Remarks at the American Guadalcanal Memorial in Honiara, Solomon Islands

John Kerry
Secretary of State
American Guadalcanal Memorial
Honiara, Solomon Islands
August 13, 2014

Well, good afternoon, everybody, and thank you so very much for joining me here this afternoon, for joining all of us here this afternoon. More especially thank you for the privilege to me of being here in this rather extraordinary place where so much was decided by so many courageous people who put themselves on the line.

We are very, very honored this afternoon that two of those people are actually here with us today. And so it's my particular honor to introduce Mr. Charles Chuck Meacham, who was a Marine Raider. Chuck, thank you so much. We honor you enormously. (Applause.) And Mr. John (inaudible), who was a Navy Corpsman during that period of time. Thank you so much, both of you, for your service. (Applause.) I look forward to having a chance to shake your hands and chat with you a little bit afterwards and hear from you personally about this.

I was just down at the Coastwatchers and Scouts Memorial, and I was reading Admiral Bull Halsey's comment that the Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal saved the Pacific. I don't think you could summarize it more effectively than that. That was Bull Halsey, it's the way he talked, it's the way he was.

But he really, I think, brings to mind what was decided here at a time when the world was so divided, Pearl Harbor had been attacked, Midway was sort of strategically a draw, so to speak, although ultimately became to be seen as a much more important victory than it was interpreted immediately. And then of course subsequently this was the first moment right here at Guadalcanal where the United States turned from the preparations and the after-effect of Pearl Harbor into the offensive juggernaut that it became, and it became that because of men like these.

So it's my honor to be here looking out at Iron Bottom Sound. I had no idea there were 48 major ships at the bottom of the sea out there, including two aircraft carriers, two Japanese battleships just over the way by some island. It's quite extraordinary, and the Coastwatchers and Scouts of World War II in the storied campaign of Guadalcanal really do underscore why people talk about the pride of Solomon Islands.

As American naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote in his work, The Struggle for Guadalcanal, "It was among the most bitter and bloody naval battles in history." It was the first major encounter in the Pacific. And the naval battles that took place involved air and sea engagements, each one more bloody and bitter than the next. Wave after wave of Japanese forces kept trying to retake the island to recapture the airfield, and the folks who were here on the ground night after night could see the flashes, hear the battles as the waging war took place on the sea in front of them. And on a daily basis for six grueling months, aircraft would take off from Henderson Field and dogfight in the air, and pilots would be shot down, and most of ours were in fact picked up and brought back, those who survived.

So today we really do come here -- I come here, personally -- with just enormous reverence. As a veteran myself and someone who fought in a very different kind of war, I come here with utter awe for those who served here in the circumstances and the manner in which they served. We remember extraordinary valor of the United States Marines, the storied First Division, who repelled the assault around Lunga Ridge south of Henderson Field. The fighting was unbelievably intense and bloody and difficult, and at times it was hand-to-hand combat, as they repelled nearly 3,000 people trying to come up the ridge from three different locations during the night. The Marines simply refused to back down. This is one of those places where the reputation of Marines was carved. And their victory marked the beginning of the end of the Japanese effort to drive Allied Forces from this island.

More than 70 years later, we come here, and none of us have forgotten the courage of the Coastwatchers who warned American troops of incoming assaults. And one of the folks on the--John Keenan is cited down on the memorial I just saw as saying that if it hadn't been for the Coastwatchers and Scouts, we wouldn't have lasted 10 minutes. That's because they gave them invaluable information about movement, timing so you could prepare.

We also take note in more ways than words could ever describe of the stunning bravery of those Marines who, against all odds, won the first major offensive for the Allies in the Pacific right here. This is where the difference began to be made. And I know that in the early days, the task force that dropped them off after they had left them with food for something like only 14 days retreated and pulled off. These guys were here by themselves, limited to something like two meals a day, not knowing when the next re-supply would come in for sure.

And so on behalf of President Obama, I want to thank those who are here keeping faith with those who lost their lives here, the POW-MIA Accounting Command. Would all those of you taking part in that, just raise your hand, so we can see who's here for that? Well, we thank you profoundly for that. It's hard work, long work. (Applause.)

I had the privilege when I was in the United States Senate working on the issue of opening up our relations again with Vietnam of putting in place the process by which we did POW-MIA in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. And I'm proud to tell you today that the United States today has operating the single most extensive, most exhaustive, most comprehensive effort to find remains, return them to their loved ones so that even two generations later people can make peace. And I’m so proud that the United States of America is sending a message about the value of life and the value of those who give their life for their country. We never will forget and will do everything possible, the most exhaustive effort possible, to bring them home.

The Guadalcanal Campaign, as I have mentioned to you, was simply the turning point. And it positioned the Allies to begin to regain control of critical lines of communication between the United States and New Zealand and Australia. And that was the strategy, was to make sure that we were positioned in a place that we could protect that line of supply and communication.

As with all wars, there are many whose names are not recorded on these walls around us and whose courage goes unremarked but, frankly, it’s all the more remarkable for the fact that they put their lives on the line in near certain anonymity, that their sacrifice would be anonymous. And today we remember them, remember their courage, and we try to tell their stories.

We also remember the story, particularly, of the Coastwatchers. I just met a couple of generations removed young folks down in town, who are Coastwatcher descendants. But I also had a chance to meet one of the living Coastwatchers – he may be the last living. And they were our eyes and our ears. And let me just underscore a story that is known so well to so many of you, but it’s now August – what are we, August 10th or something? I can’t even remember the date – 13th. See, when you’re having fun traveling, you lose it.

But on an August day right now, 71 years ago on August 1st, a U.S. patrol boat was cut in half famously north of here – up north of Rendova by Ghizo Island in the straits there – by a Japanese destroyer. And two sailors on that crew were killed instantly, and the rest were left clinging to the wreckage, half of the boat that was still there. The crash was catastrophic by any measure, and to a person, the Navy believed that the entire crew had been lost.

But two Coastwatchers named Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana refused to give up hope. On their own, six days after this incident, they were out there searching and they found the crew of PT-109 on a remote island that they had swum to where they figured the Japanese wouldn’t be and they could perhaps survive. In dugout canoes they took a message that was written on a coconut back to the closest Allied base, and the Allies then launched a search. And the sailors, as we all know as a matter of history, were rescued. We all know that one of those men, the skipper of that crew, was 26-year-old Lt. called Jack Kennedy.

President Kennedy never forgot the heroism of these two Solomon Islanders. And as many of you know, he kept that coconut on his desk as President of the United States. Today, most of them are gone – President Kennedy long before his day, and I was saddened to hear that Eroni Kumana passed away just earlier this month. He was a bridge to that greatest generation. So we mourn his loss, but we do so knowing that the bond between our nation remains stronger than ever, as it was forged right here beginning on the 7th of August in 1942.

And together, the United States and the Solomon Islands are now working together to dispose, still today, of World War II-era unexploded ordnance. And we’re combating climate change, we’re conserving our ocean, we’re managing fisheries sustainably, working towards it. I want to thank our Solomon Island partners for their continued support in locating and repatriating the remains of World War II U.S. Marines and soldiers. We are very fortunate as a nation to count among our citizens young Marines like the ones who served here all those years ago, and what a privilege it is to have a corpsman and member of the Marine Corps here with us today. They answered the call of service, they were prepared, as their brothers were, to make the ultimate sacrifice, and it’s in that spirit that we come here today to remember the First Marine Division which stormed the shores here in the first large-scale ground offensive in the Pacific.

Anyone who’s heard those stories or read some of the history knows the nickname – the “Let George Do It Division.” And that’s because whatever the task, no matter the difficulty, the men of the First Marine Division would say, “Sign me up; I want to serve.” Everybody was George who would get the job done. And when the division stormed the shores that day, they faced a determined enemy. Naval reinforcements withdrew; the men were left behind, as I said, in their support, and chow and ammo were running low, the Japanese forces were closing in fast. But this band of brothers refused to ever throw in the towel. They never gave up. They doubled down. They became the leading edge of America’s successful effort to take control of an airbase that the Japanese were building here. They then finished building that airbase, and as I just learned from the historian a few minutes ago – I wasn’t aware of it, but ultimately there were about seven airbases all around Henderson because there was so much of the American force moving in, in order to end the war. The tide of battle turned right here.

Men from the First Marine Division in fact designed a medal to commemorate the campaign, and they would call it the Let George Do It Medal. Its inscription read, simply, “He is hereby awarded the George Medal of the First Marine Division, to which he is entitled as one who did his share upon the rock.”

So our burden today is not as heavy as theirs, but we still face challenges. The odds are not as long as they did, though we still have hills to climb. But it is clear that if we learn from them and from what went on here, we can summon the spirit and we can understand our charge to resolve so many of the disputes and problems that we face today in the same spirit as the Marines, the Scouts, and the Coastwatchers, who turned the tide of Battle at Guadalcanal.

Thank you all, and God bless. (Applause.)