Inside The Time Two Solomon Islanders Saved John F. Kennedy

In the midst of World War II's Pacific Theater, Solomon Islanders Eroni Kumana and Biuku Gasa saved a group of American Navy personnel who had been stranded on a deserted island. There was no way Kumana and Gasa could have known they were also saving the life of a future president of the United States. The two men didn't know the role they had played in shaping history until other Americans returned to the Islands and lauded them as heroes, according to Kumana's grandson, Rellysdom Malakana (per the BBC). Though Kennedy would never forget all that these two locals did for him, he would sadly never get to meet them again before his untimely death in 1963, according to the BBC.

The two men, who at the time were only 18 and 20 years old, were simple villagers scavenging for food and clothes, according to Time Magazine. They both had a hatred for the Japanese, as the Japanese would often raid the islanders' villages and steal their food, according to Biuku Gasa himself in Time Magazine. Their meet-up with Kennedy all started when they were investigating a wrecked ship, scavenging for clothing and any other valuable items.

A perilous swim

Before John F. Kennedy was president of the United States, he had enlisted in the Navy during World War II, where at the age of 26 he would be faced with saving his own life and the lives of his crew. He had been in command of a small patrol torpedo boat called PT 109 (via Naval History and Heritage Command). His boat was one of many U.S. Navy vessels stationed in the Pacific. During one nighttime mission, the Japanese destroyer Amagiri rammed into the patrol boat, killing two crewmates, tearing the boat into two pieces, and forcing Kennedy and his remaining crew to swim 3 miles to the nearest island.

After swimming for around five hours, they made landfall on a deserted island. They survived on coconuts, but realizing that their chances of being discovered were low, they set out to another island, according to Smithsonian. It was here where the crew was discovered by Eroni Kumana and Biuku Gasa, who would be the crew's greatest blessing yet.

Spies at sea

When Eroni Kumana and Biuku Gasa accidentally discovered the stranded crew, an exhausted John F. Kennedy ran to embrace the two men, according to BBC. Kumana and Gasa initially thought that Kennedy's crew was Japanese, but came to the realization that they were Americans. Kennedy then carved a message into a coconut — which he later kept in the Oval Office — and gave it to Kumana to deliver to the Allies. Kumana and Gasa were part of a group called the Coastwatchers, which delivered information about the Japanese to the Allied Powers.

The Coastwatchers got their origins as a intelligence organization back in 1919, when Australia felt there was a need to surveil the islands to the nation's north, according to the Australian government. When World War II began, Japan posed a threat to Australia, which is when the Coastwatchers were transformed into a Naval intelligence group (via the Australian government). Members communicated mostly through the use of radio, but at the time when Kumana and Gasa had found Kennedy and his crew, the two islanders had no means of radio communication, which meant they would have to carry the coconut Kennedy had inscribed with a message to the nearest Coastwatcher base.

A Brotherly Bond is Formed

Eroni Kumana and Biuku Gasa took a very daring expedition, as the nearest Coastwatchers base was 35 miles away, and across treacherous Japanese waters, but they carried onward and successfully delivered the message (via BBC). Kennedy and his crew were eventually saved, but sadly he never got to see Kumana or Gasa again. Not much is known about Kumana, but Gasa would go on to raise six children with his wife, Nelma, on the Lauvi Island, where they lived off of crops, coconuts, and fish. Kumana lived on Ranongga Island (via Time Magazine). 

After the ordeal, Kumana and Gasa got to write letters to the future president, and Kumana called Kennedy his honorary chief (via BBC). Kumana built a shrine to Kennedy, and one of the Solomon Islands was re-named after the president, according to BBC. When Kennedy was assassinated, Kumana gave some prized shells that had been passed down in his family for a long time to be placed on the Kennedy grave in 2008. Sadly, Gasa died in 2005 at the age of 82 (via BBC) and Eroni Kumana died in 2014 at the age of 93 (via Los Angeles Times), but they never forgot about their honorary chief. The men were proclaimed heroes across the world.