SYDNEY – More than 60 years after U.S. and Japanese troops fought one of World War II’s bloodiest and longest battles over an airstrip and the island it sat upon in the Southwestern Pacific, that same airport is reopening some very old wounds.
Henderson Field is the Solomon Islands’ main international airport and it badly needs upgrading.
Therein lies the problem.
Japan is being asked to help pay for reconstruction, and reports from the Solomons indicate a Japanese consulting firm may have suggested the name be changed from Henderson Field to something else.
What the new name might be is unclear, although the Washington Times raised concerns in the United States last week with a report saying the airport could be named after a Japanese flower.
And there is much in a name when it comes to Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, one of the Solomons’ main islands.
Built in 1942 by Japanese forces to protect their war effort in the Pacific, the airport was considered such a strategically important asset for Japan that U.S. commanders targeted Guadalcanal and the airstrip within weeks of their first victory over the Imperial Japanese fleet in the Battle of Midway in June 1942.
And on Aug. 7, 1942, U.S. Marines attacked the island, overran the airstrip and renamed it Henderson Field after Maj. Lofton Henderson, a U.S. Marine commander killed in the Battle of Midway as he led an air attack on Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto’s Imperial fleet that helped win the battle.
The airstrip may have had a new name on that day in August many years ago, but the battle for Guadalcanal was far from over. It was not until Jan. 7, 1943 that the last Japanese defenders abandoned the 60-by-150-km island.
In the intervening months, at least 8,000 Japanese and 1,500 Americans had died on Guadalcanal.
To surviving marines and their families, Henderson Field should stay Henderson Field.
“Veterans groups are upset by the suggestion,” said Susan Jacobs, U.S. ambassador to Papua New Guinea, who is also responsible for the Solomons. “I know they have objected.
“They feel they gave their blood for the Solomon Islands,” she told Kyodo News. “They feel a little insulted that it could happen.”
Still, the renaming of the airport is a decision for the Solomons and not an issue of concern to the U.S. government, Jacobs said. “It is not going to cause a diplomatic incident between the U.S. and the Solomon Islands.”
The ambassador admitted, however, she personally does not want to see the airport renamed.
“It’s fair to say we like the name and we are honored that they chose to name their airport after someone we consider to be one of our heroes of World War II,” she said.
Already, an online petition asking to keep the name Henderson has attracted more than 5,500 signatures, including those of many U.S. veterans and their families.
But Sam Maezama, permanent secretary of the Solomons Department of Infrastructure, discounted the news reports suggesting a name change was the idea of a Japanese consulting firm.
He said the idea to rename the airport came from his department after the issue was raised by locals.
The renaming is a “suggestion and not a proposal at this stage,” he emphasized. “So far nothing is firm.
“It may not even become a proposal after all because Henderson Airport has a lot of sentiment locally,” he added. “Most of the old generation fought alongside the Americans, and they have a lot of feeling for it.”
Maezama added there are fears a renaming could upset U.S. veterans. “We have received concerns from that part of the world.”
And even though the Japanese government, which donated 1.82 billion yen in 1996 to build a new terminal at Henderson Field, is considering more aid to renovate the airport, the renaming idea had “nothing to do with that,” Maezama said.
He did admit, however, the idea may have arisen because of their previous contribution to Henderson Field.
According to Japanese veteran group sources, some Japanese diplomats have indicated to the Solomons government they would prefer to see the name of the airfield reflect its location in the capital Honiara, but there has not been independent confirmation of that contention.
A spokesman at the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo confirmed both that the Solomon Islands’ government has asked for Japanese aid to renovate the airport and that Japan had given aid for the terminal in 1996.
And an official at the Japanese Embassy in Honiara confirmed a Japanese consulting firm is examining the cost of resurfacing the airstrip and purchasing new runway lights.
But there has been no confirmation that the consultants may be behind suggestions to change the airport’s name.
What is clear, however, is that the name of Guadalcanal’s Henderson Field matters to many more than the 500,000 people who live in the Solomons.
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