How Eroni Kumana Changed the Course of History…with a coconut.
Eroni Kumana, one of two Solomon Islanders who saved the life of John F. Kennedy during World War II, died on Saturday at the age of 93.
(Eroni Kumana in 2009. Robert Craigie/JFK Library)
On August 2, 1943, while on night patrol under 26-year-old Navy Lieutenant John F. Kennedy’s command, PT 109 was hit and sunk by a Japanese destroyer. Two crew members died instantly; eleven others eventually swam to a small island. Kennedy rescued a badly burned crew member by holding the man’s life jacket between his teeth and towing him to safety.
(The crew of PT-109. John F. Kennedy is seen at far right. JFK Library)
Over the next three days, Kennedy and his surviving crew members drank the milk and ate the meat of coconuts while Kennedy swam for hours over sharp corals in shark-infested waters searching for friendly boats.
(Lt. John F. Kennedy in the South Pacific, circa 1943/ John F. Kennedy Library Foundation)
On August 6th -71 years ago today- Lt. Kennedy encountered two native islanders, Eroni Kumana and Biuku Gasa, serving as scouts for the Allies. He etched a message—”NAURO ISL/NATIVE KNOWS POSIT/HE CAN PILOT/11 ALIVE/NEED SMALL BOAT/KENNEDY”— onto the husk of a coconut and asked the two scouts to deliver it to the nearest allied base. Kumana and Gasa’s successful mission led to the eventual rescue of Kennedy and his crew on August 8, 1943.
Seen above, the coconut with John F. Kennedy’s inscription was turned into a paperweight, which the President kept on his desk in the Oval Office.
Sixty-five years later, speaking with an American visitor to the Solomon Islands, Eroni Kumana requested that a highly prized family heirloom—a piece of “Shell Money” or “Kustom Money”—be placed at the gravesite of his “Chief,” President Kennedy, as a formal tribute. Made by hand out of giant clam shells, “Kustom Money” was used for many purposes, including for honoring one’s chief.
On November 1, 2008, at a ceremony held at Arlington National Cemetery, members of President Kennedy’s family gathered to receive Kumana’s tribute which was placed on the grave.
After remaining on the gravesite, the “kustom money” was conveyed to the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum where it will now be displayed as part of the museum’s permanent exhibits next to the coconut shell that led to the rescue of JFK and his crew.