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Sailing into Starvation Island: 70 years after the end of World War II, Peace Boat visits Guadalcanal

Musicians in ceremonial dress welcomed Peace Boat passengers to Guadalcanal (photo by Airi Katsuta)
Musicians in ceremonial dress welcomed Peace Boat passengers to Guadalcanal (photo by Airi Katsuta)

Musicians in shell headdresses welcomed hundreds of disembarking Japanese visitors when Peace Boat docked in Guadalcanal, its final port of call, last month.

Guadalcanal receives few tourists and our arrival produced a flurry of new entrepreneurs: hawkers arranged wooden canoe figureheads and bottles of pressed coconut oil on mats spread over the concourse, and an ice-cream truck did roaring trade in front of stacked freight containers.

But for many on the ship, this was a solemn occasion. Our charter, the Ocean Dream, had followed the course US Marines took after Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor: from Bora Bora in Tahiti where there was a US naval base, north west across the Pacific to the Solomon Islands. I had joined some 300 Japanese passengers on a tour of the battle sites here.

“Our generation, people over 60, often heard of Guadalcanal,” said Nakagawa Harumi from Nagoya who had the seat next to mine in our minibus. He placed his hand over his chest and continued in careful English, “Just being here, I am already tearful. People died all over this island. Every place is sad. That mountain is sad. That grass is sad.”

Local children play on a gun near the World War II Guadalcanal American Memorial (Photo by Airi Katsuta)
Local children play on a gun near the World War II Guadalcanal American Memorial (Photo by Airi Katsuta)

In the US, Guadalcanal is remembered as the first stepping-stone in General McArthur’s island-hop across the Pacific and a turning point in the Second World War. It took the Marines six months to defeat the Japanese Imperial Navy here, foreshadowing victories in Kwajalein Atoll, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and eventually Okinawa.

In Japan, Guadalcanal is known as ‘Starvation Island,’ where some 22,000 Japanese and 7000 Americans died in land, sea, and air battles, and of malaria, dysentery and starvation. Convoys of elderly veterans, bereaved relatives, and student volunteers still come to dig for the bones of some 7000 missing Japanese soldiers buried underground here. But for many on Peace Boat, the details of what happened to their ancestors were hazy.

Eto Michiko, a 75-year-old Peace Boat passenger who had joined the tour, remembered the day a man from her father’s Naval Civil Engineering unit showed up at her house to inform her family of his death. “The government did not tell me why my father was sent to Guadalcanal, they did not even tell me how he died,” she said through an interpreter. 

Nakagawa Harumi studies a 75mm Type-88 Anti Aircraft Gun at Honiara International Airport. (Photo by Airi Katsuta)
Peace Boat passenger Nakagawa Harumi studies a 75mm Type-88 Anti Aircraft Gun at Honiara International Airport. (Photo by Airi Katsuta)

Would a tour around battle sites on Guadalcanal help Nakagawa and Eto to come to terms with what happened here?

Volunteer English teacher Keiko Ono who lived in the Solomon Islands as a child in the early ‘90s said, “It is an odd luxury to visit relics of a war that is personal to many and yet so removed from our daily lives. This land is scarred with ruins of a conflict that had nothing to do with the Solomon Islands but it remains a permanent fixture amongst its people.”

Our minibus bumped through Honiara’s streets past the Pacific Casino Hotel, a branch office for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a market where stallholders sold bananas, taro, and handfuls of unshelled peanuts. Peace Boat passengers asked local guide Audrey Au what islanders ate with their rice, whether anybody here still spoke Japanese, and how the economy was doing.

According to Au, the Solomon Islands derives some 44% of its GDP from foreign aid, and Japan is one of the largest donors. There is an Australian-owned gold mine, Chinese-owned shops, and then there is the tourism industry: some come to dive one of the most biodiverse reefs in the world. Others visit the war sites.

 A local boy shows off the dog tag of US Marine Kenneth Standage who fought on Guadalcanal. (Photo by Joseph Hincks)
A local boy shows off the dog tag of US Marine Kenneth Standage, who fought on Guadalcanal. (Photo by Joseph Hincks)

For the first stop on our tour, our bus convoy pulled up at Honiara International Airport, where families waited for flights with their bags and young men chewed betel nut outside the international terminal.

Honiara runs daily flights around the Solomon’s and would be unremarkable if not for the rusted anti-aircraft guns mounted outside. For a few years its airstrip – named Henderson Field by the Marines – was the cause of tens of thousands of deaths.

After they had driven the US out of the Philippines, the British out of British Malaya, and the Dutch out of the Dutch East Indies, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) began to expand across the Pacific. An airfield on the flat planes of Lunga in the north of the Guadalcanal would enable Japan to threaten Australia and even the US West Coast. “The campaign in what are now the ASEAN nations went too well, so the IJN went out of control,” Maeda Tetsuo, a journalist and military historian travelling with Peace Boat said through an interpreter.

Peace Boat passengers look out over the Lunga Airfield (Photo by Joseph Hincks)
Peace Boat passengers look out over the Lunga Airfield (Photo by Joseph Hincks)

Our group trudged up a narrow flight of steps to a viewing platform adjacent to Honiara’s international terminal. Red Beach where some 11,000 US Marines landed on August 7, 1943 was visible to the east over jungle pocked with tin roofed huts.

On the back of intelligence supplied by local spies known as Coastwatchers, the US launched a surprise attack just as Japan’s engineering regiment completed the airfield’s construction. The Marines took it with almost no resistance as construction workers fled into the nearby jungle, abandoning their supplies on the runway.

Nakagawa Harumi and I pressed our faces against the mesh fencing to study the field below for which thousands of young men were sent to their deaths.

Before leaving Lunga, our group also visited an adjacent memorial garden where Allied soldiers were commemorated with stone plinths under Carilla trees. There were more stones to honor ships like the USS Lansdowne, as well as local Coastwatchers and stretcher-bearers.

A partially submerged ship in Ironbottom Sound in front of Peace Boat’s charter The Ocean Dream. (Photo by Airi Katsuta)
A partially submerged ship in front of Peace Boat’s charter The Ocean Dream. (Photo by Airi Katsuta)

For Maeda, strategic errors such as a failure to control supply lines or safeguard codes led to Japan’s defeat at Guadalcanal. “The Japanese Government did not expect this kind of battle, they thought they could just sink ships,” he said.

Maeda said that Japanese generals sent successive battalions to win back Lunga, but with the US dominating airspace it was difficult for food and munitions to reach the island. More than 40 Allied and Japanese ships were sunk in Guadalcanal’s Ironbottom Sound; among them, Japanese supply ships that never reached the infantry.

In December 1942, when deaths from starvation tolled over 100 per day, Imperial Navy Second Lieutenant Yasuobi estimated the lifespans of his colleagues. “Those who can stand – 30 days. Those who cannot sit up – one week. Those who urinate lying down – three days. Those who don’t speak – two days. Those who don’t blink – tomorrow,” Yasuobi wrote in his diary.

Peace Boat passengers and local children lay incense at a memorial for those who died on Lunga Ridge (Photo by Airi Katsuta)
A Peace Boat Passenger prays as local children lay incense at a memorial stone on Lunga Ridge. (Photo by Airi Katsuta)

After we left the airport, our group walked up a dirt trail to the top of Lunga Ridge, a coral spine that juts from the surrounding jungle.

Between September 12 and September 14 1942, around 3,000 soldiers from General Kawaguchi’s 35th Infantry Division clashed with Colonel Merritt Edson’s battalion of marines here. Wave after wave of soldiers came from the jungle over the course of the two days – some 850 were killed before the remainder fled back across the Matanikau River.

In anticipation of Peace Boat’s visit, a local guide told me, the grass had been cut and some of the bush hacked back so that we could reach the top of the ridge.

In front of a chipped stone memorial, we held a one-minute silence to commemorate those who died on Lunga Ridge. Flies buzzed around fat sweat drops that rolled down my neck and the air was thick with incense. I thought of high-school war remembrance ceremonies: blue-clad air cadets marching regimental standards up to the pulpit.

We opened our eyes and Peace Boat passengers laid flowers and more incense at the base of the white memorial; some mouthed prayers, others placed lit cigarettes and watched them burn to the filter.

On the way down the ridge, I caught up with Nakagawa. “My feelings are complicated,” he told me. Nakagawa’s mother had been married to a man who died in Guadalcanal before she met his father. “If he did not die here, I would not be here.”

Back in the minibus, we bumped past stilted houses that sold eggs under parasols, and smallholdings where pale yellow butterflies fluttered above cassava plants. There were tear tracks on Nakagawa’s cheeks. “I don’t know why all these people had to come out here to die,” he said in English.

White frangipani trees and red hibiscus are planted at a memorial garden for Japanese War dead at Guadalcanal (Photo by Joseph Hincks)
White frangipani trees and red hibiscus are planted at a memorial garden for Japanese War dead at Guadalcanal (Photo by Joseph Hincks)

For some of the oldest Peace Boat passengers, the visit to Guadalcanal stirred memories of wartime life in Japan.

In 1944, one year after the Marines secured Guadalcanal, the US’ strategic bombing of the Japanese mainland began. Gifu, the hometown of 82-year-old Honda Mieko, was one of the cities hit in the air raids.

Honda, who was twelve at the time, said that starvation was also a facet of life on the mainland: her husband had evacuated Tokyo along the Koishi River and got so hungry that he ate azalea flowers and dragonflies.

She remembered how ice from a bombed ice factory had flashed in the sun as she moved dead bodies aside to search for her missing sisters. “Maggots came out of the bodies’ mouths and ears,” Honda said through an interpreter. “I still remember the smell and the heat of the sun.”

At an onboard remembrance ceremony, Honda, dressed in black with a pearl necklace, told a Peace Boat audience, “it’s a waste if you lose your lives in a war. Now we are being pulled away from peace but with the power of young people I hope that we can pull back.” She added that she was happy to have had the chance to pass on her experiences to the younger generation onboard, “I feel like I can have dementia at any time now.”

Jinno Akari reads a declaration of peace during an onboard World War II Remembrance Ceremony. (Photo by Airi Katsuta)
Jinno Akari, 21, reads a declaration of peace during an onboard World War II Remembrance Ceremony. (Photo by Airi Katsuta)

2015 marks the 70-year anniversary of the end of World War Two, and of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As Peace Boat sailed the home stretch back to Yokohama past Iwo Jima and Okinawa, where hundreds of thousands lost their lives, there were more discussions of the implications of War.

Some speculated as to how Abe Shinzo, who was re-elected Prime minister in December, would address Japan’s war legacy this year. In 2013, Abe angered China and drew rare criticism from the US when he publicly visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates Japan’s war dead, including war criminals.

However, there was a particular focus on changes to the interpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, which states that the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. In 2014, the Abe administration approved a reinterpretation of Article 9 to allow ‘collective self defense,’ which if backed by law will enable Japan’s self defense force to exercise military action if one of its allies is attacked. The change would permit Japan to fight on foreign soil for the first time since the end of the Second World War.

“The current Japanese political situation reminds me in some ways of the war back then, and that alarms me,” said Maeda in an onboard lecture on Article 9.

Volunteers on Peace Boat also considered war and nationalism in light of the visit to Guadalcanal. At an onboard speech-giving event for new language learners, English teacher Ian Kennedy gave a speech in Japanese entitled Why I Don’t Want A Military In My Country. Volunteer teacher Keiko Ono said, “our brief visit gave a renewed sense of responsibility as citizens of Japan and soon to be ambassadors of Peace Boat.”

To close the onboard remembrance ceremony, 21-year old passenger Jinno Akari – who hopes to enter politics – read out a statement devised in consultation with other young passengers. “War is not an improbable thing anymore. War is smoothly and steadily becoming conceivable,” she said through an interpreter. “I love Japan, but if it becomes a country that can make war, I don’t want to give birth to a child.”