Gasa is barely able to walk now, and a recent ear infection landed him in hospital for 10 days. Earlier on this warm, cloudless day, when his visitors disembarked from their boat, bringing supplies of rice, bottled water and betel nut, Gasa thanked them for the gifts. Now, in a wavering voice, he recalls the war as the most terrible time of his life. "We could hear bombs all night until daybreak," Gasa says through interpreter Neboty Turukevu, a Solomon Islands police officer who is linked by marriage to the patriarch known locally as "the old man." "We were so lucky that not too many of our people were killed during the war," he adds. To this day Gasa harbors a hatred of the Japanese. "They came to our island and they were cruel people," he says. "They killed our animals, took our belongings and used our houses. Whenever we thought the Japanese were coming, we escaped to another island and hid."
Hostility toward the occupiers led Gasa to volunteer as a scout in nearby Gizo for the Coastwatchers, a diverse corps of volunteers who provided intelligence and ground support to Allied forces during the war. "The Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal," American commander Admiral William Halsey said after the war, "and Guadalcanal saved the Pacific." Over a two-year period after the outbreak of hostilities in Europe in September 1939, Royal Australian Navy Commander Eric Feldt established a network of 100 Coastwatcher stations in a 4,000-km arc from the western border of Papua New Guinea to Vila in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu).
In Lonely Vigil, a book about Coastwatchers in the Solomons, historian Walter Lord describes how men - from plantation managers to accountants, gold miners to publicans - secreted themselves in the jungle and on mountaintops to keep an eye on virtually every move the Japanese made along the strategic waterway known as "The Slot," between Bougainville and Guadalcanal. Using long-range teleradios, the Coastwatchers were able to intercept Japanese communications and pass on real-time intelligence about supply runs, troop movements and air raids. As well, working with indigenous people like Gasa, the Coast-watchers charted shorelines, prepared landing beaches, provided guides through the jungle and helped in the rescue of Allied servicemen whose boats or planes had been destroyed. Lord writes that in the central Solomons, where U.S. troops experienced some of the bloodiest fighting of World War II, the Coastwatchers were a boon to Allied morale.
In the early hours of August 2, 1943, the American patrol torpedo boat PT 109, skippered by John F. Kennedy, was running slowly on one engine - to avoid detection - in the Blackett Strait, off Kolombangara Island. Its mission, like that of other PT boats, was to harass a fast-moving convoy of Japanese supply ships. On a moonless night, with little warning, Kennedy's 25-m wooden boat was rammed by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri. PT 109 burst into flames, two men were killed, and the 11 surviving crew members had to abandon the boat. Four hours later, after swimming almost 5 km, the men reached Plum Pudding Island, since renamed Kennedy Island. Though well sheltered by trees, the atoll provided little food; a couple of days later, the ragged sailors swam another 2 km to the larger Olasana Island. Swimming out into the channel, Kennedy tried to flag down a passing PT boat. It failed to see him - but good fortune was on its way.
In their canoe, Gasa and Kumana were on their mission to Gizo. "We saw a Japanese barge wrecked near Naru Island," says Gasa. "As we were almost naked, we decided to go to the wreck to look for clothes. We found fuel and bags of rice." A man called out to the pair from Naru's white sandy beach. "We thought he was Japanese, so we left him there," Gasa says. "We paddled a short way to Olasana to get coconuts." They later learned the man was Kennedy, who'd swum to Naru island to be closer to shipping lanes. "While we were drinking from the coconuts," Gasa recalls, "a group of other men appeared. 'We are from America' they said. Eroni grabbed his rifle but he put in the wrong bullet and couldn't fire." Eventually, the two groups realized they were on the same side. "Those men were so happy and relieved to have been found by us," says Gasa. "They were very weak. They were crying."
Later, when Kennedy rejoined his crewmates on Olasana, he carved a message into a green coconut husk: nauro isl native knows posit he can pilot 11 alive need small boat kennedy. The skipper asked the two islanders to take the note to a naval base at Rendova Harbor, 60 km away. The pair sought out another scout, with whom they took the message to Australian Coastwatcher Reg Evans. Based on Kolombangara, Evans had been on watch the night PT 109 went up in flames. The U.S. authorities had all but given up hope of finding the missing men, and the good news spread quickly. The Navy sent several PT boats to rescue the marooned sailors, and Gasa and Kumana went along for the ride. "As we left Rendova, the Marines began singing 'Jesus loves me, this I know,'" recalls Gasa. "The PT boat was so fast it felt as if we were flying in the air." Six days after their ordeal began, the sailors were plucked from the island.
After the war, Gasa and his wife Nelma raised six children, living off coconuts and other crops grown in Kauvi, and fish caught in Vonavona lagoon. Little of the outside world has crept into the village; most of the residents are the old man's descendants, who still live from the sea and their gardens. Only rarely does Gasa leave the island. He and Kumana, who lives on Ranongga Island near Gizo, were invited by President Kennedy to his 1961 inauguration. But the pair never got to Washington; they were duped en route in Honiara, the capital, by colonial officials who sent other Solomons' representatives. Gasa shows off a bust of JFK that one of Kennedy's nephews, Max, gave him in 2002. "Still young," says Gasa, looking at the coconut-green statue through cloudy eyes. "I cried when I heard on the radio that Kennedy had died."