Private Column by Frank Short, CBE
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Friday, 18 January 2013 12:00 AM

Policing a Clash of Cultures Part 5: Getting there

Excerpt from my memoirs.

The Solomon Airlines scheduled passenger jet throttled back slightly as it started to descend slowly on this Saturday afternoon in July 1997.

Frank Short, the newly designated Police Commissioner of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force was about to take up his contract post with the Solomon Islands Government.

If only he knew then what the future would unfold…….

It was a three hour flight from Brisbane, Australia, to Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands in the south Pacific. Settled in his comfortable business class seat, he looked out of the window as the plane continued its slow descent finding the glide path to his future home.
The azure, one colour tropical sea started to form distinct shades. Deep water blue offset with shallow water lighter blue. It looked so tranquil; yet below the surface laid the ageing remains of a less peaceful and tranquil past.

My mind raced back to the time of WWII when, in 1942, Japanese Imperial troops had invaded and occupied Guadalcanal, occasioning one of the bloodiest campaigns in the Western Pacific. It was only when the casualty lists started filtering through that people worldwide; especially in the United States, started to pay attention, for very few had ever heard of the Solomon Islands.

The battle of “Bloody Ridge” became synonymous with a great loss of life, both Japanese and American troops when U.S forces, led by Colonel Merritt Edson defended the ridge against the Japanese, attempting to capture the nearby airfield.

Japanese and American losses had exceeded 40,000 men on Guadalcanal, mostly dead: survival rates amongst the wounded were poor due to the climate and the Japanese perchance for suicide over surrender

The U.S. forces eventually triumphed and the battle weary 1st US Marine Division withdrew when the war ended. The Solomon Islands again became mostly forgotten. The British Colonial Administration returned and continued: self government arrived in 1976, followed by independence two years later. British expatriate support in various degrees continued but funds from the former Colonial mentor could not be sustained and, basically, the Solomon Islands were left on their own.

Some notable academics have said that the Solomon Islands were ill-prepared for Independence in 1978 and I believe this to be true in the light of subsequent happenings, but more of this…….

Now a wing dipped, the flaps came out and down and buildings below came in sight. The hilly slopes were much browner than I had expected to find, giving the impression there had been little rain. The river courses snaked out ground divides, producing deep valleys with evidence of sporadic and ribbon like buildings, some very shanty in appearance, stretching all along the narrow coastal edge into the far distance.

I could now visualize with real clarity from a thousand feet or so above the thickly wooded ridges and tall grasses, just how difficult it must have been to move through the terrain, fight hot humid conditions and an often unseen enemy and still survive. American, Japanese and Solomon Islanders had left the imprint of WWII both on and under the ground: now close to seventy one years later, disappearing into memory and name changes.

Now the wings started to shake slightly – a shudder here and there, a downdraft, an updraft as the plane reached warmer air; a rattle in the cabin galley and then the sound of the flaps as they made a slight grinding, whining noise as they were lowered and extended; wheels gave a slight thump as they dropped and locked into the landing position for landing.

One wheel touched down, then the other, followed by sound of reverse thrusters and the de-acceleration moving us forward against our seat belts. We had arrived at the original legendary Henderson Airfield, named after Marine Major Lofton R Henderson, an American dive bomber squadron commander who lost his life and earned the US Navy Cross at the battle of Midway.

To be continued ……

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Frank Short, CBE and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Solomon Times Online.

This post is part of a series. Next post: Policing a Clash of Cultures Part 6: Arrival