Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard

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A Note to Readers

November 22, 1963
Mineola, New York
Approximately 2:00 p.m.

The students in Brother Carmine Diodati’s freshman Religion class were startled. Over the loudspeaker, a radio report crackled into the Chaminade High School classroom. President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, Texas, and taken to the hospital. A short time later we would all learn he was dead. No one knew what to say.

Most Americans born before 1953 remember exactly where they were when they heard the news that JFK had been assassinated. The days following that terrible Friday were filled with sadness and confusion. Why did it happen? Who really killed the president? What kind of country did we live in anyway?

The assassination of JFK was somewhat personal for me. My maternal grandmother was born Winifred Kennedy, and my Irish-Catholic family had deep emotional ties to the young president and his family. It felt as if someone in my own home had died violently. Like most kids on Long Island, I didn’t care much about national politics. But I vividly remember pictures of JFK displayed in the homes of my relatives. To them, he was a saint. To me, he was a distant figure who died in a terrible way, his brain splattered all over the trunk of a car. The vision of his wife, Jacqueline, crawling onto the back of the limo in order to retrieve the president’s shattered skull has stayed with me always.

■ ■ ■

Martin Dugard and I were well pleased that millions of people read and enjoyed Killing Lincoln. We want to make history accessible to everyone. We want to tell readers exactly what happened and why, using a style that is entertaining as well as informative. After chronicling the last days of Abraham Lincoln, the progression to John Kennedy was a natural.

It has been widely pointed out that the two men had much in common. In fact, the parallels are amazing:

✦ Lincoln was first elected in 1860, Kennedy in 1960.
✦ Both were assassinated on a Friday, in the presence of their wives.
✦ Their successors were both southerners named Johnson who had served in the Senate.
✦ Andrew Johnson was born in 1808, Lyndon Johnson in 1908.
✦ Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846, while Kennedy was elected to the House in 1946.
✦ Both men suffered the death of children while in office.
✦ The assassin Booth shot inside a theater and fled into a storage facility, while the assassin Oswald shot from a storage facility and fled into a theater.

Back in 1963, few Americans understood how profoundly the assassination of JFK would change the country. These days, history is a difficult thing to impart, especially because of political agendas. In this book, we will try to cut through the fog and bring you the facts. Unfortunately, some of the facts are still not known. In our narrative, Martin Dugard and I go only as far as the evidence takes us. We are not conspiracy guys, although we do raise some questions about what is unknown and inconsistent.

However, before you proceed further, please know that this is a fact-based book and some of what you will read has never before been publicly stated.

The truth about President Kennedy is sometimes gallant, and sometimes disturbing. The truth about how and why he was murdered is simply atrocious. But all Americans should know the story.

It’s all here in this book. It is my special privilege to bring it to you.

Bill O’Reilly
May 2012
Long Island, New York

 

Prologue

January 20, 1961
Washington, D.C.
12:51 p.m.

The man with fewer than three years to live has his left hand on the Bible.

Chief Justice Earl Warren stands before him reciting the Presidential Oath of Office. “Do you, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, do solemnly swear . . .”

“I, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, do solemnly swear,” the new president repeats in a clipped Boston accent. His gaze is directed at the jurist whose name will one day be synonymous with Kennedy’s own death.

The new president, born into wealth, has a refined manner of speaking that would seem to distance him from the electorate. But he is an enthusiastic and easily likeable man’s man. He joked openly about his father’s vast riches during the campaign, defusing that divisive issue with humor and candor so that average Americans would trust him when he spoke about making America better. “Poor men in West Virginia heard a man from Boston say he needed their help, and they gave it. In the alien corn of Nebraska, with a familiar chopping motion of his right hand, he explained that America can be ‘great-ah,’ and the farmers knew what he meant,” one writer noted of Kennedy’s broad appeal.

But not everyone loves JFK. He won the popular vote over Richard Nixon by a razor-thin margin, garnering just 49 percent of the tally. Those farmers might have known what Kennedy meant, but 62 percent of Nebraskans voted for Nixon.

“That you will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States.”

“That I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States . . .”

Eighty million Americans are watching the inauguration on television. Twenty thousand more are there in person. Eight inches of thick, wet snow have fallen on Washington, D.C., overnight. The army had to use flamethrowers to clear the roads. The sun now shines on the Capitol Building, but a brutal wind strafes the crowd. Spectators wrap their bodies in sleeping bags, blankets, thick sweaters, and winter coats—anything to stay warm.

But John Kennedy ignores the cold. He has even removed his overcoat. At age forty-three, JFK exudes fearlessness and vigor. His lack of coat, top hat, scarf, or gloves is an intentional ploy to burnish his athletic image. He is trim and just a shade over six feet tall, with greenish-gray eyes, a dazzling smile, and a deep tan, thanks to a recent vacation at his family’s Palm Beach home. But while JFK looks like the picture of health, his medical history has been troubling. Kennedy has already been administered the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church on two separate occasions. His medical woes will continue to trouble him in the years to come.

“And will, to the best of your ability . . .”

“And will, to the best of my ability . . .”

In the sea of dignitaries and friends arrayed all around him, there are three people vital to Kennedy. The first is his younger brother and reluctant choice for attorney general, Bobby. The president values him more for his honesty as an adviser than for his legal ability. He knows Bobby will always tell him the truth, no matter how brutal it may be.

Behind the president is the new vice president, Lyndon Johnson. It can be said, and Johnson himself believes, that Kennedy won the presidency because of this tough, tall Texan. Without Johnson on the ticket, Kennedy might never have won the Lone Star State and its treasure trove of 24 electoral votes. As it was, the Kennedy-Johnson ticket won by the slender margin of 46,000 votes in Texas—a feat that must be replicated if Kennedy is to win a second term.

Finally, the new president spies his young wife just behind Justice Warren’s left shoulder. Jackie Kennedy is radiant in her taupe suit and matching hat. Dark brown hair and a fur collar frame her unlined face. Her amber eyes sparkle with excitement; she is not showing a hint of fatigue despite having stayed up until 4:00 a.m. The booze flowed freely at preinaugural celebrations thrown by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Leonard Bernstein. Jackie returned to their house in Georgetown long before the parties wound down, but her husband did not accompany her. When Jack finally showed up, just before 4:00 a.m., he found his wife wide awake, too excited to sleep. As the snow continued to fall on the stranded motorists and the impromptu bonfires lining the streets of Washington, the young couple sat together in early-morning conversation. He told her about a late dinner organized by his father, and they talked with excitement about the inauguration ceremony. It would be an extraordinary day, with the promise of many more to come.

John F. Kennedy well understands that the public adores Jackie. Just last night, when crowds on the snowy Washington streets glimpsed the Kennedys driving past in their limousine, the president-elect asked that the inside lights be turned on so that the people might glimpse his wife. Jackie’s glamour, sense of style, and beauty have captivated America. She speaks fluent French and Spanish, secretly chain-smokes filtered cigarettes, and prefers champagne to cocktails. Like her husband, Jackie has a dazzling smile, but she is the introvert to his extrovert. Her trust in outsiders is scant.

Despite her glamorous image, Jackie Kennedy has already known great tragedy during their seven years of marriage. She miscarried their first child, and the second was a stillborn baby girl. But she has also enjoyed the birth of two healthy children, Caroline and John Jr., and the stunning ascension of her dashing young husband from a Massachusetts politician to president of the United States.

The sadness is now behind her. The future looks limitless and bright. The Kennedy presidency seems destined to be, in the words of a new hit play that just opened at Broadway’s Majestic Theater, much like the mythical Camelot, a place where “there’s simply not a more congenial spot, for happily-ever-aftering.”

■ ■ ■

“Preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States . . .”

“Preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States . . .”

Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, stands next to Jackie. Behind Kennedy stand Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Harry Truman.

Normally, having just one of these dignitaries at an event means heightened security. Having all of them at the inaugural, sitting so closely together, is a security nightmare.

The Secret Service is on high alert. Its job is to protect the president. The fifty-five-year-old career agent and leader of the service, Chief U. E. Baughman, has been in charge since Truman was president. He believes that Kennedy’s athleticism and fondness for wading into crowds will make guarding him a challenge unlike any other in the Service’s history. The lean Baughman, with his trademark crew cut, almost cleared the inaugural stand three times today out of concern for presidential safety. On one occasion, blue smoke poured from the lectern during the invocation, and there was fear that it was a bomb. Agents rushed to investigate. As it turned out, the smoke came from the motor that raised and lowered the lectern. Stopping the problem was as simple as turning off the motor. Now Baughman’s agents scan the crowd, nervous about the close proximity of the vast audience. One well-trained zealot with a pistol could kill the new president, two former presidents, and a pair of vice presidents with five crisp shots.

Baughman is well aware of another chilling fact. Since 1840, every president elected in a twenty-year cycle has died in office: Harrison, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, and Roosevelt. Yet no president has been assassinated for almost sixty years, thanks to the expertise of the Secret Service. Just last month, agents foiled an attempt on Kennedy’s life by a disgruntled former postal worker who planned to blow him up with dynamite. Nonetheless, Baughman is faced with a haunting question: Will the chain of presidential deaths be broken, or will Kennedy be its next link?

JFK laughs off suggestions that he might die in office. Just to prove that he isn’t a believer in omens, the new president has chosen to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom during his first few nights in the White House—the ghost of Abe apparently of no concern.

“So help you God.”

“. . . So help me God.”

The oath complete, Kennedy shakes Chief Justice Warren’s hand, then those of Johnson and Nixon. Finally, he stands toe to toe with Eisenhower. The two men smile cordially, but there is steel in their eyes. Eisenhower’s condescending nickname for Kennedy is “Little Boy Blue.” He thinks him callow and incapable of governing, and finds it galling that a man who was a mere lieutenant during the Second World War is taking over the presidency from the general who directed the D-Day invasion. For his part, Kennedy sees the old general as a man little interested in righting the wrongs of American society—a top priority for JFK.

Kennedy is the youngest president ever elected. Eisenhower is the oldest. The great divide in their ages also represents two very different generations of Americans—and two very different views of America. In just a moment, Kennedy will deliver an inaugural address that will make those differences clearer than ever.

The thirty-fifth president of the United States lets go of Eisenhower’s hand. He pivots slowly to his left and stands at the podium bearing the presidential seal. Kennedy looks down at his speech, then lifts his eyes and gazes out at the thousands of frozen faces before him, knowing that the crowd is impatient. The ceremony started late, the invocation by Cardinal Richard Cushing was extremely long, and the eighty-six-year-old poet Robert Frost was so blinded by the sun that he was unable to read the special verses he’d written for the occasion. Nothing, it seems, has gone according to plan. What these freezing people long for is something redemptive. Some words that will signal a shift from the stagnant state of Washington politics. Words that will heal a nation divided by McCarthyism, terrified of the cold war, and still struggling with racial segregation and discrimination.

Kennedy is a Pulitzer Prize–winning historian, having received the award for his book Profiles in Courage. He knows the value of a great inaugural address. For months he has fussed over the words he is about to recite. Just last night, when the lights were turned on inside the car to make Jackie visible to onlookers, he reread Thomas Jefferson’s inaugural address—and found his own lacking by comparison. This morning, he rose after just four hours of sleep and, pencil in hand, scrutinized his speech again and again and again.

His words resonate like a psalm. “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage . . .”

This is no ordinary inaugural address. This is a promise. America’s best days are still to come, Kennedy is saying, but only if everyone pitches in to do his part. “Ask not what your country can do for you,” he commands, his voice rising to deliver the defining sentence, “but what you can do for your country.”

The address will be hailed as an instant classic. In less than 1,400 words, John Fitzgerald Kennedy defines his vision for the nation. He now sets the speech aside, knowing that the time has come to fulfill the great promise he has made to the American people. He must manage the issue with Cuba and its pro-Soviet leader, Fidel Castro. He must tackle problems in a faraway land known as Vietnam, where a small band of U.S. military advisers is struggling to bring stability to a region long rocked by war. And here at home, the power of the Mafia crime syndicates and the divisiveness of the civil rights movement are two crucial situations requiring immediate attention. And on a much more personal level, he must negotiate the animus between Attorney General Bobby Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson, who despise each other.

JFK surveys the adoring crowd, knowing that he has much work to do.

But not all those invited to the inauguration have turned up. The famous entertainers attending the previous night’s parties were promised prime seats for this pivotal moment in American history, but owing to the cold and a 100-proof celebration that stretched into the wee small hours, singer Frank Sinatra, actor Peter Lawford, and composer Leonard Bernstein—along with a host of others—opted to sleep late and watch the event on television. “I’ll see the president’s second inaugural” is their common refrain.

But there will be no second inaugural. For John Fitzgerald Kennedy is on a collision course with evil.

■ ■ ■

Approximately 4,500 miles away, in the Soviet city of Minsk, an American who did not vote for John F. Kennedy is fed up. Lee Harvey Oswald, a former U.S. Marine Corps sharpshooter, has had enough of life in this Communist nation.

Lee Harvey Oswald at his application for Soviet citizenship in 1959. (Bettman/Corbis/AP Images)

Lee Harvey Oswald at his application for Soviet citizenship in 1959. (Bettman/Corbis/AP Images)

Oswald is a defector. In 1959, at age nineteen, the slightly built, somewhat handsome, enigmatic drifter decided to leave the United States of America, convinced that his socialist beliefs would be embraced in the Soviet Union. But things haven’t gone according to plan. Oswald had hoped to attend Moscow University, even though he never graduated from high school. Instead, the Soviet government shipped him more than four hundred miles west, to Minsk, where he has been toiling in an electronics factory.

Oswald is fond of being on the move, but the Soviets have severely restricted his travel. Until now, his life has been chaotic and nomadic. Oswald’s father died before he was born. His mother remarried and soon divorced. Marguerite Oswald had little money and moved young Lee frequently, traveling through Texas, New Orleans, and New York City. By the time he dropped out of high school to enlist in the marines, Oswald had lived at twenty-two different addresses and attended twelve different schools—including a reform institution. There, a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation found him to be withdrawn and socially maladjusted. He was diagnosed as having “a vivid fantasy life, turning around the topics of omnipotence and power, through which he tries to compensate for his present shortcomings and frustrations.”

The Soviet Union in 1961 is hardly the place for a man in search of independence and power. For the first time in his life, Lee Harvey Oswald is stuck. He gets up every morning and trudges to the factory, where he labors hour after hour operating a lathe, surrounded by coworkers whose language he barely understands. His defection in 1959 was reported by American newspapers because it was extremely unusual for a U.S. Marine—even one so pro-Soviet that his fellow marines had nicknamed him “Oswaldskovich”—to violate the Semper Fi (Always Faithful) oath and go over to the enemy. But now he is anonymous, which he finds completely unacceptable. Defection doesn’t seem like such a good idea anymore. Oswald confides to his journal that he is thoroughly disenchanted.

Lee Harvey Oswald has nothing against John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He doesn’t know much about the new president or his policies. And while Oswald was a crack shot in the military, little in his past indicates that he would be a threat to anyone but himself.

As America celebrates Kennedy’s inauguration, the defector writes to the U.S. embassy in Moscow. His note is short and to the point: Lee Harvey Oswald wants to come home.

 

Part I
Cheating Death

1

August 2, 1943
Blackett Strait, Solomon Islands
2:00 a.m.

It is February 1961. The new president has a coconut on his desk. He is lucky to be alive, having already cheated death three times in his short life, and the unusual paperweight is a reminder of the first time he came face-to-face with his own mortality. His staff makes sure to place the coconut in a prominent position when they move the new president into the Oval Office. They know their boss wants that very special coconut in his line of sight, because it is a reminder of a now-famous incident that tested his courage.

■ ■ ■

Eighteen years earlier, in 1943, on a balmy Pacific night, three American patrol torpedo boats cruise the Blackett Strait in the South Pacific, hunting Japanese warships near a hotly contested area known as The Slot. At eighty feet long, with hulls of two-inch-thick mahogany, and powered by three powerful Packard engines, these patrol torpedo (PT) boats are nimble vessels, capable of flitting in close to sink Japanese battleships with a battery of Mark VIII torpedoes.

The skipper of the boat bearing the number 109, a young second lieutenant, slouches in his cockpit, half alert and half asleep. He has shut down two of his engines to conceal PT-109 from Japanese spotter planes. The third engine idles softly, its deep propeller shaft leaving almost no wake in the iridescent water. He gazes across the ocean on this night without moon or starlight in the hope of locating the two other nearby PTs. But they are invisible in the darkness—just like 109.

The skipper doesn’t see or hear the destroyer Amagiri until it’s almost too late. She’s part of the Tokyo Express, a bold Japanese experiment to transport troops and weapons in and out of the tactically vital Solomon Islands via ultrafast warships. The Express relies on speed and the cover of night to complete these missions. Amagiri has just dropped nine hundred soldiers at Vila, on nearby Kolombangara Island, and is racing back to the Japanese bastion at Rabaul, New Guinea, before dawn will allow American bombers to find and destroy her. She is longer than a football field but a mere thirty-four feet at the beam, her shape allowing Amagiri to knife through the sea at an astonishing forty-four miles per hour.

In the bow of PT-109, Ensign George “Barney” Ross of Highland Park, Illinois, also peers into the night. His previous boat was recently, accidentally, sunk by an American bomber, and he volunteered for this mission as an observer. Now Ross is stunned when, through his binoculars, he sees the Amagiri just 250 yards away, bearing down on 109 at full speed. He points into the darkness. The skipper sees the ship and spins the wheel hard, trying to turn his boat toward the rampaging destroyer to fire his torpedoes from point-blank range—either that, or the Americans will be destroyed.

PT-109 can’t turn fast enough.

Lieutenant John Fitzgerald Kennedy at the cockpit of PT-109. (Photographer unknown, Papers of John. F. Kennedy, Presidential Papers, President's Office Files, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

Lieutenant John Fitzgerald Kennedy at the cockpit of PT-109. (Photographer unknown, Papers of John. F. Kennedy, Presidential Papers, President's Office Files, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

It takes just a single terrifying instant for Amagiri to slice through the mahogany hull. The diagonal incision begins on the right side, barely missing the cockpit. The skipper is almost crushed, at that moment thinking to himself, “This is how it feels to be killed.” Two members of the thirteen-man crew die instantly. Two more are injured as PT-109 explodes and burns. The two nearby American boats, PT-162 and PT-169, know a fatal blast when they see one, and don’t wait around to search for survivors. They gun their engines and race into the night, fearful that other Japanese warships are in the vicinity. Amagiri doesn’t stop either, speeding on to Rabaul, even as her crew watches the small American craft burn in her wake.

The men of PT-109 are on their own.

The skipper, and the man responsible for allowing such an enormous vessel to sneak up on his boat, is Lieutenant John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He is twenty-six, rail thin, and deeply tanned, a Harvard-educated playboy whose father forced him to leave naval intelligence to seek a combat position when it was discovered that his son’s Danish mistress was suspected of being a Nazi spy. Being second-born in a family where great things are expected from the oldest son, Kennedy has had the luxury of a frivolous life. He was a sickly child, grew into a young man fond of books and girls, and, with the exception of commanding a minor vessel such as PT-109, has shown no interest in pursuing a leadership position in politics—an ambition required of his older brother, Joe.

But none of that matters right now. Kennedy must find a way to get his men to safety. Later in life, when asked to describe the night’s imminent turning point, he will shrug it off: “It was involuntary. They sunk my boat.”

His words belie the fact that he might have been court-martialed for allowing his boat to be sunk and two of his men to be killed. But the sinking of PT-109 will be the making of John F. Kennedy—not because of what just happened, but because of what is about to happen next.

The back end of PT-109 is already on its way to the bottom of the Blackett, some 1,200 feet below. The forward section of the hull remains afloat, thanks to watertight compartments. Kennedy gathers the surviving crew members on this section to await help. Amagiri’s wake is sweeping the flames away from the wreckage of 109, allaying Kennedy’s fears that the gasoline fires will ignite any remaining ammunition or fuel tanks. But as the hours pass—one, then two and three—and it becomes obvious that help is not coming, Kennedy knows he must devise a new plan. The Blackett Strait is bordered on all sides by small islands that are home to thousands of Japanese soldiers. It’s certain that someone on land has seen the explosion.

“What do you want to do if the Japs come out?” Kennedy asks the crew. Completely responsible for the lives of his men, he is at a loss. The hull is beginning to sink, and the only weapons he and his men possess are a single machine gun and seven handguns. A firefight would be ludicrous.

The men can plainly see a Japanese camp less than a mile away, on Gizo Island, and know that two other large bases exist on Kolombangara and Vella Lavella islands, each just five miles away.

“Anything you say, Mr. Kennedy. You’re the boss,” replies one crewman.

But Kennedy is not comfortable being the boss. In his months being skipper of the 109, his job has largely consisted of steering the boat. The men complain that he is more interested in chasing girls than commanding a ship. Kennedy is much more at ease in a supporting role. Growing up, he took orders from his domineering father and looked up to his charismatic older brother. His dad, Joseph P. Kennedy, is one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in America, and a former ambassador to Great Britain. His brother Joe, at twenty-eight years old, is a flamboyant naval aviator soon to see action flying antisubmarine missions against the Nazis in Europe.

The Kennedy family takes all its directives from their patriarch. John Kennedy will one day liken the relationship to that of puppets and their puppet master. Joseph P. Kennedy decides how his children will spend their lives, monitors their every action, attempts to sleep with his sons’ and daughters’ girlfriends, and even had one of his own daughters lobotomized. He has already pinpointed Joe as the family politician. Indeed, his father saw to it that his eldest was a delegate at the 1940 Democratic National Convention. Meanwhile, in those days before the war broke out, John spent his time writing and traveling. Many in the family still believe that writing might become his chosen profession.

Now, on this tragic Pacific night, there is no way for Joseph P. Kennedy to tell his son what to do. “There’s nothing in the book about a situation like this,” JFK tells the crew, stalling for time. “Seems we’re not a military organization anymore. Let’s just talk this over.”

The Kennedy family at their Hyannis Port compound in 1931. (Photograph by Richard Sears, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

The Kennedy family at their Hyannis Port compound in 1931. (Photograph by Richard Sears, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

The men have been trained to follow orders, not discuss strategy. They argue, and yet Kennedy still won’t play the role of commander. The men have been waiting for a ship to come looking for them, or a search plane. As morning turns to noon, and PT-109 sinks lower and lower into the water, remaining with the wreckage means either certain capture by Japanese troops or death by shark attack.

Finally, John F. Kennedy takes charge.

“We’ll swim,” he orders the men, pointing to a cluster of green islands three miles to the southeast. He explains that while these specks of land might be more distant than the island of Gizo, which appears close enough almost to touch, they’re less likely to be inhabited by Japanese soldiers.

The men hang on to a piece of timber, using it as a flotation device as they kick their way to the distant islands. Kennedy, a member of the swim team at Harvard, tows a badly burned crew member by placing a strap from the man’s life jacket between his own teeth and pulling him. During the five long hours it takes to reach the island, Kennedy swallows mouthful after mouthful of saltwater, yet his strength as a swimmer allows him to reach the beach before the rest of the crew. He leaves the burned crewman in the shallows and staggers ashore to explore their new home. The island is not much: sand, a few palm trees, and the reef that surrounds it. From one side to another, it’s just a hundred yards. But it’s land. After more than fifteen hours in the ocean, there’s no better place to be.

Joseph Kennedy with Sons Joseph Kennedy Jr. and John F. Kennedy in Palm Beach in 1931. Joseph Kennedy expected his eldest son would be the one to go into politics. (Photograph by E. F. Foley, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

Joseph Kennedy with Sons Joseph Kennedy Jr. and John F. Kennedy in Palm Beach in 1931. Joseph Kennedy expected his eldest son would be the one to go into politics. (Photograph by E. F. Foley, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

The rest of the crew finally arrives. They hide in the shallows as a Japanese barge passes within a few hundred yards. Kennedy is collapsed in the shade of nearby bushes, exhausted from the swim and nauseated from swallowing all that seawater. Yet, despite his weakened condition, something is different about him. The man who once shied away from leadership has realized that only he can save his crew.

JFK rises to his feet and gets to work.

■ ■ ■

PT-109. August 2-8, 1943.

PT-109. August 2-8, 1943.

Kennedy looks toward the beach. The sand is off-white and slopes into the water. The men have sought shelter under low-hanging trees. With a sense of relief, he sees that nearby lies a large bundle wrapped in a kapok life vest, something the men salvaged from PT-109. Kennedy needs that package for what he is about to do next.

Inside the bundle is a ship’s lantern. Kennedy staggers to his men and outlines a plan: he will swim to another nearby island, which is closer to a channel known as the Ferguson Passage, a popular route for the patrol torpedoes, and will use the lantern to signal any passing PT boats that might venture their way in the night. If Kennedy makes contact, he will signal to his crew with the lantern.

Kennedy prepares for the swim. He is still on the verge of vomiting, and is now also light-headed from dehydration and lack of food. He peels off his shirt and pants to save weight, and ties a .38-caliber pistol to a lanyard around his neck. He had stripped off his shoes and tied them around his neck before the long swim from PT-109, but now puts them back on to save his feet from being cut on the sharp reef. Finally, Kennedy hugs the kapok vest tightly around his naked body, knowing that the lantern wrapped inside it is the key to their rescue.

Kennedy steps back into the sea. He thinks of the giant barracuda that live in these waters, which are rumored to swim up out of the blackness and bite off the genitals of passing swimmers. Without pants, he is surely an inviting target.

Kennedy swims alone into the night until his shoes scrape against a reef. He makes his way along the sharpened surface, searching for that inevitable moment when the reef ends and the sandy beach begins. But the reef is endless. Even worse, the coral slices his hands and his legs time and again. Whenever Kennedy takes a misstep and plunges underwater into some unseen hole, his mind immediately races to thoughts of barracuda.

Kennedy never finds that sandy beach. So, tying his shoes to his life belt, he undertakes a courageous and slightly foolhardy alternate course of action: he swims out into open water, lantern held aloft, hoping to signal a passing PT.

But on this night, of all nights, the U.S. Navy is not sending patrol torpedo boats through the Ferguson Passage. Kennedy treads water in the utter blackness, waiting in vain for the sound of muffled propellers.

He finally gives up. But when he tries swimming back to his men, the currents work against him. He is swept far out into the Blackett Strait, frantically lighting the lamp to signal his men as he drifts past. They argue among themselves as to whether the lights they’re seeing are an illusion brought on by hunger and dehydration, even as their skipper slips farther and farther into the utter blackness.

John Kennedy pries off his heavy shoes and lets them fall to the sea bottom, thinking that the reduced drag will allow him to swim more easily. It doesn’t. He drifts farther and farther out into the Pacific. No matter how hard he swims, the currents push him in the other direction. Finally, he stops fighting. Alone in the dark, his body now cold and his mind a jumble of conflicting thoughts, Kennedy bobs lifelessly. He is an enigmatic man. Despite his reputation for bedding as many girls as possible, he was raised in a Roman Catholic household. His faith has faltered in recent months, but it now serves him well. Even though his situation seems impossible, Kennedy has hope.

And he never lets go of his lamp.

■ ■ ■

Kennedy floats, as alone and powerless as a man can be, all night long. The skin of his fingers wrinkles, and his body grows even colder.

But it is not his time to die. Not yet. As the sun comes up, Kennedy is stunned to realize that the same currents once pulling him out to sea have now spun around and deposited him right back where he started. He swims back safely to his men. After hours as a beacon in the darkness, the lamp finally extinguishes itself once and for all.

Days pass. Kennedy and his men survive by choking down live snails and licking moisture off leaves. They name their home Bird Island because of the abundance of guano coating the tree leaves. Sometimes they see aircraft dogfighting in the skies, but they never spot a rescue plane. Indeed, even as they struggle to survive, their PT brethren hold a memorial service in their honor.

After four days, Kennedy persuades George Ross of Highland Park, Illinois, to attempt a swim with him. This time they head for an island named Naru, where it is very possible they will run into Japanese soldiers. At this point in their ordeal, with the men’s bodies racked by hunger and excruciating thirst, capture is becoming preferable to certain death.

The swim lasts an hour. At Naru, they come upon an abandoned enemy barge and see two Japanese men hurriedly paddling away in a canoe. Kennedy and Ross search the barge for supplies and find water and hardtack biscuits. They also discover a small canoe. After spending the day in hiding, Kennedy leaves Ross on Naru and paddles the one-man canoe out into the Ferguson Passage. No longer in possession of a lantern or other means of signaling a passing PT, JFK is now desperate, taking crazy gambles. And yet, despite long odds, he once again makes it through the night, paddling the canoe back to his men.

Finally, he receives a bit of good news. The men he mistook for Japanese soldiers were actually local islanders. They had spotted Kennedy and Ross, and then paddled to PT-109’s crew to warn them about Japanese forces in the area.

Kennedy meets these islanders in person the next morning, when his canoe founders on the way back to Naru. These highly experienced men of the sea come out of nowhere to pluck him from the Pacific and paddle him safely to George Ross. Before the islanders depart, Kennedy carves a note into the shell of a fallen coconut: “nauro isl . . . commander . . . native knows pos’it . . . he can pilot . . . 11 alive . . . need small boat . . . kennedy.

With that cryptic message in their possession, the natives paddle away.

■ ■ ■

Night falls. Rain pours down. Kennedy and Ross sleep under a bush. Their arms and legs are swollen from bug bites and reef scratches. The islanders have shown them where yet another canoe is hidden on Naru, and Kennedy insists to Ross that they paddle back into the open sea one more time in search of a PT.

Only now the Pacific isn’t placid. The rain turns torrential. The seas are six feet high. Kennedy gives the order to turn back, only to have the canoe capsize. The two men cling to their overturned boat, kicking as hard as they can to guide it toward land. Giant waves now pound against the reef. Kennedy is torn from the canoe. The sea’s force holds him under and spins him around. Yet again he believes he is near death. But just when it seems all is lost, he comes up for air. He battles his way onto the reef. Ross is nearby, alive. As the rain pours down, they pick their way across the sharp coral and onto the beach, once again slicing open their feet and legs. This time there are no thoughts of barracuda, only survival. Too exhausted to care about being seen by the Japanese, they collapse onto the sand and sleep.

John Kennedy is out of solutions. He has done all he can to save his men. There is nothing more he can do.

As if in a mirage, Kennedy wakes up to see four natives standing over him. The sun is rising. Ross’s limbs are horribly disfigured from his coral wounds, with one arm swollen to the size of a football. Kennedy’s own body is beginning to suffer from infection.

“I have a letter for you, sir,” one of the natives says in perfect English.

An incredulous Kennedy sits up and reads the note. The natives have taken his coconut to a New Zealand infantry detachment hidden nearby. The note is from the officer in charge. Kennedy, it says, should allow the islanders to paddle him to safety.

So it is that John F. Kennedy is placed in the bottom of a canoe, covered in palm fronds to hide him from Japanese aircraft, and paddled to a hidden location on New Georgia Island. When the canoe arrives at the water’s edge, a young New Zealander steps from the jungle. Kennedy comes out from under his hiding place and climbs out of the canoe. “How do you do?” the New Zealander asks formally. “I’m Lieutenant Wincote.” He pronounces his rank the British way: LEFF-tenant.

“Hello. I’m Kennedy.” The two men shake hands. Wincote nods toward the jungle. “Come up to my tent and have a cup of tea.”

Kennedy and his men are soon rescued by the U.S. Navy. And thus the saga of PT-109 comes to an end, even as the legend of PT-109 is born.

■ ■ ■

There is another incident that influences John Kennedy’s journey to the Oval Office. Kennedy’s older brother, Joe, is not as lucky about cheating death. The experimental Liberator bomber in which he is flying explodes over England on August 12, 1944. There is no body to bury and no memento of the tragedy to place on JFK’s desk. But that explosion marked the moment when John F. Kennedy became a politician and began the journey into the powerful office in which he now sits.

■ ■ ■

Less than six months after the war ends, John Fitzgerald Kennedy is one of ten candidates running in the Democratic primary of Boston’s Eleventh Congressional District. The veteran politicians and ward bosses of the deeply partisan city don’t give him a chance of winning. But JFK studies each ward in the district, reveling in his role as the underdog. He recruits a well-connected fellow World War II veteran named Dave Powers to help run his campaign. Powers, a rising political star in his own right, is at first reluctant to help the skinny young man who introduces himself by saying, “My name is Jack Kennedy. I’m a candidate for Congress.”

But then Powers watches in awe as Kennedy stands before a packed Legion hall on a cold Saturday night in January 1946 and gives a dazzling campaign speech. The occasion is a meeting of Gold Star Mothers, women who have lost sons in World War II. Kennedy speaks for only ten minutes, telling the assembled ladies why he wants to run for office. The audience cannot see that his hands shake anxiously. But they hear his well-chosen words as he reminds them of his own war record and explains why their sons’ sacrifice was so meaningful, speaking in an honest, sincere voice about their bravery.

Then Kennedy pauses before softly referring to his fallen brother, Joe: “I think I know how all you mothers feel. You see, my mother is a Gold Star Mother, too.”

Women surge forth as the speech concludes. Tears in their eyes, they reach out to touch this young man who reminds each of them of the sons they lost, telling him that he has their support. In that instant, Dave Powers is convinced. He goes to work for “Jack” Kennedy right then and there, forming the core of what will become known as Kennedy’s “Irish Mafia.” It is Dave Powers who seizes on PT-109 as a vital aspect of the campaign, mailing voters a reprint of a story about that August night in 1943 to show the selfless bravery of a wealthy young man for whom some might otherwise not be inclined to vote.

Thanks to Dave Powers’s insistence on making the most of PT-109, John F. Kennedy is elected to Congress.

■ ■ ■

During his first months as president, the coconut on which Kennedy carved the rescue note is a reminder of the incident that started him on his path to the White House.

The coconut is also a daily reminder that JFK owes the presidency, in part, to the sharp political intuition of Dave Powers. The tall Boston native, five years JFK’s senior, has been on the Kennedy payroll since that January night in 1946. As special assistant to the president, he is not a cabinet member, or even an official adviser—just a very close friend who always seems to anticipate the president’s needs and whose company the always-loyal JFK enjoys immensely. Powers has been described as the president’s “jester in residence,” and it’s true: his official capacity in the White House is largely social. Dave Powers is willing to do anything for John Kennedy.

But even Dave Powers, with his remarkable powers of intuition, cannot possibly know what “anything” means—nor can he predict that even as he witnessed John Kennedy’s first-ever political speech, he will also witness his last.


Copyright © 2012 by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard

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