Caroline Kennedy, the United States ambassador to Australia, and Wendy Sherman, the U.S. deputy secretary of state, stood together at dawn on Sunday on the island of Guadalcanal to honor the 80th anniversary of the World War II battle there that nearly led to the deaths of their fathers, and that redefined America’s role across Asia.
Then and now, there was violence, great-power competition and jittery concern about the future. Their visit occurred as China’s military was expected to wrap up 72 hours of drills around Taiwan simulating an invasion. And in their remarks at events with officials from Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Solomon Islands, both officials emphasized that the region — and the world — finds itself at another crossroads.
Ms. Kennedy, surrounded by local well-wishers, promised to “honor those who came before us and to work and do our best to leave a legacy for those who follow.”
Ms. Sherman was more pointed. “It is up to us to decide if we want to continue having societies where people are free to speak their minds,” she told a group gathered on a leafy ridge above Solomon Islands’ capital, Honiara. “If we want to have governments that are transparent and accountable to their people. If we want an international system that is fair and orderly, where everyone plays by the same rules and where disputes are solved peacefully.”
In many ways, the Guadalcanal visit was the bookend to a tense week that started with trips to Asia by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, whose brief time in Taiwan set off China’s military exercises. Across the region, history, diplomacy and a crisis intertwined, as they often do when great-power competition surges.
As Hal Brands, a global affairs professor at Johns Hopkins University, recently wrote, the early years of the Cold War were also defined by “diplomatic collisions and war scares,” when Russia and the United States jockeyed for position in a still-unsettled world order.
Today’s superpowers are different, and the contested locations are too, with new proving grounds like Ukraine and Taiwan. But some spots on the map — including the Pacific islands — seem destined for repeat roles.
China has been working across the region to secure influence, resources and possibly military bases in what security analysts describe as an effort to disrupt the Australian and American presence in the island chains that played a pivotal role in World War II.
In Solomon Islands, one of the poorest of the Pacific island nations, the government has been especially accommodating. In 2019, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the self-governing island that China sees as a renegade province. A few months ago, he signed a security agreement with Beijing that could allow China’s navy to use some of the same islands where around 7,000 Americans died in World War II.
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Mr. Sogavare, who met privately with American officials and did not attend Sunday’s ceremonies, has insisted no Chinese base is on the way. Nonetheless, the United States announced this year that it would reopen an embassy in Honiara, while adding embassies in Kiribati and Tonga — two other Pacific nations with a large Chinese presence.
And along with a formal diplomatic push, which Australia has also intensified, have come frequent reminders of American ties reaching to the 1940s.
Ms. Kennedy, the daughter of John F. Kennedy, and Ms. Sherman, whose father, Mal Sherman, was a Marine, recently discussed their connection to the Solomons and the war.
“We reflected on how she wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be here, if our fathers hadn’t been rescued,” Ms. Sherman said in an interview before the trip. It was also clear, she added, that those stories offered an opportunity for “energizing our partners.”
In a video that featured images of Americans fighting, Ms. Kennedy visiting a World War II memorial in Australia, and Ms. Sherman touching her father’s uniform, they promised that the United States would “recommit to working with our allies and partners.”
In their speeches and free moments, they spoke of family anecdotes and shared experiences — selfless, victory, freedom, personal risk, united were the words often repeated. With Ms. Sherman calling China’s response to Ms. Pelosi’s trip “irresponsible” during a news conference, it was a visit meant to resonate for months.
“It’s part of the American comeback strategy,” said Clive Moore, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Queensland whose research has focused on Solomon Islands. “It’s obvious that they talked about what America needs to do to get back on track.”
In such a tense time, though, the personal sometimes overshadows the political. Ms. Sherman choked back emotion during her main comments at dawn. She has often said her father rarely told war stories beyond the basics: He dropped out of college two days after Pearl Harbor and was wounded while serving in the Guadalcanal campaign.
The story of Ms. Kennedy’s father is better known.
He was hardly a famous Kennedy at the time. He ended up in the Pacific after the six-month battle of Guadalcanal was officially over, with the war shifting but still uncertain as combat continued with the Japanese.
In April 1943, he took command of a patrol torpedo boat, the PT-109, which was “grimy and battle-scarred,” according to Fredrik Logevall’s biography, “JFK.”
On Aug. 1, that boat was one of 15 sent into Blackett Strait, northwest of Guadalcanal, to intercept a Japanese transport convoy. Just after 2 a.m., it was rammed by a Japanese destroyer.
Two of Kennedy’s men died instantly. He and 10 others survived, including an engineer, Patrick McMahon, who had been badly burned. Kennedy gathered the men together on the largest hunk of wreckage until dawn, then decided they had to swim for land.
Holding the strap of McMahon’s life jacket in his teeth, Kennedy took the lead, guiding them onto a small island, Olasana. The grueling swim took nearly five hours.
Kennedy swam out alone that night with a lantern in the hopes of finding an American boat to rescue them. After that failed — and he nearly drowned — he and another crew member set out for a larger island where, some distance away, they spotted what appeared to be two islanders in a canoe.
“They thought he was from Japan,” John Koloni, the son of one of them, Eroni Kumana, said in an interview in Honiara. “Then he put his hands up, waving, ‘Come, come, come, America.’”
The men seemed to disappear, but when Kennedy returned to Olasana late that night, the same two were there. They were teenage scouts, working for the Allies: Biuku Gasa and Mr. Kumana. After another effort to find a friendly boat failed, Mr. Gasa had an idea. Kennedy scrawled a message on the husk of a coconut that included the words: ALIVE NEED SMALL BOAT KENNEDY.
The two scouts took the coconut through enemy waters to an Allied base 38 miles away.
En route, they stopped to inform a fellow scout, who told an Australian coast watcher, an intelligence operative who reported enemy ship and troop movements. The coast watcher promptly sent seven scouts in a large canoe filled with food, drink and cigarettes.
The following day, Aug. 7, the islanders put Kennedy in the bottom of the canoe, covered him with palm fronds to avoid detection by Japanese planes, and paddled him to an island controlled by Australian troops. Within hours, the entire crew was safe at a nearby base.
Ms. Kennedy said that in addition to her father, “Countless Americans and Allied families have Solomon Islanders to thank for their survival.”
Mr. Kennedy would have agreed. If he were still alive, he also might have a message for his daughter and others in the State Department facing today’s moment of uncertainty in Asia. Perhaps he would even have quoted from his own account of what wisdom could be drawn from what happened after his boat was rammed.
“Previous to that I had been somewhat cynical about the American as a fighting man. I had seen too much bellyaching and laying off,” he told his parents in a letter. “But with the chips down, that all faded away.”
“For an American it’s got to be awfully easy or awfully tough,” he added. “When it’s in the middle, then there’s trouble.”
Matthew Abbott contributed reporting from Honiara, and Jane Perlez from Seoul.