Eroni Kumana, islander who saved Kennedy and PT-109 crew, dies at 96
Eroni Kumana, who lived his entire life on a tiny Pacific island called Rannoga, about 900 miles east of New Guinea, in a village without electricity, telephone service, running water or a paved road, left his mark on the history of the world on or about Aug. 5 and 6, 1943.
That was when he and a fellow boatman, Biuku Gasa, were credited with spotting and rescuing Navy Lt. John F. Kennedy and members of his PT-109 crew, nearly a week after their boat had been destroyed by a Japanese warship in the Solomon Islands.
The future 35th president of the United States and his men were exhausted and starving. Kumana and Gasa gave them what food they had. Then Kumana built them a fire, the way he usually did — by rubbing two sticks together.
When he died at 96 on Aug. 3 in his native village of Kongu, the monuments he left behind consisted mainly of the innumerable carved canoes and grass huts he had built or helped build during his lifetime, said Rellysdom A. Malakana, his grandson.
But from one perspective, at least, the United States as we know it is also part of Kumana’s legacy.
“If President Kennedy had not been elected president in 1960 because he had not survived the war, think what a different country this might be today,” said Maxwell T. Kennedy, a son of the president’s brother Robert.
Kennedy visited Kumana in 2002 along with the oceanographer Robert Ballard, who was on an expedition underwritten by National Geographic magazine to find the sunken wreck of PT-109. (It was 1,200 feet below the surface, and left undisturbed.) “If there is any proof that one man can make a difference, here it is,” Kennedy said.
Kumana was modest about his role in saving the future president and his crew. Even though it involved considerable risk of punishment or death at the hands of the Japanese troops who occupied the islands, he considered the rescue what any decent person would have done in the same situation.
Like most indigenous people in the vast, scattered and largely isolated Solomon Islands (which cover 350,000 square miles), he had known virtually nothing about Americans or Japanese — and had probably not heard much about World War II — until early 1942, when warnings of a Japanese attack in the Solomons prompted the islands’ British rulers to give the islanders a crash course in world politics.
Kumana, a fisherman, canoe maker and subsistence farmer, was among several hundred men who joined the Coastal Watch, a cadre of indigenous boatmen and British military intelligence officers that tracked Japanese transport movements for the duration of the war.
The intelligence produced by the watch was considered pivotal in helping the Americans win the battle of Guadalcanal, one of the bloodiest of the war. Guadalcanal is the principal island in the archipelago.
Intelligence provided by the Coastal Watch, in fact, had prompted the Navy command on the island of Rendova to send Kennedy’s PT-109 — along with a dozen other PT boats — into the waters off the island of Kolobangara on the night of Aug. 2, 1943. (PT stood for Patrol Torpedo.)
Americans controlled the airspace over the Solomons, forcing the Japanese to work at night in resupplying their forces.
While trying to intercept a flotilla of resupply ships expected to pass through a certain channel around 2 a.m., PT-109 was struck in the dark and cut in half by a Japanese destroyer.
Two crewmen were killed, and several of the 10 survivors were injured seriously, including Kennedy. The episode contributed to the back problems that would plague him in the White House.
Kennedy and his men clung to wreckage until sunrise, then swam and paddled about 3 miles to the first of several islands that they would struggle to reach, hoping to flag Allied ships. They had no luck.
Kennedy had set out for yet another island — swimming alone this time — when Kumana and Gasa came upon his men huddled behind dunes on the island of Olasana.
“Some of them cried, and some of them came and shook our hands,” Kumana recalled in a television documentary about the National Geographic expedition. When Kennedy rejoined the group the next day, Kumana and Gasa — using sign language — agreed to his request that they carry a message to the Naval base at Rendova, about 35 miles away.
Kumana showed him how to scratch a message with a penknife in the delicate skin beneath the hard shell of a coconut.
Kennedy wrote: “NAURU ISL ... COMMANDER ... NATIVE KNOWS POS’IT ... HE CAN PILOT ... 11 ALIVE ... NEED SMALL BOAT ... KENNEDY.”
The inscribed coconut was delivered as promised and returned to Kennedy after he and his crew were retrieved by the Navy.
It became a favorite memento. Kennedy kept the shell on his desk in the Oval Office, said Thomas J. Putnam, director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. The coconut is now on exhibit at the museum.
Kumana rarely spoke about the war. By his grandson’s account, the death and destruction left an indelible impression on him and all Solomon Islanders, many of whom spent years after the war recovering remains and body parts and dismantling explosives.
“He only wants to tell about the rescue,” Malakana wrote in an email Friday.
Kumana told his story to authors and journalists over the years, but there was a postscript that he seldom mentioned, Malakana said.
By Kumana’s account, he was invited to Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961 and received a plane ticket paid for by the Kennedy family.
But when he arrived at the airport, he was turned away by a government clerk, who told him that he was too uneducated to represent the islands at such an important event. Someone else was sent in his place.
Putnam, the president of the Kennedy library, said Kumana’s name does not appear on the list of those invited. But Maxwell Kennedy said he believed the story: He had heard it many times at family events.
Besides, he added, Kumana would not lie.
“The man is incapable of guile,” he said.
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