The museums of the Solomon Islands house plenty of memorabilia from the Pacific campaign, writes Gillian Vine.

When Barney Paulsen was a nipper, he went with his uncle into the Solomon Islands jungle looking for metal to sell to Chinese scrap merchants.

There was no shortage - Munda, Barney's home island, was the scene of fierce fighting during World War II, so debris littered the area.

"The Chinese just wanted brass and copper, so anything else we just chucked back on the ground," he recalls.

Barney might have lost interest in war memorabilia had it not been for his discovery in 2002 of an American dog tag. It belonged to infantryman Peter Joseph Palatini and became the nucleus of the Munda museum.

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Not, as I half-hoped, housed in one of the Quonset huts that dot the islands, the museum is in a modest shed beside Barney's home. The emphasis is on smaller artefacts - guns, grenades, bullets, first-aid kits, mess tins, Coke bottles, an impressive knuckle-duster-and-knife combo issued to American troops for hand-to-hand encounters and helmets, the Japanese version lacking the metal rim of the Americans'.

From his "treasure box", Barney produces a handful of dog tags and complains about the slow pace of North American officialdom in locating families of those men, as he would like to know if they survived.

The Japanese had cloth IDs, not metal, but officers' samurai-style swords and soldiers' guns were numbered. Records kept in Japan enabled identification of the dozen men whose remains Barney has found.

The protocol is clear if he locates human bones. "I have to advise the consulate in Honiara and they tell me to keep the site protected until someone can come from Japan," he explains.

A Japanese team arrives, has the remains cremated and repatriates the ashes, which are returned to families.

The day after I met him, Barney was planning to go back into the jungle for a week's salvaging, a potentially dangerous trip. Snakes? No, almost all in this area are non-venomous. The big danger is from ammunition that, even after 70 years, may still be live.

"But everything here is okay," he assures me. Nonetheless, I wince as he pulls the pin from a grenade in his collection.

Helmets and shells outside the museum. Photo / Gillian Vine
Helmets and shells outside the museum. Photo / Gillian Vine

At the nearby village of Kia, there are rusting American landing craft. You won't see Jeeps though. They were dumped in the ocean by the Americans and, even now, there is a whiff of resentment that good vehicles were trashed.

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In the capital, Honiara, there are other significant wartime reminders. Try to visit the Solomon Peace Memorial erected by the Japanese on Mt Austin, a 410m peak used during the war as a base to shell the Allied-held airfield below.

Almost opposite, on Skyline Ridge, is the American memorial. When it was being constructed, the remains of a fallen American were found and a plaque marks the spot "of this unknown warrior who gave his life for freedom".

He was one of an estimated 38,000 military who died in the Solomon Islands campaign of 1942-43. Of them, 9000 Japanese succumbed to malaria or starvation when the Allies cut their supply lines. Loyal Solomon Islanders also died, risking their lives daily by manning lookouts or paddling dugout canoes close to enemy ships so they could report activities.

From both memorials, there are impressive views out to sea. Iron Bottom Sound looks peaceful but 41 ships and numerous aircraft lie under the water. Diving around wrecks here and in other parts of the Solomon Islands is an increasingly popular tourist activity, with divers trumpeting the Solomon Islands as the world's best scuba-diving destination.

Even for those like me who can't tell a Zero from a Douglas SBD, Vilu War Museum, just outside the city, is fascinating.

Here, there are two New Zealand memorial plaques, a reminder that New Zealanders played an active part in the Pacific campaign. Although only a small force, they had significant casualties, with the RNZAF losing 338 men during its operations in the Pacific.

Museum owner Anderson Dua has built on work started by his father and assembled an impressive array of big guns and downed aircraft, New Zealand Corsairs among them.

Like Barney Paulsen, he assures me that the ammunition is safe but, when he starts loading a Japanese 144.8 with a massive shell and my guide moves well out of range, I do wonder.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Solomon Airlines has daily flights from Sydney and Brisbane to Honiara. Early flights from Auckland connect to the Australian services.