Man who rescued JFK finally honoured

Last updated 00:00 31/08/2007
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PRESIDENTIAL AIDE: Eroni 'Aaron' Kumana is credited with the rescue of Lt John F Kennedy, nearly 18 years before becoming president of the United States, and the rest of PT-109 crew following the ship's collision with the Japanese destroyer Amagiri near Plum Pudding Island on August 2, 1943.

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An elderly Solomon Islander who changed world history 64 years ago has this week finally been honoured.

Deaf and now nearly blind, Eroni "Aaron" Kumana came across a shipwrecked US Navy crew far behind Japanese lines and paddled 60 kilometres to get them help, carrying a message carved into a coconut by a lieutenant.

That officer, 18 years later, became President John F Kennedy.

Japan occupied the Solomons, leading to the bloody Guadalcanal. During that battle the Japanese "Tokyo Express" convoys used to run down the New Georgia Sound, called "the Slot" by the Americans.

On August 2, 1943 a young Kennedy was skipper of PT109, a 24 metre long high-speed patrol boats operating against the Express off Gizo Island in the Blackett Strait. With no radar PT109 idled in the darkness and did not see until the last moment the Japanese destroyer Amagari, which rammed it, sinking it, killing one of the 12 aboard.

PT109's bow stayed afloat and they clung to it until deciding to swim to Plum Pudding Island, six kilometres away. Kennedy towed one of the most wounded men into shore. While on the island Kennedy swam to nearby Olasana and Naru islands in a bid to find help. At the time the area was behind enemy lines and Kennedy also swam out into Blackett Strait hoping to attract passing Allied warships.

For six days they lived off coconuts. Two local men, Biuku Gasa and Kumana, found them. Kennedy carved a message onto coconut husk: "nauro isl native knows posit he can pilot 11 alive need small boat". The two men took it to an Australian, Reg Evans, who was operating behind enemy lines and he organised a rescue. The coconut husk was later returned to Kennedy and sat on his White House desk.

This week the amphibious assault ship USS Peleliu visited the Solomons and US Navy Secretary Donald Winter flew in to present gifts including an American flag to Kumana.

"I think it's a remarkable circumstance," said Winter. "He changed our history...and I'm very thankful to him for doing it."

Six days after the loss of his boat, Kennedy and his crew were rescued by US Marines.

He was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for "extremely heroic conduct". "Unmindful of personal danger, Lieutenant Kennedy unhesitatingly braved the difficulties and hazards of darkness to direct rescue operations, swimming many hours to secure aid and food after he had succeeded in getting his crew ashore," the citation read. "His outstanding courage, endurance and leadership contributed to the saving of several lives."

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In 1961, Mr Kumana and Mr Gasa were invited to President Kennedy's inauguration. But in Honiara, the Solomons' capital, local officials decided that they were too uncouth for the honour and sent some of their own number instead. Two years later, Kennedy was assassinated "I mourned for a whole week upon hearing of my friend's death," Mr Kumana said.

In April, his house was destroyed by an earthquake measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale - the tsunami caused by the tremor killed 50 people.

The crew of USS Pelleliu donated $1,500 to put a roof on his new home.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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