Tag Archives: US Navy

Lest we forget: PT 109

PT-109
Lt. (jg.) John F. Kennedy, USNR (at far right) and the men of Motor Torpedo Boat 109 pose for the camera in this famous photograph taken a few months before the 109 was lost. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.

 

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.)

 

 

USS Arizona is a graveyard, not a tourist trap!

The USS Arizona was no tourist attraction for these hard-working Navy divers who saw horrific sights apt to make any of today’s tourists who visit her vomit. Image courtesy US Naval Historical Center.

 

The inspiration for this opinion piece came as a result of watching a video on You Tube last December about a female sailor who drives the tourist boat out to the USS Arizona Memorial.  In one scene, she is posing with a some tourist dude with a grey beard who has got his arm over her shoulder as they smile for his wife’s camera like she were a waitress at some glamorous tourist trap restaurant on Oahu, not someone serving their country.

I could not believe the sight. In fact, it smacked of “whistling past the graveyard” to me. But a graveyard she is as the following extract from the memoir by U.S. Navy diver Edward Raymer demonstrates (and also makes even Stephen King’s novel Christine read like a bedtime story by comparison):

Suddenly, I felt something was wrong.  I tried to suppress the strange feeling that I was not alone.  I reached out to feel my way and touched what seemed to be a large inflated bag floating on the overhead.  As I pushed it away, my bare hand plunged through what felt like a mass of rotted sponge.  I realized with horror that the “bag” was a body without a head.

Gritting my teeth, I shoved the corpse as hard as I could.  As it drifted away, its fleshless fingers raked across my rubberized suit, almost as if the sailor were reaching out to me in a silent cry for help.  *

I wonder if the bones of that sailor rest inside the Arizona to this day or if he wound up in Punchbowl with the small number of poor souls recovered from her wreck.

Regardless, I confess I am disturbed by how ignorant tourists like that dude seem to be of the hell that consumed the ship which now is a memorial.  Wake up and smell the reality, my friends: the Arizona is a graveyard, not a tourist trap!

 

*Edward C. Raymer, Descent Into Darkness: Pearl Harbor, 1941, A Navy Diver’s Memoir, 4.

Give captain Charles Butler McVay III this medal!

Captain Charles Butler McVay III talks with reporters on Guam shortly after the rescue of survivors from the Indianapolis. The strain of the ordeal still shows on his once always cheerful face. Sadder things were just around the corner for the poor man. Image courtesy US Naval Historical Center.  

[67] years ago on July [30]th, 1945, the propellers of a darkened warship churned waters they had sliced barely a year before when the ship flew the flag of Fifth fleet commander Raymond Spruance during the Battle of the Philippine Sea (aka “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.”) Now she sailed not with a mighty host but alone through familliar waters in which the great battle had been fought.

Suddenly a spout of flame rose from the forecastle into the heavens, followed by another, capped by a fireball which burst from the ship’s smokestack as disaster struck the USS Indianapolis as she took two to three torpedoes from the Japanese submarine I-58. Killing hundreds of crewmen and plunging others into the ocean and a purgatory lasting five days that only 317 out of a crew of 1,196 ultimately survived.
In December, 1945, the sinking then claimed a final victim when the Indianapolis’captain, Charles Butler McVay III, was duly accused, tried, and convicted of “hazarding” the Indianapolis. An unjust verdict which left McVay vulnerable to years of emotional abuse in the form of angry letters and phone calls from relatives of his lost crewmen accusing him of being a murderer, abuse which finally led to McVay’s suicide in 1968.
But in 2000, after a quest for justice by Indianapolis’ survivors resolutely spearheaded by young advocate Hunter Scott, Congress passed a joint resolution exonerating McVay of any responsibility. A resolution the Navy belatedly appended a copy of to the captain’s service record [in 2001].
Nevertheless McVay, who personally ensured the survival of ten of his men during the five days adrift, has still yet to receive an award he richly deserves.
The Navy and Marine corps medal is the highest award given for heroism in situations not involving combat with an enemy. It was given to the second highest ranking survivor of the Indianapolis, Lt. Cmdr. (Dr.) Lewis Haynes, and ten other crewmen (some posthumously.) But McVay was not, even though here was a man who had no idea if rescue would ever come plagued by lack of water and food whose group of raft-borne survivors kept being stalked by a shark. Yet he still refused to let those ten men down even then. He did his best to keep spirits up by leading his men in song and asking them about their lives back home and tried to catch fish to augment their meager supplies.
And yet desk bound officers who weren’t there called him a criminal instead of a hero …
[In 2010 I] submitted a questionnaire to the sole Indianapolis survivor residing in Minnesota, Mr. Erwin Hensch. One of the questions I asked was whether he thought his skipper deserved the Navy and Marine Corps medal.
He firmly answered back “Yes.”
I urge the Secretary of the Navy to posthumously grant this award to Charles Butler McVay III.

Originally published in the Waconia, (MN) based newspaper The Pioneer under the title “A medal for an abused WWII hero” in their July 31st, 2010 edition under my old byline “Richard Krebes.” Text has been edited for clarity, to reflect the passage of time since original publication, and to correct typos.

The “two to three torpedoes” statement is due to information gleaned from Dan Kurzman’s book Fatal Voyage in which he claims I-58 commander Mochitsura Hashimoto claimed he got three hits on the vessel while most survivors only recall two. -Tony Held