Guadalcanal: A veritable WWII ‘museum’

When my wife, Sally Ann, and I were on my East-West Center field trip in 1971, we stopped for a few days on the large, tropical island of Guadalcanal in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate (usually abbreviated BSIP; the island nation would not gain independence until 1978). The place was particularly fascinating to me because of all the remnants of World War II.

Less than 30 years before over 6,000 U.S. and 24,000 Japanese troops lost their lives during the protracted 1942-43 Battle of Guadalcanal. Honiara was the capital and administrative center of the BSIP…and by 1971, although I don’t know about now, reminders of the war seemed to be everywhere. For example:

We appropriately flew on a World War II-era DC3 — island-hopping from Rabaul in New Britain — into what was then called Henderson Field, a very significant site in the 1942-43 battle, that was named after a U.S. military leader (I understand it has since been developed into Honiara International Airport). As an aside: Some of you may recall that when flying in the Pacific in those days the flight attendants (actually, they were still called stewardesses, and in this case they were two attractive young Melanesian women) were required after landing but before disembarking to pass through the cabin while shooting some kind of bug-spray aerosol, that usually left a few people gasping and coughing.

Honiara wasn’t much of a town back then, and because the East-West Center only gave a modest per diem to graduate fellows on field trip, we stayed in a dumpy little hotel. I remember we couldn’t get into the so-called best restaurant in town that evening because, under the local British system, we hadn’t made a reservation by 4 p.m. that afternoon.

The next day Sally and I joined up with a single, older woman we met at the hotel. She worked as a secretary for the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. and was apparently on a tight-budget holiday . . . so we decided to split the costs (one-third per person) of a car-and-driver tour of the island — which is to say, battlefields — conducted by a Solomon Islander who had served with the U.S. troops during the war. Two things still stick out in my mind about him and the tour:

  • He spoke a local pidgin English, which Sally and I could more or less decipher — although the National Geographic woman said something like, “I can’t understand a word he’s saying, but you two seem to understand everything.” Well, that’s probably because we understood da kine, which causes me to digress for a moment: Clyde Dement from the Big Island was one of my first roommates at the Church College of Hawaii (which became BYU-Hawaii in 1974). Within days after starting school I met Clyde down at the beach. He had caught and was drying some small fish, and I asked him what kind they were. “Da kine,” he said in perfectly good Pidgin (i.e. Hawaiian English). This was the first time I ever heard the phrase, but it didn’t take long after for me to realize its great utility and that it really wasn’t the name of the fish…and if you still don’t know what I’m talking about, ask someone who speaks Pidgin.
  • Our guide was a rough driver and obviously fixated on the windshield washer, because every time a little bit of dust got on the car window from the unpaved roads, he would spray and spray — at least until he soon ran out of water, at which point we had to look out the side windows.

But there was plenty to see to the sides. I can still recall:

  • Crashed Japanese Zero airplanes. Remember, this was only about 30 years after the war at that point, so these WWII remnants were still fairly intact, although rusted and in some cases overgrown.
  • Old artillery and tanks.
  • Pillboxes and bunkers.
  • Looking makai (seaward) across the infamous “Ironbottom Sound” — so called because of all the ships that were sunk there during the war — toward the island of Tarawa.
  • And on Edson’s Ridge, one of the battle sites, we could just scratch in the dirt with a stick and turn up all kinds of battle detritus.

But the part that fascinated me most was the miles and miles of island (usually on the mauka or inland side of the coastal road) that were fenced off with mean-looking barbed wire and periodic skull-and-bones warning signs. What I understood our guide to say was that the government had put up the fencing to try to keep the people out of known battle areas because of all the unexploded ordnance still laying around in there.

It turns out, he explained, some Solomon Islanders would go looking for the old artillery shells so they could dig out the gunpowder and use it to blast fish. Of course, it didn’t always work out well, he added, as quite a few people over the years had been killed or lost limbs in the ensuing explosions.

Indeed, World War II seemed very close to the surface in Guadalcanal in 1971.

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  1. […] in the most unlikely of circumstances during the great adventures my wife, Sally, and I had on my East-West Center field trip around the Pacific islands in 1971. In those days The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was not organized in New […]

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