Wreckage discovered below placid waters tells stories of danger and heroic exploits, writes John Borthwick.

"Don't mention the war!" shrilled John Cleese in his guise as demented English hotelier Basil Fawlty.

You might say the same thing, although less madly, in the Solomons Islands, but to little avail.

It starts at the Solomons capital, Honiara, which faces a waterway whose seabed is strewn with so much World War II wreckage - Japanese and American battleships, bombers and fighters - that its wartime heavy-metal nickname, "Iron Bottom Sound", stuck and became official.

But there's much more to the 992 islands of "the Solleys" than maritime graveyards. Think scuba diving, island lodges, surfing and scrumptious seafood. However, conversation inevitably turns back to the war.

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I sit on the over-water deck of the gloriously named Fatboys Resort, lunching on the best crayfish of my life and looking out across glittering Gizo Lagoon to a tiny, wooded island a kilometre away. "It used to be called Plum Pudding, but these days it's Kennedy Island," says Mano, Fatboys' slender manager.

Yes, I'm looking at the spot where the young John F. Kennedy, US Navy lieutenant and President-to-be, swam ashore with his crew after the Japanese destroyer, Amagiri, cut their torpedo patrol boat, PT-109, in two on the night of August 2, 1943.

Two of the crew died and two others were badly injured. The 11 survivors swam for uninhabited Plum Pudding Island and Kennedy used a lifejacket strap clenched between his teeth to tow one of his badly burned shipmates. It took four hours to reach the island, now known as Kennedy Island, but they found no food or water there. Kennedy and his men then swam to the more hospitable Olasana Island.

An Australian coastwatcher secreted in the hills saw the sinking of PT-109 and sent islanders Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana, in a dugout to search for survivors. Six days later they found the Americans surviving on coconuts.

Kumana recalled that the first thing they asked for was cigarettes, but no one had matches. He amazed them by rubbing two sticks together to strike a light.

Kennedy Island lies 15 minutes by boat from Ghizo, the capital of the Solomons' Western Province. With two of the staff from Fatboys, I scoot out to it in a runabout. The island is still uninhabited and, except for its history, unremarkable, so we cross to a nearby sandbar for sundowners. Which leads to a lighthearted conversation about the famous "rescue" message that Kennedy cut on to a coconut for the scouts to carry. Would he have written a Warren Zevon-like memo to Dad: "Send lawyers, guns and money"? Or, Jack being a Kennedy lad, was it something like, "Marooned on tropical island. Urgent. Send dancing girls"?

The brilliantly named Fatboys Resort. Photo / John Borthwick
The brilliantly named Fatboys Resort. Photo / John Borthwick

The scouts delivered the message at great risk through waters patrolled by the Japanese to an Allied base at Rendova Island and the torpedo boat crew was rescued several days later.

History has added footnotes that are almost as interesting as the rescue itself.

Kennedy, along with a fellow PT-109 officer, Leonard Thom, was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.

His status as a decorated war hero boosted his post-war political profile as he went on to be elected a Massachusetts senator and, in 1960, the 35th president of the United States.

Books, a 1963 Hollywood movie and television versions of the PT-109 saga followed, although Gasa and Kumana received little credit or military records.

Time magazine later reported that the pair were invited to Kennedy's presidential inauguration but Solomon Islands' colonial officials at Honiara turned them back, supposedly on the grounds that "they would be an embarrassment in their appearance".

Kumana, aged 93, died on August 2, 2014, exactly 71 years after PT-109's sinking.

Famed wreck-hunter Robert Ballard headed a National Geographic Society expedition that found the forward section wreckage of PT-109 in May 2002. In 2003, a race was held, re-enacting Kennedy's epic swims across Gizo Lagoon.

The "rescue message" coconut shell was returned to Kennedy who preserved it in a glass paperweight on his Oval Office desk and is now displayed at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. Its message simply says, "Commander ... native knows pos'it ... he can pilot ... 11 alive ... need small boat ... kennedy."

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Solomon Islands Airlines flies Brisbane to Honiara four times a week, and ex-Sydney once a week. flysolomons.com
ONLINE

Fatboys Resort: solomonislandsfatboys.com.au

Solomon Islands Visitor Bureau: visitsolomons.com.sb
GHIZO

Kennedy Island is 15 minutes by speedboat from Ghizo, which is a one-hour flight from Honiaira. The plane lands on an airstrip carved out of the jungle during WWII. Ghizo town is reminiscent of those days. Its main street is lined by Chinese general stores, warehouses and open-air markets. Its rambunctious watering holes like the PT-109 Bar and Gizo Hotel could have come straight from the set of the old Pacific War television series, McHale's Navy.