It is surprising how little I knew about the Solomon Islands before we arrived.
Part of this is because I had such high expectations for Vanuatu that were mostly unfulfilled that I kind of purposely didn’t do a lot of reading. As it turns out years of waiting to arrive and months of fantasying about all the wild, undiscovered places we’d visit just made the real experience in Vanuatu a little “less” than I wanted it to be. I wasn’t about to make our time in the Solomon’s a repeat performance.
Steve mainly plans passages and researches anchorages so I was full of confidence that he knew what we were getting ourselves into. At least as far as boat safety and general sailing timeline were concerned. I figured if I just showed up I would see everything with fresh eyes and an open heart and our time here would be all the richer for it.
Not long after we arrived in the Solomon’s my lackadaisical approach starting causing a little friction between the two of us.
Understandably Steve starting feeling like a tour guide and one sunny afternoon after I asked “Where to next?!” he told me so. I got the message loud and clear; it was time to crack a book. Besides the Cruising Guide and Lonely Planet type texts I searched online for a book that might give us a little more insight into the history of the place.
I knew that during WWII battles between the encroaching Japanese and the American defensive took place throughout the Pacific after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. However being a Canadian I was taught more about the history of the battles fought in Europe that Canadian soldiers were involved in. Besides a few place names like Guadalcanal and Iron Bottom Sound, I had no idea how much played out in the Solomon Islands, specifically in the Western province where we would be spending most of our time.
With Christmas looming and a high speed internet connection in Honiara I was able to download a book that I thought would be an interesting read. (Yes I love paper books, but damn! ebooks sure come in handy at times like these.) “Lonely Vigil: Coastwatchers of the Solomons” by Walter Lord tells the story of a group of men that were stationed on remote islands throughout the Solomons simply to watch and report back to the Allied forces. Mostly Australian these men ended up behind enemy lines when the Japanese slowly took control of the islands in their push east. Many of them were keen to stay in such dangerous situations as they information they were relaying was vital to the success of several key missions to curtail the Japanese stronghold throughout the Pacific. For years these men not only kept track of the movements of enemy ships, planes and troops but rescued and evacuated hundreds of downed Allied airmen, stranded sailors, foreign missionaries and natives, often under the cover of darkness with the threat of being discovered and most likely killed a constant danger.
The Coastwatchers worked with a network of Solomon Islanders who, appearing neutral, were free to move about the islands to go about their everyday lives. These men acted as porters and guides, they covertly carried sensitive information and even sometimes passengers. In fact it was a few such islanders that found President Kennedy and his men when their PT boat was rammed and sunk near Gizo, and carried his message, carved into a coconut, to a nearby Coastwatcher so a rescue mission could be organized.
Reading that book sparked a genuine interest in both of us to find out more. We read, watched and absorbed any information about the WWII and the Solomons that was passed our way. The islands on our charts now seemed familiar even though we had yet to visit most of them. We started asking locals about plane wrecks and sunken ships and anchorages that were rumoured to have gun emplacements so we might catch a real glimpse of what happened here. And that’s how we ended up at Barney’s.
Barney place isn’t hard to find. He lives just outside the town of Munda on the island of New Georgia and anyone you meet on the street can give you directions. As we wandered up the long drive we found Barney milling around inside a large green shed that takes up most of his lawn. Painted on the side of the building were the words “Peter Joseph WWII Museum.” He welcomed us with a broad smile, eager to share what has become his personal passion.
As we stepped out of the bright, hot sun into his shed we were surrounded by a neat and tidy collection that was thoughtfully laid out on tables and hung on the walls. There was everything from guns, knives and ammo to parts of planes and bits of ships to pieces of uniforms, mess kits and dog tags. The museum, named after of the first relic in the collection, a dog tag that Barney himself found himself over a decade ago, was astounding.
Most of the pieces had been found in the nearby township when people were digging in their gardens, walking in the woods or playing in their backyards. Barney had become the keeper of all things WWII as people started bringing found items to him for safe keeping. Then they started calling him in when ammunition and bomb caches were discovered; he was the unofficial first response for anything WWII related on the island. In the beginning he housed his relics in a small leaf haus but it quickly outgrew his collection. A few years ago, he won enough government funding to build his big green shed, giving his museum not only a permanent home but the respect that it deserved.
Barney himself was enthusiastic and well-spoken. He had a historic statistic or anecdote for almost everything in the shed. From the specs on the Allison V12 airplane engine out front to details about fallen soldiers to the fact that the standard issue citronella bug repellant in the glass bottles they found still worked. (He had tested it himself!) He encouraged questions and pictures and just when we thought we were ready to leave started pointing out and explaining items we had over looked. When we told him we were sailing around for a couple months he eagerly pointed out other areas of interest on a chart.
The only time he seemed reticent was when we spoke about his efforts to find the families of the men whose dog tags he had collected. He had been successful in connecting with a few people in the USA, returning the imprinted bits of metal to the daughters or grandsons of the fallen soldier. One woman had sent him a bracelet with a small engraved plaque as a thank you which he kept in his special wooden chest with other valuable items and diligently locked at night. I got the impression that he didn’t want to be painted the hero, that he considered himself nothing more than a guardian of the past, grateful for those who had come before and sacrificed so much.
As we wandered around I found myself drawn to the small personal affects in his collection; a red glass ashtray, a keepsake brooch with the photo rotted away, a row of pocket knives, a group of fountain pens, an arrangement of handmade bracelets and trinkets. I realized that these small items belonged to someone, were precious to someone, were made by someone. Suddenly it wasn’t just about the mechanical curiosities left behind; the plane wrecks, the sunken ships, the rusty guns. I picked up a silver cigarette case and wondered who it belonged to. Did he liked the way it felt in his hands and have a habit of fingering it as he smoked? Was it given to him as he left for war? Did he ever make it home?
Visiting Barney’s museum the war suddenly felt very real. It was fought in the ocean we sailed, on the islands we visited, in the very spot that we stood. And it is still a concern in the everyday lives of the people who live here because amazingly relics are still being found. A week before we visited an old woman was burning a fallen tree when mortar leapt out of the flames and sped across her lawn. It had lain dormant in the tree limb that she had just thrown on the fire for over 70 years. Thankfully no one was hurt.
On our walk home under the scorching midday sun we were both quiet. I tried to imagine what it would have been like to be plunked down on one of these islands in the 40’s, the thick jungles, the oppressive heat, the logistics involved in the basic necessities of food, water and communications. I tried to imagine spending months or years behind enemy lines, the threat of being discovered as real as the threat of succumbing malaria or a simple infection that in the tropics can quickly become severe. I tried to imagine what the street I was walking down would have looked like if the outcome of the war had been different.