Sixty-four years after he changed history, the aging Solomon Island man who rescued JFK is being honored by the American government, according to New Zealand’s Fairfax Media.
Now deaf and almost blind, Eroni “Aaron” Kumana, 82, found the capsized U.S. Navy crew that Lt. John F. Kennedy was part of on Aug. 2, 1943. The PT-109 vessel had collided with a Japanese destroyer called Amagiri, near Plum Pudding Island.
Kumana paddled about 60 kilometers to get help for the man who would later become president of the United States and the rest of the crew. Kumana took with him the message Kennedy had carved into a coconut.
This week, U.S. Navy Secretary Donald Winter flew to the Solomons to shower Kumana with gifts, including an American flag, and the USS Peleliu visited the islands too, Fairfax Media reported.
"I think it's a remarkable circumstance," Winter told Fairfax. "He changed our history ... and I'm very thankful to him for doing it."
That Aug. 2, Japan occupied the Solomon Islands, and Kennedy was the skipper of PT-109, a high-speed patrol boat monitoring the waters in the Blackett Strait, off Gizo Island. It had no radar, so the ship’s crew didn’t see the Amagari plowing toward it until it was too late.
The Japanese vessel crashed into PT-109, causing it to sink. One of the 12 aboard died
But the bow of the American patrol boat didn’t go under, and the remaining 11 men held onto it until they swam to Plum Pudding, about six kilometers away. When they reached land, Kennedy swam to other nearby islands to find help.
The crew survived by eating coconuts for six days, until two natives – Kumana and Biuku Gasa – found them, took Kennedy’s message on the coconut to an Australian named Reg Evans, who orchestrated the rescue.
Eighteen years after that nearly fateful day, Kennedy would be elected to the country’s highest office. Kumana and Gasa were invited to his 1961 inauguration, but officials in the Solomon Islands capital decided the men weren’t polished enough to appear and sent other representatives instead.
When Kennedy was assassinated two years later, “I mourned for a whole week upon hearing of my friend’s death,” Kumana told Fairfax.
Kumana’s house was demolished by an earthquake in April, according to Fairfax. Fifty died in the resulting tsunami. Gasa was reported to have died in 2005.