Ambassador Caroline Kennedy (left) poses with descendants of Solomon Islanders Eroni Kumana (center) and Biuku Gasa (right), to whom she presented medals, Aug. 7. State Department photo
By Jason Raskin
The arrival of thousands of U.S. Marines on Guadalcanal in Solomon Islands, Aug. 7, 1942, marked the first major Allied land offensive in the Pacific theater of World War II. Over the next six months, Allied and enemy forces fought intensely—on land, at sea, and in the air. By the time Imperial Japan withdrew in February 1943, tens of thousands of Allied and Japanese troops had perished.
Later in 1943, Solomon Islands was also the site of one of the most famous small-craft engagements in U.S. history, when the Imperial Japanese destroyer Amagiri rammed U.S. patrol boat PT-109 in the Blackett Strait, Aug. 1. The boat’s commander, John F. Kennedy, ordered his crew to abandon ship, and they spent days struggling to survive. They were rescued with the help of two Solomon Islander scouts, Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana, and Australian coastwatcher Reg Evans. For his courage and leadership, the future U.S. president was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.
To commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and U.S. Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy traveled to Solomon Islands, Aug. 6-8. Like Kennedy, Sherman also shared a personal connection with the island nation. Her father, Mal Sherman, enlisted in the Marines two days after Pearl Harbor and was wounded in combat on Guadalcanal.
Sherman spoke and reflected on the lessons of the war at an event at the WWII Guadalcanal American Memorial, where officials from Japan, Solomon Islands, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries were in attendance.
“Today—as we have been every day since the war ended—former combatants are united here as partners in peace …We have built profound and enduring ties with each other, as one Pacific family,” said Sherman. “I ask that we all commit ourselves to serving as a new Guadalcanal generation—brought together not only by our shared past, but [also] by our shared values for a free and open, prosperous and secure, and, above all, peaceful Indo-Pacific …and a peaceful world.”
At a separate event hosted by the Solomon Scouts and Coastwatchers Trust, Ambassador Kennedy presented medals to descendants of the Solomon Islanders who had saved her father.
“Thanks to them, he and his crew survived the sinking of PT-109 and were able to return home,” said Kennedy. “His experiences here made him the man and the leader that he was …It resolved him to seek a more peaceful and just world, and he gave his life for his country. I’m deeply touched to be here today, knowing that I might not be here if it were not for Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana.”
During her travels to the region, Sherman also visited Samoa, Tonga, Australia, and New Zealand. In each country, she underscored the United States’ commitment to partnering with fellow Pacific nations.
Sherman visited Samoa just four days after it lifted its COVID-19 travel restrictions. There, she met with Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, Samoa’s first female head of government.
“I am here …to listen and learn from our Pacific sisters and brothers,” Sherman said at a press conference in Apia. “We are one Pacific family bound together by our history, our values, our culture, and our shared priorities.”
Sherman was the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Samoa since former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2008.
In Tonga, Sherman was received by King Tupou VI and celebrated the 50th anniversary of U.S.-Tonga relations. She highlighted U.S. assistance following January’s Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcanic eruption and subsequent tsunamis, which impacted 85% of Tongans. Sherman noted the increasing frequency of natural disasters and the existential threat climate change poses to Pacific Island countries.
She told Tongan press that the Inflation Reduction Act, “the largest investment in climate change in our country ever,” was a clear sign of U.S. climate leadership.
In Canberra, Sherman and Kennedy held wide-ranging consultations with Australian officials, including newly appointed Foreign Minister Penny Wong, focusing on the future of the U.S.-Australia partnership. At a meeting with Embassy Canberra’s Youth Advisory Council, they provided feedback on policy pitches from young Australians on climate change, Aboriginal rights, reproductive health, and ways to encourage economic growth in the Indo-Pacific.
Sherman’s trip ended in New Zealand, where she met with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and finalized two new agreements to deepen U.S.-New Zealand cooperation on emergency management and outer space. Sherman later attended a talanoa, a dialogue common across the Pacific Islands where parties come together to discuss their perspectives, listen to each other, and chart a shared path forward. The Samoan High Commission in Wellington hosted the event with representatives from New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Cook Islands, and Niue. They shared their perspectives on how to partner on shared priorities, such as inclusive economic development and bolstering the voice of the Pacific Islands Forum.
Travel for Department of State leadership always requires a lot of staff time and resources. On this trip, the number of stops Sherman made in countries without full U.S. embassies added to the challenge. In the Solomon Islands, only a few expeditionary diplomats are based in the capital. In Tonga, no U.S. direct hires (USDH) had visited the country since the start of COVID-19. The U.S. mission in Samoa has just one USDH employee. As a result, staff from U.S. missions in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Australia formed temporary duty assignment teams. In Tonga, the Peace Corps—the only official U.S. presence during the pandemic—and USAID contributed significant support. And at every stop, locally employed staff provided invaluable insight, leveraging their expertise and connections across the Pacific.
Sherman’s trip was a mile marker in the United States’ efforts to expand its diplomatic footprint in the Pacific. In February, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the United States’ intent to establish an embassy in the Solomon Islands. In July, Vice President Kamala Harris told the Pacific Islands Forum that the United States will begin discussions about opening embassies in Tonga and Kiribati as well. The United States will also work with Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom through the Partners of the Blue Pacific Initiative to better coordinate their work in the Pacific. All this will serve to open a new chapter of Pacific partnership—on issues from climate change to economic development to maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific.
In their final hours on Guadalcanal, Sherman and Kennedy visited Bloody Ridge. Six weeks after U.S. Marines landed in 1942, enemy forces tried to retake the main airstrip on Guadalcanal. Ahead of the attack, Solomon Islander scouts and coastwatchers alerted the Marines at Bloody Ridge that enemy soldiers were preparing to strike. Their intelligence helped the Marines prepare a successful defense of the airstrip. Eight decades later, the scene at Bloody Ridge provided a welcome contrast. American, Solomon Islander, and Japanese flags rippled side-by-side in a warm, gentle breeze. Officials from all three countries laid wreaths in remembrance of those who had fought and died. And they pledged to honor their memories, in peace and in partnership, by working together to build a safe and prosperous Indo-Pacific—and a peaceful world—for future generations.
Deputy Secretary Sherman and Ambassador Kennedy also recently made a video honoring all those who fought and died for freedom 80 years ago during the Battle of Guadalcanal.
Jason Raskin is a special assistant for public diplomacy in the Office of the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State.