Sat, Aug 02, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Swimmers re-enact history in Solomons

AFP , HONIARA

Sixty years after a young John Kennedy swam for his life in the Solomons, five people undeterred by a new conflict in the Pacific islands will tomorrow recreate the World War II aquatic adventure.

While the future US president's perilous swim to save comrades trapped behind enemy lines was hailed as heroic, the re-enactment is likely to be an easier affair, despite an ongoing civil war plaguing the Solomons.

"A good portion of the swim will be like snorkeling in clear, blue, warm water, allowing you to experience the most diverse fish life in the South Pacific," said organizer Danny Kennedy -- no relation to the late president.

But following an Australian travel advisory warning off visitors to the Solomons, just one local and four foreign swimmers will be taking to the water.

Danny Kennedy, 19, hopes the event will both help to restore tourist interest in his dive center in the Solomons island of Gizo, a scenic area of dense jungle, high volcanoes, vast lagoons and seas teeming with marine life.

"Most of our business was from Australia and [travel advisories] have virtually wiped out much of the trade here," he said.

Kennedy insisted tourists had nothing to fear despite last Thursday's arrival of an Australian-led intervention force which, with soldiers, naval vessels and helicopters, has the appearance of a major military operation.

"It is a complete overkill ... It's turned into the worst of times to do this kind of thing," he said.

But the military presence creates an appropriate backdrop to the recreation of John Kennedy's original swim in the aftermath of the the bloody World War II Battle of Guadalcanal in which Japan seized the Solomons.

On Aug. 2, 1943, John Kennedy was skippering PT109, a 24m high-speed patrol boat operating under cover of darkness against Japanese convoys off Gizo.

Without radar, PT109 blundered into the Japanese destroyer Amagari which rammed and sank the American vessel, killing one of its 12-man crew.

Clinging to the still-afloat bow of the PT109, the survivors struggled 6km to nearby Plum Pudding Island -- later renamed Kennedy Island -- where the future president towed one of the worst casualties ashore.

Kennedy, who excelled as a swimmer at Harvard University, then swam to nearby Olasana and Naru islands in search of help. Aware he was behind enemy lines, he also struck out further offshore hoping to attract Allied warships.

After six days surviving on coconuts, Kennedy and his men were found by two local men, Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana, who conveyed a message carved on a coconut husk to an Australian operative in the area who arranged a rescue.

The coconut husk was later returned to Kennedy who kept it on his White House desk.

Sunday's swim will revive memories for one participant in the 1943 drama.

Biuku Gasa, who turned 80 this month, lives in a house on nearby Kauui Island, paid for by the Kennedy family, where he proudly displays a bust of JKF.

"I couldn't do the swim today," he said. "But I can still paddle it in my canoe."

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