Sunday, October 25, 2015

Japan For Kennedy – 'PT 109'

Review by Bill Doughty

Naval officer Lt. John Fitzergald Kennedy became president of the United States in large part because of his heroism in the Solomon Islands – despite the "fouled up" battle plan in the Battle of Blackett Strait.

Lt. j.g. John F. Kennedy in 1942
That's the contention of author William Doyle in the new and updated account of Kennedy's service: "PT 109: An American Epic of War, Survival, and the Destiny of John F. Kennedy" (HarperCollins 2015).

Doyle also shows how the Kennedy family contributed to the strong friendship America built with Japan after the war and in the seven decades since.

The "creation myth" of JFK's heroism began when a Japanese destroyer, Amagiri, captained by Kohei Hanami, rammed the small torpedo boat, killing two men and sending others overboard as the boat exploded and sank.
"A hundred-foot-high fireball rose from the crash site, fed by thousands of gallons of fuel that spilled into the water from the crippled boat. Despite the night's poor visibility, the inferno was visible for mlles. The crash propelled seven of the thirteen men into the blazing ocean, most of them wearing life jackets and helmets ... They fell into a world of horror – a black, shark-infested ocean punctuated by pockets of flaming gasoline, lethal fumes, and muffled shouts and screams, with their boat nowhere to be seen. As they struggled in the water and gulped salt water and gasoline, they had every reason to believe they could very soon be drowned, consumed by fire, or eaten alive from beneath."
The sinking of PT 109 was a symptom of the failure of the Battle of Blackett Strait, caused by bad Mark VIII torpedoes, poor communications, weak leadership and a lack of command and control. In a conversation with author John Hersey, Kennedy would later compare it to the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba.

Rescuer Eroni Kumana, who died in 2014
In the wake of the sinking of PT 109 Kennedy showed his mettle, swimming three-and-a-half miles leading his men "over open water, behind enemy lines in broad daylight, fully exposed for four hours to any Japanese lookouts or pilots who happened to look his way."
"All the while, he bit on to a strap and towed a badly burned sailor along with him. Simultaneously he was charged with leading nine other men, including several injured and several non-swimmers, toward safety. It was a performance Kennedy would rarely talk about publicly, but it was an astonishing feat that his crewmen never forgot. On this day, his leadership and example delivered them the hope, however slim, that salvation may be on the the horizon."
Kennedy's subsequent leadership ensured the sailors' survival and rescue, with help from local islanders Biuku Gasa and Eroni Kumana. The story was compared to Joseph Campbell's "hero's journey" mythology.

After the war, the Kennedy family's ties to Japan strengthened, despite some challenges.

Doyle recounts JFK's visit in 1950, marked by his near-death illness, and brother Robert Kennedy's visit in 1962 as Attorney General, tarnished by demonstrations against America's policies in Cuba and Vietnam.

In 1957 JFK was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for "Profiles in Courage." That same year daughter Caroline was born. Today Caroline Kennedy is U.S. Ambassador to Japan. Doyle shows how on March 5, 2015 Ambassador Kennedy met the widow of Kohei Hanami, the man who captained Amagiri and sank PT 09.

JFK had planned to meet Kohei Hanami on a trip to Japan in 1964, a trip that didn't happen due to Kennedy's assassination.

Packed with great photos and new information, "PT 109" is an enjoyable and informative read, profiling John F. Kennedy's "stubborn, indomitable courage" and showing how the Navy contributed to his character and core values.

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