'Their homes were turned into a battlefield': 80th anniversary of Guadalcanal campaign

7:21 am on 8 August 2022

Commemoration ceremonies have been taking place across the Solomon Islands capital Honiara, marking the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal.

US Littoral Combat Ship docked at Point Cruz in Honiara during the 80th anniversary of the WWII battle of Guadalcanal. 7 August 2022

US Littoral Combat Ship docked at Point Cruz in Honiara during the 80th anniversary of the WWII battle of Guadalcanal. 7 August 2022 Photo: RNZ Pacific/ Koroi Hawkins

Delegations from the United States, Japan, New Zealand and Australia have gathered to remember those who fought and died there.

Codenamed Operation Watchtower by American forces it began August 7 1942 and lasted until February 9 1943.

The previous year, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman's father enlisted.

"He enlisted two days after the attack on Pearl Harbour at all of 19 years old," she said.

Sherman paid tribute to her father at commemorations in Honiara. She pleaded with all present to remember the lessons of the past.

"This is the dreadful cost of war, not only blood and treasure but human souls, as we have lost the Guadalcanal generation to the passage of time we have seen some around the world who seem to have forgotten the awful lessons learned here, or perhaps never took them to heart in the first place," Sherman said.

A Solomon Islands police officer salutes the Coastwatchers Monument at Point Cruz in Honiara during the 80th anniversary of the WWII Battle of Guadalcanal.

A Solomon Islands police officer salutes the Coastwatchers Monument at Point Cruz in Honiara during the 80th anniversary of the WWII Battle of Guadalcanal. Photo: RNZ Pacific/Koroi Hawkins

At sea, in the air, and on land, the struggle between American and Japanese forces resulted in the loss of 1200 aircraft, 49 ships, and as many as 35,000 American and Japanese lives.

"And no one, no one can say for certain how many Solomon Islanders' lives were taken when their homes were turned into a battlefield," Sherman said.

Some of these brave Solomon Islanders lost their lives fighting alongside allied forces as Scouts and Coast Watchers, even crossing enemy lines to get important information.

The most famous of these was Sir Jacob Vouza a Guadalcanal man who was caught and tortured by the Japanese for refusing to give up American positions.

Bayonetted multiple times and left to die Vouza escaped and warned the Americans of an impending attack which they were then able to stave off.

His granddaughter Regina Vouza attended the ceremony accompanied by her daughter Rosilda.

She said she was nervous about the ceremony but extremely proud to represent her grandfather.

"Yes I am proud and very honoured because my grandfather fought at that time, and he served this country Solomon Islands and he also served the Marines and the US Army," Vouza said.

'Debt of gratitude' to Solomon Islanders

United States Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy spoke at the US war memorial on Sunday in the hills above Honiara.

"While we all owe a debt of gratitude to the Solomon Islanders who risked their lives during the Pacific Campaign, my family and I owe a personal debt of gratitude to two Solomon Islander Scouts - Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana - who saved my father's life," Kennedy said.

"Thanks to them, he and his crew survived the sinking of PT-109 and were able to return home and eventually run for President," she said.

His experiences here made him the man and the leader that he was, just as the experiences of so many others shaped the men and women they would become.

New Zealand Defence Force personnel have remembered all those who served in Solomon Islands during World War II.

Commander Joint Forces New Zealand Rear Admiral Jim Gilmour, laid wreaths at the commemorations.

"It was important to remember the Battle of Guadalcanal, which had marked a turning point in the defeat of the Japanese during World War II.

While New Zealanders were not involved in the landings on August 7, 80 years ago, New Zealand forces from the three Services subsequently became involved.

"People lost their lives on the land, in the skies and out off the coast in Iron Bottom Sound. On both sides of the conflict there was extreme bravery, extreme hardship and it's important we come here as New Zealanders and remember those that fought during that time," he said.

The commemorations were also attended by New Zealand's Secretary of Defence Andrew Bridgman and Victoria Cross recipient Willie Apiata.

New Zealand Minister for Defence Peeni Henare led Aotearoa's delegation to the Solomon Islands.

"Truly a special opportunity to reflect and remember those who have served here on both sides. What I found extremely humbling too is the recognition that has been acknowledged for the people here on the Solomon Islands, not just the people who came here to fight but the recognition of the Solomon Island people," Henare said.

An experience that shaped Marines

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman spoke of how her father Mal Sherman, a Marine who was injured on Guadalcanal in 1942, had been well cared for by New Zealanders when he went there to recuperate from his injuries and illnesses.

Sherman explained the suffering her father, who was 19-years-old at the time, went through.

She said it was an experience that shaped him.

"It shaped me in return, I know he was wounded in action here on Guadalcanal, then eventually his wounds became infected with jungle rot. He became sick enough to be evacuated, where he always said the Kiwis took extraordinary care of him," she said.

It is estimated as many as three quarters of the thousands of deaths were from tropical diseases and starvation.

On Monday delegates will gather for a ceremony at Bloody Ridge, where one of the most brutal battles of WWII was fought.

Here two monuments stand, one Japanese and another American, both erected to remember the many, many young men who lost their lives on these shores.