Solomons hope to promote World War II tourism

Anderson Dua likes the way his collection of World War II aircraft lies exposed to the elements, kept almost exactly as they were when downed or abandoned in the battle of Guadalcanal.

Unrestored and unprotected, pounded by the blazing tropical sun on the jungle’s edge outside Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, the planes have been pierced with bullet holes and scorched by fire.

Dua doesn’t believe in repairing them. “It’s not interesting,” he says.

The museum, which charges 20 Solomon dollars ($2,70) for entry, is one of the few attractions to attempt to make money from the Solomons’ unique position as one of the biggest battlefields of the war in the Pacific.

Dua, whose stepfather, Fred Kona, began amassing the collection from around Guadalcanal in the late 1960s, has Japanese anti-aircraft and anti-ship guns, a United States Douglas dive bomber, a US Corsair and the star attraction: a US Wildcat.

But few people travel the 10km of untarred road from the centre of town to survey first-hand the remains of some of the greatest World War II battlefields in and around Guadalcanal.

John Innes, an Australian businessman who has lived in Honiara since 1991 and runs war-history tours on Guadalcanal in his spare time, estimates the number of Japanese war tourists each year at about 300.

But only 15 to 20 Americans make the journey to view the battlefields, which were a key turning point of World War II in the Pacific, he says.

“The [US] veterans who come here have to argue with their travel agents that there’s a place called Honiara,” Innes says. “Travel agencies say: ‘You want to go to the Pacific? What about Fiji?'”

Innes says the Solomons government wants to establish better tourism marketing for Guadalcanal, which between August 1942 and February 1943 witnessed some of the bloodiest fighting of the Pacific theatre as the US sought to wrestle the country from Japanese control.

But no marketing plan exists at the moment.

“The government and the Solomon Islands Visitors’ Bureau are re-examining tourism,” with the view to bringing more American tourists to the country’s battlefields, he says.

During the war, two million Americans fought, trained or were shipped through Guadalcanal and about 1 600 lost their lives there. Japanese casualties from battle and disease came closer to 25 000, including more than 600 aircraft and pilots.

“The Battle of Guadalcanal and the Solomons is recognised as a turning point in the war in the Pacific. It sits large in the American psyche,” Innes says.

Scattered all over the Solomons are the wrecks of the ships and airplanes belonging to Japanese, US and Australian troops, with Honiara’s port bay known as Iron Bottom Sound because of the huge number of boats sunk there.

A short drive up to Barana village is a journey into the front lines of some of the fiercest fighting. The village has no electricity or running water, but scores of World War II artefacts sit on tables outside its huts.

They include bullets, canteens, toothbrushes, grenades, mortars and helmets that have been placed on display for potential tourists.

“As they [villagers] go about their day’s work … they find human remains all the time,” says Innes, who pays the villagers to keep the relics on display.

“Wherever you are, you are on a battlefield. Honiara didn’t exist before the war. It was eight huts at the mouth of the Matanikau River.

“The signs of battle are everywhere. If you go for a walk in the morning, you are quickly going to find spent cartridges. The long-term influence is very, very significant. Every hill has foxholes in it.

“I can be driving to work and see something and think, ‘Well, 27 marines were killed there.’ It’s overwhelming.”

What worries Innes and others is that the tourists might not get to the hundreds of wrecks that the Solomons houses before they are destroyed by treasure hunters and exposure to the tropical weather.

Under the War Relics Act passed in 1980, it is illegal to take any World War II artefacts out of the Solomons. But the destruction of the wrecks began almost as soon as the war ended, with the crafts cut up for scrap metal.

“Before, there were plenty of them [wrecks],” says Dua. “But they take it to a village and they sell all the aluminium.”

Some would also consider what Dua’s stepfather did to save the wrecks almost as destructive — to transport the wrecks, Kona cut most of them into portions that could then be carried to the remote museum and roughly rigged them back together again with wire.

“My stepfather did the collection because when he was a young boy, he was very interested in the remains, because in the future these things will disappear,” says Dua.

Albert Loare, a local community leader, has also complained about theft and damage to wrecks on Ballalai Island in the north of the country.

“Many unauthorised persons have entered the island and stolen and damaged many of the remaining wrecks and parts to the point that, if something is not done now, a real fear is held that very soon there will be nothing worth remaining,” Loare wrote in a recent issue of The Solomon Star newspaper.

Innes says that prior to laws preventing the removal of World War II artefacts, “collectors were able to ship plane wrecks and suchlike out of the country”. The spread of the battle areas still makes policing the law difficult, he says.

“Although some smuggling out of plane wrecks is sometimes reported, the land owner is the key. By incorporating them into a tourism scheme, where there is something in it for everyone, the history can be better protected,” he says, pointing to the success of Barana village.

“It is felt that tourism has a large potential in the Solomons, but its selling and marketing has been negligible. In the world there is not even one person whose sole job is to sell tourism in the Solomons,” Innes says. “No business can operate successfully this way.” — AFP

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