it was off to Rabaul, the centre of the Japanese world in the South Pacific. Admiral Yamamoto had his hide-out high in the volcanic hills around the city and the hills are still littered with kilometers of Japanese tunnels. We met a man who was actually born in one during the war. Rabaul has a huge, incredible natural harbour. It actually is a caldera, which accounts for its amazing shape. The harbour is bordered by several active volcanoes, one of which was smoking profusely while we were there. That is also the one I climbed to the top of. No worries though, it last erupted about 10 years ago and completely destroyed the city.
After leaving PNG, we began our trek north. First call was Chuuk/Truk Lagoon in the Federated States of Micronesia. On the bottom of the lagoon is an entire Japanese fleet, sunk by the Americans during the war.
After Chuuk, Guam. There still remains a major US base on Guam, in fact, Guam was a huge culture shock: it was almost like being in Hawaii, complete with duty free shopping and Japanese tourists. They even had stores that were open past 4pm and never ran out of eggs! Just north of Guam, in the same island group is the island of Saipan. We didn’t visit here because of unfavourable winds, but it was from Saipan that the airplane carrying atomic bombs bound for Hiroshima and Nagasaki left.