Olasana, the Solomon Islands, August 5, 1943
John Fitzgerald Kennedy had known lavish living so far in his youthful life. A life that until now had been filled with wine, women, song, and literary success with a non-fiction book entitled Why England Slept.
On this island, Kennedy now knew only hunger, thirst, and pain.
The only resources he had left with him were his legendary sense of humor and iron will.
With him were the ten survivors of Motor Torpedo Boat 109: Leonard Thom, George “Barney” Ross, Gerald Zinser, Raymond Albert, Charles “Bucky” Harris, William Johnston, John Maguire, Edman Mauer, Patrick “Pappy” McMahon, and Raymond Starkey.
Two other men were destined never to emerge from the waves they had vanished into when the Japanese destroyer Amagiri had rammed the 109 on the night of August 2 during a chaotic night action with the “Tokyo Express”: Andrew Kirksey and Harold Marney. Hope for them had by now faded in the hearts of their shipmates.
Kennedy had first led his men from the settling bow section of the 109 to Plum Pudding Island on the morning after the collision. It was a calculated gamble that worked: though Kennedy and his men were surrounded by the Japanese on the nearby islands of Kolombangara and Gizo, the Japanese knew it would be a waste of manpower to garrison tiny islands near these two strongholds. Plum Pudding proved to be free of the enemy, but lacked a commodity vital to survival: coconuts and their life-sustaining milk.
After two failed attempts to contact PT boats in nearby Blackett Strait by Kennedy and Ross on the nights of August 2 and 3, Kennedy decided to move his men to Olasana.
Today it seemed their situation would grow no better. Johnston–who had dismissed any idea of prayer as a solace during their ordeal– looked at Maguire –who had a rosary– and said “Give that necklace a good working over.”
Maguire did, and suggested to Thom –the 109‘s second in command– that perhaps they should try group prayer. Thom demurred. He knew most of the men did not pray ordinarily, so why by hypocritical and do it now?
Little did they know that a miracle awaited them this day in the form of two Solomon Islanders who served the Allied cause as scouts: Biuki Gasa and Eroni Kumana.
While stopping to investigate the wreck of a small Japanese ship on nearby Naru Island, Gasa and Kumana were startled by the sight of two men they took to be Japanese. In reality they were Kennedy and Ross, who had swum over to Naru to investigate it, since it was only half a mile from Olasana. It was to the latter that Gasa and Kumana headed next, where they got another shock: a blond, bedraggled man in tattered khaki appearing out of the palm trees shouting “Come, Come” and beckoning to them with his right hand. They turned their canoe away, assuming it was the enemy again. In reality it was Leonard Thom, who called out to them “Navy, Navy; Americans, Americans,” to convince Gasa and Kumana he was a friend, not a foe.
Gasa and Kumana finally paused and looked back at him. Could they trust this man?
Thom rolled up the sleeve of his shirt so Gasa and Kumana could see the color of his skin. “Me no Jap,” Thom proclaimed.
The duo was still not convinced.
“Me know Johnny Kari,” Thom tried next, referring to a native scout who frequently visited the PT boat base at Rendova.
Gasa and Kumana still waited.
At last Thom pointed towards the sky. “White star; white star.” He said.
Gasa and Kumana’s doubts vanished at last.
They returned and, despite a language barrier and the suspicions of the other survivors apart from Thom, the chain of events that would lead to their rescue began.
When Kennedy and Ross returned paddling a dugout canoe carrying a case of Japanese candy and a tin containing fresh water, Kennedy immediately realized that here at last was his chance to contact Rendova and inform them of what had happened and where they were.
Soon Gasa and Kumana were on their way back to the Australian coast watcher they worked for –Reginald Evans– with a message from Kennedy carved with his knife on a coconut husk backed by a supplementary message from Thom scribbled onto the back of an old invoice found on Olasana; a message he had written with the stub of a pencil he had carried in a pocket ever since the sinking.
Kennedy and his surviving crewmen were rescued within 48 hours.
One day Kennedy would stand at a podium on the day of his inauguration as the 35th president of the United States and eloquently proclaim to great applause: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Kennedy could well speak those words, for he himself had once done just that; even during those dark days in August of 1943 when he and the survivors of his PT boat were stranded in the midst of their enemies.
It is unspeakably tragic that Kennedy should die at the hands of a lone fanatic when all that he endured seventy years ago did not.
All facts and dialogue presented here comes from Robert J. Donovan, PT 109: John F. Kennedy in WWII, (McGraw Hill; 40th Anniversary Edition, 2001.)