The country’s contribution to WWII is evident as soon as visitors touch down – war heroes are listed on wall plaques in the arrivals area. Honiara International Airport itself sits on Henderson Field; the runway originally built by the invading Japanese, then taken by the US forces that named it after a fallen soldier, Brigadier Frederick Henderson. Next door, beyond the Peace Bell and Japanese 75mm anti-aircraft gun, is a memorial garden of tall rank and file carilla trees symbolising the soldiers who lost their lives.
The drive into Honiara is on the Kukum Highway – kukum, meaning pineapple, was the American Navajo soldiers’ name for the yellow US hand grenades. The Navajos, or ‘wind talkers’ as they were known, played a key role in the American defence of the Solomon Islands by sending radio messages in their own language to avoid interception by the Japanese. Still in the Henderson area, just off the Kukum Highway, is Bloody Ridge, where a small troop of US marines defended Henderson Airfield from 3000 Japanese troops attacking from the south and west. Made famous by the 1998 movie, Thin Red Line starring Sean Penn, the battle of Bloody Ridge is considered the turning point of the Guadalcanal campaign that ran from August 1942 to February 1943. New Zealanders will find stories about the Kiwi forces too. The NZRAF flew Corsairs in the Solomons and there’s still an area in Henderson known as the ‘New Zealand’ camp.
Along the Kukum Highway is Solomon Islands’ only golf course, affectionately known as ‘Fighter 2’. Originally the landing strip for B58 bombers, the nine-hole course sports not only sand bunkers, but also war bunkers under the tees. The WWII memorials are not all about the allied forces. Local men served as scouts and a statue commemorates local hero Sir Jacob Charles Vouza who endured torture by the Japanese troops when he was caught carrying American items after saving the life of a US pilot. Overlooking the battlefield below Hill 73 is the American memorial while the Japanese memorial sits on Hill 32, their stronghold in an area known as ‘the Gifu,’ on the slopes of Mount Austen and where relics from the fighting can still be found.