On a moonless night in summer 1943, a Japanese destroyer tore through a U.S. Navy patrol-torpedo boat guarding the waters around the Solomon Islands. The boat was PT-109, skippered by a young lieutenant from Massachusetts named John F. Kennedy.
Two of Kennedy's 13 men were killed in the collision, and others were injured or sickened by the fuel that poured from their sinking vessel. Desperate for refuge, they swam for five hours to reach a small island. One man was so badly burned that Kennedy towed him with the strap from the wounded sailor's life jacket clamped in his teeth.
Over the next days Kennedy returned repeatedly to the water, swimming past exhaustion in the hope he could spot rescuers and lead them to his battered crew. To improve their chances, he moved them to a larger island, but they were plagued by hunger, thirst and fear that Japanese forces would find them. They didn't know the Navy had given them up for dead.
Their story might have ended there. That it didn't was due in no small part to Solomon Islands native Eroni Kumana.
Kumana, who helped save the future president and his crew, died early this month, just days shy of the 71st anniversary of their rescue. He was believed to be 93.
His death in the western province of the Solomon Islands was announced by the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. No cause was given.
Kumana was barely out of his teens when World War II came to his corner of the world. Thousands of Japanese troops were garrisoned in the Solomons and depended on supplies from the "Tokyo Express," a convoy of Japanese warships that made regular runs through Blackett Strait in the western Solomons.
PT-109 was part of a squadron patrolling the strait on the night of Aug. 1, 1943, when the Tokyo Express came steaming through. The Navy boats fired 30 torpedoes, none of which struck. All of the boats returned to base except for three that still had torpedoes. Kennedy's boat was one of them.
Around 2 a.m. another Japanese destroyer, running without lights, suddenly appeared, headed straight for PT-109. With only one engine going to minimize detection, the Navy boat could not power up fast enough to avoid catastrophe. As the destroyer sliced through the boat, Kennedy lost the wheel. "In a moment he found himself on his back on the deck, looking up at the destroyer as it passed through his boat," journalist John Hersey wrote in a famous account for the New Yorker in 1944.
The other boats took off, assuming that everyone on PT-109 died in the huge fireball caused by the crash. Back at base, a memorial service was held.
Others had heard the explosion, including another young islander named Biuku Gasa, who worked with Kumana as a scout for an Australian coast-watcher helping the Allies. The coast-watcher instructed them to search for survivors.
On the fifth day after PT-109's demise, Kennedy and one of his men left the others on Olasana Island and swam to the next island, Nauru, where they found the wreck of a Japanese vessel and some provisions.
More exciting, however, was the sight of two islanders on the beach. Kennedy shouted for their attention, but they fled in fright. The two natives were Kumana and Gasa.
"We thought they were Japanese and we ran away," Kumana recalled through a translator in the 2002 National Geographic film The Search for Kennedy's PT-109.
He and Gasa paddled off in their canoe but made a fortuitous rest stop — at Olasana Island. There they discovered the other crew members, who convinced the pair they were Americans.
"Some of them cried, and some of them came and shook our hands," Kumana said in an oral history. When Kennedy arrived, he embraced the island scouts. He wanted them to take a message to his superiors. Lacking paper, Gasa suggested Kennedy use a coconut, so Kumana plucked one from a nearby tree.
Kennedy carved these words on the shell:
POS'IT...HE CAN PILOT...11 ALIVE
NEED SMALL BOAT...KENNEDY
Kumana and Gasa paddled 38 miles at great risk through Japanese-controlled waters to deliver the message to the coast-watcher, who then radioed the news to the Navy squadron commander on Rendova Island. Two rescue boats brought PT-109's survivors to the base early on the morning of Aug. 8.
Kumana was modest about his role in saving the future president and his crew. Even though it involved considerable risk of punishment or death at the hands of the Japanese troops who occupied the islands, he considered the rescue what any decent person would have done in the same situation.
Like most indigenous people in the vast, scattered and largely isolated Solomon Islands (which cover 350,000 square miles), he had known virtually nothing about Americans or Japanese — and had probably not heard much about World War II — until early 1942, when warnings of a Japanese attack in the Solomons prompted the islands' British rulers to give the islanders a crash course in world politics.
Women and children were evacuated from coastal areas. Men were asked to join the effort against the invaders. So that's what Kumana, a fisherman, canoe maker and subsistence farmer, did and his friend did, becoming members of the coastal watch, which reported Japanese ship movements.
Maxwell T. Kennedy, a son of the president's brother Robert, visited Kumana in 2002 along with the oceanographer Robert Ballard, who was on an expedition underwritten by National Geographic magazine to find the sunken wreck of PT-109. (It was 1,200 feet below the surface, and left undisturbed.)
"If President Kennedy had not been elected president in 1960 because he had not survived the war, think what a different country this might be today," said Max Kennedy. "If there is any proof that one man can make a difference, here it is."
John F. Kennedy's heroic actions to save his crew became central to his political success. He invited Kumana and Gasa to his inauguration in 1961, but British colonial officials blocked the trip. Kumana later told interviewers it was because neither he nor Gasa spoke English.
When Kumana learned of the president's assassination in 1963, "I sat down ... and cried," he recalled in the National Geographic film. He built a shrine to the late president near his home on Ranongga Island and named his son John F. Kennedy. The coconut was preserved as a paperweight that Kennedy used in the Oval Office and now is kept at the presidential library.
Maxwell Kennedy described the day he spent with Kumana in 2002 as full of laughter. "He was very, very funny and had a great sense of irony, which I think President Kennedy also had," he said. "He was wearing a T-shirt that is very popular in the Solomon Islands. It read 'I Rescued JFK.' "
Information from a New York Times obituary was used in this report.
© 2014 Los Angeles Times