Jim Osborne’s connection with the Robert Kennedy campaign in 1968 led to him helping Knox County native and avid military historian, Mark Roche, make contact with the Kennedy Library Foundation.
Osborne’s phone calls to then Sen. Evan Bayh, and others, led to Roche finally fulfilling the request of an elderly South Pacific islander. He and Osborne were the guests of the Kennedy family in November of 2008, and took part in a special tribute to John F. Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery.
Roche, who is an investment banker in Houston, Texas, had the opportunity to visit the Solomon Islands earlier that year, where he met Eroni Kumana, the island villager who helped rescue a young Lt. John F. Kennedy and his PT-109 crew during World War II. Kumana died in 2014.
“I’m a World War II nut and I’d always wanted to go out there,” Roche said. “My uncle was killed during the war in the Gilbert Islands. I read ‘Pt-109’ when I was 12 years old.”
He was surprised when he learned that Kumana was still living. A man named Danny Kennedy (no relation to JFK) was from the same island and learned that Kumana would talk with Roche.
“It was like a scene out of ‘South Pacific,'” Roche said. “We had to get there in an old, wooden boat, kids were in the water swimming naked and it was absolutely beautiful. We walked up a jungle trail to near the top of a mountain, where the old man came out of a leaf-covered hut with a towel wrapped around him.”
Roches spent a couple of hours talking with Kumana, as Kumana’s son translated. Roche said the old man broke down crying at one point, when discussing Kennedy and the story of how Kumana and Biuku Gasa helped in saving the PT-109 crew.
Kumana and Gasa risked their lives getting the message to American rescuers in waters heavily patrolled by the enemy, after the Japanese destroyer Amagiri collided with Kennedy’s PT boat on June 2, 1942.
“He talked about how it was his idea for Kennedy to write a note on the coconut shell,” Roche said. “He talked about the whole episode.”
Kumana surprised Roche when he asked him place a special gift on Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery. The gift was indeed special. Kumana’s own family members were shocked when he gave the gift to Roche, as it had been in the family for generations.
Known as ‘custom money’ or ‘shell money,’ a doughnut-shaped object that was sometimes used by island people to lay on a chief’s grave. Kumana adored JFK and considered him his chief.
“This was a family heirloom, and had probably been in the family 200 years,” Roche said. “It is smooth, made of an ancient clam shell, an antiquity.”
Roches tried for three or four months, trying to contact Sen. Edward Kennedy’s office, Arlington Cemetery officials, and the Kennedy Library in Boston, all to no avail. He told the story to Osborne who offered to help.
“Not long after that I got a call from the Kennedy Library,” Roche said. “They wanted to have a ceremony, and Caroline (Kennedy-Schlossberg) wanted to be part of it. We went to Washington and were guests of the Kennedy family for three days.”
On Nov. 1, 2008, members of the Kennedy family, Roche and his children, Caleb and Frank, Osborne, and others gathered at JFK’s gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery, where Roche was able to make good on his promise to place Kumana’s tribute there.
The ‘custom money’ is now on display at the Kennedy Library with the coconut shell Kennedy used to etch the message Kumana carried, photographs, and a PT-109 pennant. Roche saw the display last year when he visited the Library.
“It was a great opportunity,” Roche said.
By Bernie Schmitt