From the air, the Solomon Islands archipelago looks like a tropical island paradise – and it is. But just over 70 years ago, this was the scene of WWII’s most prolonged military campaign in the Pacific theatre. In fact, there are so many war ships at the bottom of the narrow strait that separates the island of Guadalcanal, where the nation’s capital Honiara is located, from the Savo and Florida Islands, that its name was changed from Savo Sound to Iron Bottom Sound.
People travel from all over the world to dive the islands’ wrecks, now providing shelter to colourful reef fish, to sift through the collections of WWII memorabilia and to listen to WWII stories, as told by the locals, sometimes with a few embellishments. Here are just a few Solomon Islands war stories – above and below water – in the Solomons’ Western Province.
The Dauntless, Munda
The wreck of the Douglas SBD Dauntless, sits on a sandy bottom in the shallow waters of Rendova Lagoon near Munda. It’s covered with soft and hard corals and teeming with life. According to legend, or rather, according to our dive guide, the American pilot and the Japanese fighter who shot him down, reunited here for a dive – by sheer coincidence – and have remained in touch ever since.
Peter Joseph WWII Museum, Munda
The curator of this WWII museum, Barney Poulson, has been collecting memorabilia since 2002. The museum is named after his first find, dog tags belonging to one Corporal Peter Joseph. In fact there are piles of dog tags here, sitting among neatly ordered stacks of hand grenades, guns, bullets, Coke bottles and mess kits.
The Hellcat, Gizo
Gizo’s F6F Hellcat was named “Betsy” after the pilot’s wife. It was ditched in January 1943, after being shot by a Japanese fighter pilot, in very shallow water off the coast of Kolombangara Island in Gizo. It now lies in less than 9m of water and is covered in soft and hard corals.
JFK’s misadventures at Kennedy Island, Gizo
While the correct name for this island that sits between popular dive resort, Fatboys and the rather imposing Kolombangara Island, is Kasolo Island. Locals call it Plum Pudding Island and most Western visitors call it Kennedy Island, after its brush with U.S. presidential fame. During WWII, torpedo boat PT-109, captained by former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, was rammed and wrecked here by Japanese Destroyer, Amagiri in August 1943.
Kennedy and his crew were rescued when Australian coast watcher Arthur Evans, who manned a secret observation post at the top of Kolombangara Islands’ Mount Veve volcano, spotted the explosion and sent a rescue party. One of the rescuers, a local called Eroni Kumana, has erected a small shrine to Kennedy, which still stands. Today it’s a pretty spot for a picnic, surrounded by a beautiful coral reef.
The Toa Maru, Gizo
This massive wreck of a Japanese freighter is over 140m long and lays just 100m offshore near Gizo Island. It’s one of the largest and most impressive wrecks in the Solomon Islands. Some of its cargo remains, including sake bottles, vials of medicine – even a jar of condoms (past their used-by date).
For the best recommendations for Solomon Islands resorts and liveaboards – wrecks and reefs – contact the team of experts at Diveplanit Travel on 1300 607 913 or email us at email@example.com. For group dive packages – please contact firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was originally published in Scuba Diver ANZ #52.