ZIPOLE HANBU, Solomon Islands — Biuka Gasa was 19 when he paddled his canoe by Plum Pudding Island and rescued the man who would be president.
Jack Kennedy had washed onto this deserted South Pacific islet a week earlier when a Japanese destroyer rammed his boat, the PT 109, in August, 1943.
Gasa scouted for the Allies, and he was all too pleased to save the young lieutenant. Only first, Gasa recalls, he tried to shoot him dead.
"I thought he was Japanese," said Gasa, now 67, sitting on the bamboo stoop of his leaf hut, jawing a betel nut that stained his toothless gums a brilliant red. Sweet, sincere and as dark-skinned as most Solomon Islanders, Gasa explained: "White people, they all looked the same to me."
Alfred Alesasa Bisili, also 67 and a former scout, interpreted Gasa's account. "I had this Japanese Tommy gun," said Gasa, gesturing to replay the moment. "But these bullets I had wouldn't fit. They were too big. I was reaching into my bag for more. I gave up."
Kennedy's mate came along, and together they won over Gasa by name dropping: Only an Allied soldier, Gasa agreed, would know the name of the British coast-watcher who led the local scouts.
Gasa, who survived World War II to father 10 children, now makes his home on the tropical island of Zipole Hanbu, a 60-minute ride by motorized canoe across the turquoise Marovo Lagoon from the town of Munda. Nearby is Skull Island, named for the graves of Marovo chiefs renowned for their headhunting terrors.
But it's the havoc that Gasa and his fellow Solomon Islanders wreaked on the Japanese war machine that is now luring Americans to these astonishingly beautiful islands that extend eastward into the Pacific Ocean off Papua New Guinea. The Solomon government is gearing up for ceremonial extravaganzas starting next year, and several American tour operators are laying plans for special cruises.
Fifty-one years ago, Guadalcanal, the country's main island (named for a village in Spain), was overrun by soldiers. The Japanese had been marching across the Pacific when the Americans, rather inadvertently, drew a line at the Solomons. This is where Col. Merritt Edson defended Henderson Airfield against wave upon wave of Japanese who hurled themselves banzai fashion into a death by barbed wire and bayonet.
This, too, is where a certain Col. Fox dug the first hole that would bear his name. And it's where both sides, but mostly the Allies, lost so many ships that the shallow waters adjoining Guadalcanal were named Iron Bottom Sound.
Just over the border on the New Guinea island of Bougainville is one of World War II's most significant landmarks: the wreckage of the plane that carried Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the man who planned the raid on Pearl Harbor. His son came on a pilgrimage last year but was stopped at the border, as was I, by the civil war under way. Visitors should check with the Solomon embassy for an update on travel conditions.
Henderson Airfield is now an international airport, rather modern by Pacific standards. It, and the area surrounding nearby Honiara, the Solomon capital, are must stops on any World War II-oriented itinerary.
You'll most likely arrive via Fiji, a Pacific hub five hours south of Honolulu and just below the Equator. Solomon Airlines flies from there to Honiara in about three hours, stopping in Vanuatu.
The "red bus" vans operated by Sol Air make the 15-minute, $3 run into Honiara, where visitors can choose from three hotels, including the $100-a-night Mendana. From the range of guest houses, I highly recommend the $12-a-night Red Roof, run by Ken Cross, who knows the area.
Stay in Honiara long enough for a couple of day tours or dives. Hire a car or try Tambea Tours downtown. For hikers there's a magnificent series of waterfalls, said to be the Pacific's best, at Matanikau. But don't dally, unless for some reason you're fond of yacht clubs and British colonial architecture.
Head for Gizo. The Sol Air 12-passenger Twin Otter cruises low over lagoons so blue you'll oooh and ahhh and swear you see James Michener paddling about. You'll fly right up "The Slot"--the passageway used by the Japanese for their nightly supply runs to Guadalcanal, which the Allies dubbed the "Tokyo Express."
The plane will bank, drop and land on an island the shape and size of a runway. If you've called ahead, Kerri Kennedy of Adventure Sports will have skiffed over from town to pick you up, and within minutes you'll be paddling around in the blue.
The diving or snorkeling at Gizo is world-class. I met Australians there who'd been diving for 15 years and were awe-struck. At a site that Kerri's husband, Danny, has dubbed "Grand Central Station," two crosscurrents bring hordes of psychedelic-colored fish. We saw seven sharks at that spot--big, happy sharks obese from all the fish they consume without effort.