Under the Radar

A Former Crewman's Memories of JFK

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By John W. Flores

The young, skinny Navy officer walked along the dock at a South Pacific base and met his new crewmen for the first time, as they stood on the sun-drenched deck of a nondescript, navy green torpedo boat.

Some of the men on board were crusty old sailors and war veterans, others just young and cocky “swabbies” new to the U.S. Navy's war against the vaunted and feared Japanese Imperial Navy. Some of the guys aboard heard the scuttlebutt—the rampant rumors—that this new captain of the 80-foot torpedo boat, Lt.(junior grade) John Kennedy, was the son of ultra-wealthy Joe Kennedy of Boston.

When Lt. Kennedy walked on deck, the men dropped their mops and paint brushes and saluted the new skipper, said Gerard Zinser in his last interview a few years ago, prior to his death. That story was printed in the Boston Globe and Navy Times.

Zinser was the last survivor from the final 13-member crew of the boat, and he was a few years older than the rest. He was called “Pops” by the young bucks, but he didn't mind. He just chuckled at their colorful antics and surly attitudes as he went about his engine room duties. Zinser was a motor machinists mate, or “motormac” and was one of three enlisted mechanics responsible for keeping the powerful twin gasoline fueled piston engines in top-notch running shape anytime the 109 was underway—primarily in the area around the Solomon Islands of the South Pacific.

Zinser was 81 when I interviewed him at his home in St. Petersburg, Fla., for an article published in the Globe. His mind was clear and sound, even nimble, in remembrances of details from his World War II experiences. But the ravages of time were clearly doing their work on his physical health.

He was the last man to tell the true story behind the most harrowing ordeal of his life as a Navy crewman. He told in illuminating and captivating detail about the night his boat was cut in half by a huge, fast-moving Japanese warship. It was late on Aug. 2, 1943 — now 70 years ago.

Before the deadly events of that night, some of the crewmen naturally had a few mental reservations about the capabilities of their young and inexperienced skipper, who often scoffed at some of the “overzealous” Navy rules, and who regularly — against regulations —prowled the islands at the boat's helm barefoot, wearing shorts but no shirt only a baseball cap. His second in command, Ensign Thom, once told him that when at the wheel of his powerful patrol boat he reminded Thom of a young teenage hot rodder cruising main street looking for trouble. Kennedy later started wearing a T-shirt, in deference to Thom.

A collision in the night

On that terrible night, Zinser was first on the deck and just coming off his engine room watch. He was relieved for the night watch by an older mechanic, Chief Petty Officer Pappy McMahon. Suddenly, before anyone could react, Kennedy shouted “full power” and wheeled the boat abruptly to starboard, and the sudden, unavoidable impact with the enemy warship sent the 25-year-old Zinser cartwheeling into the deep, warm void of time.

Two men on board, below deck, were killed instantly in the collision, and several others were severely burned in the gasoline fire caused from sparks when the two ships collided. A large gasoline fire from ruptured fuel tanks flared furiously all around the severed sections of the boat, like a target beacon for enemy ships or patrol boats.

The crewmen bobbed helplessly like fishing corks for a brief time, until Kennedy and his second-in-command, Ensign Thom — a former collegiate football star — helped them up to the shelter of a still floating forward portion of the severed boat.

“The skipper had injured his back severely in the collision,” Zinser said. “Though we didn't know what was happening to anyone at the time, or what condition we were in. The ship damned near cut him (Kennedy) in half, because it hit right behind where he was on watch at the captain's chair on the bridge.”

Zinser said despite the injuries he later learned Kennedy was suffering, his skipper would swim around in the dark, choppy seas from man to man, “checking to see how we were holding up. He'd even yell out the names of crewmen to find out where they were.”

Hours later, as dawn painted the black skies a dull gray with its timeless brush, Kennedy told the men they'd all have to try and make it to an island located a few miles away. About this time, the forward portion of the boat began to punctuate Kennedy's words with an ominous finality — it was beginning to roll over, upside down, and would soon be headed for the bottom. And where the men were located, near some floating wreckage items, they were also vulnerable to enemy aircraft sightings, Zinser said.

Kennedy determined that Pappy McMahon, older and severely burned, probably with deydration problems, would have to be towed. Everyone else had their hands full just surviving, so Kennedy took McMahon and towed him along by the strap of his life preserver. Sometimes, when his arms got tired, Kennedy would place the strap between his teeth and tow Pappy that way for a while.

“He had Mac's life jacket clenched in his teeth and it wore him out,” said Zinser. “He might rest a minute, but he kept going. Then Mac started moaning and saying: `Skip, I'm all done. I can't make it. Leave me here.' And the skipper said one time, `whether you like it or not, you're coming Pappy. Don't you know only the good die young?'” Zinser chuckled remembering that.

It took the men four hours to swim to the island they later called Plum Pudding, because it looked like a bowl of pudding from water level miles away.

Treading water in the darkness

The men all collapsed when reaching the sandy shores of the small island that was thick with palm trees, but no fresh water. At least they could eat coconuts and drink the coconut juice for a few days. And it was easy for them to hear approaching Japanese planes, patrol boats and ships, as they remained well hidden in the trees of the formerly deserted island.

Kennedy knew they had to act fast in order to get rescued as soon as possible. He feared some of the men would die if he didn't get in contact with the Navy PT base at Rendova, 40 miles away. But there were no radios, or any other form of communication. So Kennedy rested up for several hours and that first evening he equipped himself with a battle lantern from the PT 109, placed a rope around his neck that was tied to a Colt .38-caliber revolver, and after shaking hands with Ensign Thom, he waded slowly and shakily back into the ocean waves in hopes of swimming far enough out into the wide passage between the main ship channel of Solomon Islands, to signal a U.S. vessel — maybe even a passing PT boat sent to search for survivors of PT 109. But nothing would come — just the constant waves, the low clouds, the wind and maddening silence.

What Kennedy couldn't have known was that his boat's wreckage and the fire was sighted by an allied coast watcher, and was reported to the distant Rendova Navy Base with the final words: “no survivors.” The Navy later officially listed Kennedy and his crew as killed in action.

Meanwhile, as Kennedy tired of treading water in total darkness with sharks undoubtedly nearby, he soon found himself in sight of their little island and waved the lantern to the men, some of whom were asleep.

But the strong currents pulled him away from that island and took him helplessly out toward the open sea. Kennedy recounted that night's strange events in an interview with author John Hersey, who wrote a story about the PT 109 ordeal and Kennedy's great heroism in a June 17, 1944, issue of The New Yorker magazine.

“(Kennedy) thought he had never known such deep trouble,” Hersey wrote, “but something he did shows that he unconsciously had not given up hope. He dropped his shoes, but he held onto the heavy lantern, his symbolic contact with his fellows. He stopped trying to swim. He seemed to stop caring.

His body drifted through the wet hours, and he was very cold. His mind was a jumble,” Hersey wrote.

“His mind seemed to float away from his body. Darkness and time took the place of a mind in his skull. For a long time he slept, or was crazy, or floated in a chill trance.”

Kennedy later realized a strange current captured him for a time, moving him many miles in a clockwise circle — west, past an island called Gizo, then north and east past another island called Kolombangara, then back to Ferguson Passage to the area where he'd been trying to signal a boat before.

Even after all that exhaustive ordeal, he slowly swam wearily back several miles to their new home island, and that time the tide and currents were on his side — helping him get back.

Finally, spotted and rescued

Zinser said Kennedy would crawl back up from shore and vomit for a few minutes from the ingestion of salt water and from fatigue and lack of water or food. He may have even contracted malaria at that time — a condition later diagnosed by a Navy doctor.

Zinser said of Kennedy: “Ensign Thom said he was very sick for a while, but he'd rest up and then go back out there. Trying to find a rescue boat. We didn't eat anything, and the only time we'd get anything to drink was when it would rain and we'd try and catch a few drops on our tongue.”

Kennedy later passed orders to other men and was able to get a couple of them to swim out as he had done and try to signal allied ships. But it was a futile effort. The hot, humid days and night passed slowly.

Finally enough time had gone by that Kennedy and Thom had to collectively agree on a command decision that would mean life or death for them all. They moved the men from the inhospitable Plum Pudding island, to a small dot on their Navy chart named Bird Island.

Luck finally turned Kennedy's way later, when he was spotted by local native islanders as he scouted yet another island for his men to possibly find food, water, and shelter. Amazingly to Kennedy, the natives did not run away, but greeted him — recognizing he was an American. This was the fifth day after PT 109 was rammed.

The natives reported to an Australian coast watcher that a Lt. John Kennedy and most of his crew from Navy boat PT 109 were alive on a nearby island, as Kennedy and Thom sketched succinct but vital details into a coconut — their ticket home. JFK kept that coconut on his desk, in the White House Oval Office, during his presidency.

Finally, a Navy boat from Rendova arrived with Kennedy and his new native islander friends, and picked up all 11 American survivors, hauling them back to base. Kennedy, already skinny, had lost 15 or 20 pounds from the ordeal. Though very weak at times, he managed to get the job done and saved his crewmen. None died under his command after the ship rammed his boat.

The joy of a young presidents's face

Zinser said he was invited to many events by President Kennedy and his staff during the thousand days of his administration, beginning with the inauguration — where a replica of PT 109 was made for the parade. All the crewmen who made it through that terrible week in the South Pacific were riding on the replica boat that frigid day in Washington, D.C.

Once again these older Navy war veterans seemed to be young men again, shouting and jeering at one another just as they had years before, and they grinned and saluted the man who had kept them alive, through his sustained courage and coolness under the harshest and most hopeless of conditions.

As the replica of PT 109 passed President Kennedy, the men acted as if they were at their battle stations, Zinser recalled, half-expecting that their once young and skinny skipper would halt the parade, and take command again. Zinser grinned at the thought.

He remembered JFK's incandescent smile, the proud crewmen, and that frozen fragment of time when the new chief executive raised his hand to return their salutes. With that, the day seemed warm again, from the brightness and joy of the young president's face.

“I never was much for crying, but I found myself wiping tears from my eyes all evening on Nov. 22, 1963,” Zinser said, looking up on his wall of a picture when JFK was president.

“He was very special to all of us. I felt that day, when he died, it felt like I'd lost the best friend of my life. That's what John Kennedy meant to me,” he said. “I think we all felt that way.”

Quotes included from The New Yorker with permission from the publisher.

John Flores is author of two books about Marine Sgt. Freddy Gonzalez, and one on legendary South Texas oilman Lou Flournoy. He is a former U.S. Coast Guard search-and-rescue crewman who has worked as a police and investigative reporter. He lives with his wife, Rowena, in Albupeuerque, N.M.

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