PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — When most people think about visiting the Solomon Islands, they see a paradise of turquoise water, endless miles of sandy beaches and tropical temperatures.
But for University of Maine at Presque Isle Professor Anderson Giles, who has led WWII veterans and others on tours all over the Pacific theater of war, the area brings his own and others’ gut wrenching emotions to the surface.
“When I take these soldiers back to a site where maybe they lost a friend, it’s a very, very emotional experience,” he said Friday from UMPI. “You see those emotions, and it’s gut wrenching. It’s just gut wrenching to watch them, to see that grief.”
Giles has led dozens of trips focused on World War II in the Pacific over the years to document historical sites and interview WWII veterans about their experiences in order to preserve their memories for future generations.
He was intrigued earlier this year by what his group discovered while exploring the Alligator Creek battle site on Guadalcanal, the largest island in the Solomons and the scene of fierce fighting between Japanese and American troops.
“The group started to spread out over a large area to explore the sand,” Giles said Friday. “When all the island people see us, sometimes children or adults come up and help us with our work. This young boy came up to us and showed us this U.S. soldier’s dog tag he said he’d found the week before. Right away, I knew it was the real deal.”
Bill Coulson, a former assistant U.S. attorney from Chicago, decided to bring the dog tags home and find the owner, Everett W. Hancock of North Carolina.
Research led Coulson to Hancock’s son and grandson, who now have the relic. Coulson learned that Hancock had not been killed in action, but died in 1970.
Hancock’s relatives said he never talked to his children about the war, according to Giles.
The UMPI professor is passionate about the history of World War II and the veterans who served in the Pacific theater. He has worked for more than 20 years to preserve the history of the war in the Pacific through film, photographs, paintings and other collections, and has traveled to many islands in the Pacific — including Iwo Jima, Tarawa, Peleliu, Saipan, Tinian and Guam.
This spring, he served as guide and lecturer for a group of veterans, history buffs, and professionals on a unique chartered cruise through the Solomon Islands that visited scenic and legendary cultural and historic sites. The trip, “Return to the Solomon Islands,” was organized by Valor Tours, Ltd., which Giles has worked with for a dozen years.
On the voyage, 88-year-old U.S. Marine veteran Bill Kruschel was taken back to the island of Pavuvu, the former site of his first Marine Division camp. Giles filmed Kruschel as he explored the site and reminisced about his youthful memories.
“I can’t tell you what this means to me after 67 years — I never thought I would see Pavuvu again,” said Kruschel.
Leading such groups and combing for relics is a lot more than work for Giles. At times, he also is piecing together parts of the life of a man he never really knew.
Giles was 4 years old when his father, who survived WWII, died in 1953 in the Korean War. H. A. Giles Jr. was a member of the 4th Marine Division that stormed Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima in 1944 and 1945. In the 1980s, Giles took a trip to Tinian. Going back to the battle sites allowed Giles to see what his own father saw.
To Giles, the major highlight of the most recent trip was the opportunity to visit and explore Plum Pudding Island, the island John F. Kennedy and his crew swam to after PT-109 was rammed and cut in half by a Japanese destroyer. Members of the group swam in the waters in which Kennedy’s group struggled and some even waded ashore to relive the experience of arriving on the island.
Giles noted that every effort to preserve the history of what happened in the Pacific 70 years ago is also a wonderful way to honor the nation’s veterans, and the memories of the soldiers who fought there.
“I think that the veterans feel that people are forgetting,” he said. “They are growing older, so there are not many reminders, and schools don’t really teach the history of that war anymore. The veterans paid prices that the general public doesn’t realize. These veterans paid a huge price.”