Daily Archives: November 14, 2012

Heroes and Politicians


Sometime during election week we watched an episode of the Dick Van Dyke Show; Rob, Laura, Mel, Sally, and Buddy. Whatever the episode was, there was a stand-up comic moment where the target was none other than the President – John F. Kennedy. My 15 year old was shocked; how do you make blatant fun of a murdered icon? When we explained the episode was (in this case) from early 1963, she felt better. As we were talking about JFK, I was reminded again about the magnitude of his historic / cultural footprint. I vaguely remember the assassination, mostly because it disrupted everyone and everything around me.

John Kennedy is undeniably one of the most intriguing Americans of the 20th Century. The stories and myths are well-known and still fascinating us 48 years after his death. My misgiving is that for too many this is the sum of knowledge about President Kennedy; he was married to Jackie, he was killed in Dallas, and at the very least Marilyn Monroe sang him an over-the-top seductive rendition of Happy Birthday to You. How many of you know that he was a pretty brave man and at least in my view, a legitimate hero?

More aware than most and for whatever other motivations, Kennedy enlisted in the US Navy in September, 1941 after being turned down by the army for a bad back.

US Navy PT boats

Photo courtesy of US Navy

Commissioned a Lieutenant, Kennedy was assigned to a PT (Patrol Torpedo) Boat squadron in the Panama Canal Zone in December 1942 as Commanding Officer of PT-101. Two months later he was able to arrange a transfer to a PT Boat Squadron based at Tulagi in the Solomon Islands. On April 14, 1943 Lieutenant j.g. (junior grade) John F. Kennedy assumed command of PT-109.  Between the middle of April and August, PT-109 and the other boats went out on almost nightly patrols/raids to reconnoiter and disrupt Japanese shipping and troop movements in Ferguson and Blackett Straits in the Solomons, about 200 miles northwest of Guadalcanal.

John Kennedy and crew of PT-109

John Kennedy and crew of PT-109, 1943
Photo courtesy of US Navy

On the night of August 2, 1943 PT-109 was involved in its final action. Sometime between 2:00 and 2:30 AM while patrolling Blackett Strait at low speed to reduce their chances of being seen, PT-109 was rammed by the Japanese destroyer IJN Amagiri making 40 knots (20-21 mph.) The Japanese continued on without realizing what had happened, leaving Kennedy’s severely crippled boat foundering in its wake. After taking stock of the situation, determining that two of the crew were missing and rounding up the survivors, the eight men began a three mile / five hour swim to Plum Pudding Island, with Kennedy towing a badly burned crew-member  using his teeth. Over the next four days Kennedy and Ensign George H. R. Ross alternated swimming out to try and hail any PT boats operating nearby, swimming to other islands to look for food and water, and moving the entire party to another island to avoid Japanese barge patrols.

Kennedy in cockpit of PT-109

Photo courtesy of US Navy

On August 6th, Kennedy and the crew made contact with a pair of Solomon Islanders – Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana who worked under the auspices of an Australian coastwatcher – Lt. Reginald Evans. Without pen and paper, Kennedy was at a loss as to how to send a message, until Gasa demonstrated how to carve a coconut shell. Lt. Kennedy carved the following message:

POS’IT . . . HE CAN PILOT . . . 11 ALIVE

Lt. Evans arranged for Kennedy to be brought to him to finalize rescue plans with US forces, and PT-109’s surviving crew were rescued on August 8th. Lt. John F. Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, and Purple Heart for injuries sustained during the PT-109 action. in May 1961 Coastwatcher Evans was a guest of the White House, returning the message coconut to its author, the President of the United States.

Crew of the PT-109

  • Lieutenant j.g John F. Kennedy – Commanding Officer
  • Ensign Leonard J. Thom – Executive Officer
  • Ensign George H. “Barney” Ross – Friend of JFK
  • Raymond Albert – Signalman 1st,
  • Charles A. Harris – Gunner’s Mate 3rd
  • William Johnston – Motor Machinist Mate 2nd
  • Andrew Jackson Kirksey – Torpedoman 2nd. Killed in Action 08/02/43
  • John E. Maguire – Radioman 2nd
  • Harold W. Marney – Motor Machinist Mate 2nd. Killed in Action 08/02/43
  • Edman Edgar Mauer – Quartermaster 3rd
  • Patrick Henry McMahon – Motor Machinist Mate 1st
  • Ray L. Starkey – Torpedoman 2nd
  • Gerald E. Zinser – Motor Machinist Mate 1st

Collision with history : the search for John F. Kennedy‘s PT 109 / Robert D. Ballard

John F. Kennedy and PT-109 / Richard Tregaskis

PT 109 [videorecording] with Cliff Robertson

PT 109 : John F. Kennedy in World War II / Robert J. Donovan

The search for Kennedy‘s PT 109 [videorecording] / National Geographic

– Richard


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