Tag Archives: World War Two

Lest we forget: 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.)



Douglas MacArthur … on Facebook?!?!

General Douglas MacArthur strikes a confident pose somewhere in Manila, Luzon, Philippines, after it was recaptured in 1945. Photo courtesy Wikimedia.



Anybody can appear on Facebook; anybody at all. Lo and behold: today I discovered Douglas MacArthur had appeared on this page cruelly entitled “Dugout Doug Macarthur.”

Here is what the “About” page for this latest screed posted on Facebook claims about the general:

“Left his men for dead while he ran for safety in Australia.”


Described in history books as a great American Icon, military historians and those who served under him paint a different picture. Douglas Macarthur failed both our country and his men during both WWII and Korea. This page is for those who don’t believe the hype about Macarthur the hero and know him as Macarthur the coward…”


And so General MacArthur bashing arrived on Facebook back in 2010 (which is the year this page was created.)


The accusation that reads “Left his men for dead while he ran for safety in Australia” is a barb which lacerates the memory of his escape from the Philippines during the dark days of March, 1942, as the battle (aka siege) of Bataan ground on at the hands of the Japanese Army, Air Force, and Navy. It is an old one which has hung over MacArthur’s head practically since he left his Philippine command post on the island of Corregidor aboard a PT boat.


Louis Morton’s comprehensive history about the fall of the Philippines during World War Two (reproduced in full online here) reveals the truth, one that stands in stark contrast to the ranting’s of that Facebook poster: MacArthur was ordered to leave by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.


Morton writes:  ‘…on 22 February [1942] the President had directed MacArthur to leave the Philippines. His intention to do so had been made clear on the 21st when the Chief of Staff had told the Far East commander that the President was considering the advisability of ordering him to Mindanao to conduct the defense of the Philippines from there.There were numerous advantages to such a move. MacArthur himself had repeatedly pointed out the possibility of continuing resistance from Mindanao by means of guerrilla warfare and had already taken measures to strengthen Brig. Gen. William F. Sharp’s command. If the Allies mounted an air and naval counterattack through the Netherlands Indies, as MacArthur had urged, Mindanao would be the first objective in the Philippines and the base for an invasion of Luzon. Communication with other areas in the Far East would also be more practical from Mindanao than Corregidor. “The foregoing considerations underlie the tentative decision of the President,” Marshall told MacArthur, “but we are not sufficiently informed as to the situation and circumstances to be certain that the proposal meets the actual situation.”


The next day, without waiting for a reply from Corregidor, the President made up his mind about MacArthur’s evacuation. The USAFFE commander was to leave Fort Mills as quickly as possible and proceed to Mindanao where he would remain long enough “to insure a prolonged defense.” From there he was to go on to Australia.’ (Read Morton’s full account here.)


But account’s like Morton’s mattered little to this Facebook user who, for some reason, has a grudge against Douglas MacArthur.What about the Facebook poster’s accusation against MacArthur about Korea? That is in relation to how -admittedly- MacArthur (and others, including President Harry S Truman) under-estimated the threat Mao Zedong’s Communist forces massed on the China-Korea border posed to MacArthur’s forces as they neared the border late in 1950 after driving the North Korean People’s Army out of South Korea. Historian (and MacArthur biographer) D. Clayton James in this article carefully sifts through the facts about this thorny matter. But -again- accounts like James’ did not matter a whit to this brain-dead, Douglas MacArthur hater who has found a home for his anti-MacArthur screed’s in the overrated social network Mark Zuckerberg became (in)famous for.’Nuff said.

A WWII story published at last!

A memory at Midway
Images from public domain; composite image by Tony Held.

For the past two years, I have written, submitted, re-edited, and re-submitted a WWII short story that takes place at the battle of Midway featuring a historical character: a dive bomber pilot from the USS Enterprise (CV-6) named Earl Gallaher. This short story -ultimately entitled “A Memory at Midway”- depicts one of the best “little stories” of WWII. And so, without further ado, you can read “A Memory at Midway” here at The Fresh Pen.ca. It is just over 1,000 words; action-packed; and even contains a surprise-twist; and all of it is as historically accurate as I could make it.


What “The Pacific” got incredibly right

Pelilu landing The Pacific
The First Marine division claws its way ashore on the hellish island of Peleliu in “The Pacific.” Image copyright (c) 2010 Home Box Office; image courtesy Wermacht-Awards.com Militaria Forums.


Despite how “Band of Brothers” was a tough act to follow, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ 2010 follow-up “The Pacific” did get one thing incredibly right: how hellish combat in the Pacific Theater of Operations was; especially the battle that occupies the most screen time in “The Pacific”: Peleliu.

Peleliu was hardly the idyllic island you could find in Rogers and Hammerstein’s languid musical South Pacific. In fact, had that musical dynamic duo set foot on there during the battle I doubt they would have even wanted to do South Pacific. On this island, the First Marine Division shed its blood to the point it’s rifle regiments needed major reconstitution afterward. The deadly new tactics first adopted by the Japanese at Peleliu of forcing the Allies to come to them as opposed to wasting their lives in suicidal mass attacks was to thank for the carnage there.

Thank you, Steven and Tom, for showing us what combat in the Pacific Theater of Operations was truly like at hellish places such as Peleliu.

John Peter Rutkowski, S1c: KIA, USS Arizona

USS Arizona destroyed
USS Arizona post-attack, pre-US Navy major salvage efforts. Photo courtesy US Naval Historical Center.


In the famous footage of the fatal bomb hit to the USS Arizona,  the camera jerks up into the air as the photographer is struck by the shockwave that burst forth at that instant. Apparently, the cameraman was knocked to his feet, for we next see the Arizona burning fiercely around her forward superstructure.

In that instant, over a thousand lives were either lost or destined to be lost due to severe injuries that mighty blast and inferno inflicted.

The deaths of so many of her crew sent out shockwaves all their own.

One of the victims was a 21 year-old Pennsylvanian named John Peter Rutkowski, a Seaman First Class who hailed from the town of Nanticoke. 1 When the news of his death reached his mother, the shock was so severe, it lead to her premature death shortly thereafter.

This writer first learned of this USS Arizona crewman from an newspaper article that appeared during the 70th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. 2. A query to the article’s author revealed that Rutkowski was his mom’s favorite son. A few weeks before the attack, he had contacted his mother and promised to bring her to Hawaii for a visit. Rutkowski loved Hawaii; it was a stark contrast to his drab, almost always financially depressed hometown thanks to Nanticoke’s dependence on the unstable coal market as it’s main industry. At the time of Rutkowski’s death, his father had preceded him, dying during John’s childhood. 2 It is little surprise that John’s death struck his mom so hard; her untimely death  is also stunning evidence of how the Pearl Harbor attack impacted so many people in so many ways it is staggering.


1. “Alphabetical USS Arizona Casualty List,” USS Arizona.org, accessed May 17, 2013, http://www.ussarizona.org/lists/Alphabetical_USS_Arizona_Casualty_List.pdf  (This list erroneously credits Rutkowski as being from Virginia.)

2. William C. Kashatus, “Remembering World War II and the greatest generation,” Citizens Voice, December 11, 2011, accessed May 17, 2013, http://citizensvoice.com/arts-living/remembering-world-war-ii-and-the-greatest-generation-1.1242523

3. William Kashatus, e-mail message to author, December 20, 2011.

The University of St. Thomas salutes Minnesota Pearl Harbor survivors

On Sunday, December 7th, 2003, two students from the University of St. Thomas arrived at a lunch held by the local Pearl Harbor Survivors Association at the Embassy Suites in Bloomington, MN. The inside of which was covered in the signatures and other wishes of U of St. T students. Photo by Tony Held.
The exterior of the giant card presented to the local PHSA chapter. This was the only time when I went out to lunch with these ordinary people whose lives intersected with the Pearl Harbor attack that other youths beside myself were present (I was 23 at the time.) Photo by Tony Held.

Enough with the Pearl Harbor conspiracy theories!

USS Shaw explodes
In this often repeated photograph, the USS Shaw explodes during the Pearl Harbor attack. I do believe that is the USS Pennsylvania to the right. Incredibly, the Shaw -a destroyer- was repaired and returned to the fight some time later. Image courtesy US Naval Historical Center.


This article originally appeared under my old byline “Richard Krebes” as a guest editorial in the December 5th, 2009 edition of The Pioneer under the title “Reader shares thoughts on anniversary of attack” and the December 5th, 2009 edition of its sister newspaper, The Laker, under the title “No room for conspiracy theories as anniversary of Japanese attack nears.”   I have done one minor tweak to update this as well as put additional comments at the end of the original text. –T.H.

For [over 70] years, a poison cloud has hovered near the memory of December 7th, 1941: A theory that Japan was deliberately provoked into attacking. This is flawed by two facts conveniently left out of it.

First, President Franklin Roosevelt, as well as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, knew that the number one priority was Germany, not Japan, an island nation dependent upon foreign imports for its war machine as opposed to the mighty machine of the land-based Third Reich. A machine which had helped ensure that most of Europe, along with half of North Africa, was under the Reich’s yoke by late 1941, with a bold invasion of Russia ongoing. It is true Japan was undertaking its own aggression against China, and had occupied Thailand and French Indochina by this point, but Germany loomed far larger.

Indeed, for months Roosevelt had been working with his British and Soviet opposite numbers to help shore up their defenses and even committed the US Navy to a limited anti-U-Boat war to defend North Atlantic convoys, while at the same time trying to restrain the Japanese economically by cutting off the supply of oil, which leads us to the second fact mentioned above: Neither America nor Britain were strong enough in 1941 to conduct a two-front war while at the same time supplying Russia with war material. Military production in America had only just begun, the American Navy, Army, and Marines were sluggishly expanding, the services only half-equipped with modern weapons, and defenses in the Pacific were thin due to the concentration on the Atlantic. With Britain equally strapped. It would have been detrimental to the “Germany first” objective to have sought a major war in Asia at the same time, nor would one have provided a “back door” into the war with Germany due to the lack of cooperation between Germany, Japan, and Italy. Japan easily could have fought alone without her allies as well as with them.

True, Pearl Harbor could have been more ready when the attack came, but that too needs no conspiracy theory to explain away due to Japanese deception measures (especially their false peace overtures), lack of American resources, cautious “do/do not” orders from Washington, and plain bad luck which dogged the Hawaiian commanders.

In the end, it could be argued that Pearl Harbor conspiracy theories are nothing more than a knee jerk reaction to a great defeat inflicted upon America. No less, no more.

It is time we stopped trying to erase this defeat’s sting with the salve named “conspiracy.”

It does nothing to help further the cause of remembering those who fought and died on December 7th, 1941.

I would like to add that, while I have always stood against conspiracy theories about Pearl Harbor (and 9/11 too) my initial views on the actions of General Walter Short and Admiral Husband Kimmel were heavily influenced for years by Paul Hendrickson’s article “Honor Thy Fathers” in Life Magazine’s commemorative issue on the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack.  It’s influence is reflected here in my “cautious “do/do not” orders” comment.  If I had but read the book Pearl Harbor: The Verdict of History by the time I wrote this, my viewpoints would have undergone a 180 degree turn from Hendrickson’s.  I would like to add that this book reveals that not one but two admirals in Hawaii –Kimmel and 14th Naval District commander Claude Bloch- erred badly in the preparations for the defense of Hawaii along with General Short in the run-up to the fateful attack.

Nevertheless, I stand by the ant-conspiracy theory comments I made here.  -T.H.