Uneasy Pacific makes wartime memories more important than ever

The flags of the Solomon Islands and the US for the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal
The flags of the Solomon Islands and the US for the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Guadalcanal ... a humbling experience. Image: 1News

COMMENTARY: By Barbara Dreaver, 1News Pacific correspondent

Even from the grainy black and white footage of American soldiers wading towards shore while under fire, you can see and sense the fear, resignation and determination in that moment.

The Battle of Midway in World War II may have been won, but on August 7, 1942, the Solomon Islands campaign was just beginning.

By the end, nearly 40,000 men lost their lives here, 31,000 Japanese and 7,100 Allies.

In 2013, I travelled with a large group of New Zealand war veterans to New Caledonia, marking the war in the Pacific.

There is a New Zealand cemetery at Bourail where Kiwis who died in the Pacific are buried. It was humbling to be with these men, aged in their 80s and 90s, as they were slowly led down to the graves of their mates.

There were many tears for fallen but also burdens of their own to carry. Many years had passed but some things remain raw.

One of the veterans who came along was a man named John Jones. He was one of three coastwatchers who survived in what was then the Gilbert and Ellis Islands. He and the others survived because they were captured early in the war by the Japanese.

Rounded up, beheaded
Unlike his three best friends (they had all signed up together) who were later among 25 rounded up and beheaded.

Jones would weep as he thought of the terror his mates must have felt as they watched their colleagues being beheaded one by one while waiting for their turn. Unimaginable.

Solomon Islands marks 80th anniversary of Battle of Guadalcanal. Video: 1News

Jones had fought NZ authorities pushing for acknowledgement of the slain coastwatchers.

He succeeded and there is now a beautiful monument in their honour. I had got to know him over the years and was immensely fond of him.

We met up many times and when he died in 2017, myself and a fellow journalist, Mike Field, who had also written about him extensively, went to his funeral.

Barbara Dreaver and WWII veteran John Jones
Barbara Dreaver and World War II veteran John Jones … a surviving coastwatcher. Image: 1News

So here we are in the Solomon Islands and I am reminded of my old friend as there are no veterans here today. Too many years have now passed — any still alive would be in their late 90s or older.

So why does it matter 80 years later that we remember this day?

Undercurrents of tension
There are currently undercurrents of tension in the Pacific we would be foolish to ignore. In the three decades of covering the Pacific, a lot of it based in the region, I feel deep unease about what is happening that I’ve never felt before.

China’s reach and influence are growing. While that’s not a bad thing in some areas, there is a flow-down impact on development, democracy, justice, and freedom of speech.

There is a lot of cash and corruption around. My home country of Kiribati is isolated even from its neighbours and this feels very deliberate.

I fear for what is ahead.

So while we think back to the past today, we need to think about what was won — and at what cost — and how we must go forward.

Barbara Dreaver is 1News Pacific correspondent and a contributor to Asia Pacific Report.

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