May 2011: After working as an extra in the Movie the Thin Red Line, a movie about the World War II battle of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands in northern Australia when I was 20 years old, I knew I also had to visit the real Guadalcanal and see the jungles and hills where the real American and Japanese soldiers and innocent Solomon islanders caught up in the crossfire fought and died. I didn’t just want to visit the battlefields, I also wanted to visit the idyllic villages I saw in the movie of blond-haired Melanesian children singing and playing amidst a background of jungle and coral fringed beaches. My goal was to stay in these villages whenever possible and learn about the people of the Solomon Islands.

 

Location of Solomon Islands

My Itinerary

This was my 4 day itinerary in the Solomon Islands that I organized with a local fixer:

Day 1
Depart Solomon Airlines from Nadi at 0820 arriving Honiara at 1020am
Travel with Elijah by pick-up truck to village. Hike to kastom village 1 & 1/2 hours
Trek 2 hours/return to Tenaru Falls.
Camp at Tenaru Falls Village

Day 2
Travel to Barana Village/Gifu, Mt. Austen with Samson Hoasi.
Visit WWII caves, and waterfalls.
Overnight in Barana Village

Day 3
Bonegi Beach (snorkel and hike) WWII shipwrecks and airplanes.
Camp Bonegi Beach

Day 4
Bonegi beach
Bloody Ridge
Depart Honiara to Vanautu Port Vila 1310 arriving 1500 Vanuatu Air

 

 

Hiking into the Jungles of Guadalcanal

After over 24 hours of traveling on buses, trains and airplanes, I finally arrived in the Solomon Islands. There to greet me at the airport was sweltering tropical heat, humidity and also the chaos that awaits most arrivals into third world airports. My passport was stamped, some money changed, and I hopped into a truck and was off on my way along muddy, bumpy roads through villages of dark skinned blond headed children, bamboo huts, jungles and World War II battlefields, but most importantly I was again heading into the world of the unknown.

The drive lasted for a few hours until the dirt road ended at a rustic village along the Tenaru River. Here I met my guide Elijah, who like most people in the Solomons had an Old Testament name from the bible, and we set off on a five-hour hike.

 

 

Hike to Tenaru Falls and remote kastom villages that aren’t connected by roads through the same jungles where American soldiers faced a massive Japanese ambush. 

We crossed the Tenaru River several times. The mouth of the river is home to crocodiles as are many other rivers in Guadalcanal. The soldiers that landed on the beaches had to endure Japanese gunfire, bombings and to top it off huge man-eating crocodiles. When I approached a crocodile slipped into the water before I could fire off a photo.

Elijah talked of the heavy combat that occurred along this river during World War II between the Japanese and Americans.  I’m sure this view wasn’t much different for the American combat troops that marched up this river during WWII.

Even to this day, my guide informed me, villagers continue to find in the jungles old WWII helmets, Japanese swords, non-detonated bombs and even skeletons. I can’t begin to imagine how horrifying it must have been for the young men, Americans and Japanese, who on the most part have probably never been outside of their countries until first arriving in the Solomons. Here they were in an unfamiliar place of jungles, and malaria surrounded by the ever-present specter of death. Now there is only the peace and tranquility of nature.

Just as it is today, the area was enveloped in jungle and the Japanese took advantage of the jungle cover to dig in with their artillery on top of hilltop positions where they would send volleys of gunfire raining down on the approaching American soldiers below.

Noisy bands of cockatoos are a common sight in the jungle canopy. Their numbers have really increased in recent years I was told because people have stopped hunting them. During the previous years of the civil war in the Solomons when people were starving and everyone had guns, the birds were commonly hunted for food. Since the end of the civil war all of the guns have been seized and the birds are flourishing once again.

Crossing rivers by foot

Kastom Villages

I entered my first so called Kastom village, meaning its inhabitants have declared that they have returned to the old traditional non-western ways. To the right is the chief of the village, a man in his eighties. The village did not strike me as traditional. The youth were obnoxiously drunk and chewing beetle nut. Nobody wore traditional clothing, grass skirts and loin clothes. The villagers told me it was true that they were, “kastom” or traditional however they have given up the grass skirts. The boys were shouting and borderline violent, so it seemed a good time to continue. Supposedly some of the villages on the other side of the island along the remote Weather Coast are still truly Kastom and wear traditional clothing and maintain a more traditional lifestyle.

 The wife of the chief was a sweet old woman also in her eighties. She was so pleased to shake my hand. She didn’t speak english. I really wish I could have talked to her about what it was like to grow up in the Solomon islands during WWII. 

Tenaru Falls-To show how big the falls are, you can see my guide to the right of the falls on top of the ledge ready to plunge into the pool. The guy as soon as we arrived at the falls was transformed into a kid again playing in the water. He was so giddy.

Tenaru Falls

Villagers washing their clothes

My favorite part of the trail was not the rainforest’s, the river, or the flocks of noisy cockatoos, it was the people I met along the way. Everyone was so photogenic, especially the kids, many of whom had dark skin and blond curly hair. The villages were idyllic in setting surrounded by coconut trees, and rainforests. Life seemed to really slow down here. The villages were all the same. Little kids played side by side with scavenging pigs while the women cooked, and the men were off in the jungles tending to their crops. Everyone was thrilled to have their photo taken.

This pretty girl along the Tenaru Falls trail was washing her clothes in the river, and she couldn’t stop smiling when I met her. I told her she was very pretty and she even smiled bigger.

Village kids that met me with nothing but smiles and curiosity 

Village kids that met me with nothing but smiles and curiosity 

Village kids that met me with nothing but smiles and curiosity 

The kitchens are outdoors. Pigs wonder freely among the kids. The kids climbed the coconut trees for a dollar and brought me back five coconuts. There are few things better in life then drinking fresh coconut juice out of a coconut. Not only do the kids scale th 30 feet trees and bring the coconuts down but they also cut the tusk off of them for me.

Kids run around the villages with knives like they own the place. It’s safe to say that they are expected to grow up much faster here than in the developed world.

Attacked by a Drunken Man with a Machete 

I loved this village. It reminded me of the village in the opening scene of the movie, “The Thin Red Line,” with the bamboo huts, and happy friendly villagers. The paradise was shattered later that night when I went to sleep in my tent on the deck of one of the bamboo huts. In the middle of the night, I awoke to the un-intelligible screaming of a drunk man standing above my tent with a machete yelling at me. I woke up thinking it was a nightmare and it wasn’t real. Then I realized it was very real. It was pretty terrifying. I couldn’t find my flashlight at first, I was trapped in my tent, I didn’t understand what he was saying, and I really felt that the man might start swinging his knife at me. My guide came running over when he heard the commotion, and he calmed the drunk man down and he left me only to walk over to another house and start decapitating the house’s roofing. The man was fricking possessed. He kept slashing things with his machete while screaming at the top of his lungs. My guide explained that the man lives in the village and just returned from the gold mine in the mountains and used his salary to buy beer and he was very drunk and wanted to beat his wife. The man couldn’t find his wife since she was hiding from him in the jungle, and he thought she was in my tent. Now I could hear his wife yelling at him from the jungle. Evidently the man has almost beaten his wife to death in the past.

This is the wife of the drunken man who scared the crap out of me the previous night. She hid from the man all night and was spared any beatings. I felt bad for her. The man has a history of beating her and I didn’t understand why nobody tried to stop the man or lock him up. It was explained to me that alcoholism is a problem in the villages and that when the men are drunk domestic violence isn’t uncommon. I just wish I could have done something to help her.

In the village the next day. I saw the drunken old man passed out drunk asleep in his decapitated hut that he did his best to destroy the night before. My guide laughed that he was going to spend all day fixing his house once he wakes.

 

To the Battlefields

The next day, I drove to Mt. Austin, one of the bloodiest WWII battle fields in Guadalcanal. The grassy hilltops were the scene of some of the cruelest fighting between the Japanese and Americans during the war. The Americans had claimed the airport, Henderson Field from the Japanese, and the Japanese were using the hilltops to launch attacks on to the airport. The Japanese were extremely well dug into the hills with bunkers and foxholes that could not be demobilized by aerial bombings and shelling. Instead, the Americans had to storm the hills to reduce the Japanese positions one by one taking on heavy casualties as they charged into an onslaught of gunfire and artillery.

 

Inner isand roads

 

Here I had a different guide named Samson, who led me through battlefields and more jungles. The Japanese were well fortified in these hills. The Americans had to take these positions in order to secure the airport, Henderson Field and were spared heavy casualties because of the Solomon Island guides led them through the adjacent jungles in a surprise ambush that took the Japanese by surprise.

Henderson field was built by the Japanese during WWII and was intended to become a major airfield for them to use in the invasion of Australia. When the Americans realized this, the marines were sent in and took the airfield. The rest of the fighting in Guadalcanal was centered around this airfield and the efforts of the Japanese to retake it. In the foreground of the picture is Bloody Ridge, one of the most horrific and heroic battles in Guadalcanal.

I climbed a ridge where a group of marines were surrounded and outnumbered two to one by Japanese one night. It was too dark for an Aeriel attack on the Japanese and the marines were under seize. All night the Japanese relentlessly attacked. In the end the Japanese launched a bonsai attack on the marines. Led by their general with swords drawn they engaged the marines in the dead of night in hand-to-hand combat. The place where American marines made a heroic stand against a much larger Japanese force. The marines held their ground, and the airport did not fall.

Samson told me that here he had recently just spread the ashes of an old American WWII veteran. The old soldier desired to have his ashes spread over the very battlefield where he and many other soldiers shed their blood all of those years ago. For the first time since the war, he has finally returned to this place. Samson told me about one American vet, in his nineties, who recently visited Guadalcanal for the first time since the war. My guide took him here to Bloody Ridge where the marine fought, as one of the Raiders, a heroic band of marines that saved the airport against all odds. My guide explained that the WWII vet could barely walk with his cane but once they arrived at the bottom of the hill, the old vet overcome with adrenaline dropped his cane and ran up the hill and burst into tears. The vet said the place didn’t look any different from what he remembered. That night my guide recounted how the vet would awake to nightmares of explosions and gunfire. He apologized to my guide because he said he had on the most part long ago moved on from the battlefields of Guadalcanal but by being there again all of the terrors of fighting there began to haunt him again.

According to my guide every year American vets return to Guadalcanal for the 1st time during the yearly memorial ceremony of the battle. Samson said the vets are getting old and have stopped coming. Last year only one man came, and Samson said he is afraid that this year no one will be left to come.

The Guadalcanal battle is considered to be a turning point for America in WWII. Thousands of Americans and Japanese died in its battlefields. It is considered one of the bloodiest battles in WWII.

I’ve wanted to visit this place ever since I worked as an extra in Australia in the movie, The Thin Red Line. When I was 20 years old backpacking in Australia, I was lucky to get a hired on as an American soldier for the movie. Although most of the movie was filmed in the jungles of northern Australia, the setting was intended to be the Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Working on the movie as a soldier in a WWII uniform, carrying a M1 gun and spending weeks in the jungle filming battle scenes and living like a WWII soldier in the Guadalcanal and even dying in a battle scene, I felt a connection to the guys who fought in the real war. Ever since then I wanted to visit the real Guadalcanal and see the real places where those guys fought and died a long time ago.

Battle fields where thousands of soldiers perished 

It was amazing to visit villages where people lived amidst the battlefields where people literally live among unexploded bombs fallen human remains. Villagers now days make a living by selling found artifacts to old WWII vets and tourists.

Village in the hills along the outskirts of a major battlefield

The villagers in the area are always uncovering new WWII artifacts in the jungles and even in their gardens. Here are several Japanese gold teeth and a vile of poison meant to be used by the Japanese to commit suicide if captured.

Village kids I hired to guide me in the battle fields

I walked to the top of a hill once a stronghold of Japanese soldiers during the Guadalcanal campaign. Hundreds of bunkers and fox holes lined the top of the hill all manned with enormous guns. This was one of the last battles of the war and also the setting for my dying scene when I worked as an extra in Australia in the movie, The Thin Red Line. 

Most of the Japanese fought out of loyalty to their country and to each other and weren’t villains. Like the Americans they were young men who were fighting in s strange land far from home. The Japanese fought with less weaponry, food, water and usually died in much larger proportions. They often endured harsher living conditions and were much less likely to surrender but instead fight to the bitter end. It is easy to admire them even if they were the enemy.

I climbed up here in the middle of the night by myself and sat atop a foxhole overwhelmed by the absolute peace of this place, a place that once was the center of Hell was now full of solace. The only sound, the ghosts of the past whispering through the wind.

Me in the same battlefields where I played a soldier that died 

During the sunset, the children from a nearby village followed up to Gifu Ridge. The hills here have always had poor soil and have consisted of grasslands. Surrounding the grassy hills are jungles that climb into the 10,000-foot mountains that form the spine of the island. I was hoping for some peace and quiet up here, but it seemed I always had a entourage of children everywhere I went. In the end the kids were pretty helpful. They started bringing me pieces of bombs, grenades and bullet shells from the battles that once rages here. I realized that everywhere around us just beneath the topsoil are WWII artifacts. Literally the ground is covered in bomb and grenade fragments. I can’t even imagine the hell that this place used to be. I found an American M1 bullet shell that could have possibly been the casing that held a bullet that ended the life of a Japanese soldier here. It was a very somber thought.

Village kids leading me into the battlefields at sunset

The kids brought me to this foxhole that they dug up and they showed me a slew of grenades some of them still live. On occasion villagers in the Solomons to this day are killed by undetonated WWII bombs and grenades that are stumbled upon in the fields and jungles. Needless to say I warned the kids not to play with these things.

Deep in the jungles outside of the grassy battlefields are caves where the Japanese hid during the war and some stayed well into the years after the war ended. In this cave 12 Japanese lived for 20 years after the war ended until they finally surrendered.

The next day the chief of a different village and two other guys led me across some hills and into the jungle in search of an American Wildcat that was shot down by the Japanese in 1942. The pilot was on a bombing run targeting Japanese ships and he managed to eject after being hit by Japanese guns and after two weeks of sneaking around enemy lines with a gunshot wound to his leg, he was able to find his way back to the American base.

Hiking with villagers to find a shot down American plane in the jungle 

We descended down from the grasslands into the rain forest where we had to crawl through the mud along the riverbank. There were some very unpleasant looking centipedes down there. Crawling through this enormous fallen tree and seeing centipedes everywhere reminded me of the movie King Kong with the gargantuan man-eating insects.

 The Chief first found the plane when he was 8 years old. His teeth are stained red from the Beetlenut that most Solomon Islanders have a crack like affection for.

The plane was separated by a flash flood from a previous typhoon and now lay along the stream in many different pieces. The engine of the plane that was ripped from the frame by the typhoon.

Hiking with villagers to find a shot down American plane in the jungle 

All that is left of the Japanese WWII ship, the Bonegi 1. I camped on the beach within swimming distance of this wreck. Towards the end of the Guadalcanal campaign, the Japanese tried to resupply their soldiers on the island with new troops, weaponry and food. All but two of the ships were intercepted and destroyed by the Americans. The Bonegi 1, a supply ship to the right was sunk just off the beach.

I snorkeled the wreck and saw that the ship is almost entirely preserved underwater. Amazing vibrant coral reefs are now growing on the ship, and it is home to thousands of colorful reef fish.

Camping on the beach near a sunken Japanese WWII shipwreck 

I camped on this beach. In the morning some fishermen took the dugout canoe and caught some fish which we had for breakfast. The place was amazing. The waters before me were the setting of one of the bloodiest naval battles in history. Hundreds of ships fought each other pirate style, some only hundreds of feet apart. The waters of Guadalcanal are a WWII ship graveyard.

Camping on the beach near a sunken Japanese WWII shipwreck 

Camping on the beach near a sunken Japanese WWII shipwreck 

Camping on the beach near a sunken Japanese WWII shipwreck 

A bunch of local fishermen slept alongside this fire outside my tent. The fire went all night to keep the malaria mosquitoes away. Malaria, which killed more Americans in WWII on Guadalcanal than combat is still deadly here even today.

I learned about the sacrifices that the Solomon islanders made during the war.  One man, Jacob Vouza it is said was given a room to stay in at the White House in gratitude for his help in the Guadalcanal. Jacob like many other guides from the Solomons was instrumental in the American victory at Guadalcanal. The Solomon Island guides were often captured by the Japanese and forced to help the Japanese. They preferred the Americans because they were given supplies, food and treated well. Jacob was the most famous guide in the war. He led the Americans through the jungles and around Japanese positions resulting in thousands of American lives potentially saved. He was captured by the Japanese and tortured in effort by the Japanese to force him to give up the American positions, but Jacob never caved. He escaped in the night and returned to duty helping the Americans.

When some of the local Solomon islanders discovered I was in the Thin red Line, they wanted photos with me and an autograph. Visiting Guadalcanal was one of my favorite trips because I felt more connected to the island and its people from my time in the movie. I hope to return someday and see more of Guadalcanal and its vast pristine jungles and more of the islands. From Gudalcanal, I flew to Vanuatu.

 

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