Chances are you have never heard of Eroni Kumana, and that is too bad. Eroni Kumana was one of those rare ordinary people who, though not famous, had a profound effect on the history of the world. What did he do to merit this high praise? Glad you asked. Eroni Kumana, along with a friend named Biuku Gasa, was a native of the Solomon Islands who in August of 1943 was responsible for rescuing Lt. John F. Kennedy and his surviving crew after their patrol boat, PT-109, was wrecked by a Japanese destroyer. Were it not for this heroic deed, JFK would likely have perished; he would not have become President of the US; and the history of the US and the world as a whole would have been considerably different.
Mr. Kumana, who lived his entire life on the island of Runnoga, part of the Solomon Islands chain about 500 miles east of New Guinea, died on August 3 at the age of 96. (Mr. Gasa had died in 2005.) Mr. Kumana is survived by nine children, 50 grandchildren and 75 great-grandchildren. His contribution to history came on August 5 and 6, 1943.
Briefly, the situation was as follows:
1. Kennedy’s Patrol Torpedo Boat was part of a squadron of PT boats that was on a mission to intercept a flotilla of Japanese ships that were smuggling supplies to Japanese troops in the area. Among the destinations was the island of Guadalcanal, later to be captured in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. The supply ships were operating at night, because the US had control of the skies.
2. A Japanese destroyer, operating without lights, struck the boat cutting it in half. Two crewmen were killed, and several were injured, including JFK.
3. The survivors swam to one of the islands. This was heroic in and of itself, because it was a five-hour swim, and, as I said, many of them were injured. The story is that JFK towed one badly burned crewman using a strap held in his teeth. Even though they made it to one of the islands they had little hope of being rescued as the PT crewmen operating the other boats thought they had perished in the fireball following the collision. In fact, a memorial service was held for them back at the base.
5. Luckily, Kumana and Gasa, two islanders who were scouts gathering intelligence for an Australian coast-watcher, heard the blast. They investigated, at no small risk to themselves, and found the sailors.
6. It was decided that JFK would carve a message on the inside of a coconut, and Kumana and Gasa would take it to the base about 35 miles away. For posterity, the message was “NAURU ISL… COMMANDER…NATIVE KNOWS POS’IT… HE CAN PILOT… 11 ALIVE… NEED SMALL BOAT… KENNEDY.”
7. They delivered the message, and JFK and his crew were rescued.
Messrs. Gasa and Kumana were only 20 and 18, respectively, in 1943. To me, their young age makes their bravery even more remarkable.
A footnote to the story: When JFK was elected President he invited Mr. Kumana to his inauguration, however, the story is that British colonial officials didn’t let him fly to Washington, because they felt he was not “qualified” to represent the Solomon Islands. It is unclear what that meant – uneducated? young? not influential? In any event, they sent other representatives in his stead, so Mr. Kumana did not get his due.
The two men were interviewed by National Geographic in 2002 for a television special. Mr. Kumana wore a hat and t-shirt that said “I rescued JFK.” Mr. Kumana built a shrine to JFK and appointed him an honorary chief. In addition, he named one of his sons “John F. Kennedy.”
Whether one was a JFK supporter or not, I feel it is appropriate to take a minute to recognize and appreciate the significant historical contribution of Eroni Kumana.