Tue, Jul 29, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Solomons battlefield sees more action

REUTERS , HONIARA

Policemen in the central police station in the Solomon Island's capital Honiara guard two men they arrested for disorderly behavior yesterday. The men were arrested after one of them brandished a machete on a crowded bus.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Six decades after 7,000 Americans and four times as many Japanese died in the Battle of Guadalcanal, the airfield on the South Pacific island is still being fought over.

A new proposal to change the name of the Solomon Islands' international airport from that of a US marine pilot killed in the Battle of Midway to something more palatable to the Japanese has stirred up a hornet's nest of emotions and protests.

Within two weeks of the launch of an online petition last month asking the government in the former British protectorate to keep the name Henderson Field as it is, more than 8,000 US World War Two veterans and their relatives had signed it.

The outrage grew after reports that one new name being suggested was the Japanese national flower, the chrysanthemum.

Prime Minister Allan Kemakeza, who has just welcomed 2,225 Australian-led police and troops to restore order in his lawless and near-bankrupt nation, has promised that the name will not be altered to lure increased Japanese investment and aid.

"Even if the PM has assured me it won't be changed, that doesn't mean there won't be an attempt," Guadalcanal expert and long-time Solomons resident John Innes said.

"That proposal is still being put," he said on a tour on Sunday of battle sites where rusting helmets, grenades and bone, tank and plane fragments still litter the jungle.

The airport in the capital Honiara, named after Major Lofton Henderson, became one of the most fiercely fought over pieces of Pacific real estate in World War Two.

It was begun by the Japanese, and would have allowed them to harass Australia 1,800km to the southwest.

On Aug. 7, 1942, 12,000 American soldiers led by the 1st Marine Division waded ashore at Red Beach, and conquered the half-finished airfield in their first offensive against the Japanese Imperial Army.

In the following six months, the Japanese tried repeatedly to take back the "Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier."

Twenty-four US warships and 18 Japanese ships and six submarines were sunk in sea battles that raged around Guadalcanal, many in what is now known as "Iron Bottom Sound" because of the 550,000 tonnes of wrecks on the seabed.

In the malaria-infested jungle, hundreds of Americans and thousands of Japanese died in battles at Bloody Ridge and Alligator Creek.

It was in Guadalcanal that the Marines won their first presidential commendation, and the proposed name change, no matter how unlikely, has been taken as an insult and betrayal.

"Henderson Field represents the currency with which we purchased freedom for mankind," retired Marine Major General D.A. Richwine wrote in the online petition organized by Australian war wreck investigator Justin Taylan.

Defenders of the name also believe that after the Afghan and Iraq campaigns that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the US, American interest in old battlefields will grow.

That may draw increased numbers of US tourists to the Solomons at a time when the impoverished archipelago of 1,000 islands needs all the outside help and money it can get.

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